Unjoo Moon on ‘I Am Woman’

Unjoo Moon was born in South Korea in 1964 and raised in Sydney, where she studied at the University of New South Wales. She left TV and print journalism to study film at the Australian Film and Television and Radio School before relocating to Los Angeles to the American Film Institute. Moon’s directorial debut was the documentary The Zen of Bennett, which portrayed jazz singer Tony Bennett on the eve of this 85th birthday.

Since Moon met Helen Reddy at an event in Los Angeles in 2013, she’s been fascinated with the influential music and feminist icon. The culmination being her music biopic, I Am Woman, which tells the story of Reddy from her arrival in New York City to her uneasy marriage to Jeff Wald and her lasting legacy.

How did you hear about the story of Helen Reddy… I understand it’s based on a biography?

I first met Helen Reddy more than seven years ago at an awards show in Los Angeles and when I realised who it was sitting at the table I quickly let my husband swap seats with me. When I think of Helen Reddy and her music it takes me back to being a young child growing up in Australia and I remember so vividly sitting in the back seat of my parent’s yellow Volvo station wagon.

When her music used to come on the radio my mother and her friends used to wind down the window and let their hair loose in the breeze and sing along to the music. I somehow always equated Helen with being stronger and bolder than the average musician and I also felt her music made the women in my life stronger and bolder. So that’s all I really knew about Helen when I was growing up…

As I got older I knew that she had been an incredibly successful recording artist and paved the way for so many Australians but I didn’t know all the other things that she’d done to pave the way for so many women in entertainment. How she had broken barriers by hosting shows that women didn’t traditionally host and that she was the first person after the Beatles to have three number one hits in a row. Not just the first woman, the first person! So when I got to meet Helen, I heard all that and thought this would be an amazing movie.

Helen’s written a biography called ‘The Woman I Am’ and I hadn’t really read the book when I first pursued Helen. I was excited about making this film with her because the excitement and the stories came from talking with Helen directly. She gave me so much insight into her life and there’s lots of incredible material online.

You can go on to YouTube and Google Helen and you will find out there’s incredible performances on the ‘Midnight Special’, which she hosted and ‘The Carol Burnett Show’, ‘The Helen Reddy Show’, performances in Vegas… it’s rich with that information.

So I was very excited to read her biography but it doesn’t really go into her life and journey in those years in as much depth as I was hoping. So a lot of the story I got from Helen was really through direct information: talking with her members of her family, her ex-husband Jeff Wald and other people who had been in her life at that time. When you’re making a film that’s based on a real-life person, it’s really tricky because so many people have so many opinions about it. So many people have a very distinct memory of who Helen is and what the events were.

Just how important was it to stay true to the actual events and was there a drive to mimic footage from the time?

So when you’re making a film based on a real-life person and real events, even though it is a work of fiction, you do need to pay homage to it. I don’t think I ever intended to make it like a documentary and I even said that to Helen.

I said to Helen I’m never going to get everything right, I’m not going to get every sequence right and miss out on people. What I set out to do from the very beginning was to capture the spirit of who she is, what her life has been and what her music meant to people. Her music is key in this movie because so many people remember her and if you don’t you’ll be able to listen to her real music and there will always be that comparison.

It has timely elements as a music biopic, immigrant story and gender politics… did you take inspiration from or reference any other films in pre production?

I think I watched almost every music biopic you can watch that has been made into a movie before I made this film and I also went and saw a lot of live theatre plays. The ‘Tina’ show in London about Tina Turner, I watched ‘Beautiful: The Carol King Musical’ and ‘Jersey Boys’ and I found inspiration through all of them.

What I took away is that recognisable songs meant something very specific in the storytelling and I suddenly felt that with a lot of the Broadway shows that I watched. I’ve always loved music biopics. I remember watching and loving Coal Miner’s Daughter when I was a child and even more recent films like Walk the Line, which handled Johnny Cash’s life so brilliantly.

I Am Woman

When I came to making the film I wasn’t necessarily as influenced by the visual look of a lot of these films because I was trying to build a world that was very specific to Helen’s story and the time that she experienced in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Las Vegas.

I Am Woman has a nostalgic look and is a real master class in mis-en-scene and world-building… can you tell us more about this detailed approach?

