Miles Franklin wrote a sequel to 'My Brilliant Career' not long after it was first published in 1901 and called it 'My Career Goes Bung'. The novel was not published until 1946 and the book has never been filmed.
Director Gillian Armstrong once said of this film's source novel and the film: "I thought it was a pretty amazing book, especially for its time. At that time [in the mid 1970s], I was ready to work on the film version in any capacity. I never thought I would be asked to direct".
Publicity for this film stated that producer Margaret Fink and director Gillian Armstrong both felt that this film should be directed by a woman, "...especially since Miles Franklin was such a strong feminist. Miles believed in women doing things on their own, and I always felt she would prefer a woman to make her story."
Because of the literary controversy that surrounded the publication of the novel 'My Brilliant Career', authoress Miles Franklin, whose family and friends had become upset over this, would not allow the book to be republished until ten years after her death. As such, the novel could not be re-published until 1965. Franklin died on 19 September 1954. As such, in 1965, the book became available again to a new generation and this is when producer Margaret Fink, who was a designer in Sydney at the time, first saw it.
Actress Judy Davis performed a rare feat for this film when she won at the British Academy Awards two BAFTAs for her one film role in this film. Davis won both the BAFTA Film Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Film Award for Most Outstanding Newcomer to Leading Film Roles.
Judy Davis almost won the Cannes Best Actress Award for this film and only lost that award by only one vote. Davis also won two BAFTA Awards in the same year which were in relation to this film, one of them being for Best Actress. However, despite all this, Davis still didn't win her home country Best Actress Award at the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, that gong went to Michele Fawdon for Cathy's Child (1979).
Anna Senior's costume design of Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis)'s dress was inspired and influenced by a painting of artist Tom Roberts which can be seen in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
According to director Gillian Armstrong on the audio commentary, cinematographer Don McAlpine at the start of production maintained that this film had the highest ever budget for an Australian feature film directed by a first-time director [at least up until that time].
The poem Sybilla quotes when in the rowboat ("...and I mark how the dark green gum trees match / the bright blue vault of the sky") is by Henry Lawson (b. 1867, d. 1922). He would have been of relatively recent fame at the time the story was set; Sybilla was up on her modern Australian poets.
This film was Australia's official entry for the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 and was selected for competition. The film was actually the second of three consecutive Australian films selected in competition at Cannes. The first was The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) and the third was Breaker Morant (1980).
This film is one of three 1979 Australian films starring New Zealand actor Sam Neill. The others were the short feature Just Out of Reach (1979) and The Journalist (1979). These three films represent Neill's first Australian film work.
A number of women featured as production crew on this film but producer Margaret Fink once said that the crew were not chosen because of their gender, "Everyone was chosen because he or she is among the best in Australia. Actually, I think The Night, the Prowler (1978) had more women in their crew than we did."
Judy Davis replaced another actress who was originally cast in the lead role of Sybylla Melvyn. Reportedly, the other actress, a graduate of the National Institute for Dramatic Arts (NIDA), was financially compensated for losing the role. Reportedly, prior to this, Actors Equity in Australia had threatened to post a "black ban" on this film's production due to this dispute.
When Miles Franklin's novel 'My Brilliant Career' was republished in 1965, Margaret Fink saw it as potential film material. Fink once said: "Despite the fact that it was written so long ago, I found it such a refreshing book, and so contemporary".
Between 1965 and 1979, this film took producer Margaret Fink about fourteen years to get made from original conception to release. Real development on this picture started around 1975, ten years after Fink discovered the novel.
This film was nominated for 11 Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (three), and Best Supporting Actor. The film won six AFI Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design. The film won no AFI awards for acting, all five misses being in acting categories.
An Actor's Equity dispute arose over the casting of a British actor to play the part of Frank Hawdon. It was stated that a work permit would not be granted. Then, Australian actor Robert Grubb was cast in the role.
There were concerns and resistance to this film during development as it was felt that the film may be too similar to the then recent Australian women-centered period film The Getting of Wisdom (1978).
Though actress Judy Davis did not win the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Actress for this film to which her performance had been internationally acclaimed, Davis did win an AFI Best Actress Award for another Gillian Armstrong film, High Tide (1987).
Problems with the financing of this picture meant that production of this film slowed and was delayed. According to director Gillian Armstrong on the audio-commentary, Armstrong was offered another film, a contemporary set movie produced by Errol Sullivan, to direct during this period. Armstrong decided to take a risk and stay with this project which she had a lot of passion for. The only contemporary feature film produced by Sullivan in 1979 was Cathy's Child (1979). Ironically, it was that picture which won the Australian Film Institute (AFI) Award for Best Actress (Michele Fawdon) beating Judy Davis for her internationally acclaimed performance in this film.
During production this movie went over budget due art department over-runs. As such, the opening scenes in a dust storm had to be re-thought and filmed more economically without the same production values as originally intended. D.O.P. Donald McAlpine conceived the workaround solutions for these sequences to be filmed at leas cost.