Johnny Milner’s award-winning The Chosen Vessel draws together various strands of his life and passions. The eerie historical drama was inspired by 19th century Australian writer Barbara Baynton’s short story about a young woman alone in the bush, who is attacked by a swagman. Johnny’s short film, which diverges from the original story, drew upon his research for his PhD, which he conducted through the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics (SLLL).
“My PhD research tracks cultural representations in Australian film and music,” Johnny says. “My research has in different ways inspired and informed my creative filmmaking and music production.”
His filmmaking is rooted in this PhD research, and this is apparent in the way that all the films he analyses are not just set in Australia, but explore issues of Australian identity, history and landscape. These films feature a mix of storytelling about the country’s past and the impacts of colonialism. His thesis Sounding Country: Tracking Cultural Representations in the Soundtracks of Contemporary Australian Landscape Cinema, examines films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Proposition (2005), Australia (2008), and Samson & Delilah (2009). He was supervised by scholars across both SLLL and the ANU School of Music. Johnny’s academic work is used in various institutions across Australia, including as a teaching resource.
The Chosen Vessel made its debut as part of the 2019 Canberra Short Film Festival. The Screen Canberra-supported film took out the awards for ‘Best Director’ and ‘Best Sound Design’ – the latter being the work of both Johnny and sound designer Nick Munnings. In late 2020, Johnny will direct a web series, also funded by Screen Canberra.
Johnny has enjoyed working over the past few years at the National Film and Sound Archive.
“At the NFSA, I work in Public Programs and Digital Engagement,” he says. “Since the COVID crisis, I have produced numerous online research articles and essays focussing on collection items and content. Recent pieces on the director Rolf de Heer and artist Albert Namatjira, for instance, aim to convey the broader cultural and societal importance of their work.”
Other pieces of published work include an examination of Australian tennis stars who have excelled at Wimbledon, a survey of a selection of films by artist Tracey Moffatt, and an analysis of composer Brian May’s film scores for Mad Max and Mad Max 2 (see also Johnny’s piece on the making of Mad Max).
“My PhD training – looking at the deep structures, textual dimensions and codification of film and music – has been crucial in the development of the analytic skills required for my NFSA work,” Johnny says.
“Apart from my NFSA work, I have continued to be active in publishing and presenting peer-review academic research.” His article on nostalgia and music, for instance, was published by Cambridge Scholars Press.
Apart from his Canberra life, Johnny can be found outside Braidwood, where The Chosen Vessel was filmed, and where he grew up.
“I spend my weekends and spare time away from Canberra, working on various building projects and also managing a 1000-acre cattle, sheep and horse property near Braidwood.”
Most impressively, he even built the set for The Chosen Vessel – including a 19th century cottage.
“The set/hut for the film was built according to old Australian bush design and over three weekends,” Johnny says. “It was constructed using historical documents and old photos of bark/slab huts, as well as descriptions from Baynton's original story.”
Johnny sums up: “In my case certainly, a training in the humanities at ANU has offered opportunities as well as a life that is far from boring.”