Rachel Griffiths thought she'd make a movie about models. The Oscar-nominated actress – known for her roles in Muriel's Wedding and Six Feet Under – had been trying to make a female coming-of-age film as her directorial debut for almost a decade, and saw the world of modelling as a vehicle for a "Trojan horse" story – where "you get much more than you think you're going to get".
"Joel Pearlman, who heads Village Roadshow in Australia, says, 'Look, Rach, if you're going to have a female protagonist, it just has to be someone that you root for, and no one's going to do that for a model,'" says Griffiths.
"I disagreed – but I also took it in the spirit that if you're a girl you've got to be twice as interesting, twice as smart, twice as prepared – because we're asked to root for imperfect and highly flawed men all the time."
Griffiths struggled to find financing and the project lost momentum. Then one day in 2015, at a barbecue – "I had just finished work, I was tired, I was a bit disengaged" – Griffiths went inside to watch the Melbourne Cup. Before her eyes, jockey Michelle Payne became the first woman to win in its 155-year history.
"Literally three minutes after, I called producer Richard Payten (Holding the Man, Sweet Country), and I said, 'We've got to do this'", says Griffiths.
So began Griffiths' journey with Ride Like a Girl, which tells the story of Michelle Payne's life, and how she battled sexism and personal tragedy to get to her milestone achievement.
One of 10 siblings, Payne was raised in rural Victoria by her Kiwi father, Paddy (played by Sam Neill in the film), after her mother died in a car crash when she was 6 months old.
With help from her brother Stevie, who has Down syndrome (and plays himself in the film), Michelle beat the odds to rise through the ranks of horse racing in Australia.
Michelle, played by Australian Teresa Palmer, is a driven, fiery racer, who never doubts her own potential and talent. "That's the gift but also the curse," says Griffiths, "because when you're trying to extrapolate that as a character – the elite character, who has the prize and just heads towards it – it's a bit dull. You go, 'Okay, how do we not just have that as a straight line?'
"Thankfully, her path [to winning] certainly threw in many obstacles, but the resilience is that she never doubted it."
Griffiths spoke with a number of women in the racing industry to get a sense of the sexism Michelle faced throughout her rise to the top. "It has always been a male-dominated world," she says. "The track has been the male domain, and women come and look gorgeous on race days and enjoy it.
"I hope I explored what making somebody feel they're not welcome in a workplace is about," she says. "There's the sexualisation, that you're not valid for your job… you're invisible, you're not seen as having the skills or the capacity - that's seen as the male domain - you're not strong enough."
For the role of Michelle, Griffiths never wanted anyone but Palmer. "I went to see [her in psychological thriller] Berlin Syndrome, and what I saw in that was a girl who was unbelievably physically committed and very emotionally present," says Griffiths.
"I felt that film did her a disservice, because the architecture of the journey was a mess, to be honest… I thought she did extraordinarily well to try to make a coherent emotional journey without a very strong script architecture. So I thought, imagine if she had a classic hero journey, with the goal, the obstacles, the setback, the challenge, the facing down the abyss, the gather of strength – what could she do?"
But Griffiths had to fight for Palmer's involvement. "[Palmer and Neill] are international actors, but they're not at that level that instantly triggers your finance," she says.
"Originally people were saying, it should be Emma [Watson], you know, Hermione [from the Harry Potter films] – and in my heart, I just wanted Teresa."
With Ride Like a Girl's denouement set at the Melbourne Cup, the film celebrates the milestones of Michelle and Stevie's achievements on that pivotal day. But the real-life Melbourne Cup is a more controversial affair, met with annual protests against the Cup's treatment of the horses, led by the hashtag #NuptotheCup. The Cup came under extra scrutiny last year after a horse was euthanised on the track after a fall – the sixth horse death since 2013 – with the RSPCA and PETA leading callouts for a review of safety conditions for the horses.
Griffiths didn't feel Michelle's story warranted a mention of the controversy, deeming it "irrelevant" in comparison to the feminist message she was aiming to communicate.
"To me, I just thought this was the greatest story about what it takes for a girl to realise her dreams; what it takes to have a dream. It takes resilience to overcome enormous obstacles. It takes men championing you, actually, because without the male champions for change, we are just banging our heads against closed doors.
"Those were the aspects of the story I wanted to celebrate, and I think there are so few stories that have the capacity right now to bring us together… Now, if somebody else wants to go make a vegan film about how terrible horse racing is, good luck to them. But for me, racing is this extraordinary industry where rich and poor, city and country, rural and urban, come together and coalesce around this crazy thing, which is the beauty and wonder of the horse."
Who: Rachel Griffiths
What: Ride Like a Girl
When: In cinemas October 24