When Australian actor-turned-director Alice Englert went on a spiritual retreat with her mother, Oscar-winning director Jane Campion, she had a revelation.
“I remember having what I thought was a breakthrough experience, where I was remembering being born, and coming out,” Englert, whose father Colin Englert is also a filmmaker, tells Broadsheet over coffee in Melbourne. “My mum was listening. And she was like, ‘That’s great. You were a caesarean, but I’m glad that you had that.’”
The world of retreats has inspired Englert’s directorial feature debut, dark comedy Bad Behaviour, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Shot in New Zealand, it follows Lucy (Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly), a former child actor who attends a wellness retreat headed by a self-proclaimed guru (a very amusing Ben Whishaw) to address her own issues, while also dealing with her complicated relationship with her daughter Dylan (Englert), a stunt person working in New Zealand.
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Bad Behaviour is the first full-length film 29-year-old Englert has directed, following several shorts and on the heels of an impressive acting career, which has included roles in Beautiful Creatures and Top of the Lake.
While Bad Behaviour was partially influenced by Englert’s own retreat experiences, she points out the feature is entirely fictionalised, and that she is in fact a fan of meditation retreats. She says Bad Behaviour has been embraced by the retreat community.
“The retreat community really, really loves the film,” she says, laughing.
Though Bad Behaviour satirises wellness cults and the entertainment industry, it also portrays a complex mother-daughter relationship. Englert says balancing these two elements was one of her biggest challenges.
“[That] was kind of the only real focus that I had. We weren't exactly playing things for laughs, either, because I feel like drama is actually inherently pretty funny.”
One of the highlights of making the film was working with stars Connelly and Whishaw. Englert says both actors were committed and supportive.
“Jennifer is so incredibly talented and collaborative. Ben’s such a deep, wonderful soul and so sweet, so wonderfully funny. I wanted the guru to be someone I could really rely on.
“There was a time where we were joking that maybe we should just create a retreat around Ben and have a Ben cult, and Netflix could make a documentary exposé about a film that went off the rails,” Englert says, laughing.
Having shared sets with actors such as Jeremy Irons and Octavia Spencer, Englert had plenty of experience from which to draw when it came to making the film. Yet some of the most helpful advice came from Campion, who makes a cameo as a nurse.
“She’s given me so much good advice, my entire life,” says Englert. “She’d never say do that again or do just that. [She’d always say], that's an interesting space. Stay in that space.”
Englert has plans to make another feature and continues to take on acting gigs. Looking back, she says she has grown and learnt from the experience of making Bad Behaviour.
“It was a really wonderful feeling to go, ‘I’m gonna just let this world be itself and be as weird and sincere and uncomfortable as it can be.”
Bad Behaviour is in cinemas now.