Rachel Griffiths on her muse Michelle Payne: ‘She told the world to get stuffed’ | Film

The morning after the world premiere of Rachel Griffiths’ directorial debut, Ride Like a Girl, the biopic’s subject – the 2015 Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Michelle Payne – is still feeling celebratory.

The night before, she had all her family in the one place at the after-party: her single dad and nine siblings, whose Ballarat upbringing and racing obsession were depicted on the big screen.

“Dad never stays out … He just loved seeing us all together,” she says.

Payne saw the film a couple of months ago but it was the first time for many of her family – and a nerve-racking experience for Griffiths. When Griffiths – joining the Guardian for the interview – asks whether her dad liked it, Payne says: “He thought the ending was good.”

It seems a typically laconic response for Paddy Payne (played by Sam Neill), who has a loving yet push-and-pull relationship with his talented and headstrong daughter (Teresa Palmer). In parts of the film they are estranged – an honest account, Payne says.

Griffiths and Payne at the world premiere.

‘I didn’t want to paint her into a saint’: Griffiths and Payne at the world premiere. Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

While the movie skirts around the ethical issues facing the industry, the premiere was overshadowed by them. Earlier this year a key character, Prince’s trainer Darren Weir (played by Sullivan Stapleton), was banned from racing for four years for possessing electric shock jiggers, and the Ride Like A Girl screening was disrupted by animal rights protesters.

The movie chooses to focus instead on Payne’s positive recollections of her close relationship with Weir, and while producer Richard Keddie has told the Guardian that Racing Victoria and TabCorp had “no editorial influence” over its content, they did support its production through a sponsorship arrangement.

Griffiths has said in an ABC interview that she thinks it’s unfair the controversy over the ethics of the industry has drawn attention away from Payne’s achievements. This extraordinary film celebrates 15 years of a woman’s determination and resilience to realise her dream,” she said. “I just hope that the conversation is not dragged back to some other man’s behaviour.”

She seems relieved the film went down well with its subject; she always saw Payne and her family as the key stakeholders. “I didn’t want to make a hagiography, and paint her into the saint,” Griffiths says of Payne. “But I couldn’t think of anything worse than having a film made about me or my family.”

She cast Palmer to play the main role, trying to reconcile this “mind-splitting dichotomy” between young and dutiful, and stubborn and tenacious. “Michelle spent many years probably being underestimated, and I think Teresa Palmer could relate to that,” Griffiths says. “As a beautiful actress she’s often cast to enhance the male journey; she follows picking up crumbs, making the best of them.”

The film begins and ends with documentary footage. At the beginning, a small girl says she wants to win the Melbourne Cup. By the end she is crossing the finish line, victorious, making a speech about women’s rights in a man’s world – and telling all the detractors to “get stuffed”.

It was a speech that struck a nerve at the time, but it resonated with many women. “Racing is a sport of kings – and there’s a great photo of me [on Cup day] cantering past [a billboard] that says, ‘Who will be king?’ ” Payne says. “Women just were so happy to see that anything is possible if you really are determined and you believe in yourself and stick up for yourself.”

That speech came out impromptu, she says; it was the first thing that crossed her mind as she slowed down on Prince. “It just became so apparent to me that it was so much more than just me winning the race.”

Watching the race at a Cup day barbecue, this was the speech that inspired Griffiths to make the film. That there were women riding at all came as a surprise. “I just thought it was so ironic that the only sport in the world where women compete with men is the most dangerous sport in the world,” she says. As she saw Payne lean down to hug her brother Stevie and found out about Paddy Payne and the many siblings (in tragic circumstances, her sister Brigid died after a fall), Griffiths saw in this story a classic Australian sporting film – the prize, the obstacles, the win – with a woman at its centre.

“After she told the world to ‘get stuffed’ I thought, that’s the girl Australia’s going to root for because she’s the outsider, she’s 100 to 1.” (Stevie, strapper for the horse, appears in the film as himself and is a standout, delivering all the best lines.)

But the making of the film didn’t always come easy, she says, acknowledging there were “dark nights of the soul”.

“Look, I had some really hard times on the film, where I asked myself, ‘Can I really do this? Shouldn’t someone else be doing it? … Should someone else be on the horse?’,” she says. “I was definitely inspired by Michelle’s persistence, her resilience, her determination, her focus, her passion. It was those things that kept me going.”

Teresa Palmer and Stevie Payne in Ride Like A Girl

Stevie Payne, Michelle’s brother and her horse’s strapper, plays himself in the film. Photograph: Transmission Film

Griffiths has been a strong campaigner for gender equality in film and television. She launched Create NSW’s #SheDirects development initiative that aims to boost the numbers of women in director positions for television, and Ride Like a Girl is the first film produced under Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program. She believes these quota ambitions are making a big difference.

“I love the idea that women stand on the shoulders of our sisters … as we move into professional areas that have been dominated by men,” she says. While Australia hasn’t traditionally made large-scale films based around women as heroes, Griffiths sees things changing with another biopic, I Am Woman, based on Helen Reddy’s life story, soon to be released.

Griffiths didn’t set out to make a “chick flick”, as she puts it, but she sees similarities between Payne’s journey and her own, recognising both their mutual ambition and desire to promote others in their industries. “Michelle grew up seeing her sister, Therese, win the Bendigo Cup. Cathy had a lot of city wins. Brigid was the second woman to ride professionally in the state.” Like Payne, Griffiths is the youngest child in her family and she understands that dynamic too. “The last child’s always chasing the oldest.”

Ride Like a Girl is in Australian cinemas from 26 September

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