Roderick MacKay – The Power of Filmmaking

Posted June 30, 2021 in Alumni Profiles, Wyvern-Corner-Office By Hamish Blair

In 2020, Mr Roderick MacKay (99-03) debuted his first feature film, The Furnace, as part of the official selection for the 77th Venice Film Festival.

We sat down with Mr MacKay when he came back to the College to speak to students during Arts Week, to find out how he got started on this journey from a Wesley College graduate to an esteemed film director.  

What are some of your memories from your time at Wesley?

If I’m honest, I remember struggling academically in a number of subjects outside of Visual Arts and Media Studies. I only scraped through my tertiary entrance exams to get into Visual Arts School at Curtin University.  

Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Wesley. When I first arrived from South Perth Primary School in Year 8, I remember being aware that I was about to attend an incredibly prestigious school. Quite remarkably, I am still very close with a number of friends that I made as a student at Wesley.  

Was there a particular moment at Wesley when you discovered your passion for film?

Funnily enough, my desire to be a filmmaker didn’t arrive until shortly after my time at Wesley. I was actually one of my year’s top Visual Arts students, so I was quite intent on pursuing that as a career as Media Studies was quite different when I was a student. For one, the filmmaking tools were far less sophisticated and the whole notion of being a filmmaker felt very out of reach, especially growing up in Perth. Where you’re about as far away as possible from screen industry epicentres in the United States or the United Kingdom.  

While I was quite adept visually, I didn’t have the best English grades, so the thought of writing scripts was also quite intimidating. But that began to change when I was lucky enough to have Mr David Ashton as my English teacher for my final years at Wesley. He really helped me find my voice and boost my confidence as a writer. Now as screenwriter and film director, I still sometimes contemplate how important a role Mr Ashton played in starting me on this journey. 

Beyond that, it was sometime during university when I realised filmmaking was this kind of ‘ultimate’ art form, harnessing an unparalleled breadth of mediums, skillsets and technologies, all for the shared purpose of telling a story.  

Once that penny drops, and you realise the scope and power of filmmaking, there’s no going back! 

What did you do after leaving Wesley?

I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts with a few additional film school units and independent research projects.  

Bizarrely, after I graduated from university in 2007, I pursued an IT start-up, which involved a couple of former Wesley classmates. The IT start-up was designed to provide online turnkey business infrastructure for artists and creative industry practitioners, from a range of disciplines. The project actually got quite far, but the 2009 global financial crisis made it impossible to raise investment for a high-risk digital arts platform, so we put the concept to bed.  

From this, I learnt a huge amount about pitching and raising money, which would go on to serve me well as a filmmaker. I then spent the rest of my 20s focussed purely on filmmaking. In 2009, I made my first short film on a shoestring budget with a fellow Old Collegian, David Stephens (93-03), which demonstrated we knew what we were doing and put us on the radar of the Western Australia’s screen agency, Screenwest.  

My next short film was shot in 2013 and received some funding support from Screenwest. Six years later in 2019 I married my wife Tessa, and as a result of a lot of hard work, started shooting my debut feature film, The Furnace. It was a pretty gruelling six-week shoot on Yamatji Badimaya country in Western Australia’s remote Mid-West region. Once completed, it was the only Australian film accepted into the 2020 Venice Film Festival ‘official selection’, which Tessa and I managed to physically attend, even during a global pandemic. So, you could say filmmaking is very much about playing the long game! 

What lessons did you learn from your parents that you feel impacted your career journey?

My parents have always gently encouraged my brother, sister, and I to follow our passions, pursue meaningful work and think outside the box. This mantra has led us on some challenging but incredibly fulfilling life journeys. 

From your experience, how has COVID-19 impacted the film industry?

It’s hard to know where to begin in summarising just how dramatically COVID-19 has transformed the global screen industry. I would love for audiences to continue to experience my films in cinemas, but that dream no longer feels sustainable for relatively low budget independent titles such as The Furnace. The economics of the theatrical release model were already antiquated, and the industry has been complacent for some time in the face of a shrinking cinema audience, increasingly drawn to online streaming.  

COVID-19 greatly amplified and accelerated those issues. Like most filmmakers, I am now setting my mind toward creating content for streaming platforms. The cinema is still the gold standard viewing experience, but I have reached a point where I would rather people saw my film in a home cinema, on a computer screen or even their bloody phones, versus not seeing it at al! 

What is your best piece of advice for a young media student hoping to get started in the world of film?

Filmmaking is incredibly difficult and hyper competitive. You have to really want it. Also, there is so much content being made and much of it is mere entertainment and escapism, which is perfectly valid and we need that sometimes. But I think artists are obliged to create meaningful and explorative work that attempts to offer some unique insight or experience to an audience.  

Any subject matter can be made interesting or boring. What matters is how you explore it and bring it to life and that all unpacks out of the clarity and specificity of your voice. So, I would really encourage any aspiring filmmaker to delve into the craft of screenwriting as much as the technicality and philosophies of filmmaking.  

Most importantly, be bold, honest and authentic and tell the stories that you love. Live life and remember you are a student of human observation. It’s a hard road, but don’t settle for mediocrity! 

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