Dion Beebe, the cinematographer, and I wanted to give this world a real texture and make it very real in terms of Helen’s journey. We found some incredible stills photographs especially of New York in the late ’60s that we very strongly referenced in the making of the film and in Los Angeles as well. I had this amazing team. Not only did I have Dion but I had a wonderful production designer Michael Turner whose background is in architecture.

So he was really able to bring so much detail into the world that we created. We actually didn’t shoot a lot of locations we reference in the film. Almost all the film was shot in Sydney, Australia. So we were recreating an America in the ’60s ’70s and ’80s and all these cities are on the streets and suburbs of Sydney, Australia.

I think we only shot two and half days in Los Angeles. We managed to get some exteriors that we absolutely had to get. Even though we were shooting in Sydney before we shot there, Dion and I had visited all the real locations. We’d visited all the houses that Helen had actually lived in, the location of Max’s Kansas City in New York and the Hotel Albert. I had gone to Washington during the 2017 women’s march and I stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Helen stands at the end of the movie where she looks across all the women protesting.

At that time, a woman walked past holding a sign saying “hear me roar” and I took a photo that actually appears at the end of the film. So we really drew from these real places that she had visited and took a lot of photographic references. These were really helpful when we were recreating sequences like Carnegie Hall, New York and the Lincoln Memorial in Sydney.

We had to recreate them with CGI so having been there and having these references that we’d collected really helped in that recreation and we worked with a great VFX house in Australia called ‘Cutting Edge’. They were involved from the very beginning of our preproduction and were very careful with the the detailing that we were striving for in this film.

Part of the reason we ended up shooting in Sydney was not just because of the financing of this film but the budget didn’t allow us to go to New York to recreate New York street scenes. At times, we couldn’t even afford to recreate the street scenes in Sydney to the scale we really needed. Sometimes having that kind of restriction forces you to be even more creative.

The train sequences at the beginning of the film with Helen and Lillian weren’t in the script, but Dion and I came up with this idea of putting it on a train because you know it was doable, it was manageable. It really created the world but in a sense I look at the movie now and think it was the right choice because it helps with putting Helen on a journey at the beginning of the film.

Dion and I spent a lot of time talking through the colour palettes in the film and when Michael came in as a production designer and Emily Sorensen, the costume designer, all these colour palettes really fed into the storytelling. We start off the movie with a much richer, grittier feel in New York when New York’s a bit of a scary place for Helen when she first arrives.

Then the movie opens up when we move to Los Angeles and you can feel the lightness and the brightness. Los Angeles has very different light in comparison to New York but helped with the dark to light progression in the way we visualise the film on every level: camera, production design, costume… it all fits into Helen’s emotional journey.

As her career gets bigger, the film becomes lighter and it opens up more. So often the discussion around visuals in preproduction and during the making of the film with all my heads of department was very much about the emotional journey that Helen was going on and how we could support it.

You manage to blend actual footage from the time quite seamlessly…

One of the other things we did to help create this world using our resources was to utilise archival footage to set time and place. This helped those bigger exteriors that we weren’t able to do and would never be able to recreate. But I actually think that the archival material works so incredibly well not just in terms of setting time and place but there are sequences where you see the real people: women of the women’s movement, women marching in the streets, Shirley Chisholm who was the first African-American person to actually run for the presidency in America and the real Phyllis Schlafly.

We use news footage of when she’s talking out against the equal rights amendment. What’s interesting about having those real-life characters in the film is the emotional response that people who live through that time in America have when they see the film. That I think I wasn’t expecting as much but that’s been very powerful. But we really did try to match and integrate what we had shot with the archival material so that it would feel seamless, it would feel very much part of the world.

How did you discover Tilda… and was it important for the lead to be Australian?

I always knew the casting of who would play Helen Reddy was going to be key in making this film and the focus of the performance of whoever was to play Helen Reddy would just be so crucial in the success of this movie. I did a huge search through five different countries and I think that when you make an independent film like this, there’s a lot of pressure to cast somebody who is famous I guess. Somebody who can bring money to the film and I did try to do that because I wanted to get this film made but it was so crucial that the person who plays Helen had to be absolutely right.

