The focus of Costa Botes’ documentary Daytime Tiger is writer Michael Morrissey and the bi-polar disorder that’s affected him and those close to him for the last decade. “I didn’t want to do something to bum people out. Did it leave you feeling better or worse?” was Botes’ first question.
Morrissey and Botes go back a long way, although they’ve never been that close. Back in the mists of time, 1988, Botes’ Stalin’s Sickle, adapted from Morrissey’s story, won the jury prize at the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival.
Since then, Botes has directed and produced several other films, mostly documentaries, although he’s possibly best-known for his collaborations with friend Peter Jackson on Forgotten Silver and Making of Lord of the Rings.
In the last couple of years, he’s had other films on the festival circuit, in 2010 Candyman, which premiered at Slamdance, screened at HotDocs and won him a Director’s Choice award for Best Documentary at Rincon. He also produced two films for director Zoe McIntosh. Lost in Wonderland picked up Best Documentary and Cinematography awards at the 2010 Qantas Film & TV Awards. Short Day Trip, which Botes wrote as well as producing, screened at New York, Clermont Ferrand, and Hawaii festivals, won the Signis Award at Espression En Corto (Mexico), Best NZ Short Film at Magma and Best Actor (Tuhoe Isaac) at the Qantas Awards.
Since Stalin’s Sickle there’s been occasional contact with Morrissey, sometimes with Morrissey pitching other stories to Botes to be turned into films, but none went ahead. In 2009, Morrissey again contacted Botes to pitch the idea of Botes making a documentary about Michael. “I was very keen to say ‘No’, but he captured me,” Botes said.
The problems were obvious: films “about mental illness” don’t really get much support, from financiers or audiences. And while Botes has no illusions about the commercial prospects for Daytime Tiger, it’s not a film about metal illness.
Botes has crafted – from a couple of weeks of shooting – a dynamic two hander, interspersed with commentary from others who know Michael and his wife, Ann.
The film has received some financial support, a grant from Creative New Zealand (“the last gasp of film funding before they got out of narrative”) and, on the strength of the film’s NZFF selection, funding from the NZFC to finish the film to a good standard – a process completed a few weeks ago.
Botes described his intention as wanting “to make a film that’s emotionally involving and puts the viewer right there on the ground, like a war film.” There are no guns (just a machete), although there are battles waging constantly throughout the story. While the obvious one between Michael and his condition is ever present, the relationship between husband and wife offers as much back and forth.
Ann’s presence and participation was instrumental for the film’s ability to connect with an audience, Botes believes. “I wanted to redeem Michael, though he vexed me sorely,” Botes said, as there’s a lot to admire about his subject – not least that he’s made his living in New Zealand for decades from his creative work. But it was “impossible for an audience to identify with him and for him to capture their sympathy”.
Ann offers the route for an audience’s sympathy to find a way in.
The film was shot in two blocks, each of a week but several months apart. Botes captured about 30 hours of material which he described as “quite a lot less than normal for me”. The first block was, Botes said, “being caught up in the thick of it and hanging on,” as he became immersed in the reality of living with someone who has manic episodes and is very difficult to interview, or even hold a conversation with. He described it as “all run and gun”.
The second block was more considered. Prior to filming, Michael criticised NZ films for being too soft, and told Costa he wanted the film to be hard. “It would have been easy to make it exploitative,” Botes said, but that was never part of the plan.
Writing about the process on his website, Botes notes, “The only good thing when you’ve got nothing to lose is that compromise goes out the window and you do the work how you want to do it.”
The statement could apply equally to Morrissey and the film.
The material sat for a long time before Botes began to assemble it, partly for practical financial reasons and partly because the material was challenging. When Morrissey saw the finished film, he said afterwards, “It’s pretty hard, isn’t it?” which Botes takes as a compliment.
There is, however, a strand of black humour running through it, which Botes felt the film needed “to lubricate” the audience experience. Morrissey’s behaviour, attitude and high velocity rants don’t make comfortable viewing. “You’re insulting me because you’re saying my analysis of your stupidity is incorrect,” he offers at one point. How he makes it out of the film without his wife wrapping a frying pan round his head is a mystery.
Some of his friends and acquaintances are also less than sympathetic characters, leaving Ann almost the only sane character in the story.
In essence, the film is about the conflicts between art and life, between husbands and wives, and not so much about bipolar disorder or manic depression to give its more descriptive if currently un-PC name.
The shooting style is spare, as one would expect from a low-budget production, using natural light, but Morrissey burns bright throughout. Too bright, Ann says more than once, worried he’ll end up a pile of ash on the kitchen floor.
Given the open-ended nature of the subject matter, the question of when the story was over was tricky. “I couldn’t see the upside. I could see it ending in suicide,” Botes said, referencing a subject Morrissey himself addresses in the film.
It didn’t, and Morrissey will attend some Q&A sessions accompanying festival screenings. After seeing him in full manic flight on screen, indiscriminately eviscerating anyone and everyone within range, it will be interesting to see if anyone’s game enough to ask him anything.
To return to Botes’ original question, did it leave you feeling better or worse? Definitely better, and not just in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god way.
Daytime Tiger screens at the Academy in Auckland on Saturday 23 July (6pm, world premiere), Monday 25 (3.30pm) and Tuesday (6.15pm) and at Te Papa in Wellington Saturday 30 July and Tuesday 2 August (both at 1.30pm).