Cate Blanchett, who recently appeared front of the camera in “Don’t Look Up” and “Nightmare Alley,” has been busy behind the scenes developing film and TV projects through the Dirty Films banner she co-founded with her husband, Andrew Upton.
Among those in the works: “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” her first collaboration with Pedro Almodóvar in his English-language debut; Indigenous Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s “The New Boy”; and the Apple TV Plus series “Disclaimer” from Alfonso Cuarón.
Blanchett will star in each in addition to producing, building on her résumé of dual credits that includes “Carol,” “Stateless” and “Mrs. America.” Similar to how she chooses acting roles, the Dirty Films team (which also includes Coco Francini and Georgie Pym) takes a “filmmaker-driven” approach.
“No matter the budget or the genre, films are born out of interesting conversations, so that’s where we begin,” Blanchett tells Variety over the phone, chalking up the company’s “incredibly eclectic” selections to its principals’ Australian heritage.
“It’s a small country in terms of population, but we individually punch above our cultural weight, because we have such a mix of cultural influences, in a great way — also in a painful way,” she explains, alluding to the country’s birth by colonial invasion. “We have a very interesting perspective on the world.”
For her, the appeal of producing is less about finding a role to perform than about having a creative stake in the project.
“People often assume that when you have a production company, you are simply trying to develop materials for yourself. Sometimes that’s the case, and you do need to be in something,” Blanchett says, pointing to the “Stateless” as an example. The two-time Oscar-winner appeared in all six episodes of the miniseries that ultimately landed at Netflix. “I knew that I had to be in it in some way because of the material. No one wanted to make a project that was ostensibly about refugees and asylum seekers.”
Among other accolades, the drama earned 13 awards from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. But she’s also found that an actor’s ability to work behind the scenes can be underestimated.
“Oftentimes, people think, as an actor, that you don’t have that perspective on the whole thing — that you don’t understand how a film is put together,” she observes. “After years and years and years of doing this, it’s not just sitting in your trailer, waiting for your hair and makeup call.”
Pointing to her contemporaries who also produce — including her Oscar-nominated “Nightmare Alley” producer and co-star Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Reese Witherspoon — she adds, “You get involved in a project because you’re interested in the whole thing.”
“You’re involved from soup to nuts; you’re invested in that experience,” Blanchett explains. “So you get to understand how all of those cogs come together and you can see a way that they might be put together slightly differently, or what didn’t work, because you’re inside the experience. And that is what I find increasingly exciting. Acting, less and less so, frankly.”
As for stepping behind the camera to direct, Blanchett acknowledges she’s been “spoiled by some of the most astonishing directors of all time, so it feels like an act of hubris to think that I could or would.”
But she won’t count out the possibility entirely. “If it was material that took me by the short and curlies, it could happen. But just because you’re opinionated, as I painfully am, doesn’t mean you are a director.”
Last month, Blanchett accepted the 47th annual Honorary César award, presented by French film icon Isabelle Huppert, and became the inaugural recipient of Spain’s International Goya award, given by Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Both prizes celebrated the actor and producer for her contributions to cinema on a global scale.
“I’ve known Isabelle for a while now; we’re both theater animals who also work in cinema, and she’s such a legend,” Blanchett says, reflecting on the “huge” honor. “Penélope’s work is constantly inspiring and [Cruz and Almodóvar] is a historic partnership. To be in Spain, presented by both of them, you die and go to heaven. I can’t work out why [they awarded me], but I didn’t say no.”
In her acceptance speeches, Blanchett shared how she’d been influenced by the great cinematic artists of those countries, including Spain’s Luis Buñuel and France’s Robert Bresson.
“Watching a Bresson film, when I was in my early teens, it blew the back of my head off. I’d never seen anything like it,” she recalls. “There’s so many Russian filmmakers that have been deeply influential on me, not only working in the cinema, but also as an actor on stage. One of my favorite films this year was Sean Baker’s ‘Red Rocket”; Janicza Bravo’s ‘Zola’ was profound. I consider American filmmakers ‘international.'”
Beyond her own range of influences and collaborations with international filmmakers, the awards represent Dirty Films’ penchant to think globally. The company is in pre-production on “Disclaimer” with Cuarón and will then go straight into Thornton’s “The New Boy” and, later, Almodóvar’s “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Also, following their partnership on the critical-acclaimed “Apples,” which Dirty Films executive produced, they’ll team up with filmmaker Christos Nikou again for “Fingernails.”
“Stateless”According to Blanchett, their greatest strength as producers lies in their understanding of the creative process and “knowing where to cut corners and where that will enhance the ultimate, individual creative flourish of the product itself.”
“We can all find money; but money is more difficult to come by without any creative strings attached,” she says. “To find the right rhythm, the right wave, the right budget ties and the best way to film, it’s not a science, it’s an art.”
Blanchett also credits her and Upton’s time heading the Sydney Theatre Company with helping to hone their skills, particularly in reference to getting a production off the ground quickly instead of languishing in development hell.
“We have a much quicker rhythm. If we committed to an idea, we could get it on,” she says and between 2008-2013, the duo produced between 19 and 20 shows a year. In 2015, they officially awoke Dirty Films from its dormancy with Todd Haynes’ critically acclaimed “Carol” and it’s been full steam ahead ever since.
“We want to be nimble,” she explains. “There’s a lot of stuff being developed that may never see the light of day. We’re not into over-developing or over-committing. You can get the thing up eight years later, but you’ve lost the reason why [that story needed to be told]. That’s something that carried from working at the theater company.”
In recent years, Blanchett has headed the juries at the Cannes and Venice film festivals and relished watching the definition of “cinema” morph as boundaries between the big and small screens — as well as those between streaming and theatrical — blur.
“The streaming platforms have shaken things up,” she comments, regarding the way the distribution and windowing have shifted. “We don’t want them to calcify and reform and imitate the worst sides of studios in terms of monopolies, but it does mean that you don’t have to think of things in terms of length.”
Plus, she says, “Streaming platforms and series have kept us afloat, frankly, mentally and psychologically over the last two years.”
While Blanchett believes that “big ideas happen in a cinematic form,” she notes that, “There’s a lot of options there in the way we think about stories, and the possibility of how we realize those narratives. The idea of making a short film or a long masterwork — those definitions are much more nebulous now. And I think that’s really exciting.”
Additionally, the business itself has become more international and likewise has a wider reach with its themes.
“We’re finding we’re much more amoeba-like in terms of cultural boundaries. That’s where the cinematic arts are a real bridge between this surge of ridiculous, antiquated nationalism that’s happening,” Blanchett says, relating the conversation to the news of the day. “There aren’t closed borders because we are all communicating. So, this rubbish that is going on in the Ukraine — this horrendous, disgusting rubbish — is totally antithetical to the way human beings are actually communicating.”
The actor and producer, who is also a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, adds: “I think cinema can, through the lens of metaphor and allegory, help audiences. Without wanting to sound too pretentious, I think it can help society to comprehend and possibly make some kind of sense of issues that we all have a stake in.”