Tilda wasn’t actually on any of the casting lists that I’d been given and I just happened to see a photo of her – she was standing in the street, it was online and she had a quality about her. She was standing in a way that looked like Helen so I wanted to meet her. I did some research and found that she had done some really strong work and I was very surprised to learn that she was Australian because we hadn’t necessarily just been looking for an Australian.

I went to meet her for what was supposed to be an hour and it turned out being almost 5 hours. I quickly realised she was the right person. She not only physically resembled Helen, which was important, but I knew she was going to put the dedication and time into being able to research this character… being able to fully embrace this role so that she could totally melt and disappear into this character. That’s a big ask of an actor because the research takes a lot of time.

There appeared to be a strong director-actor relationship… what was it like working with Tilda?

Tilda started rehearsals almost 6 weeks before we started shooting and in that time she was fully supported. I wanted to give her every tool that she could have to find this character and she was on her own watching lots of material about Helen and listening to her talk and really studying her.

We were also bringing in movement coaches and voice coaches. She had to learn how to sing and most importantly she had to learn how to breathe so that she was breathing in the right moments of the song. Tilda doesn’t sing the songs in the movie but you have to believe that she’s singing the songs, so that was really important.

She so fully embraced this experience, which is so key in taking on a character that everybody knows. So there’s a lot of pressure but then the pressure is not just to mimic a character, the pressure is to breathe life into this person that you’re creating on screen so that the audience will follow that journey… the audience will become completely invested.

Unless Tilda’s performance worked for that, it would be a very tough call to make a movie like this. So a lot of my focus in the creation of this movie was about supporting Tilda and guiding her. She’s a very open actor, she likes to explore and she’s very intellectual so we had a lot of discussions and spent a lot of time outside of the movie: talking, rehearsing… I mean she sang to me every single day.

It’s a tough journey and she was very young when she took the role on and I was very concerned about that. In the end I knew that with the team, not just Tilda’s performance but the team I had around me… I knew that the cinematographer, the production design, the costume, hair and make up and then of course the editor were all going to be able to support this incredible performance that she was able to invest into this movie.

Evan Peters is an inspired casting decision and quite simply unrecognisable as Jeff Wald… did you hit it off and were you surprised at just how well Tilda and Evan worked together?

When I first met Evan Peters he had just walked off the set of American Horror Story and he looked nothing like Jeff Wald. He was so pale and his hair was bleached white and his skin was so pale that I thought I could actually see through him. Jeff Wald was known for always having this great tan and he had his dark hair.

So physically he was probably the antithesis of the person that you see on screen now but Evan has such a special quality about him. I knew when I met the real Jeff Wald that he walks a fine line between being extraordinarily charming and engaging but he also has this kind of darker side to him and this determination, which is part of what helped Helen succeed.

Evan naturally has that, read the script in great detail and came with really strong ideas. I really love that partnership with actors who fully embrace their role and came to really love the way Evan worked. He, Tilda and Danny all had very different processes but Evan just loves to improvise, explore and be incredibly playful with even the darkest elements that he has to portray.

In doing that, he helps everybody else on set and often at times when things weren’t working I always gave Evan scope to be able to explore and try something different always to push it further. Sometimes the surprise he came up with was so exciting and we would all kind of rally around this idea. So it was it was a really wonderful working relationship.

Evan and Tilda work so beautifully together. Like any movie, it was awkward to start with, particularly because Tilda had been so invested and been part of the movie for so long and Evan only came in a couple of days before we started shooting. One of the things I did when we first started is that when the actors first met each other, I had them introduce themselves to each other in character.

This sped up the rehearsal process in a way because it meant they could learn things about each other and each other’s characters very quickly. Part of the exercise, which they all handled really interestingly, was their choice of what they wouldn’t tell the other people – so that was really fun and exciting to do.

Tilda needs to plan and think things through while Evan’s a lot more spontaneous… everything is very present and it’s very in the moment. So bringing them together they were really able to bounce off each other and work together incredibly well. It was very exciting to see!

What were some of the biggest challenges of realising this political music biopic?

I love that you bring up the fact that it is political because Helen’s song was very political and Helen herself was very political. She wasn’t outspoken and the face of feminism but she was quietly political in her own way and wrote a song that became the anthem of the women’s movement. It really became the anthem of the women’s movement because she wrote about her own individual experience and put words out there that many women were feeling but were not really able to express publicly.

