Interview With The Amazing Alana Hicks (Writer and Director of ‘Chicken’)

Those of you who are familiar with the content on this page will have become accustomed to a singular voice – mine. With all the things that I’ve written, It would probably come as a surprise to you that I actually don’t have much of a desire to hear myself speak. I’m genuinely a lot more interested in connecting with people with different perspectives and just hearing about how they approach this thing we call ‘life’.

Today the voice you’ll be hearing (well, reading), is that of Alana Hicks. writer, director, actress, comedienne, spoken word artist, puppeteer and all-round creative based in Sydney. Despite being on the other side of the world and having to navigate an unfathomable time difference, she has kindly allowed me to bother her with loads of questions (also known as an interview).

I’ve got a post on her short film Chicken already and would recommend that you watch it if you haven’t already! It was one of the best things that I watched at the London Film Festival and uses comedy to explore some serious topics (migration, motherhood and racial discrimination).

Without further ado, this is The Amazing Alana Hicks – telling us about her upbringing, her creative process, sharing advice and of course, talking about that delicacy that we all love so dearly, Chicken (apologies to the Vegan readership)

It won’t take long for you to realise that she’s a far more interesting person than I am haha.

I was introduced to you and your work through ‘Chicken, but I assume that you had a whole life before your work appeared on my screen?

Haha yes, I did have a whole life before, during and after the filming of Chicken. I was born in Papua New Guinea to a PNG mother and a Scottish/Australian father. PNG is a bit of a paradox, breathtakingly beautiful, with people who are famous for their generosity, and on the other hand, frequent flare-ups of extreme violence and chaos. So, I spent a lot of time in semi-isolation, or occasionally with extended family in the settlements (groups of village people living closer to the city). I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a place where I had little else to do but study plant life and the behaviours of my much older siblings and the many other relatives and friends who moved through my childhood home like guest stars in a sitcom. 

What were you like growing up and have you changed much since then?

I was a bit of a tiny jerk. I had this desire for ultimate justice, to right all the wrongs in the world, and I couldn’t understand why a little girl living in the tropics couldn’t solve all the world’s problems. To be fair I read a lot of comics and played many a video game, perhaps the storylines and themes of the games and comics influenced a black and white view of the world, but nothing is black and white, especially if you’re mixed-raced. I haven’t changed much, I’m still pretty mad at all the real-world villains, but now I tire easily, I tend to go to sleep at 8pm, which doesn’t leave much time for pursuing justice. I probably should’ve been a lawyer, or a down-and-out private detective.

Have you been to London before?

Yes, I travelled there with my husband before we got married, as a sort of trial-by-travel challenge to see if we could manage to not murder each once during the trip. I was only there for a few days, we met a friend and he took us to the one place he knew that had decent coffee. What’s going on with your coffee over, has the situation improved? 😉

What’s your favourite film?

The other day on a train I remember thinking about a film, and I thought man, that really was a perfect film, but now I can’t remember what it was. But it really was great whatever it was. Other than that mystery movie, I’ve always had an affinity with Penny Marshall’s Big, kids acting like adults, adults behaving like kids. And Back to the Future 2, look I’m not sophisticated.

Are you currently binge watching anything?

The last things I binged-watched were Flowers and I Hate Suzie, funny they were both British. On that note, The Office had a major influence on me. But I’m working on a project at the moment to do with the crossover between sects and faith-based direct sales, through the lens of a couple of revenge-oriented sisters, so I’m watching and listening to stuff from that world.

Do you have any cool or interesting hobbies that you enjoy doing in your down time?

I play with clay whenever I can, messing with dirt is good for your hands and heart.

When did you decide that you wanted to work in the creative field and did you have the support of those around you?

I wrote my first story set in PNG (about my mother and the day her father died) in early high school and my English teacher made a big fuss about it, then gave me such encouragement for the rest of high school that I felt I owed it to her to try and become a professional writer. My mother and father were unbelievably supportive, which is like winning the lottery if you want to have a creative profession.

Your short story Chicken was amazing! It’s an experience that myself and many other first generation diaspora can relate to. Is this story one that came from your own personal experience?

Yes, it happened more or less like the film, but it’s also an amalgam of many experiences my mother and I had after we moved to Sydney. There were worse stories, this one felt the most contained, and exemplified how racism can run the gamut of horrifying to downright inconvenient.

Where did the film originally debut and where can people watch it?

It played at a number of small US festivals at the end of 2019, but it premiered in Australia at a short film festival called Flickerfest in January 2020. This felt like a milestone, as it won an award and I started receiving feedback from people saying they related to the story. If they follow “Chicken Short Film” on Facebook, they’ll see where it’s coming up next.

Could you describe Chicken in your own words for people that haven’t seen it? (I feel like I would do it a disservice)

Chicken is set in the early 90’s and is about a young mixed raced girl who wants to watch The Simpsons (undeniably autobiographical), but her Papua New Guinean mother comes back from the shops and has been overcharged for a chicken. She asks her daughter to return with her to sort it out, which you can tell is a dance they’ve done before. When they get there, it turns out the sales girl deliberately ripped her off. The daughter then scams her way into a second chicken. Justice served! When life is unfair, make it fair (this is a totally glib interpretation, but hey, we got that second chicken).

What type of responses have you been receiving for the film?

I have received some beautiful responses, particularly from the migrant diaspora and the Pasifika community in particular. It’s uncommon to see Papua New Guinean people on screen, especially with the traditional tattoos. So, I think my family and community from PNG were ecstatic to see that representation.

Do you remember where you were when you got the news that your work had been selected for the London Film Festival?

