Max Currie’s Escalator feature Everything We Loved continues a NZ arthouse tradition of dark deeds, dysfunctional families and deft touches, with some twists, turns and a little sleight of hand in its box of tricks.
Everything We Loved (EWL) first saw the light of day in Palm Springs back in January and thus became the first NZ feature to receive a festival premiere in 2014. Since then it’s played a half dozen overseas festivals before coming home.
During those intervening months, it’s fair to say that much of the media attention has been lavished on What We Do in the Shadows and Housebound. It’s also fair to say that it’s a lot to easier to generate media interest in a comedy (who doesn’t like a good laugh?) than in an arthouse drama – especially one where it’s best not to say too much about the storyline. In that, it’s rather like Toa Fraser’s Dean Spanley – although that film could play the marketing game off the status of its cast.
How much difference all the online noise generated by the many genre websites will make – especially to New Zealand audiences – is unclear. But, as Ant Timpson tweeted earlier this week:
— Ant Timpson (@Timpson) July 23, 2014
A rising tide lifts all boats, so – hopefully – the good word and attentions lavished on What We Do, Housebound and Dark Horse will encourage the great unwashed to dig a little deeper into this year’s crop of homegrown features.
Currie reckons that the audience for EWL probably skews older than that for What We Do and Housebound, is maybe 45+, and possibly leans more towards provincial rather than metropolitan, since the sticks doesn’t always get as much choice when it comes to arthouse films.
All of which makes the release strategy announced last month a really interesting gamble. The NZIFF premiere and VOD release will go day and date on Monday, actually minute by minute so long as the tech performs as advertised.
However, that 45+ provincial audience is more used to going to a cinema than experimenting with a live stream – especially one hosted on an industry website rather than consumer site like YouTube.
Currie and EWL producer Tom Hern are spending the days leading up to the premiere hitting the phones and calling every local rag and radio station they can find to promote not just the film but to explain its innovative release plan in as simple, user-friendly terms as possible (see video).
Hern is hardly a stranger to taking risks on releases, having been the producer behind James Napier Robertson’s independently-funded I’m Not Harry Jenson. That didn’t perform as well as hoped on its initial release, but it did put the team on people’s radars and was an important step on the path that’s led them to making the opener for this year’s NZIFF, Dark Horse.
Dark Horse has considerable local and international star-power in Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and a decent-sized marketing budget. EWL doesn’t. So, a willingness to take risks, to “bet the farm” as Currie puts it, underpins the release plan – just as it’s been at the heart of the film’s subject matter and production process.
Following perceived wisdom, there were decisions along the way that tick off the Rough Guide low-budget feature recommendations. EWL uses, predominantly, a single location and a small cast whose performances carry the film. That sentence could also have described fellow Escalator travellers Fantail, Housebound and Orphans & Kingdoms.
Like Orphans & Kingdoms, EWL was written specifically to meet the criteria of Escalator, Currie having had a stab at the scheme with other projects in its first year, with Carthew Neal as his producer.
EWL also ticks the box that a disproportionate number of first features by NZ directors do, telling a story that relies heavily on children. To make things more difficult EWL’s child actor, Ben Clarkson as Tommy, was required in almost every scene and, just to really make things more difficult, he was five.
So, the story required an actor who wasn’t old enough to have any real sense of responsibility, had a very limited understanding of the concept of greater good, and who might just have got out of bed one day and decided he’d had enough of being in a movie. How do you mitigate those risks?
“Lego,” says Currie.
He outlines a reward scheme that encompasses bribery, a lot of stars, packets of bricks, a trampoline, and absolute observance of (what was then) the guiding document on shooting with kids, the Pink Book. A six hour day, door to door.
It might have been a bit easier if Clarkson hadn’t lived in central Auckland and that all-important single location hadn’t been in Kumeu. It might also have been easier if the production had cast twins. But … best kid for the role, best location for the shoot: which do you drop?
Currie has nothing but praise for producers Tom Hern and Luke Robinson for making the five-week shoot work well around the demands of having a child at its centre.
Even so, what if the toys had come flying out of the cot and couldn’t be retrieved?
Currie shot the film chronologically, and the production team had “a crazy fallback plan where we’d shoot whatever was remaining from Tommy’s POV”.