I think that it was important that we imbue the story with the politics of the time with the background of the women’s movement with what was happening with gender politics. I thought I knew a lot about feminism but I didn’t know until Helen and I started talking that she was one of the first women to have her own name on a credit card because in those days you had to have your husband’s name on a credit card.

I would have had to be Mr Dion Beebe, which now you look back and think is that crazy? It really wasn’t that long ago but I think that when I was hearing the story and learning more about Helen and the women’s movement at that time… it was important to me that you watch this movie and you just don’t feel like everything’s done, because everything isn’t done.

I realised there were so many incredible women, women whose shoulders we all stand on now including Helen. What started to become even more evident, not just at the end of Helen’s story but as I was developing the screenplay, was what’s happening in the world with the women’s marches, #MeToo, Time’s Up… It just became apparent there’s so much more that needs to be done. One of my favourite things is when young women watch this movie. They say they had no idea what had gone on before and now feel empowered and inspired to go out and make change.

There are some inside references, for example, linking the world to Anchorman through Chris Parnell… you got the tonal balance on point, just how tricky was it to walk this tightrope?

I’m so glad you’re asking me about Chris Parnell, who I’m a huge fan of. I first met Chris when I was actually a student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and I followed his career – he’s done some really wonderful work in comedy.

When I was casting that scene at Capitol Records, which is one of the few moments we actually shot in Los Angeles – I just knew from the moment that Emma Jensen wrote that scene. We really wanted there to be a lightness to that moment. We needed it to be funny so I was looking at people who were working comedy to bring out the absurdity of that moment. I thought of Chris because he actually looks a little bit like Artie but I knew that Chris brings a gravitas. He seems serious but he’s extraordinarily funny at the same time.

The two actors that support him in that room, Matty and Dusty… their presence would make me laugh. They were so baffled by the things that Helen was saying but it was really interesting because even though they were trying to be sexist and put Helen down in the scene… because they’re modern men of the 21st century… they found it really hard at the beginning. They didn’t want to be that cynical or mean to Helen. I remember having a conversation with them about that and they were like, “but she’s so intimidating”. I had to laugh because I think they totally nailed it but their instinct was not to belittle a woman in that scene.

It’s fascinating to revisit the low-tech world before the Internet… what was the funniest thing about going retro?

I think you might be the first person to ask me that… I love that you asked me because it was very apparent to me particularly when my son came to visit. He was only 14 years old at the time and would often ask me about things… he would laugh at the telephone and some of the things we were shooting.

We would sometimes be hampered by the low-tech nature of some of the elements that we had to bring back. I just remember when Jeff is driving Lillian away at the front of the house… we had to do such a big search for cars because we were shooting in Sydney. We needed cars that drove like they were American cars because Americans drive on the other side.

We were always looking for that kind of vehicle but didn’t have a lot of time. We were trying to shoot out the day, we couldn’t go into overtime and we just needed to get that one shot of Jeff driving Lillian and then Helen standing in the driveway waving goodbye.

We’re all ready to go, we didn’t have very much time left to shoot and the car breaks down. I do have a really funny photo because as soon as the car’s hood was lifted, every single guy on set… and I have a lot of women on set… but suddenly almost every single guy on set went running under the bonnet of the car. I just had to laugh out loud because we had this set that embraced gender equality and that was gender neutral in some ways.

Then all of a sudden as soon as the car stopped, all the guys wanted to go look under the bonnet. I don’t know what they were looking for because most of them didn’t know anything about cars but it was a very funny moment.

How much focus did you put on getting the music right?

The music is such a key part of this movie. There are two elements of the music… one is Helen’s music, which we had to get absolutely right. Not just in the way we recorded it. We couldn’t really use Helen’s real recordings because each of the songs were placed according to the emotion of the movie.

Some of those tempos of the recordings were changed up so Bry Jones is the music producer who worked on that. Because Tilda doesn’t sound anything like Helen, we really needed to get somebody to voice her that would be able to not only capture the emotional essence of those moments but that you could believe was Helen singing. We were very lucky… after again doing an enormous search all around the world… even going to Nashville and Canada… we found a wonderful girl named Chelsea Callan in Australia.

