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Finding Penny Black

This weekend Joe Hitchcock’s Penny Black has its world premiere at the inaugural edition of the Arohanui Film Festival. Just like the road movie it is, the journey to release has taken a while to complete. SCREENZ asked Hitchcock to catch us up.

SCREENZ: You shot Penny Black in 2012, so take us back to when the idea emerged
Joe Hitchcock: As a musician in the early 2000s I toured New Zealand through the punk scene. This was the place to find political activists, dumpster divers, obscene drunks and punks who hate fashion, yet stud their own jackets and spend an hour spiking their mohawk every day.

I loved the philosophical aspects of the subversive scene and always wanted to put this youth culture into a film. Years later I caught up with Producer Fiona Jackson in Hamilton. She was looking for a film to write and I pitched vague scenarios for a French New Wave inspired road trip, which started the ball rolling…

We started script-writing and pre-production at the same time with a shoot deadline one year away. We didn’t want to make a film that was a political rant, so we created a narcissistic protagonist that the Instagram generation could relate to, and developed a story quite far removed from the culture I described above, but retaining some scenarios and themes.

Fiona did much more script writing than me. She would always write the dialogue – then I would try direct the scene without it. The result is an unusual combination of serious dramatic scenes with comic visual gags. It’s definitely a unique film that will appeal to people who are bored of Hollywood films and want to see something different.

How did you finance the shoot?
As a freelance director of photography I had enough technical equipment to shoot the film, but we also received grants from WINTEC, Hamilton City Council, successfully crowdfunded through Pledgeme to hire a Steadicam. We had awesome kai sponsored by Burger Fuel, Hell Pizza and Phoenix Organics; but the generosity and tenacity of our cast and crew is really what made the film possible. 

I like to bombard crew with information as soon as possible so more important questions can be asked closer to the shoot. Makeup artist Tanya Barlow was invaluable in the script writing stage. Once she got the story she was full of visual ideas for Penny’s looks and understood our budget and tight schedule before the script was properly finished. On the shoot Tanya somehow transformed Penny Black into a cat using her hair as pointy ears, but she also looked after our actors in the cold weather. We definitely need crew like that to make a small film like this work. 

When we started casting I thought we’d made the same mistake I’ve seen so often in low budget films; that the success of the script relied completely on charismatic actors who could consistently deliver great performances through a challenging two week road trip in the middle of winter. Then we saw Astra McLaren and Anton Tennet work together and thought… “Okay, they’re amazing. That’s great. This will work. Now we can focus on pre-production.”

I trained our camera operator Moehau Hodges-Tai on how to use a Steadicam before production, and he’s since gone on to shoot lots of great stuff. We also had music composed before the shoot so our actors could sing along to it. Most of the directing decisions were made in pre-production because we didn’t have the budget to change things when we were on the road.


Cast and crew watching rushes in Taupo

It’s been 3 years or so since the end of the shoot…
Haha, yes. I had to keep telling myself the film was almost finished or I’m not sure I could have completed it.  

Our initial rough cut was finished within a couple of months, so it seemed like all we needed was a little post production finishing grant and a post production house could finish the job. However by this stage I had taken months off work, accumulated a fair amount of debt and had some catching up to do financially. 

To save time and money in production we didn’t use a slate or mark takes, so I synched sound visually for every shot. We had a handful of designers and VFX artists who helped us with the difficult shots, but largely we had to do everything ourselves – which I thought would be quick but took about 2 years. 

I eventually found a productive routine where I worked for 2.5 hours a day from 1am to 3.30am, which is a great time to work with no distractions, and was enough to keep things ticking over while allowing me to go to work during the day. However, I’m really grateful that our DOP Ben Woollen came back 2 years later to speed things up with the colour grade! 

We also made a 14 minute superhero parody called Lapwing to feature in Penny Black. Lapwing premiered in USA this year and has so far screened in 11 international film festivals and comic conventions, hopefully paving the way for Penny Black to follow. 

What were the high (and low) points along the way
I’ve seen a lot of low budget films fail and many people doubted the shoot could work the way we were doing it, so I cynically had to keep reassuring myself “it’s still good, it’s still good”, but by the end of the first week I realised I was really happy with the film and everything was working out fine. We screened rushes to cast and crew every night where ever we were staying and that was really the highlight to me, to show everyone that their hard work was paying off on screen. 

I sent a lot of unusual references to composer Jeremy Mayall, and he suggested we score the film with some of New Zealand’s best musicians improvising one scene at a time, and that was the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in film making. Watching the film on a big screen while 6 composers (The Scorelocks Collective) created the original score live was surreal. Particularly because the musicians didn’t know what would happen in the following scene and they would speculate where the story is going between tracks. This means the music always reflects the current moment in time rather than pre-empting change, which I think is great. 


Taupo Picnic (from left): makeup artist Tanya Barlow, cast members Anton Tennet, Toni Garson, Astra McLaren and director Joe Hitchcock

What’s been paying the bills to enable you to complete the film?
I’ve been saving my film industry favours for years now, though they burned out pretty quickly on this project. I used to work on big budget films until I had kids, then I started freelancing in cinematography and more recently jumped to directing. 

If you could wind back the clock, what would you do differently?
I would shoot the film even cheaper and throw most of the budget into post-production, distribution and marketing. I got so caught up in making the film look and sound great that we don’t really have budget left to tell the public about it, and there’s not much point making a film unless you can get an audience to see it. 

I made this film because it’s something unique that I’ve always wanted to see on a big screen, I think that’s the best motivator you can have to make a film and I’m looking forward to releasing the film this weekend! 

When did you complete it?
Tuesday! We had our cast and crew screening a few weeks ago which was great, but I noticed a few VFX issues which I’ve since corrected and our final render was just sent to the Arohanui Film Festival.  

What’s the next stop after Arohanui?
We’re currently booking cinemas for an NZ tour in February 2016, so far we have 21 cinemas confirmed from Russell to Stewart Island! We’re also planning DVD and VOD release but can’t confirm details yet.

The Original Score album will be released online very soon followed by a limited edition Vinyl release.

Joe Hitchcock’s Penny Black

Funded or not, film is a labour of love. Who deserves a special shout-out?
My wife and mentor Marama, for listening to my technical shit and always giving me an honest opinion. Everyone that supported us from the beginning, especially our Pledgeme backers! 


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