After The Waterfall is the only New Zealand feature in the New Zealand International Film Festival that a woman—Simone Horrocks—has written and directed. It premiered in Beijing earlier this month, as part of the 5th New Zealand Film Festival in the People’s Republic of China. Here's Simone speaking at the premiere.
Simone first attracted international attention when she was a semi-finalist for the prestigious Sundance Institute/NHK Filmmaker's Award in 2001. She has written and directed several short films, notably Spindrift, winner of the Best Panorama Short Film award at the Berlin Film Festival, and New Dawn, commissioned by the Edinburgh Film Festival to mark the launch of UK Film Four's Lab. I knew almost nothing about her. So I peppered her with emailed questions. And was truly delighted with her generous responses.
Q: You say you’re ‘under the radar’ here and I wonder why. You left New Zealand, lost yourself in Europe, found yourself studying film in London, worked for several years behind the camera, shifted your focus to writing and directing and came back in 2001. What brought you back? What other films have you made? What have you been doing since you came back?
A: By 2001 I had a family, and we came back to New Zealand for lots of reasons, but the main one was that my daughter had just started high school in London (they start a year younger there than here so she was 11), and while we did everything we could to find the best available school for her, it was pretty tough. We came back to NZ for a holiday on Waiheke Island, and while there I spotted a brochure for Waiheke High School. I saw they only had 550 students, the school had almost 360degree sea views, and that you could do surfing for NCEA. Compared to what was on offer in London, it was a no-brainer. My husband is English, but he’s always wanted to try living somewhere else, the time was right, so we came back.
I’d been living in England for a long time (almost 20 years). I ran riot for a few years, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was always interested in photography. I started getting interested in lighting, and did some night classes for City and Guilds, then decided to go back to University and study film and photography full time. I made a short film in the restaurant I was working in, and edited it at the London Film Makers Co-op. That short film got me a place at two different film schools, but I chose the Polytechnic of Central London (now known as The University of Westminster) because it was one of only three film courses in England that was union recognised. That meant when you graduated you got a union card, and in those days (the early 90s), that was a big deal. I went to film school with the intention of working behind the camera, and for a few years I did, but I was always dreaming up ideas for my own films. I made the decision to give up camera after my first short film Spindrift won an award at the Berlin Film Festival, and put all my energy into writing and directing. I can honestly say that if I’d known then what I know now, I may not have made that decision, but nevertheless, that’s what I did.
Over the next few years I got funding for two more short films, did the rounds with writing samples, and that eventually got me through a few doors. After The Waterfall is my first feature film, but it is not the first feature I have developed. After two other feature projects in England got close to funding, but then fell over, I decided to do something you’re always told not to do, and put all my eggs in one basket. I decided it was The Paraffin Child (as After The Waterfall was then called) or bust. I had already got some development funding from British Screen in London, so the project arrived in NZ with me at first draft stage.
When I first came back to NZ, a lot of my energy went into settling the family, but I did a wedding video (not to be repeated), finished off a short film project I had brought over from England, and took on some editing work. For a while it was quite hard for myself, and my husband, Richard Flynn, who is a location sound recordist, in terms of making contacts, and getting to know people in the industry. It was almost like starting again.
The Paraffin Child was reactivated when producer Trevor Haysom came on board in 2002, and I then devoted myself to writing full time in the belief that that’s what it would take to get the film made. Of course you never think it’s going to take as long as it does, but I was drip fed funding, so I just kept going. We took The Paraffin Child to the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) board for production funding in 2006, but it was turned down. A difficult year followed as we tried to get it back up again, and went down some very dark roads. Finally I tried to kill it. There comes a point when it’s just better to let it go. After a staff change at the NZFC in 2008, it seemed there was still an interest in the team, and a will to work with us, but we were told that if the project was to continue with them, that it would have to become something new. I was very reluctant to go back into development but after meeting Marilyn Milgrom (the new Development Executive) I knew that I could work with her. I had been down so many roads with this project, that as long as we remained true to the original idea, I was happy to go at it from a new angle.
I was living on Waiheke Island during this time, and spent a lot of it in the garret writing, so that’s what I mean by being under the radar. It was self inflicted. But I crossed the water in January 2008, and made After The Waterfall in 2009, so I feel like I’ve finally landed.
Q: Are you related to New Zealand’s other film Horrockses?
