Although the focus of the evening was billed as the producer-director relationship, the discussion ranged pretty widely and loosely around the topic. Apart from forays into Tamahori’s experiences in Hollywood and Europe, the conversation focused on the two projects that Scholes and Tamahori have created together – Once Were Warriors and in-post The Patriarch.
DEGNZ Executive Director Tui Ruwhiu began by asking Lee Tamahori about what motivated him to become a feature film director. “I was lucky enough to be around when nobody knew anything! You could call yourself anything you liked and be that person.”
Tamahori approached Don Reynolds for a job, having heard of Reynolds’ need for a boom operator. “Do you know what that is?”
The thought in Tamahori’s mind was “Someone who exploded things”.
Tamahori never intended to become a director. But he did take advantage of the opportunity available in New Zealand to jump around the crew from job to job.
The next major turn in his career path was equally unexpected when Geoff Murphy suggested that Tamahori would make a good assistant director “on this Maori film I am making.”
As many a first assistant director would attest, having to mentor and guide many inexperienced directors along the way, Tamahori’s feeling that he could do a better job of that role than many he worked with was perhaps not surprising. He had firsted for many directors – some who knew what they were doing, and some who didn’t. “You learn more from the ones who don’t.”
At that time the clearest way into directing was through television commercials. Tamahori formed Flying Fish with Brian Kassler, and award-winning success followed. Tamahori believes in the craft and excellence. The best way to achieve these? “Commercials are the best directing school in the world – I still maintain that.”
At a certain point Tamahori found himself ranting about how the industry was marking time – it should be making tougher films, more hard-edged stuff.
At that time Robin Scholes was working at Communicado, where the company philosophy was “Make money and have fun”, or perhaps rather, “Have fun and make money”. She came to Tamahori saying she had the rights to Alan Duff’s book Once Were Warriors. Tamahori had read the book – and told her it was unfilmable. But Scholes had a strong passion for the book and was convinced that Tamahori was the right choice for director because of his reputation on commercials for working well with actors, and because “Lee has a great sense of story”. For Scholes, the relationship between a producer and director is based on a huge respect for what the director does.
It was the first feature for three key people – producer Scholes, director Tamahori, and writer Riwia Brown. Initially Alan Duff had been enlisted to write a screenplay from his novel but, said Tamahori, it was no good. A big problem in creating the screenplay was that the male character of Jake, from whose point of view the book is written, is extremely unsympathetic, unlikeable – and the female characters are all simply ancillary.
Tamahori, while a self-confessed great lover of social realism from around the world, felt the need to “dress this book up into something people will want to go and see”. To his mind, the only way to do this was to go into the women’s perspective, which Duff was unable or unwilling to do. Tamahori says he told Brown, “You write the characters and the dialogue, and I’ll write the cinematic stuff.” There were no egos involved – each fought their corner, but they fought together for the project.
This notion became the theme of the evening’s discussion. There were many references to the regular fights and scraps over all sorts of issues; but always an underlying absence of ego – the arguments always being in service of achieving the best for the project. Tamahori: “Yes, you have skirmishes with your producer, but they pass quickly and are forgotten.”
The other theme that emerged, or perhaps it’s the underlying foundation of this first aspect, was the essential nature of mutual respect, trust and constant support from one to the other as producer and director – in both directions. “Robin will watch my back across the whole project. It’s the project, the story, the film that matters – not the director or any other individual.”
One factor common to both Once Were Warriors and The Patriarch was a very low budget. It’s a notion that’s been around a long time, but Tamahori is happy to assert it once more, forcefully: having limited resources pushes you into creative and innovative solutions to problems. He prefers this to the American habit of throwing money at problems rather than actually trying to solve them. “They have more cash than sense.”
He also pointed out that, unlike the American habit of taking six months just for shooting, “Here we have prepped, shot and mostly edited The Patriarch in six months!”
Tamahori described his and Scholes’ first feature together as “going into uncharted territory”. He knew he was good at telling a story in 30 seconds, but his big worry was that he might tell the story in 35 minutes.
For Scholes, the biggest challenge was “learning how to do our separate jobs”. Along with this came the growing realization of the need to fight for the director and the director’s needs.
Ruwhiu asked Tamahori to describe his Hollywood experiences. Tamahori explained how his entry into Hollywood was much easier than expected, and credited his commercial experience – the familiarity with working for two bosses, the agency and the client. He’d learned early how to pitch, to sell his ideas, to communicate, to put people at ease – especially finance people. “They want to know your idea, your vision. If you can put their minds at ease, you can get whatever you want.”
The discussion around The Patriarch centred on the budget limitations and subsequent restrictions; particularly the need to shoot a schedule that should’ve been 39 or 40 days in only 35. This resulted in a shooting style which Tamahori called “Shoot the day’s schedule”.
Because he’d been a first, Tamahori understood the logistical sides of things. (He also gave considerable credit to his first AD on the shoot.) Tamahori was editing in his head as he shot; and if something didn’t work, he changed it instantly. “In a limited budget environment, you have to do it this way to get the best result. Many American directors couldn’t.”
He expressed his huge admiration of how Robin Scholes had raised the money for both of their films. “So you respect that, and work within the limitations.”
An audience member asked about how to deal with the situation where “an actor is not getting it”. Tamahori replied that first it’s essential to identify where the problem lies – is it with the actor, or is it in the script? Or is it some other factor, either on or off the set? The key is to talk to the actor about what the problem is, to find out what they don’t like about what they’re being asked to do. “It’s taken me years to learn this.” Actors usually have good radar – trust it. But if you can make an actor more comfortable with a given situation, then you’ll often find an actor can turn rubbish into brilliance. After all, actors live their part more than you do – you live them all, but since they tend to focus on their particular character exclusively, they know their part better than you do.
To conclude, Tui Ruwhiu summarized the key elements in the director-producer relationship as being Respect, Trust, and Dedication to the project. Asked what they would like to add to this trio, Scholes added Perseverance: “You take a project on – you must deliver”.
Tamahori reiterated that the relationship with one’s producer is critical. There might be a whole slew of producers involved in a project, but there is usually only one key person.
“It’s good to have battles – it’s healthy ,” Tamahori said, “but it’s also critical to stop and look at the bigger picture. The more you listen, the better. Supporting each other is so important.
“Some producers are a fucking nightmare!”