Premiering in Christchurch last week, The Changeover is a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who must become a witch in order to save her little brother from an ancient spirit. The story was adapted from the book by Margaret Mahy by Stuart McKenzie, co-directed with his wife Miranda Harcourt, and produced by them with Emma Slade (Firefly Flms).
It features a high-profile cast, including Brits Timothy Spall (always referred to as Tim, even on their website) and 22-year-old Nicholas Galitzine, along with Kiwis Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless and Miranda Harcourt’s mother, Dame Kate. Thomasin McKenzie makes it a three-generation family affir.
There’s also 18-year-old Erana James, who “leads The Changeover with surprising authority” (Flicks.co.nz), and rounding out the cast is 5-year-old Benji Purchase.
A packed room enthusiastically welcomed Miranda Harcourt, McKenzie and Slade production trio for one of the most entertaining sessions at this year’s BSS.
The genesis of the film lies in Harcourt’s first job after graduating from Toi Whakaari, the NZ Drama School in Wellington, 33 years ago, when she was hired by Radio New Zealand to record an adaptation of Mahy’s newly published novel. For McKenzie, resonances also go back a very long way; he grew up in the suburb in which the novel is set, Bishopvale (renamed Gardendale by Mahy in her book).
A film version had been in their minds all these years, but someone else held the rights. McKenzie now sees that this was a good thing, as they didn’t have the resources to do the project justice until now. Eventually Mahy’s London agent told Mahy that some Kiwis were interested in making the film; Mahy knew the couple, and approved. The co-directors were keen to emphasise how important it was to have the right creative producer on the project.
A lot of research went into finding an appropriate director of photography. The video for Lorde’s hit song Royals impressed them; Andrew Stroud’s contribution to grounding the film’s story in reality became significant in achieving what Harcourt and McKenzie were after.
Although the book was published in 1984, the film is set in post-earthquake Christchurch – where the broken, damaged landscape reflects the broken, damaged central character. Despite the logical desire of the filmmakers to shoot in Christchurch, there was considerable argument over whether this was feasible. Could they afford to take everyone down there? There was the post-disaster lack of suitable accommodation. The unavoidable compromise would be a shorter shoot, fewer shoot days. But the more specific you are, in regard to things like location, the more universal you are. Their goal was always to make a film not just for Kiwis.
Support and assistance from the Christchurch City Council was invaluable, but approval from a higher authority was required when they wanted to move an existing house into the Red Zone and film it there. Fortunately, in the first decision of its kind, the government acquiesced.
From the very beginning, the filmmakers’ aim was to ground the supernatural thriller in the real world, as in Mahy’s book. For them, this was their point of difference – a sense of reality in a fantasy story. They needed to translate very ornate, literary and metaphorical language into something visually tangible. Trying to turn a great reading experience into a great watching experience meant stripping the words away.
When it came to casting, Timothy Spall was an early choice – not least because of his experience in working with children in the past. He invited the co-directors to lunch – the only problem being that he was in London and they were in New Zealand. But with the help of air points (probably garnered from Harcourt’s extensive work overseas coaching actors, for which she is world-renowned), a fresh and bouncy McKenzie and a seriously jetlagged Harcourt met Spall in a London hotel.
Spall is a talker – the lunch went three hours. Harcourt was struggling to stay awake – and the only method she could think of for doing so was to excuse herself to the restrooms every now and then, close the cubicle door, set her phone alarm for five minutes later and lie down on the floor to catnap!
Perhaps it helped that Spall had worked in New Zealand previously, and professes to feel at home here and to love the place – and, according to a Stuff interview, to love the underwear he buys at The Warehouse on each visit.
With other cast members there were also resonances that enhanced their links with the project. Melanie Lynskey first came to prominence playing a broken teenager in Heavenly Creatures, set in Christchurch. Now she was to play the mother of a broken teenager in Christchurch. Although the production searched the whole country to cast the lead role of Laura, in the end they could not go past a student in Miranda’s acting class in Wellington, Erana James.
In Spall they’d found an actor with a huge generosity of spirit, a man willing to invest a huge amount of his time and energy into building a relationship with his fellow cast members, especially young Erana, whom Spall credits with being quite marvellous.
In live theatre (in which Harcourt grew up with her parents Kate and Peter, making her acting debut at the age of two) the building of relationships between actors as well as between their characters, the necessary trust that allows actors to take risks in performance, to really fly, happens as an almost intrinsic part of the rehearsal process over weeks or months.
In filmmaking, rehearsal is extremely limited, if it exists at all. The complexities of scheduling, the out-of-order sequence of shooting, the restricted times available for actors on set, the shortness of scenes compared to the stage, all mean that the building of trusting relationships between actors needs to happen in another way. When one does spend time in script rehearsal, it is all too easy to kill a short scene through over-working it. Harcourt is convinced that taking actors to a location, allowing them to explore it, to get a feeling for it, is a much better use of time than rehearsing a script in some basement.
Many acting coaches are locked into a rigid school of thought and training (e.g. Stanislavski, the Method, Meissner) that produce a formulaic approach to the work. While basing her work on the essential process of replacing the body chemicals that produce anxiety and nervousness in performance with ones that produce confidence and adventurousness, which in filmmaking needs to be achieved in a very short space of time, Harcourt appears open to new strategies for each situation.
In The Changeover youngsters Erana James and Nicholas Galitzine, who had not previously met, were required to perform a romantic scene or two. Harcourt and McKenzie packed the duo off to Queenstown, where they performed a tandem bungee jump. They also took a flight in a hot-air balloon. Building that trust beforehand meant that while your fellow actor may not be able to save you, they will at least go through the journey with you.
Pre-shoot rehearsal was impossible with actors busy in different countries around the world. Lynskey and James spent considerable time on Skype between the USA and New Zealand, so that when they arrived on set there was already a mother-daughter kind of connection between them.
Music was a huge part of the post-production work in this film. It was Harcourt’s idea to use female vocalists (Kiwi and Icelandic) to represent the central character in her journey. But it was McKenzie who went deeply into the music during post, yielding a soundtrack that reportedly resonates deeply with the teenagers who have seen the movie so far.
Most of the people in the room were curious about the phenomenon of co-directing. On the film Desperate Remedies, Peter Wells and Stuart Main had clearly distinct roles on set – Main did all the communicating with the cast and crew, while Wells sat with the monitor the whole time. They would converse quietly after each take, before Main would give instructions for the next move.
Initially Harcourt asserted that there was no differentiation in roles in her partnership with McKenzie – they both worked with actors, they both had input into the visuals. But she did acknowledge that the crew seemed to have a need to hear just one guiding voice, which tended to be McKenzie’s.
Harcourt summed it up. “Stuart pushes the actors further than I do – he has more emotional courage than me.”
The Changeover is now in cinemas.