A: Roger Horrocks is my father, Shirley Horrocks is my stepmother, and Dylan Horrocks (cartoonist and author of the iconic graphic novel Hicksville) is my brother. Matthew Horrocks and I are not related, but no doubt share some Lancashire roots.
My mother, Eleanor Rimoldi, was born in Buffalo NY State, in the USA, and at the age of 21 jumped on a ship to New Zealand (in the days before you needed a passport), stepped off in Auckland, walked up Queen St, had a burger and a milkshake at a cafe next to the Civic and never looked back. She fell in love with the South Pacific, and is passionate about Islands. She is an anthropologist, and her specialist area is Papua New Guinea (more specifically the island of Buka). She is a traveller and did spend chunks of time away during my childhood, but is not absent. She lives on Waiheke Island, and teaches at Massey University (Albany Campus).
Films have always been around me. My father was involved with film societies, and in the early days of the film festival, he also taught one of NZ’s first film and media courses, and as kids, my brother and I often went along to screenings. Particularly memorable were Jaws, and Last Tango in Paris, no doubt partly because they weren’t entirely age appropriate. Another very memorable experience was being pulled out of bed one night and taken in our pyjamas to a cinema on Queen St, where a projectionist friend was holding a preview screening of a new print of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. There was only the four of us there, and I’m sure my father assumed my brother and I would get bored and go to sleep. But I was totally transfixed by that film and it remains one of my favourite film experiences of all time. We worked out the other day that I must have been 6 years old at the time. I also remember being taken to anti-apartheid meetings, and seeing political documentaries that had been smuggled out of South Africa, they were powerful films, and as a child had a profound effect on me.
Q: You’ve written that you sought the rights to The Paraffin Child when you read a review. Did you run round to the writer’s place with that bottle of wine as a bribe before you’d even read the book? If so, once you read the book, what persuaded you that you’d done the right thing?
A: I read a review of The Paraffin Child, then read the book, and then contacted Stephen Blanchard’s agent. His agent gave me his home number, and told me to give him a ring. Of course if you call a writer and say the word ‘film’, their eyes light up and they immediately think ‘Spielberg’, so it was important to me to meet Stephen, and be honest about the fact that I was at an early stage of my career, and didn’t have a lot of money, but that if he agreed to let me option the film rights to his novel, I would really commit to it. I would invest my time. A lot of authors find their books optioned, and then shelved—sometimes for years—so I think my personal commitment to getting it made meant something to Stephen. He came to a screening of my short films and liked them, and we took it from there.
I know what it takes to get a film made, and I would never, ever make a proposition like this - especially with my own money - unless I was really sure about it. The decision was instinctive, and no doubt somehow pathological, Stephen’s book haunted me, something got under my skin and made me want to investigate it. And I never doubted that choice. I was in the world of that book for so long, and I never grew tired of it, and now that it’s over, I still sometimes find myself missing it.
Q: The review that said that the message at the book’s heart was: “Sometimes a mystery remains a mystery, and an absence an absence, which we have to deal with as best we can.” Why did this appeal to you so strongly?
A: As I said, it’s no doubt something pathological. For me there’s something beautiful about that statement, something dark, but strangely beautiful.
Q: One of the most difficult things about writing the screenplay was the fact that that so much of this story would be told through looks rather than dialogue, which for you is one of the most powerful things about cinema. How did you resolve that difficulty? What strategies did you use? What other difficulties did you have, and how did you resolve those? Did you have any readers who were particularly helpful, and if so how were they helpful?
A: A screenplay is just a blueprint. It is not, and never will be, the ‘film on the page’, but scripts are also selling documents and therefore (unless you can distract people with an A-list star) need to read as if they are. It’s a difficult thing because making the film is yet another stage of development, and there’s nothing worse than seeing a film that feels like a ‘filmed script’ and has no life of its own, or reading an over written script that doesn’t give you, or your potential collaborators space to dream.
Feedback is the key for me. I am a feedback junkie. The project needs an anchor, so finding a producer, and a script editor, or developer to work with, who gets what you are trying to do, is crucial. This is something you know straight away. You can disagree about things, and you can want to make things better, but if the person you are working with doesn’t ‘get it’ right off, then I believe they never will. This can be tough. Especially in an environment with so few funding opportunities, but it’s a fact of life. Everything we do is personal, whether we like it or not, and it’s no reflection on a person’s talent, or expertise, or skill, but if you’re going to work with someone, then I believe something—deep down—has to click, or they can’t help you.