Maybe I should have just started everything in Australia from the beginning! Anyway, Chelsea did a beautiful job and I really took a leaf out of the way old Hollywood musicals were made where you don’t just record the track and sing along to the track. So everything was very much based on Tilda’s performance. She had to sing and then sometimes we used Chelsea’s recording as a guide track but then I went back in and spent time with both Chelsea and Brian to finesse details so that we could get it absolutely right emotionally in terms of the performance for both Tilda and Chelsea.

So Helen’s music and the choice of the songs was crucial. I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of Helen’s fans. I had been with her in 2014 when she did a little revival tour and I went to shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I got to talk to fans about which were the most important songs for them. Then we had to deal with getting the rights to all the songs, some of which were incredibly hard to get the rights to. I think of ‘You’re My World’, which is the perfect song to open the movie.

I couldn’t think of anything else I want to replace it with, so we had to fight hard to get that approved. I think it hadn’t been approved for a new movie for many years as it had been in dispute. Then there’s the rest of the music that creates the world and that was really fun to do but in some ways there were almost too many choices. Trying to find the perfect track we could afford was challenging because most of the money had to go into Helen’s music.

The third element is our composed music. We had a wonderful composer, Rafael May. Raf and I have had a very long friendship. We worked in commercials together many years ago. The incredible thing about him is that if I asked for 100% he would give me 200%. So he’s somebody who is always able to reach so much further than you dream of. Danny Cooper and I had used a lot of music but when Raf came on board he was really able to elevate some of those emotional moments with a beautiful score that he created.

I had never heard of Helen before watching I Am Woman. What compelled you as producer and director to bring her back into the public eye?

I really love it when people who have never heard of Helen Reddy watch the film and love the movie. I’ll never forget after our film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. I Am Woman played in this beautiful theatre on the opening night of the film festival for a section called special presentations and there were more than 2000 people in the audience and we got this incredible standing ovation. I can’t even imagine now being in a theatre with 2000 people with what’s going on in the world but I was so lucky to have that experience.

As I was leaving after the Q&A, we were doing some performances at their music theatre and I was trying to get there and a young girl came running up to me and said “I really want to talk to you to say thank you. I want to thank you for the movie…” and she said to me “I didn’t come because I have no idea who Helen Reddy is, I’ve never heard her music before.

I came because my mother really wanted to see this film. I just wanted to thank you because I had no idea what the story was about and when I watched it, it just touched me so deeply because I couldn’t believe the things that happened before me. The things that women had done before me and now I just want to go home and I feel so inspired to find out more about what happened and I feel like I have a responsibility to do something now.”

That for me is one of my most favourite responses that I’ve had at many film festivals and screenings. Now that the film has been released in America and Australia and many other countries I get so many people writing to me and telling me that. There are the fans who are amazing and who have remembered Helen but I’m incredibly touched by the people who don’t know Helen.

I also love the fact that Helen still has such a strong fan base and that her music brings back so many memories for people… like me sitting in the back of a station wagon. People come up to me at screenings all the time and tell me when they had heard a Helen Reddy song and what it had done for them.

When I was screening this film in India at the Goa International Film Festival, which is the National Film Festival of India… a group of women came up to me afterwards they’d never even heard the song but they loved it so much and felt really empowered. They felt it was a great story, a film for the women of India and they sang me the song, this is a song they’d never even heard of.

It’s interesting because there have been some film festivals in India where after we screened it at Goa, they wrote to me and said you know we’re a really small film festival… we’re screening a movie in a village and we can’t afford to pay for this movie but will you send it to us?

Of course we sent it to them and I just love getting those responses. There are also people who know a lot about Helen, as I was saying her super fans as I call them. Some of them went to their first Helen Reddy concert in the 1970s and have been to every single Helen Reddy concert in the world afterwards. When we had our New York premiere at the Fina Film Festival a lot of them flew in from all over America and it was such a special night because at the after party everybody got up and sang ‘I Am Woman’ and that really bought a tear to my eye.

So when you asked me why I wanted to bring her back into the public eye, I think that so many important and inspiring women’s stories get lost. I know how her music and story inspired me and I just really hope that I’ve made a film that another young girl will watch and feel really inspired by. I think that it’s part of our responsibility to protect these stories, to learn from them and be inspired by them.