Fifteen years after leaving Sydney to pursue her dreams in Hollywood, filmmaker Sophia Banks marks a triumphant return to Australia where she will direct her debut feature film, Black Site, on the Gold Coast, featuring an all-star Aussie cast and crew.
When STACK catches up with Banks, prepping in Brisbane, she is poised to begin shooting the action spy-thriller starring Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney and Michelle Monaghan, on a tight 30-day schedule commencing February 8.
Mentored by Australia’s own Phillip Noyce, Banks would ultimately meet with John Wick producers, Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee – Black Site marking the first film from their new banner, Asbury Park Pictures (no connection to Bruce Springsteen!).
If her story sounds like a dream come true, then she’s first to admit that none of it was easy.
“There was no soft landing when I first arrived in Los Angeles,” she says. “I didn’t know a single person and I literally went and knocked on doors to get totally random jobs, working in fashion markets. But I made friends and there’s so many more Australians in LA than there was 15 years ago.”
Having studied business at UTS while taking film and acting classes at Sydney University, she knew she didn’t want to be in front of the camera but it was almost impossible to break into the male dominated world of directing.
“I found it really hard to get any opportunities, to be honest. At that time you had to camera assist and operate and be able to do all those things and getting into crew wasn’t something, as a woman, that was easy to do. So I went into costume and that’s how I got my US visa, doing fashion styling. I eventually built up enough contacts to be able to switch into making fashion commercials. Without playing the violin, I didn’t find it particularly easy at that point to go straight into film,” she says.
Through sheer talent and perseverance, Banks found her feet directing award-winning commercials for brands such as Pepsi, Chobani, BMW and Ford as well as fashion films for Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Ralph and Russo, Annie Bing and Pam & Gela.
Inching ever closer to her goal, she established herself as a director with her 2017 short, Making It on Time for Christian Siriano. Featuring striking images of women in couture gowns skateboarding through downtown Los Angeles, her short would go on to claim more than 15 industry awards.
Emboldened by her success, her sci-fi short Unregistered premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and was screened at over twenty film festivals worldwide, while her upcoming short Proxy, starring Emma Booth, which she co-wrote and directed, is a recent wow on the film festival circuit.
When she read the script for Black Site, she responded to it immediately.
“I was actively looking for an action-thriller. I love sci-fi and action – that’s something I absolutely want to do for the rest of my career – and big movies, too. Obviously with the commercials and the VFX, I feel very comfortable in this world,” she says.
Black Site centres on a group of officers based in a top-secret CIA black site, who must fight for their lives in a cat-and-mouse game against Hatchet, a brilliant and infamous high-value detainee. When Hatchet escapes, his mysterious and deadly agenda has far-reaching and dire consequences.
Unlike other spy thrillers, vaguely referencing the CIA and other intelligence outfits, Black Site digs deep into Five Eyes, the largely unpublicised secret service alliance between Australia, USA, Canada, New Zealand and the UK.
“Black Site is set at a Five Eyes undisclosed site, so we feature Australians, Canadians, English, New Zealanders and Americans in this really diverse cast. I can’t personally say for sure that Five Eyes has never been done before in film but I’ve never seen it myself.
“But what I’m most happy about as an Australian is that Australian stories are sometimes thought of in a certain way, but being able to change that narrative and say, ‘You know what? There’s other stories that we can fit inside that genre’. Just like Mad Max,” says Banks, citing George Miller and Kathryn Bigelow as major influences.
However, audiences will not recognize the Gold Coast in the finished film.
“Black Site is a Five Eyes site in the Middle East, so we’re actually underground most of the time so you don’t really see the location. Besides, Australia typically wouldn’t have a Black Site, neither would Canada or the US or the other members of the alliance; they tend to put them in other countries for numerous reasons.”
Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke last co-starred together six years ago in Terminator: Genisys, and Banks believes they’ll appreciate the reunion. “I think all the Australians really love working with each other. Jai and Jason are awesome and Michelle is married to an Australian, so they’re all going to love this,” she says.
As a woman, she feels she brings a new flavour to the usual male-dominated world of action films.
“You can see with Proxy, how I give the attention to character and story that we don’t always expect from this genre. And I always like to see women represented, not just as the hot chick who kicks butt.”
And don’t imagine that Black Site is a one-off, for Banks is already set to make another feature in Australia, a sci-fi thriller with former Fox honcho Bill Mechanic (Hacksaw Ridge), due to start shooting in Sydney at the end of the year.