Leila noticed her tiny town was suffering. So she took a $500k risk to make a difference

Leila noticed her tiny town was suffering. So she took a $500k risk to make a difference

Leila McDougall may be Australia’s most unlikely filmmaker. She’s a farmer who’d never set foot on a movie set. She had no acting experience, and for that matter, no script, no director, no producer and no financing.

But she did have an idea. It was COVID time, and she’d already watched just about everything on TV, none of it with much relevance to farmers.

So why not make a film of her own, a film she hoped would strike a chord with people on the land?

McDougall says she started to see patterns of mental health issues in her small community and knew she had to do something to make real change. (Supplied: Terri-Anne Lewis)

McDougall and her husband Sean had already started a charity event called Mellow in the Yellow, a party in a canola field designed to get farmers talking about their mental health.

Maybe a feature film would reach a much bigger audience.

“Once I get the idea,” Leila, 35, tells Australian Story, “I run with it and I won’t stop until I’ve achieved it.”

Fast forward to March this year and the woman who was labelled “dumb” and “simple” at school because of undiagnosed dyslexia, who was so shy she’d purposely try not to win anything to avoid the spotlight, walked into a cinema and posed for photographers before taking a front row seat and watching the premiere of Just a Farmer.

And as the credits rolled, there was McDougall’s name: as actor, scriptwriter and producer.

“We were just going to make this tiny little independent film,” McDougall says , “but it’s just ended up much bigger than we anticipated.” It’s even had the tick of approval from Australian acting royalty, Hugh Jackman.

Says husband Sean, her co-producer: “I always believed in Leila; had no doubt that she’d be able to pull it off.”

Behind the scenes of Just a Farmer filmed in Tatyoon, Victoria.(Supplied: Tea Van de Burgt)

Thousands of people with movie experience and great ideas have tried and failed to make films, says McDougall’s acting coach, Damian Walshe-Howling. “The odds of someone who is not an actor or a writer getting a feature film off the ground are 1 in 7 trillion,” he says.

“But there’s another element that you have to have. There has to be this mercurial quality, which is something going on in Leila that just really wants to tell this particular story.”

That special something is McDougall’s passion for spreading awareness about mental health in rural communities. It’s what turned that party in a canola field into an annual event, with Mellow in the Yellow raising more than $60,000 over eight years for the cause.

The couple says Mellow in the Yellow is about creating a safe environment to talk about suicide and break the stigma.(Supplied: Leila McDougall)

And it’s why McDougall was driven to create a movie that tells of the pressures that lead farmers to suicide and the trauma experienced by those left behind.

So passionate are the McDougalls about the cause, the couple who are raising two children, Vivian and Vincent, in Tatyoon, western Victoria, stumped up $500,000 to make the $1.5 million film.

They hope film sales will pay it back but, say McDougall “if this film makes a difference and Sean and I can save one life, then what’s $500,000?”.

“As long as I’ve got Sean and the kids and a roof over our heads, we’ll be happy.”

But now that Just a Farmer is out, Walshe-Howling doesn’t expect the woman who fibbed her way into his acting class to drop the scripts and slip quietly into the canola fields.

“I think,” he says, “there’s big things coming for Leila.”

Sean is right behind his wife’s film making endeavours and passion for rural health.(Australian Story: Marc Smith)

How Leila overcame ‘crippling shyness’

All the actors were sitting in a circle, introducing themselves and listing the films they’d been in, the commercials, the stage shows. This was an advanced acting course, after all.

Then it was McDougall’s turn. “Before I even knew it was coming out of my mouth,” she recalls, “I just go, ‘Ah, I’ve done nothing’.”

Dumbfounded, Walshe-Howling asked, “How did you get into this class?”

She fibbed. She made up a resume. She told the enrollers she was having technical difficulties sending her show reel. Truth is, she barely knew what a show reel was. She’d wangled her way into the course, not to become an actor, but to gain insights for the script she was writing.

Still, an intrigued Walshe-Howling decided to see what she had to offer. “She blew me away because she was so authentic,” he says. “The work was just present. It was available. It was alive.”

THEN: Leila (R) with her best friend (and horse trainer in Just a Farmer) Ash Barnett, age 12.(Supplied: Leila McDougall)

NOW: Leila pictured with her long-time friend Ash Barnett. (Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

Those who knew McDougall as a youngster would have been surprised, too. Back then, says Liz Foster, McDougall was a shy girl from Walcha, NSW, so timid “she wouldn’t say boo to a goose”.

The two met when McDougall, then a 15-year-old at school in Armidale, made a conscious decision to overcome her crippling shyness. The dyslexia that had inhibited her primary school years had been picked up at high school and her reading and writing were improving. Now she wanted the skills to make her way in the world.

“You get to a point in life,” McDougall says, “where you think, ‘I’m really not going to get anywhere if I stay like this; life’s not going to be that great’.”

Leila McDougall was 18 weeks pregnant with her son Vincent when she won Mrs Australia in 2017.(Supplied: Greg Desiatov Photography)

Foster ran deportment classes and McDougall went along. Bit by bit, her confidence rose. “Seeing Leila coming out of her shell was almost like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon,” Foster says. “It was just a delight to see her light up.”

Then McDougall took the next, terrifying step: she entered the Miss Walcha Showgirl competition. Her long-time friend, Ash Barnett, says from that point on, as McDougall left school and went to Sydney to study fashion design, a pattern emerged of McDougall driving herself to meet challenges.

