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“This was my attempt to make a romantic comedy,” the Australian director Sarah Watt says of her first feature, Look Both Ways, which opens in the UK on August 25. “But then my natural brain took over …” It seems her natural brain has a pressing awareness of its own mortality and has produced a film that, as Watt says, “follows the romantic comedy line – we know that they’ll get together”. However, it ends with none of the happy-ever-after certainties of the genre.
The premise is simple: a young woman, an artist who designs sympathy cards, is returning to her apartment in Adelaide after her father’s funeral. Death is on her mind and she sees impending disaster everywhere, in noisy cartoon sequences – Watt’s previous work was in animation.
It is a blazing hot summer day. Meryl is walking beside the railway track when disaster strikes: a man runs in front of a train after a dog and is knocked down. Meryl is there giving evidence to the police when a reporter and photographer arrive. As she makes her way home, she starts talking to the photographer, Nick, and the romance begins.
This leads to a storyline in which a number of lives connect.
Nick has just learned that he has cancer, so he too has impending disaster on his mind. At first, he doesn’t tell Meryl about the disease, but in an unguarded moment says that he keeps seeing death everywhere. “So do I!” she exclaims, with the gratitude of someone meeting a soulmate.
Watt had already explored the theme of anxiety in a six-minute animation, Living With Happiness (2001). When she had children, she says, it made her realise how much our lives are governed by fear, and how this is exploited by politicians and advertisers.
She secured a producer, Bridget Ikin, and spent a year writing Look Both Ways. With the help of a grant from the Australian Film Institute they raised funding, switching the location from Watt’s home town of Melbourne to Adelaide where the authorities offered money. In response, Watt wanted to use as much local talent as possible, but not for the two leads. She did not have to look far for Nick who is played by her husband, William McInnes, but for Meryl she needed to find someone attractive, but ordinary and “not the sort of person you’d think the Nick character would fall for”. The part went to Justine Clarke, a theatre and cinema actress who also presents the children’s television series Play School.
Clarke’s performance as the slightly gawky, insecure young woman, at once self-possessed and vulnerable, who finds herself falling for a probably unsuitable man, has a great deal to do with the film’s success. Look Both Ways took four Australian Film Institute awards, was Best Feature at the London Australian Film Festival and won audience awards at several other film festivals.
The film’s appeal is its affirmation that life goes on, even though we know that it has to end. By a cruel irony, while the film was in post-production, Watt was diagnosed with cancer. She had chemotherapy and the cancer has not recurred. Now she is developing her next film. If her natural brain has anything to do with it, the result will be funny, tragic and will not necessarily have a happy ending – much like life.