Happily, that stylistic jump didn’t need to be accommodated and – although Clarkson is still too young to understand it’s a pretty big deal – the Hollywood Reporter called him “a natural child actor who makes Tommy’s initial confusion, his natural curiosity and desire for stability and love at any cost all come alive.”
The review, from a market screening at the Berlinale, assessed the film more broadly as “high-end drama that convinces on an emotional level”.
The production shot a two week block and then took a break, which Currie reckoned was invaluable as a first feature director. It gave time for everyone to regroup.
Clarkson wasn’t the only kid affected by the production. The adult leads, Brett Stewart (Perfect Creature, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives) and Sia Trokenheim (The Dark Horse, Step Dave, Shortland Street) had had babies (separately) shortly before shooting commenced.
Currie found the hiatus great for nailing the look and tone of the film with cinematographer Dave Garbett. Even though the pair had worked together previously and discussed EWL considerably before shooting, there were what Currie described as “a lot of subtle adjustments” made when the second block of shooting began, all stemming from the opportunity to look at the results of the first fortnight’s work.
EWL, like most other low-budget productions, had a real focus of squeezing value out of every dollar and – whenever possible – squeezing that value on to the screen.
“You build a village around these low budget productions,” Currie believes, with everyone giving more than is asked to nurture their to grow into fully-formed things.
There’s always an attempt to make things look bigger than they are, Currie explains. In EWL there’s a scene in a theatre with Stewart and Trokenheim performing their magic show. Before the show opens, they peer out through the curtains to assess the size of the audience.
“That’s what a full house looks like,” says Trokenheim’s character.
“And,” says Currie, “if the curtain had moved a couple of millimetres to either side, there were rows and rows of empty seats.”
That, however, was the only sleight of camera in the film’s magic show. The rest of the tricks and illusions were performed without the aid of an editing suite.
It was on those shoots away from the primary location Currie particularly appreciated the very practical benefit of the speed at which cinematographer Garret and producer Robinson could get shots set up, ascribing that talent to their combined years of working on TV shows. In a less practical sense, but equally important in achieving his vision for the film, Currie also benefitted from his decision to bring on composer Tim Prebble early in the project’s development.
If those aspects of the production had worked well and would be approaches Currie would employ again, what would he do differently second time around?
He’d like to be able to work with a storyboard artist to be able to have a slightly clearer plan. He’d also like to use his better understanding of the camera – the different lenses, shooting angles, movement – to push his ability to use the images to their full potential.
Where might that happen?
Unlike many of the local films screening in this year’s NZIFF, EWL wasn’t rushing to deliver its DCP. It was finished in the middle of last year. Since then, during its months on the international festival circuit this year since its Palm Springs premiere, Currie has been advancing other feature projects.
One is a US-set story, centred around a high school football team, which is at treatment stage. Currie has also had some interest in Actress Wanted, one of the ideas he pitched unsuccessfully in the first year of Escalator. (EWL was funded in the second year – then travelling as Stealing Tommy – along with Curtis Vowell’s Fantail and Yukfoo’s Shirley and the Hungary Bear.)
Another project is a proposed NZ-Germany co-production, Life in Subtitles which Currie is presently scripting – when he’s not on the phone schmoozing provincial media for EWL’s release.
Having attended Berlinale Talents (fka Berlinale Talent Campus) earlier this year Currie shot a 4-minute teaser for the project in the city in May. The teaser featured German actress Odine Johne and NZ actor Tama Jarman. Johne was recently a lead in Lennart Ruff’s Nocebo, which last month won this year’s Best Foreign Film gong at the Student Academy Awards.
Even if the Academy Award has nothing to do with Currie, the additional profile an Academy Award brings doesn’t hurt when trying to attract the attention of potential partners and funders to Life in Subtitles.
It somewhat mirrors what’s happened here with EWL. Since the completion of the feature last year, Trokenheim’s star has risen considerably as a result of her lead role on South Pacific Pictures show Step Dave (on which Currie was also a writer).
Hopefully, Trokenheim’s now more familiar face will also help drive audiences to EWL, whether they’re festival goers or VOD viewers.
Everything We Loved trailer
Everything We Loved premieres simultaneously in the NZIFF and on the NZFC’s FOD service as a Premiere At Your Place FOD tickets here at 8.15pm on Monday 28. For anyone not attending a NZIFF screening, the NZ Herald will stream the premiere here, obviously excluding the film screening but including the post-screening Q&A.