“The more she was frightened of something,” Barnett says, “the more she wanted to take it on.”

Barnett helped that urge along, secretly entering her mate into the reality TV program, Farmer Wants a Wife, in 2010. McDougall rose to the challenge – she “won”, going home with a farmer to his property. But the romance was fake.

Sean McDougall runs the family’s sheep, cattle and cropping property and came on as co-producer on Just a Farmer.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

Real romance hit the day after filming ended. McDougall had gone home to Walcha for the local show and went to the pub. Standing there was a young man named Sean who was in the district working on a sheep stud. They got talking. “We’ve been together ever since,” she says.

The couple moved back to Sean’s family’s sheep, cattle and cropping property in Victoria and McDougall set about immersing herself in her new home.

McDougall met her husband, Sean, at her hometown local pub after failing to find true love on the show Farmer Wants a Wife.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

‘Life is fragile’

News of suicides in the district began filtering through. Mental health issues were not unknown to McDougall: her father, James Sweeney, has bipolar and she has been on medication for anxiety and depression since she was 20.

Her family had always spoken openly about mental health but McDougall knew that most farmers don’t, that there’s a culture of silence among farmers about their struggles. “A farmer dies by suicide every 10 days in this country,” says McDougall. “Why? How can we fix this problem?”

Leila with her dad, James, over the years.(Supplied: Leila McDougall)

McDougall figured a chance to chat in a casual setting might help break the taboo. She convinced Sean to create a lawn inside their canola crop, despite the risk of rye grass taking off – “He’s just so supportive” – and Mellow in the Yellow began.

A country rhythm set in: they worked the farm, McDougall taught textiles and technology, their two children, Vincent and Vivian, were born, Mellow in the Yellow grew into an annual event and McDougall put her glad rags on again to win Mrs Australia, using the platform to take her mental health message wider.

Then she went to the doctor for an overdue pap smear. The tests came back positive: she had cervical cancer and was told if she’d left it a few more months, it might have been terminal. Surgery followed and tests since have been clear.

“After I got through all of that,” McDougall says, “I started to think, ‘Life’s very fragile and it’s fleeting. We’re only here for this amount of time, so why not have a real crack?’.”

Not long after, McDougall had her “Let’s make a film” lightbulb moment.

Sean and Leila with their children Vincent and Vivian.(Supplied: Terri-Anne Lewis)

Town pitches in to make film a reality

Word got around that there was some filming going on in nearby Coleraine and McDougall saw her chance. Her script was taking form, she had a newfound acting hobby and now she could get some on set experience.

She scored a role as a pregnant woman. She was given a false belly but the look wasn’t realistic; her breasts were too small. She sidled up to the man playing her husband and said: “Where’s my boobs?”

A friendship flourished. The man was Simon Lyndon, an AFI-winning actor for his role in the gritty crime film, Chopper. She showed him her script, determined to get it made, despite already receiving multiple knockbacks from production companies.

Director Simon Lyndon says his own experiences with mental health and addiction helped him connect with the themes of the film.(Australian Story: Marc Smith)

The project resonated with Lyndon. He’d had his own mental health struggles, and lost friends to suicide. For three years, he’d been a heroin addict until his old friend from acting school, Hugh Jackman, heard he was in a bad way, brought him home and paid for rehabilitation.

“I understood what the farmer was going through,” Lyndon says. “The fact that no-one else knew that…in his own heart and mind, he wanted to check out. I could identify with that very much.”

He told McDougall about his past. It didn’t matter. She asked him to direct the film, even though he’d never directed a feature film. And he told her she’d be playing the lead role of Alison.

Lyndon and Leila cruise around the McDougall property.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

Lyndon came on board to direct Just a Farmer.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

Director Simon Lyndon spent six weeks helping out on the McDougall’s farm to help understand the rural community.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

McDougall says she hadn’t imagined playing the lead but, says Lyndon, “she was dead set Alison from the word go”. “She had the character, she had the strength, she had the screen presence.”

And so, the McDougall family property became the film’s set and McDougall became Alison, the wife of a farmer who suicided; a woman left to cope with the grief, the questions and the anger, as well as the farm, the kids and an alcoholic father-in-law.

Locals got parts, others brought food and caravans for the crew, and a buzz filled the community. She even roped in her acting coach, Walshe-Howling for a role. And although it was sometimes a close call, the McDougall’s found the finances and produced a feature film.

“At times throughout filming, I was scared,” McDougall says. “I thought, I can’t do this, I can’t handle the pressure. I’m acting, I’m producing, I’m helping cater. But I couldn’t afford to let it fail. I had to keep it going.”

Just a Farmer authentically depicts the challenges and triumphs of resilient rural Australian farmers. Sean works with a cut of fleece in a wool shed scene.(Supplied: Tea Van de Burgt)

Behind the scenes of Just a Farmer — a film that became a community effort.(Supplied: Tea Van de Burgt)

The result of that determination, says Lyndon, is a “really beautiful, really authentic” film, with McDougall giving a “stunning performance”. “I honestly don’t think Meryl Streep would have done a better performance…Three takes in a row and she can break your heart.”

Perhaps, says McDougall, she’ll do some more acting. “I really enjoy it,” she says. Or maybe she’ll come up with another idea and produce it. Whatever is in store, nobody is calling Leila McDougall dumb anymore.

McDougall says even if her film helps save one person it will have been worth it.(Australian Story: Ben Cheshire)

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