Athina Tsoulis’ third feature, Stars in Her Eyes, has its world premiere screening in Auckland later this month.
It’s been a while coming through post, in part because of Tsoulis’ full-time job at Unitec, and her commitment to creating opportunities for students to be involved at every stage of Stars in Her Eyes. Sometimes the process needed to stop until it suited the students’ timetables to be part of the next stage of the process.
Other things have slowed progress, too. “We were in discussions for local distribution in 2014,” Tsoulis said, “so some aspects were held back to allow the distributor to have input, but the deal eventually went away.
“Then we plumped for self-distribution, but the NZFC changed how it was supporting self-distributed films. What could have been $25,000 of support for that became $7,000.” Following participation in a X-Media Lab, the team put together a strong transmedia campaign, but that’s had to be put aside.
Tsoulis’ 1992 short The Invisible Hand, which was selected for several international film festivals, including Clermont-Ferrand. It was bought by Canal+ and several international cable channels. It still pops up now and then and gets deals renewed.
After Stars in Her Eyes’ premiere, it will get some special screenings then head to a VOD platform – a much more 21st century form of distribution.
Tsoulis was born in Greece, and reached NZ via Australia, where there are larger Greek communities, notably in Melbourne. Stars in Her Eyes is set in Auckland’s Indian community. How did that come about?
“It started off as a Greek story,” Tsoulis said. It was based on the experiences of someone she knew. When it came to looking at it as something that would work in NZ, Tsoulis had to acknowledge that the Greek community wasn’t big enough here for people to have much of an understanding of it.
The story centres around a woman on her way to 30, who’s still a virgin and part of a community with strong moral standards about relationships. She wants to move her life on from living with her parents as the more-or-less full-time carer for her mother, who’s wheelchair-bound.
“It’s always been harder to get women’s stories over the line,” Tsoulis said. “Especially with a female creative team behind them.”
A founder of WIFT in Auckland and DEGNZ (or the Screen Director’s Guild of NZ as it was then) Tsoulis has long worked to promote the interests of and opportunities for women in the industry. She noted that the last time a woman headed up the NZFC, the agency supported fewer films with female creatives than it had previously. There’s certainly been some action around changing that in the last couple of years, and the NZFC recently presented gender stats showing female writers, directors and producers were behind more than 50% of the feature projects funded last year.
For Stars in Her Eyes Tsoulis looked around for a community that would suit and make some of the story elements (eg a 30-year old virgin) credible. The Indian community seemed a good fit and also shared some other traits common with Tsoulis’ experience, such as being an immigrant community in NZ, navigating the territory between inherited standards and beliefs, and those of the new country.
Stars in Her Eyes keeps the politics personal, dealing with such issues at a character level rather than using the characters as ciphers for broader political points. Tsoulis had worked with Indian women in the past, and had some understanding of what aspects of her script might need attention in making the story credible for Indians.
She wasn’t keen to impose her own interpretation of Indians’ attitudes, so allowed the cast input about what they found acceptable. “They related to the script, so I took their concerns on board.” Tsoulis said. “That meant making some compromises. I couldn’t always go where I wanted to go, but in spirit I got what I wanted.”
Stars in Her Eyes trailer
It wasn’t sex that was the biggest potential stumbling block, although Tsoulis did remove a scene of once of the characters using a sex toy. Religion and politics would have been much trickier territories to navigate, she was told.
Tsoulis’ previous feature I’ll Make You Happy had a cast including Jennifer Ward-Lealand,Jodie Rimmer, Michael Hurst, Rena Owen and a turn by Lucy Lawless as herself. Cameron Rhodes, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Rawiri Paratene and Sara Wiseman appeared in Tsoulis’ second feature Jinx Sister.
Among the cast for Stars in Her Eyes there aren’t many well-known names and faces, in part because NZ doesn’t have many well-known Indian actors. Colin Mathura-Jeffree is well-known, possibly better-known now than he was when Stars in Her Eyes shot.
A large part of Tsoulis’ plan for production was to give Unitec students some real-world production experience and to showcase Unitec’s capabilities as a way to attract more productions to partner with Unitec. Alex Lee, who replaced Tsoulis in the role of Head of the Performing and Screen Arts when she moved up, also wanted to create such opportunities.
It’s a regular criticism of graduates (not just those entering the screen industry) that they’re not “industry-ready”, however that’s defined. Stars in Her Eyes brought on industry HODs with students working under them. “The learning curve was steep,” Tsoulis said. “The stakes are a lot higher so the students had to step up.”
There’s a lot to learn that students don’t learn working on productions with one another – not least the heirarchy and politics of set. “They need to know they’re not going to be the director or DP immediately, and understand what that’s going to be like. They’re going to be doing the grunt work.”
Inside Track’s Chris Burt was one of the professionals helping students get a handle on what it would be like on a real production. “Chris has given years of generous support to the local industry,” Tsoulis said. “And it’s so important to have good sound.”
She admits it wasn’t all plain sailing in production, saying not everybody behaved well all the time during the shoot, which was also something good for the students to understand. “It was like life.”
Tsoulis credited DoP Rewa Harre as being very generous with the students. Harre worked on Tsoulis’ first short A Bitter Song as a camera operator, and shot Jinx Sister as her DP.
Stars in Her Eyes also names a number of heavy hitters in its ‘Thanks’ section, including Niki Caro’s editor-of-choice David Coulson, an old friend of Tsoulis’ who was recently back here in between completing Caro’s feature The Zookeeper’s Wife and Netflix series Anne. “He offered some really valuable input after the assembly edit – which is always such a horrible time,” Tsoulis said. “Sometimes it’s hard to maintain hope and enthusiasm.”
She credits working at Unitec with helping her to feel positive at such times. Students are young enough to believe that anything’s possible. Tsoulis likes to encourage such enthusiasm but, as an educator, knows its her responsibility to present students with an understanding of reality too.
The process seemed to work on Stars in Her Eyes, with several of the final year students who worked on the shoot of Stars in Her Eyes making connections with industry members who took students on to productions after they’d graduated. The Unitec post facilities have also being used by other productions since including Himiona Grace’s The Pa Boys, also shot by Harre, which did its assembly edit there.
“We take a small number of students, and many get work before they leave,” Tsoulis said. “We want to add value.”
Unitec has faced some challenges over the last year or two, as changes to structure and staffing have had an impact on some of the departments and personnel. Tsoulis believes there’s a positive result of the changes: they’ve made it easier to do more projects like Stars in Her Eyes, which used students studying a range of disciplines across a number of departments.
As well as Stars in Her Eyes and working full-time at Unitec, Tsoulis also has feature Postumous Advice from Mum in development with Alex Alexander’s Sydney-based 412, with Sydney production company, Entertainment. “He doesn’t mind raising money,” Tsoulis said. It allows her to concentrate on ‘the other stuff’, developing the script.
She doesn’t want to do any more low-budget features, figuring she’s spent enough time making the compromises having limited funds demands. She’s looking forward to discussing the compromises investors might demand instead.
Stars in Her Eyes has its world premiere at Sky City Theatre on 18 November.
Top image: Athina Tsoulis on set with Vinnay Chinni (back to camera) and Leila Alexander