Shirley Barrett

LONDON – While most of the Australian hype at Cannes last year was centered on competition entry “The Quiet Room” and market discovery “Love and Other Catastrophes,” an unassuming first feature buried away in Un Certain Regard snuck up from nowhere and nabbed the prestigious Camera d’Or.

It was the first taste of the limelight for director Shirley Barrett, 35, whose “Love Serenade” had been bought by Miramax about a month earlier while still in post-production, but had been seen by almost nobody prior to its Croisette unspoolings. Even on her home turf, Barrett was a virtual unknown, having labored for several years on TV soaps and series.

Set in a no-hope, one-horse town on the edge of the Outback, the movie is a mordant, blackly comic look at two sisters whose lives are upended by the arrival of an aging hippie deejay. Eschewing the gender-bending and nihilistic violence of some recent grandstanding Aussie pics, Barrett’s film resolutely ploughs its own furrow; enthusiasts immediately dubbed it one of the most striking, fully formed and assured debuts in years.

Ask Barrett where her inspiration came from, and she just says it was partly from diaries written in her late teens. Ask her again if she sees parallels with early Mike Leigh in the pic’s quirky portrait of socially awkward misfits, and she’s genuinely flattered and amazed.

Born in Melbourne in 1961, Sydney resident Barrett studied at the Australian Film, TV & Radio School from 1985-88 and moved straight into TV, in light entertainment. Producer Verity Lambert gave her her first directing gig, on the series “Boys in the Bush,” and further work followed on TV series such as “A Country Practice,” “Heartbreak High” and “Police Rescue.” In 1990, she directed the docu “Chainsaw 327,” about a rodeo bull.

Barrett is that increasingly rare creature in an indie arena populated by fast-talking, self-analytical wannabes an instinctive filmmaker who’s modest to a fault about her achievements and hard-pressed to explain the movie’s special qualities. In conversa-tion, she’s disarmingly offhand about the whole creative process and the pic’s acclaim.

“I’d been working on the script of ‘Love Serenade’ for a couple of years on and off, and it was already in its second draft when my agent sent it to Jan Chapman (producer of Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’). She liked it, and sort of became my script editor. The basic idea for the film was to look at how women can get completely the wrong idea about some men, even painting real scum-bags in a romantic light.”

Chapman’s clout as a producer overcame the usual problems of raising money for a first-time director, even though, as Barrett admits, the budget was “at the high end of the field” for a local indie A$3.8 million ($5 million). Most of the coin went on the seven-week location shoot in Robinvale, and in clearing rights to the ’70s soul songs (including several by Barry White) that are played by the deejay and have a large part in building what Barrett calls “an atmosphere of yearning and desire and longing.” Each song was specified in the script, for the simple reason that, Barrett admits, “they were favorites of mine. I’d grown up with them.”

The crucial male lead of Ken Sherry, the charismatic but washed-up deejay for whom the sisters fall, was written with actor George Shevtsov in mind. Though not well known and mostly working in legit, Shevtsov had played a Pentecostal preacher in Barrett’s 1987 short “Cherith.” Casting the two women proved equally easy. “Miranda (Otto, daughter of thesp Barry) and Re-becca (Frith) just nailed the part as soon as they came in,” Barrett recalls.

From the start, she’d visualized the pic being shot in Robinvale, her husband’s hometown, up in the northwest corner of the state of Victoria. “With its silos and flat scrubbiness, there’s nothing sentimental about it. In fact, it’s almost hostile.” It was the idea of director of photography Mandy Walker to shoot in widescreen, to stress the locale’s “emptiness and vastness and big, big skies.”

The movie’s surprise twist, an off-the-wall ending that takes the story into the realm of magical realism, wasn’t planned from the start. “It was a bit of a risk,” Barrett admits, “and I don’t know if I’d take it again. But I was getting a bit bored with the script after working on it for so long.”

The pic opened locally last year to positive reviews and “respectable” box office, Barrett says. It since has sold to several territories, including the U.K., Scandinavia and Italy.

Aside from saying she’d like to work with producer Chapman again, Barrett has been more preoccupied recently with the birth of her second child than thinking about any next pic. So is “Love Serenade” her stylistic signature, or a one-off? “I think I’ll want to stay in the realm of comedy,” Barrett says, “but we’ll see when I start up again in ’97.”