The crowd at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) are about to get all loved-up. As part of its First Look program, ACMI will present Guilty Pleasures, a documentary about the world of romance novels directed by Julie Moggan (As The Sun Begins To Set, Waiting For A Lift). While much of the film doesinspect the romantic lives of various people, all connected by some kind of interest in Mills & Boon novels, Moggan’s own story is one worthy of romantic introspection.
“At the age of 30 I came out of a 13-year relationship. I had a lot of questions about love and romance.” The film itself opens on the idea that every four seconds, a Mills & Boon book is bought somewhere in the world. “I read an article [with this quote] and that set me off on this long journey.”
Moggan follows five different stories all tethered together by the unique connection of the romance novel. Three are avid romance-novel readers (Indian Shumita, Japanese Hiroko and English Shirley). Another is an English-based, single romance novelist who lives and works in a caravan (Roger, who writes under the pseudonym Gill Sanderson). And then, in a category entirely his own, there’s American Stephen, a Miami-based romance-novel cover model so obsessed with himself that there’s barely any room in his life for a potential lover. How does someone with a camera get the kind of highly intimate information Moggan manages to glean from her subjects?
“I deliberately look for individuals who I feel have that ability to be very honest and open about their life, and who understand what I’m trying to do with the film and that I am looking for that level of honesty in the work I do,” Moggan says. “It took me a year to cast the film and because it really takes a very special kind of person who’s willing to open up to that level...I consider that with each one I made a genuine friendship and I shared my life with them just as much as they with me...I think part of that honesty comes out of that.”
At some points, even Mills & Boon themselves jump in and help out.
“It took a year to cast the film and the Mills & Boon offices in Tokyo were incredibly helpful. I went over there for a research trip and they introduced me to 20 women who they knew were big fans of their books,” Moggan says. “Hiroko stood out to me from the start because I was told before I even met her that one of the readers had a huge love of ballroom dancing...As soon as I met her I really liked her. She was extremely open and warm and just the kind of character I was looking for.”
Moggan also mentions that she spent a fair bit of time making friends with these people, sharing her own personal life. To Moggan, it seems quite unusual not to be an active participant in collecting information from her subjects. She’s quite open about her approach to keeping the film on topic.
“Even if you don’t speak in the film or ask a lot of questions, just by nature of being there with your camera and switching it on and choosing what to film and what not to film and then what to include in the edit and what not to include, every documentary really is a kind of a fiction. It’s totally mediated through the director’s perspective. I completely see documentary in that way...Some of the scenes are highly directed, hopefully always in collaboration with the contributors, but yes, I had a strong hand in what the audience see at the end of the film. It’s very much mediated through me and my editor and how we see their life.”
This mediation and participation becomes hair-raisingly apparent when you find out what really happened during a white-knuckle ride in the back of a Porsche through the streets of Dehli, with Shumita’s husband Sanjay at the wheel.
“That was a really tricky scene, actually. Because the reality off-camera was that [Sanjay] was driving so crazily that we actually narrowly avoided missing a cyclist who fell of his motorbike, in front of the car, and we missed him by a quarter of an inch. I actually stopped rolling at that moment, obviously, because we were just freaking out...It’s so disturbing in the film that we had to kind of cheat that scene. We didn’t have the footage to show what really happened, so we had to give it a slightly different ending.”
If anything, filming Guilty Pleasures has taught Moggan to be a little more cautious about her own decisions, although there is most likely another reason for this conclusion aside from bad Porsche drivers. Now married, Moggan is kept busy by her husband and her young son, Frank.
“I swore that day [in the Porsche] I was not going to risk my life like that again for a film, I don’t think. It’s so easily done though; when you’re hooked up in a story and looking through the camera lens, you’re so involved in the film itself that you don’t always take as good care as you should!”
BY SIOBHAN ARGENT
The First Look season of Guilty Pleasures screens at ACMI from Thursday February 2 until Sunday February 5. For program information and session times visit acmi.net.au.