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BSS 2014: Fresh Voices sing out

Asked only to talk about their most recent film through the filter of voice, each of the panel was also confined to roughly six minutes to speak. It led to a succinct, intelligent and heartfelt kick-off to the event.


Producer and director Tainui Stephens (River Queen, Rain Of The Children, The Deadlands) wrangled, introducing the session with his own thoughts on this year’s BSS theme, The Power of Voice. He summed up the whole business very neatly with “Unless we listen, unless we feel, we have nothing to say.”

Up first from the panel was Rene Naufahu, well-known as an actor (Shortland Street, Mataku, Power Rangers and lots of work across the ditch), less so as a writer and director on TVNZ’s The Market, and presently for his in-cinemas The Last Saint.

For those who hadn’t seen the film, he explained it was about the scourge of P but, for the filmmakers, that P meant pride, passion, performance.

As for the meaning of VOICE, he suggested:
Vehicle for showing off talent, and “also for our vehicle budget, of which we had none, so we used out own.” It was, he said, the only production he’d ever worked on where you had to check if you’d taken the shotgun and six kg of fake meth-amphetamine out of the car before taking the kids to school.
Owen Glenn, businessman and philanthropist, who turned the production down for support. But at least we got to sit down with him, which was more than with some other people we approached.
Inspiration … Stallone, Waititi, Fraser, the NZFC. Sometimes, Naufahu said, “I had to make this film for the love and respect, and sometimes I had to do it to prove these fuckers wrong.
Coconut. Hard, tough, brown on the outside. Sweet and nutritious inside. Sometimes a derogatory term, “but one we’ve claimed back”.
Ecstasy, “which I’d have made more money if I’d spent five years selling rather than making The Last Saint. Naufahu wanted to make a film but was challenged, derided, humiliated (“and that was just my wife”) but, ultimately, he was celebrated and proud.

Up next was Gerard Johnstone, writer and director of Housebound, which has just passed $250,000 at the box office, is on an absolute roll on the international festival circuit, and on Thursday night won Johnstone the New Writer gong at SWANZ.

“I’m assuming from the box office reports that most of you haven’t seen Housebound,” he began, before explaining he wanted to make the film because it was “the sort of film I’d never get to see unless I made it myself.”

“We’re not saving lives,” was a piece of career advice Johnstone got – and hated – early on in his career. His belated riposte was “No. We’re not. We’re distracting people from death.”

Visiting a friend who was in hospital with a collapsed lung, Johnstone was struck by the lack of joy there, and the lack of effort being put into creating any joy, he took his friend a spare TV, borrowed from the production company where he was working.

“What’s the point of waking up after a triple bypass if you cant turn on the TV and watch something good?” he wondered.

Sophie Henderson is better known as an actor, with appearances in Brokenwood Mysteries, Underbelly, Auckland Daze and Outrageous Fortune among many others.

Fantail, which she wrote and played the lead in, premiered in last year’s NZIFF, and has recently completed its NZ theatrical run and taken a People’s Choice award at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

When she went to drama school her teachers were very concerned that she should lose her high-pitched voice, she claimed, which wasn’t something she was keen on doing.

“The only thing that makes my voice original is that it’s mine,” she said. “My stories and characters are personal. They come from me even if they’re not about me.”

Henderson spoke about the pleasure in finding a voice, of understanding it, of nurturing it and not crushing it. “My voice got deeper, naturally, because I’m getting older. I hope my storytelling will grow in the same way.”

Introducing the next speaker, Stephens’ slip of the tongue called James Napier Robertson’s first feature I’m Not Happy Jenson.

“Maybe people would remember the title if I’d called it that,” said Robertson.

His present feature, The Dark Horse, opened this year’s NZIFF, screened in Toronto earlier this month and has taken over $1.8 million on NZ screens. It’s not going to be forgotten any time soon.

Robertson quoted Alfonso Cuaron as saying that filmmaking was like trying to sing a song in the shower while 100 people around you sang a different song.

Finding and then protecting or preserving a voice was difficult, he reckoned.

For The Dark Horse he said, “I knew what connected with me about the story. I wasn’t so interested in the sports movie element and never wanted to end the film at the tournament. I wanted to go past the point of that happy ending to where it got messy again.”

But, he noted, there were a lot of people who wanted to make their money back.

He knew, he claimed, that he would walk away if pushed into making a more commercial vehicle. It was important to be at peace with the idea that this could be the last thing you make. If it is, you want it to be exactly what you wanted it to be.

That knowledge, he reckoned, will save you when you’re in post, at your most tired and weakest and have seen the film a thousand times and there’s pressure to change it. Having the strength to hold on to your vision, your voice, at that point is what will create beautiful films.

“The four voices we’ve heard from could be considered our ‘fresh voices’,” suggested Stephens before Toa Fraser took the mike. “Toa,” Stephens said, “considers things afresh.”

The day before the BSS session, Fraser’s The Dead Lands had become the third NZ submission for Foreign Language Oscar in four years. Whether it will go any further, who knows.

“The Cool Runnings of the Oscars” was how Fraser described it.

“Filmmaking is a paradoxical place to explore voice,” Fraser claimed. “It’s singular and collaborative simultaneously. The job is to stand in the middle of a bunch of people who have skills.”

Fraser certainly has skills with four features now under his belt. Three have been presented at Toronto, three have been made with producer Matthew Metcalfe, who himself presented a session on Finance at the BSS on Sunday.

All five panel members had different takes on ‘voice’, if not on its importance. Having diverse voices out there is important, as Script to Screen’s Esther Cahill-Chiaroni observed in her opening address. On Sunday, NZFC CEO Dave Gibson also made the same point in his presentation, spelling out some of the specific diversity the NZFC was hoping to find.

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