Mark Hartley on becoming a feature film director

Mark Hartley with camera

In Mark Hartley’s eyes his student film bombed, but it gave him his best life lesson: starting from the ground up to build the skills needed for a future in film.

“I left film school with a film I wasn’t keen to show anyone. Thankfully I was a good editor and used those skills as a launching pad for my film career. Straight out of Swinburne I got a non-paying job as an assistant to the assistant editor on Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom. It was a great experience that led to an assistant editor role at a post-production facility.

As an editor I was constantly rescuing poorly made music videos. Eventually I was able to say to the record companies, if you want me to keep saving your clips you need to let me direct some. Ultimately, I directed over 150 music videos, working with Powderfinger, The Living End, The Cruel Sea, You Am I – and a lot of pop acts like Bardot and Madison Avenue.

In Australia the filmmaking industry is so small, at first it seemed impossible to break into. It requires perseverance and finding a really good team to surround yourself with.

I always loved Australian genre films. I worked with ‘old school’ crews who had a long history of working on Australian film productions. Their untold stories were like the ‘under belly’ of Australian filmmaking.

That’s how Not Quite Hollywood emerged. It celebrated Australian genre films from the '70s and '80s – which I dubbed Ozploitation. It took eight years to get financed; you’ve always got to be working on other things. We were able to attract high profile interviewees such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Dennis Hopper and Quentin Tarantino.

"Being a filmmaker is all about establishing relationships and working with people who you really admire."

Documentaries happened by accident, to tell you the truth. I was a very reluctant documentary filmmaker. I always wanted to make a narrative film. I subsequently made Machete Maidens Unleashed!, and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, two more feature documentaries.

The suspense thriller Patrick became my first narrative film. It was a particularly tough shoot, with only 25 days to complete. I was really lucky to cast Charles Dance from Game of Thrones and Rachel Griffiths. A hero of mine, composer Pino Donaggio, who had worked on Brian De Palma’s films, provided our soundtrack. For all the limitations of schedule, it was a wonderful experience.

The Director of the original Patrick, Richard Franklin, inspired and mentored me throughout my career.  I met Richard when I was still in high school and stayed in contact with him. He went to Hollywood and made Psycho 2. I thought if someone who went to my high school could become a filmmaker and achieve what he did, perhaps I could too.

Originally I wanted to be a graphic artist. But at the Swinburne open day I sat down in the theatrette, saw the Swinburne student films, and had an epiphany that I wanted to be a filmmaker.

My three years at Swinburne were some of the greatest years of my life. Each day I was doing what I loved – learning about scriptwriting, and the history of filmmaking, making a film, and crewing on other student films.

There were a lot of times when I thought I wouldn’t get to achieve what I set out to do – direct narrative films. Ultimately with perseverance and luck it happened.

Success is also about finding the right people to work with. Nothing can compare to the loyalty of your crew and how important that is to your career. I was fortunate to meet up with a cinematographer called Garry Richards, and we’ve worked together for over 20 years – that’s been part of my success.

Being a filmmaker is all about establishing relationships and working with people who you really admire.”