Vonne Patiag interview: ‘short films are the best thing that’s ever happened to me’

‘I call myself a “brat",' says the multi-award-winning writer, director, producer and actor, 'because I think brats are hilarious.'

For some in the screen industry, Vonne Patiag is the epitome of ‘so hot right now’ – and this descriptor would be partially accurate. Patiag’s certainly on fire, but for him, this blazing run has in fact been a mighty slow burn, and he has no intention of fading out any time soon. 

The Western Sydney-based writer, director, producer, and actor has been nominated for three AACTA Awards, two AWGIEs, two Screen Producers Australia (SPA) Awards, and a Logie. Patiag has also been recognised by both SPA and the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) as ‘One to Watch’. 

In addition to his vast and varied freelance credits, Patiag co-directs In-Between Pictures with his producing partner Maren Smith, where the two focus on telling intersectional Australian stories for global audiences. If you’re wondering when Patiag gets to sleep, rest assured that I am too. 

While the US’s ‘showrunner’ model is far from being adopted across the board in Australia, the showrunner title is one Patiag has been called since 2019, when he wrote, directed, produced, and edited the ABC mini-series Halal Gurls

Read: Want to be a showrunner? Paddy MacRae says ‘make a killer cup of tea’

‘I’m just so genuinely interested in process and how people make things’, Patiag says. ‘I didn’t march in like, “I’m the showrunner, and I need to do this, this, and this”. It just came out of a process that felt organic to me.

‘People fight over this term, you know, but I think the best showrunners are those … where the show is almost a natural extension of them, so it makes sense for them to be the leader. Other people would call me the showrunner, and I was like, “I just showed up and did the work that I needed to”.’ 

If there’s any secret to Patiag’s stellar run, this ‘show up and do the work’ ethos might just be it. 

‘One thing that I live by – and it’s a piece of advice that I came up with myself, I will say – is you do the work; other people create your career. Other people will look at my work, and they’ll summate my career.’ 

Read: Nicholas Denton: from Not Dark Yet to Dangerous Liaisons

And as Patiag has oft been reminded, other people’s perspectives aren’t always the most accurate or helpful. He’s frequently referred to as an ‘overnight success’, for instance, in which selective attention is given to the four large-scale projects he tackled over the last three years. Ignoring, however, the fact that Patiag has been constantly refining every aspect of his craft since graduating from the University of Sydney’s MA in Film Studies program in 2011. 

‘I remember an older writer said this [to me] once: “You have the career of a person in their 40s. That success rate of getting projects up that quickly is really rare for someone so young”. And I was like, “I have no idea what that means”.

‘I just deal with the to-do list in front of me’, Patiag says. ‘That has really helped me.’ 

Wild ride

Recently, Patiag has had the chance to take a step back and reflect on the wild ride the past few years have been. A move that’s proven equal parts transformative and enlightening. 

‘I’ve really changed my development process and my approach to business,’ he says. ‘Right now, I’m very interested in what actually fuels my passion, and what actually drives me to make work, not chase strategy.’ 

‘Every time I was ever super strategic, it never worked out. Ever. [But] every project that felt organic and just came together against all odds, those were the ones that got out.’

Tomgirl, the 2018 short film that would become his calling card, for example, started as a ten-line outline on the back of a napkin after having lunch with his now producing partner. Fortuitously, their conversation happened to take place just as Screen Australia’s Hot Shots Plus initiative opened, which, in turn, led the duo to receive a slice of Create NSW and SBS’s Generator: Emerging Filmmakers Fund

‘That was surprising. That was crazy’, Patiag admits with a smile. ‘[But] it was just kind of perfect. It was an example of where quote-unquote “diversity initiatives” can actually find and target the right people. It was just perfect.’ 

It’s worth noting here is that despite the fact emerging filmmakers are being told ‘short films are dead’ today, the medium has been – and continues to be – pivotal to the trajectory of Patiag’s career. The aforementioned Tomgirl is currently receiving a feature film adaptation, and this year’s Too Many Ethnics is serving as a proof-of-concept for a half-hour comedy series Patiag has in development too. 

‘The short films have been the best thing that’s ever happened to me’, Patiag says in response. ‘I love shorts. Shorts are powerful. Shorts are like a concentrated piece of energy that is really hard to refine … To make an impactful short requires a super high level of skill – so much more than anyone ever realises – and I think it’s the hardest thing to make as a filmmaker … Make shorts! We should be bringing them back!’

Equally evident is that Patiag is now well and truly marching to the beat of his own drum – not just in the showrunner or short film debates, but at every turn. 

‘I call myself a “brat” because I think brats are hilarious’, he says, smiling. ‘Brats just do what they want to do, right? By being a responsible brat, you weaponise your nos. You get very, very clear. You know when something isn’t right for you.

‘I’m becoming a lot more selective with what I put my energy into – what I want to spend nine months of my life doing’, Patiag continues. ‘Every project [up to now], no matter my role, I’ve always given 100% of me … Now I want to do projects that 100% are me.’

Tahlia Norrish (@tahlianorrish) is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland's School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor's Dojo — a pioneering coaching program centred on actor peak performance and holistic well-being.