So I give my work out often, and to a wide variety of people to read, some people won’t get it, and that’s fine. Others will, and that’s when I listen carefully, and you never know what’s going to help. You really never know. It’s so random. Sometimes it’s the things that hurt the most that you really need to hear. Sometimes you need to be reminded of what’s working. I LOVE writer’s labs. Any opportunity to get together with other writers and directors is gold dust. I have learnt so much from these labs and the people I met there, that I can’t thank the universe enough. For this film, my special mentions would have to go to Catherine Fitzgerald (who was script editor on the project during its first incarnation as The Paraffin Child), Graeme Tetley, Joan Scheckel, Diana Rowan, Steffen Harris and Marilyn Milgrom. Each of them opened doors for me at key points in the process of development.
Q: It took a long time to get After the Waterfall financed. Telling the story through looks rather than dialogue was one problem you’ve identified that made financing difficult. What were the others? Is it a co-production? Beyond tenacity and hard work, what do you think got you through that barrier between advanced development and production funding: good connections, good timing, good luck, good allies? Any key experiences here? Any advice for other filmmakers?
A: Getting from advanced development to green light, is the last tough bit of the climb. You can see the summit, you’re ninety five percent there, and you’re clinging to the side of the mountain, in high winds, hanging on for dear life, and you’ve given it all you’ve got, and you can either go up and achieve your goal, or you can go down. And it’s a long way down. So it’s the last five percent, but it’s the toughest five percent. People can be intrigued by your idea, they can even love your idea, but getting people to actually sign a check is another thing altogether. And fair enough too, it costs a lot of money to make a film, even a low budget one. And you can’t do it on your own, so many things have to come together at the same time: producer, distributor, actors, crew, the market, the finance … all have to come together with the will to make it happen. It’s really a miracle that films get made at all.
When it comes to advice I don’t know what to say. Every project is different. You have to push, but you also have to be responsive. Pace yourself. You can’t go at it at full throttle for years and years or you’ll just burn out. Take breaks. I could say don’t give up, but it was just at the point that I did give up that we had our big break. And for a while there it felt good to know that I could make it stop. Stopping is always an option.
I can’t say for sure what finally got us there, because in the end, it was out of my hands. But if I did play a part in getting us over the hump, then I think it was probably in my final pitch to the NZFC board. The perception was that this was a risky film, and it was a first film, and I believe that it went right up to the wire with us. Because we had been turned down before, I decided that if it happened again, I didn’t want it to be because I hadn’t given it everything I’ve got. I actually wrote a speech and practised it over and over again, for two weeks with my son as my ears. It’s hard to pour your heart out in a board room situation like that, it’s very intimidating. But I was determined to make an impression.
Q: As you may know, women write only about 28% of the features in early development at the NZFC, and then their participation falls away; women write and direct only 16% of the features the NZFC funds for production. What do you think helped your project in particular? Did it make a difference that the protagonist is a man? Did you have any experiences where your gender made a difference? Any advice for women filmmakers?
A: I’m not sure I really believe in gender. What I mean by that is that I don’t think men and women are that different. I once heard a news item about an Inuit (I think it was Inuit!) tribe that had 17 different words for gender. Maybe that would be more helpful—some men are more feminine, some women are more masculine, some are transgender, transsexual, hermaphrodite, gay, bi-sexual … maybe two categories aren’t enough … In the end we’re all just bi-organisms with fetishes and the capacity to love.
But of course the statistics are real, and the stereotypes and social constructs we live with are real, I just try not to think about them. But it’s always shocking when someone puts you in your place. When I worked as focus puller I’d sometimes turn up for a job and a spark would roll his eyes and say (in front of me): “Extra work today boys”. I think the way to be accepted is just to do your job, and do it well. I’d make a point of never letting anyone help me lift or carry anything, and eventually the jokes would just fade away. I would say, generally speaking, I was pretty well accepted, but I worked hard for that, and I was always aware that what I was doing was unusual.
I have two children, and my career has grown with them. I discovered I was pregnant with my daughter the same week I learnt I had been accepted at film school. I had fought for so long to get a place (and it was a very competitive course) that I was terrified of losing it, but I wanted the baby too. I finally worked up the courage to tell the head of school (who was male) and he shocked me by saying: “Great, I love babies, just bring it along.” So in my naivety I did. I’d get as far as I could through lectures, and then I’d be breastfeeding on fire escapes. I even brought her to set sometimes. It was a kind of madness, but I was very young, and I was terrified of letting the opportunity go. Of course this wasn’t very practical for anyone, so after a few months I found a childminder. The school never allowed this to happen again, I know that a student got pregnant a year or two after me, but after the disruption I had caused, no one was ever allowed to bring a baby anywhere near the premises again. And of course, nor should they, babies and film sets don’t mix. But in a way I was lucky, because it did mean I could keep going.
