When Alyx Duncan began shooting The Red House it was a documentary about the house in which Duncan had done a fair amount of her growing up. The Olds (her father Lee Stuart and stepmother Meng Jia) were moving away and considering selling the house they had occupied for many years.
Duncan’s plan was to document the disposal of the red house and its contents and to examine ideas about “home”; what it means and how much our relationship with it is tied up in physical objects.
But, as Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse instructed:
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.”
Part way through, Lee and Jia changed their plans. They decided not to sell the house and move to China, although they would spend some time in China. Duncan’s plans had to shift too, and the result is a quiet drama rather than the originally-intended documentary.
However, with the change of plan, the house wasn’t really able to remain the lead character. The focus shifted more to Lee and Jia, who became the focus of the film and actual characters with constructed character attributes and dialogue rather than background players.
At first they weren’t totally committed to the idea, and to some extent remained with a foot on either side of the fence for a lot of the process. They had a limited understanding of the filmmaking process, weren’t desperately keen to be the focus of a feature film, and were unsure whether they’d be helping or hindering Duncan’s film.
The accommodation Duncan reached with them in order to advance was the one all student filmmakers are taught never to grant their subjects, documentary or otherwise: that they would have approval of the final cut.
Three years on, when the NZIFF’s Bill Gosden told Duncan he wanted to programme the film, she had to show it to her parents and cross her fingers. That the film had its premiere last weekend is evidence they approved it.
Like many mostly self-funded projects, The Red House has been a long time coming, something which has been both a blessing and a curse. The lack of a deadline and commitment to funders enabled Duncan to change her plan when circumstances dictated and produce a different piece to that originally envisaged.
The downside, of course, is the the amount of time it takes and the amount of money it costs – especially since Duncan was paying her team for their efforts in putting the film together.
Small grants from the Screen Innovation Production Fund and Independent Film Fund covered around a third of the film’s budget of c$130,000. The NZFC kicked in a contribution towards finishing funds following the NZIFF selection.
The rest came from the Asia NZ Foundation and Duncan’s own pocket, accounting in part for the length of time from the first shoot in 2008 to completion in mid-2012.
Duncan attended the Berlinale Talent Campus’ Doc Station early on in the development of the film, and subsequently took a residency in Beijing, where the China part of The Red House was shot, at the intriguingly-titled Institute for Provocation.
The requirement of the residency was to conduct research not to produce work, but Duncan was able to conduct a lot of camera tests and help establish a different look to help distinguish the parts of the story shot in Waiheke and Beijing (not that viewers are ever in danger of confusing such diverse environments). She was also able to get an understanding of some of the practical ups and downs of filming in China.
Having begun shooting, Duncan edited along the way, initially with Paul Wedel (who also turned his hand to being 1st AD, camera assist and art department along the way). Daniel Strang did the final edit over the course of a year.
Several people had strong input developing the film. Each person’s involvement came at a different but crucial point of the film’s creation. John Downie was a provocateur and dramaturg from the time of writing the story outline during Duncan’s Masters.
Catherine Bisley had input into the story structure after the first test shoot in Beijing (during the Institute for Provocation residency). Francisco Rodriguez was an ongoing collaborator, recce-ing China locations with Duncan and being cinematographer for the main shoot of the China part of the film.
Han Niu was the film’s advising line producer. Chinese-born, NZ-educated and works in film in Beijing, with internationally-respected filmmakers including Zhang Yuan and John Woo.
The film’s individual shots are longer in duration and framed wider than is usually favoured for narrative features, even for interior shots. There’s an enormous amount of detail to absorb in the environments, especially inside the house, and time is given to allow the audience to take that journey. The pace of both the cinematography and storytelling is reminiscent of Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator.
Duncan has made a number of trips to China while making the film and since. She’ll return there shortly, working on Return to the Planet Mongo which Duncan took to Documentary Edge’s DOCLab last month.
The film’s central idea is ‘creation’. This is played out through an annual competition of animation and through the changing landscape of Guiyang as it transforms from small agricultural town to mega-city. At present, she’s in Melbourne for MIFF 37 Degrees South, where The Red House is presented in the Breakthru Screenings.