Through her full-length feature film Ambrosia, Illawarra-based director Rhiannon Bannenberg has won the confidence of industry professionals. Now those heavyweights want to work with her. She talks to LOUISE TURK.
Consider this story premise: university student with no formal film-making skills makes a full-length feature movie, which she writes and directs herself, and casts her friends as the actors.
Based on that account, how would it end and would the film be successful?
This is the story of Bulli-based Rhiannon Bannenberg, 23, who due to extraordinary creative talent, passion, and hard work, crafted her debut feature Ambrosia , which is already attracting interest within the Australian film industry.
Bannenberg wrote the script and filmed the movie, after teaching herself cinematic techniques, directed it, composed some of the musical score, and was heavily involved in post production.
"I didn't know anyone in the industry who did any of those things so I took on all those roles myself," says Bannenberg.
'I wanted to create a beautiful, picturesque setting for my characters and the Illawarra had so many gems ...'
Ambrosia, filmed entirely in the Illawarra, is a relationship-based drama that follows the story of a group of young friends who spend the summer together.
"Growing up in this area has shaped my perspective in many ways and my interest in the built and natural history of my home town definitely formed a strong visual aesthetic for the film," she says.
"I wanted to create a beautiful, picturesque setting for my characters and the Illawarra had so many gems to offer and discover.
"I am really proud that Ambrosia is tied so deeply to the place I call home and my creative Wollongong friends who collaborated on the film."
It's a remarkable feat for someone with no previous film-making experience yet Bannenberg, a self-confessed workaholic, has always extended herself artistically.
Also a skilful pianist and singer, Bannenberg composed, performed and produced a contemporary pop album Across This Ground in 2009 at the age of 19, under the stage name Anwen.
Australian composer and Wollongong Conservatorium of Music staff member John Spence, who has taught and acted as a mentor to Bannenberg for many years, says she is truly a creative soul.
"Rhiannon is one of the rare species who has internalised her influences to such an extent that her creative endeavour bubbles up out of pure passion," he says.
"This authenticity applies not only to her musical composition but also to her literary knowledge and pursuits.
"I've stood by her because based on this I knew that great things would emerge."
Bannenberg's film-making story begins in 2010 when, while completing a bachelor of music in contemporary performance (vocal) from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM), she began writing on the train from the Illawarra to Surry Hills.
"My study of film music ignited a desire to create my own film where I could incorporate my love of literature, art, music and photography," she says.
"I had commenced writing the story of India and Finn as a novel while travelling by train to uni."
In June 2011, she began writing the script for Ambrosia, which is the story of India, who travels back to her childhood home to spend time with her brother, boyfriend and long-time childhood friend. But the ties that bind the four friends are challenged when a new face appears.
"To make a film that was based on a group of young people who had active, creative minds was exciting to me, and to present a story for teens and young adults in a creative, aesthetically beautiful way was always the original concept," she says.
"A central theme in Ambrosia is chronic pain, physical and mental. It is an invisible condition that can affect any age group and is not confined to the outwardly ill or elderly. I wanted to portray this through the eyes of the young and outwardly uninjured India and Harriet, and the impact this pain can have on relationships."
Bannenberg then started contacting friends in the creative arts fields to ask if they would volunteer their time for the proposed film. She expected most of them to say no. Yet all of them said yes.
"So within a week I suddenly had this feature film on my hands which I had promised to do," she recalls.
"The whole cast and crew at the time were aged 18, 19 and 20. I was 20.
"None of us had made a film before and I chose the people simply because most of them had just finished school and everyone had an aptitude for the area in which I had delegated them.
"I knew everyone was talented but we were all young and hadn't had any experience really."
Of the five main actors, only one was studying acting at the time of casting. It's a source of pride for Bannenberg that now all five are pursuing acting careers.
The crew members have also gone on to study in creative areas such as audio engineering, stage and film hair and make-up, graphic design, and released extended play albums and completed portfolios of work.
Filming began in December 2011 and took a few months, scheduling around the cast and crew's university and part-time work commitments. Bannenberg used a Canon 5D Mark II camera to film.
It was set in Bannenberg's family home, a historic 1893 bungalow called The Ridge at Tarrawanna.
Bannenberg is the daughter of Meredith Hutton, chairwoman of the Illawarra-Shoalhaven branch of the National Trust, and engineer Mark Bannenberg. She has a sister, Stephanie.
"I consulted with Mum regarding possible shooting locations that could be ambiguous in location and time.
"Stephanie researched, made and sourced costumes that were aesthetically rich and reinforced the desired ambiguity."
Filming was finished in March 2012, the day before Bannenberg left for a European holiday.
"Everyone told me not to take my laptop but I did and so I edited the film on my holidays," she says.
When she returned home, Bannenberg continued to edit on an iMac until she took an Apple Pro Res 422 (HQ) file to the Newcastle-based post production services company Final Post for colour grading in November 2012.
Bannenberg then recorded the music and sound in her parents' walk-in wardrobe with recording gear she already owned.
Final Post created a digital cinema package of Ambrosia for Bannenberg to show at a private screening to 110 family and friends at Wollongong's Greater Union cinemas last April.
Since moving on from making Ambrosia, and seeing how other film sets work, Bannenberg says she can see that the lack of money and limited film gear did make her debut project challenging, yet it was a wonderful environment to work in.
As well as making the film, Bannenberg started a masters in music (composition and sound production) at AIM in 2011. She is in the last semester of the master's degree.
Bannenberg, a former Illawarra Grammar School student, credits the support of her parents as being the foundation upon which she could explore her creativity.
"My parents have been incredibly supportive and encouraging of my creative pursuits from when I was very young," she says. "That has been a huge influence on my desire to work in the film industry."
Two days after the Ambrosia screening in April 2013, Bannenberg went to a film networking night and met Steve Jaggi, a British/Canadian film director and producer who is now based in Sydney.
Jaggi asked to see the film and Bannenberg sent him a link. She got a phone call from Jaggi the next day.
"He said to me: 'I think if you do a re-edit and have someone mentor you a little bit you could enter this film into the top tier film festivals'," she recalls.
"It was an 'oh my gosh' moment for me because we didn't make this film for anyone or to make money.
"It was literally a group of creative friends who had a summer holiday together.
"Not that I didn't think it could go further and I do have absolute faith in the film but everything that has happened to it subsequently has been a lovely surprise."
Bannenberg went to Fox Studios and worked for several days alongside award-winning film editor Martin Connor.
"He literally picked apart my edits," she says. "He didn't re-edit it. I still did it myself but he was like a mentor. We talked about narrative and lots of other things."
Bannenberg cut 15 minutes from the original film and once it was sharpened, Ambrosia was entered into the Sydney Film Festival and several international film festivals.
The plan is for Bannenberg to travel with Jaggi to LA later this year to meet with agencies that have made offers to sign up Bannenberg as a director.
Bannenberg is also writing another film script and is hoping to get funding secured so that she can start pre-production late this year or early 2015.
In her spare time, Bannenberg has been working as a director of photography on a Jaggi feature film.