Modern Poet: Madeleine Gottlieb

In her offbeat, character-led films, the writer and director offers a fresh take on family, identity and the ineluctable pull of our personal histories.

Article by Jen Nurick

Madeleine GottliebThe Sydney-based writer and director Madeleine Gottlieb, whose latest short, “You and Me, Before and After”, is based on dynamics within her family. Photography by Grégoire Liere.

Madeleine Gottlieb is curious about what happens when we die. The young Sydney-born filmmaker is regaling me with versions, and visions, of the afterlife, stretching from the scientific to the poetic, philosophical and religious, that were discussed in an episode of the podcast “Radiolab” dedicated to the subject. One perspective that stuck? “The suggestion that human beings die three times: once when our heart stops, once again when we’re eulogised or buried, and only really do we die when the very last living person on earth says our name,” she says.

It’s a romantic notion. If we believe it to be true, it follows that the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley (and other members of Hollywood’s beau monde who we’ve already farewelled) remain alive indefinitely — not unlike the characters in a film. “What we’re doing is immortalising people again and again, ideas again and again,” the 29-year-old says of making movies. Her own short films — Gottlieb has released four so far, which have been gaining critical recognition around the world, plus the feature-length “Panyee” — are invisibly tethered to the leakiness of time, the charms of nostalgia and the diametrical realities of idealising one’s past while simultaneously out-growing it. Of course, striving for eternal relevance is a lofty goal for any artist, newcomer or not, but more than anything, Gottlieb sees it as a helpful reminder of just how important it is to have something original to say.

Madeleine Gottlieb
Still from "I F*ucked A Mermaid and No One Believes Me" (2018). Photography courtesy Madeleine Gottlieb.

Words have always mattered to Gottlieb, even before she could muster her own. She’s told that, as a baby, she would cry hysterically if an adult conversation carried on without her, forcing her mother to narrate mundane tasks to make her feel included. “There was always a love of words, of literature and of storytelling from a very young age and I was an avid reader — I have been my whole life,” she says. Ironically, Gottlieb is an economical screenwriter, hyper-conscious of surrendering precious minutes of her short films to a verbose script. She slips between the roles of writer and director, and it is the sum of a film’s parts that is her first priority.

This approach to her work echoes the filmmaker’s childhood, which was spent melding her parents’ hobbies into her own. Her mum passed down an appreciation of craft to Gottlieb and her two younger sisters (“She’s a keen photographer, an incredible drawer and painter”); she inherited her love of music from her dad. Creativity was nurtured both at home and at school in drama classes. While Gottlieb grew up on a diet of film and theatre, it was a classroom screening of “Casablanca” that catalysed a deeper immersion in film and channelled her attention towards the director’s chair. “That was my first schooling on what a director was, what they did and how the voice and touch of the director impacts the film,” she recalls. “Before that, I didn’t really know.”

Upon finishing school, Gottlieb initially studied arts and law at the University of Sydney — a path she felt aligned with the definitions of a certain kind of success (becoming a doctor or lawyer) common in her Jewish community at the time. In 2014, she began an internship with Goalpost Pictures, the Australian production company responsible for films including “Holding the Man” and the television series “Cleverman”. “I was young to be doing what I was doing and I got reminded of that a lot, so I felt very fortunate and excited to be amongst it,” says Gottlieb. “The time I got brought on dovetailed with them going into pre-production [on “Cleverman”]. They offered me a job, and I left law and didn’t look back.”

Madeleine Gottlieb
Still from "You and Me, Before and After" (2021). Photography courtesy Madeleine Gottlieb.

It was there that she met the award-winning actor, director and writer Leah Purcell, whose patience and kindness Gottlieb credits with helping her pursue her own projects. By witnessing Purcell at work, Gottlieb realised her interests lay in both writing and directing. Purcell remains a mentor, friend and example of the kinds of spaces women can generate for themselves on-screen. “Leah taught me that you don’t have to be loud or brash or arrogant to be a successful, wonderful, beautiful, sensitive filmmaker — a well-respected filmmaker,” says Gottlieb. “I carry that into everything I do.”

In 2017, Gottlieb began working three days a week with the producers Martha Coleman and Lauren Edwards at the film and television arm of the production company Revolver, called RevLover Films (which shuttered during the Covid-19 pandemic). It was a hands-on version of film school, lived out on sets. “I got very lucky, and they were so supportive of that journey for me. I owe everything to them,” she says.

