One of two NZ films at this year’s Doc Edge festival focused on the creative process, Leonie Reynold’s first feature length documentary takes a soup-to-nuts observational approach to the mounting of a 2009 theatre production by Wellington playwright and performer Jo Randerson, Good Night – The End.
The story is a straightforward one, with the subject matter determining its arc from the outset. The suspense is in awaiting the eventual performance and the audience’s response to the piece of theatre being created: will it draw brickbats or bouquets?
For those not familiar with Randerson’s work, she’s firmly at the arthouse or experimental (as it was known in the 70s) and of the theatre spectrum, regularly described as quirky, cult, and other words that clue you to the fact that she views, and presents, the world from a slightly different perspective to most.
“Imagine an episode of The Office written by Beckett or Kafka,” says one review.
Before deciding to approach Randerson, Reynolds had known Randerson’s work, both her theatre and writing, over a period of time and they’d met and chatted briefly a couple of times at arts events.
Formerly a storyliner for Shortland Street, Reynolds has long been interested in exploring the creative process. Having made some short documentaries, mostly talking-head style, she was seeking an opportunity to extend herself on a longer-form doco project.
Hearing on the grapevine that Randerson was writing a play seemed to create that opportunity, so Reynolds approached Randerson about following the journey of the production. And, obviously, she agreed. After due consideration.
Opening with a recap of the story before the camera turned up, Randerson immediately becomes an endearing subject, explaining the genesis of the play thus: “I’d been thinking about these three grim reapers in a kitchenette.”
With Randerson nearing the conclusion of the writing process and the beginning of the funding application process when shooting began, the timing worked well to capture the key moments along the journey.
An amusing coda to the scene at Creative NZ, presenting the applications for the latest funding round, reminds why so many arts practitioners feel there’s a considerable amount of luck involved in the process of receiving or being denied state assistance.
While Randerson required funding to mount the production of Good Night – The End, Reynolds decided to fund the documentary herself rather than put energy into the “debilitating process” of funding applications.
From Randerson’s funding application, the documentary’s progress mirrors the production familiar to many – to funding decisions, meetings with cast and director, eventually rehearsals and the production process … and to the opening night.
Along the way there were some meetings and rehearsals Reynolds wasn’t invited to film, but she captured 120 hours of material over a 9-month period. She had hoped to blend into the background as much as possible and worked solo during the shooting, although hoiking round a Sony HVRV1P and separate radio mikes didn’t always make being a proverbial fly-on-the-wall approach possible – especially when the subjects are good-hearted people and turn around mid-shot to offer coffee to the camera operator.
Despite the shape of the film perhaps being obvious from the outset, Reynolds resisted the temptation to edit (however roughly) during the protracted shoot. The 120 hours took some time just to wade through before starting to assemble the film.
Over two years on and having been through a number of iterations, the film is finally complete. Its first Auckland screening at Doc Edge will be its world premiere, with Reynolds in attendance to introduce and do a Q&A following the screening.
Randerson has seen the film, although she hasn’t shared much of her response yet. She might be present for Wellington screenings, all of which are followed by Q&A sessions.
If the film has a weakness it’s that Reynolds is close to her main subject, describing herself as a fan of Randerson’s work. Disappear in Light offers limited evidence of the conflicts that occur naturally during a creative process, or even as a response to a tiring production week before opening night. It’s not that one suspects the subjects are unpleasant people, but the process of creation and successful drama of any form rely to some degree on conflict.
That shouldn’t deter viewers, though, as the film has much to offer – not least, for the uninitiated, an introduction to the personality and imagination of Randerson.
Disappear in Light screens in the Doc Edge Festival in Auckland on Monday 30 April (8.30pm, Event, Newmarket with Q&A with director Leonie Reynolds); Wednesday 9 May (1pm, Event, Newmarket); and Friday 11 May (2pm, Auckland Art Gallery).
It screens in Wellington on Monday 21 May (9pm, Angelika, Reading Cinemas Courtenay); Wednesday 30 May (1pm, Angelika, Reading Cinemas Courtenay); and Friday 1 June (2pm, City Gallery). All Wellington screenings are followed by a Q&A session with director Reynolds.