Gardening with Soul director Jess Feast moderated a session with The Ground We Won’s Chris Pryor and Miriam Smith on the journey to and through Reporoa.
Was the central idea for The Ground We Won in place before the process began?
“From the very beginning we had clear key questions and themes which we wanted to explore within rugby culture – structured over the course of a rugby season,” explained Pryor. Exactly how those themes and the narrative would develop in reality was unclear at the outset. Nothing was ever going to be scripted, constructed or pre-determined.
Director/cinematographer Chris Pryor described the central premise as unformed, but said they knew it would be about rugby culture. “That’s something I have avoided all my life, for reasons many of which can be seen in the film! I don’t get it, but there must be something of value in it. So let’s go and see what it is.”
The wider questions could be framed as: What is behind the hard man culture? Or, How do we prove ourselves to be men?
However, The Ground We Won’s narrative arc did not become clear until Pryor and Smith were shooting the film.
“It wasn’t until the rough cut stage of the edit that we worked with story consultant Julie Alp to help bring an added degree of rigour to the story telling. We would also get new people/‘fresh eyes’ to watch each draft of the edit.”
The first big problem was to find the right rugby club, with the right people – one with a good feeling within. As it turned out, the first club they asked was willing: Reporoa, a farming community just off State Highway 5, roughly halfway between Rotorua and Taupo.
The framework would be the rugby season. Once in Reporoa, they knew almost immediately who their three main characters would be.
Feast asked about the way the filmmakers had placed themselves within the community – and how that had come about. Pryor said, “Nothing can compensate for spending time with people. We learned that from How Far Is Heaven.”
It was all about developing trust – but it was also important to establish boundaries. “You have to be clear about why you are there.”
At the beginning, you can tell people what do you are planning to do, what is involved, but they never really understand. Later, the locals would ask “Where’s the crew?” They were underwhelmed – which helped!
The filmmakers would try to see things from the perspective of the subjects. They saw the pressures and the long, hard hours of farm work – they saw why farmers need the eruption of the game and to get drunk afterwards on a Saturday night. They saw the way the locals would suppress the pressure and their worries in their lives – such things are never talked about. And they learned a lot about farming. “I was shocked, as a townie, how ignorant I was,” admitted Pryor.
Moving on to the practicalities of shooting, Pryor explained that sometimes you had to push to get the moment you need. But oftentimes you should pull out, pull back, respect the subjects and show that you’re looking after them.
At the rugby club bar one night, there was talk of the drought. Pryor was running a single on one guy, when someone off-camera said, “How many more suicides before they declared drought relief?”
Pryor knew he had to resist the temptation to swing the camera around onto the off-camera guy, because that would make him self-conscious and clam up. As it turned out, the on-camera guy’s non-reaction said just as much.
In that vein, Smith added that it’s a great privilege to record people’s lives. “We would tell them: just say later if you are unhappy with something, and it won’t be in the film.”
When it came to shooting style, Feast asked about the link between the narrative and the visual. Pryor explained that they tried to bring the same visual language as they would to a drama – put the camera in this position, use this size of lens, for these reasons… In particular, take time for consideration. Pryor was always thinking of how the shots would cut together as the shooting choices were made.
When it came to assembling the film, they were aware of the sacred in their story as well as the profane – and they knew they wanted to use music to help reveal the sacred, and to bring out the tenderness that does exist in the rugby players’ world. They sent composer David Long scenes as they were putting them together; he sent back ideas which had an impact on further editing.
When it came to holding a preview screening for the locals, the filmmakers were terrified. Smith said, “When you show your film to others, it’s an emotional rollercoaster!” to which Pryor added, “It’s a cross between adrenaline and endurance.”
But the Reporoa people loved it; they felt it was a balanced reflection of their lives. “If you show people as they are, and you are not seen as manipulating, then they accept it.”
The character in the film named Danny said, “It’s so right to shoot in black and white, because it reflects our traditions.”
In an interview accompanying the premiere, Pryor also spoke about the decision to go for black and white.
When it came to distribution and finding an audience, they were aware that this type of film is always an arthouse one – and for that audience, for townies, you lean on reviews. But they also wanted to reach rural rugby people – and you need to be completely truthful for them. They used radio to reach that population segment because “rural people listen to the radio lots”.
They couldn’t premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival in July/August then release in September (as they had done with How Far Is Heaven), because that would mean running into calving time, when farmers are at work literally 24/7. Farmers would never leave home to see a movie at that time.
NZIFF director Bill Gosden helped out by premiering the film in NZIFF’s Autumn Events. the Reporoa people came up to Auckland and were warmly welcomed in the Big Smoke.
The film has travelled well since – when they screened in Locarno in Switzerland, the reaction was such that it could’ve been a cinema anywhere in New Zealand.
The Ground We Won has its disc and digital release on 18 November.