In her downtime, Gottlieb devoted herself to independent projects. Her first short, “I F*cked a Mermaid and No One Believes Me”, released in 2018, offers a prescient glimpse into her interest in male homosocial bonds, particularly failed father-son relationships. The award-winning film, which premiered locally at Flickerfest and was shown at Interfilm Berlin, explores a father’s attempts to reconnect with his teenage son while on holiday. It tends to Gottlieb’s curiosity about male dynamics, having grown up without brothers. “It’s been this outside-in appreciation and fascination,” she says. These relationships have the same intensity of emotions as female ones, Gottlieb says, but there is “much less ability to showcase it — or comfort with showcasing it — and that’s something I started exploring more in later films.”

Her examination of foiled male relationships reaches its crescendo with the AACTA Award-nominated “Snare”. Centred on Steve and son Jobe, both aspiring musicians, it sees the breakdown of a father-son relationship compounded by the parental duty to fulfil one’s child’s dreams at the cost of one’s own. The short premiered in 2019 at SXSW, followed by worldwide screenings, including at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. It is a potent portrait of complicated family ties and the impacts our sacrifices have once they catch up with us. Says Gottlieb, “We form our personalities and relationships as a product of everything that’s happened to us, and we take those experiences into our futures. The stories I want to tell speak to that in some way; an acknowledgement of where we’ve been, who we’ve been and how those things inform who we become.”

Set in 1997, in a well-worn Chinese restaurant, “Snare” contains a nostalgic note that lingers after watching, especially amid a pandemic. “The potency of craving a time when you felt something really, really strongly doesn’t ever go away, and particularly at a time when it feels like the world is changing so rapidly — more rapidly than it’s possible to get a foothold in — I find myself turning back to the things I found happy, joyous and safe in my childhood,” Gottlieb says. “I think part of my filmmaking is an effort to preserve those feelings.”

This instinct has directed her focus inwards, as she writes about what she knows and the female experience. “You and Me, Before and After”, released in 2021, stars Yael Stone and Emily Barclay as sisters who face their shared complex history while getting tattoos. We see them momentarily trapped together, stretched out on beds in a quiet tattoo parlour; their discomfort has an arresting effect, forcing us to interrogate our own interactions with loved ones. It is a deeply personal film: a nod to Gottlieb’s relationship with her middle sister, and an apology. “I didn’t think, ‘Will this resonate with people?’” she admits when asked about the repercussions of writing what you know. “But a lot of us have siblings and a lot of those sibling relationships can be various degrees of fraught. I do think there can be universality and specificity, and I was hoping that would translate.”

Madeleine Gottlieb
Still from "I F*ucked A Mermaid and No One Believes Me" (2018). Photography courtesy Madeleine Gottlieb.

Gottlieb’s first films — “Mermaid”, “Snare” and “Laura” — may be taken as a triptych on the theme of masculinity as depicted by an outsider. However, with “You and Me”, the filmmaker steps into a new mode of storytelling, one scaffolded by personal memories. What triggered her to look with-in? “Maybe I was subconsciously responding to the time we’re living in and how fraught it is to be an artist right now, and how much push there is to speak from your own experience,” she wonders aloud. “It felt simultaneously safer in terms of the broader world and the kinds of stories I’m allowed to tell, but also more dangerous in terms of putting your personal experience on a screen.”

She is always conscious of making space for marginalised voices and centring females both on-and offscreen; the crew on “You and Me” was 95 per cent female or nonbinary. “If anything feels facile or just paying lip service or for the sake of it, then I won’t do it,” she says.

Gottlieb is hopeful she’ll find balance in her upcoming project, “Teething”, a dramedy about four people in a share house in Sydney’s Inner West who, on the threshold of their 30s, disavow romantic love and have a baby. One character borrows from the circumstances of friends coming out. Another’s influences are closer to home, such as a female Jewish character — raised where Gottlieb grew up — who feels pressure to get married. “There’s something to be gained from bringing your own unique lens to situations that you find interesting or fascinating or problematic,” says Gottlieb, “without necessarily having to experience it directly yourself.

“Because, otherwise, what’s the point of being an author?” she continues. “What’s the point of being an artist? What’s the point of using your imagination if you can’t probe other people’s experiences?” If only we could go back in time and ask the same of Presley or Monroe.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 82 of T Australia with the headline:
“Madeleine Gottlieb”
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