I was on the couch, this is where I receive all my news. My husband had a Sight and Sound subscription for years and we’ve carried these boxes of old BFI magazines to every place we’ve moved to. It felt circular somehow. I was afraid of making a short film because I know how brutal the festival circuit is. The rejections (and there have been many) are defeating, but the good news, when you get it, makes your little heart soar. It’s a tricky game.

What was it like seeing your work on screen and how did your mother react?

My mother is proud of me for not being addicted to hard drugs, so everything else is bonus. Truly, she only wants me to be happy. She doesn’t quite get the passion I have for writing and directing, but she knows how it fulfils me, so she is pleased to see things paying off for me in small ways. I was hugely anxious to watch the film on screen, you never know how things will be received, you can only try your best with the resources you have.

I managed to find your original casting call for Chicken on Facebook back in 2018. You were very specific about what you wanted and after seeing the final product it’s clear that you succeeded! Was it difficult to find a cast that could execute your vision?

I have a lot of opinions about the dearth of professionally trained non-white actors and crew. It begins way back with kids at school when they are thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Things like class, privilege, cultural pressure, lack of opportunities, all contribute to the inevitable decision against a career in the arts. Being proactive about finding cast from underrepresented backgrounds is something I think producers could be better at, but Sleena Wilson, the producer of Chicken did a wonderful job with her callouts. And for the character of Rita, there could only be PNG actor Wendy Mocke, fearless and determined.

I thought it was really cool that you had an all-female cast. Was that a deliberate choice and if so, why?

I didn’t consciously think about it, but when I look at my other work, it is dominated by female characters. My world contains many powerful female presences, so I just naturally reflect that in my writing.

Where did the decision to set Chicken in the early 90’s come from as oppose to the present day?

The experience of migrant kids is different today as it was 25 years ago, many of the dynamics still remain but there are a whole new set of challenges that I’m not entirely familiar with. As this was an autobiographical story, I wanted to recreate that place and time.

I thought this could be a TV Show. It had that ‘a day in the life of’ feel about it, but I would love to see more days! Is this something that you considered? At the very least a series of short films following these characters would be awesome. The people want more!

Haha, well I wrote a TV series called Home is a Foreign Country which featured the same characters and world. It starts with them arriving in Australia, and goes more into Barbara’s school life, Rita working at a nursing home and the experiences of the mother and daughter as they try to learn how to be in this strange, new place. It may or may not happen, the industry is fickle.

I noticed that a lot of your work centres on childhood and the expression of that voice. I was wondering what it is about that particular state of mind that encourages you to create? I read ‘Smoke and Fire’ and it was breath-taking.

Oh wow, you read that? That was also based on a real story. I made a friend back in the day who was the relative of our gardener/security guard. She and I would play but her life was not like mine, I won’t say what she endured, it’s too hard to write. Suffice to say children deserve a childhood, and I wish adults wouldn’t ruin it. 

I also see that through all of your comedic talents and desire to bring joy to people’s lives, you’re not afraid to talk about serious topics. Your spoken word piece “Fresh Air” blew my mind! Do you feel that it is important to deliver these messages in your art?

The comedy has always been a response to the serious stuff, it’s hard to cope without laughing at regular intervals. But poetry, rap, music in general – and dance, always dance – feels like a portal to the sublime, like you can connect with people through some weird other subconscious channel. Shit’s painful, but if we can make a connection to other people, something good can come out of the pain.

I reached out to you on LinkedIn and I noticed that all of the praises for ‘Chicken’ on social media didn’t have you tagged, I’m assuming that they were unable to find you either. What is your relationship like with social media? Would you consider yourself to be a reclusive creative or are we all just really bad at cyber-stalking?

Hahaha, I don’t consider myself a reclusive creative, but I am scared as hell of the internet. And anyway, where’s all this praise?

I was going to ask how lockdown has effected your creative process but having watched your hilarious ‘Kweens of Comedy sketch’, I get the impression that it hasn’t stopped you in your tracks haha! How has it been for you during this time and are there any opportunities that have come about or been scuppered because of it?

I suspect this has been a year of introspection for most people. I quit my day job at the end of last year to knuckle down and write, write, write. So, I’ve been working away, and that particular sketch was the culmination of being trapped with own silly thoughts for many moons. Your research is impressive, and makes me highly self-conscious. In terms of any opportunities that didn’t come to pass, the experience of having a short film in festivals is vastly different from previous years, when you might have networked or been exposed to other people’s work.

You strike me as someone who is very comfortable in their own skin, where did this confidence and fearlessness come from?

That’s interesting that you think that. Growing up, I always tried to blend in, because I was uncomfortable in my skin, but I suppose I was never shy about saying my piece. I did a lot of youth performance stuff, acting etc. I was in the circus for a minute. But I learned how to put my insecurities and anxieties deep into my back pocket when on stage, or in front of a camera.

What has your experience of being POC woman in the industry and do you feel optimistic about the future of women from your background working in entertainment?

Yes, I am perpetually optimistic, it’s a terrible curse. I would say working in this industry is a slog, regardless of your background, but in Australia the same companies, broadcasters and executives were making decisions about what they thought the audience wanted, which was pretty darn male, white, straight and able-bodied. I think that is shifting radically. People are being held accountable for their bias.

What advice would you give to young film makers from marginalised backgrounds?

Have a multi-pronged approach; experience, training and initiatives/competitions. Get the experience by working on your content, either writing, shooting with a phone, or volunteering on other people’s projects. Get some training, a short or long course, read a book, soak up the existing wisdom from practitioners you admire, just be open to learning. And submit your work to the endless competitions and initiatives out there, be careful of the ones that cost money, and remember it’s not about the outcome, but the process. Love what you do, and try to do it more.

And finally, Have you got any more work coming out that people should look out for?

I would love to say that people can check out my feature film directorial debut in September of next year but that would technically be lying. So, I’ll just say, not right now, no. However, all offers are welcome.