Seven years later, I found myself pregnant with my second child, just as I was shortlisted for my first funded short film, by The British Film Institute. The scheme was very competitive, and I was worried that that if anyone knew, it might affect my chances, so I just didn’t tell anyone. After a series of workshops, the twelve film makers who had been short listed, gradually got whittled down to three, and then, miraculously, I got the green light. During pre-production, I was at the British Film Institute one day (which was our production office), and their production manager was looking at me side on as I did some photocopying, and she suddenly said: “Oh my god, you’re pregnant!” It was only a five day shoot, and things were pretty advanced by then, so they didn’t have much choice but to let me get on with it. I had to sign all sorts of insurance wavers, so I was seven months pregnant when I made Spindrift, and my son was born between picture lock, and the final sound mix.
When I was a camera assistant in London in the early 90s, the unions were still very powerful, and there were very few women doing the job. I only knew of three women directors of photography in England at the time, but I was lucky enough to meet one of them. Nina Kellgren held a workshop at my film school and I made a point of meeting her afterwards, because I amazed to find out she was also a solo mother (which I was at the time). It helped me just to know it was possible. I used to ring her up occasionally and say “Just tell me it’s possible”, and she would say, “It’s possible”, and I would hang up. And it helped. She actually gave me some for my first paid work and I am very grateful for that too.
Sometimes you do just hit a brick wall. The most shocking thing that ever happened to me was while working for an ex-BBC cameraman on a documentary about a women’s football team in the north of England. I’d been working as a camera assistant for a couple of years at this point, but I never told anyone I had a young daughter. I was often asked to travel, and usually at short notice, and I just didn’t want the fact that I had a child to enter into the equation. This job required being away for almost seven weeks, and after a particularly tough day the cameraman I was working for told me how much he was missing his wife and new baby. I cracked and told him I had a three year old daughter, and that I was missing her too. He looked at me and said: “You have a three year old daughter? Then what the hell are you doing here!” He was so shocked, he just couldn’t believe it, he said: “ If you keep working like this, your daughter will be screwed for life.” I’d done several jobs for this cameraman, but he never employed me again.
Of course his words haunted me. The film industry is not a family friendly industry, for men or for women. It’s tough the way we work, it makes it hard to maintain relationships. When my daughter started school, I really felt the need to be around when she came home. I hadn’t always been there for her while she was a baby, and I have some very real regrets about that. So I took a year off and did a screenwriting course. When people asked me why I gave up camera to become a director, I’d say I looked around on set, and the only people who were allowed to have a family (or at least had enough power that if they needed to bring the kid and a nanny with them to work, they could) were the director, the producer and the stars. I’m not good with money, and I can’t act, so I joked that if I wanted to stay in the business, my only option was to direct.
After The Waterfall has a male protagonist, and it is very much a film about men, and about communication between men. As a director I’m interested in all my characters, I don’t distinguish between them on the basis of gender. Having said that, while this is my first film, it is not the first film I have developed. The other two projects had female protagonists, but in the end they didn’t just get the money. I don’t know if that was a factor, but statistically it is harder for women directors to get a film funded, and it’s even harder still if the hero is a woman. So you just have to be aware of that.
Q: The director of photography was Jac Fitzgerald, for whom it was also a first feature. You’ve said “Jac really understood the story, and embraced the importance of putting the actors at the heart of our process. We were committed to working in whatever weather we were sent, and as always in Auckland this meant dealing with sudden and frequent changes. We had a tight schedule, and it was a tough shoot for Jac and her team, but she did a great job.” I love the photos with you and Jac. What made you choose her? What other work has she done?
A: For a long time I had been talking to Adam Clark who works with Taika Waititi, but Boy got funding around the same time as we did, and in the end our shoots overlapped, so he wasn’t able to do it. I wanted to find someone else who was (what I call) a ‘storytelling cameraperson’, in other words, someone who was interested in telling the story in a visual way, rather than just making it look pretty. I knew that this film was all about faces, and that it would live or die by its performances, so it was also important to me that the person we chose would be comfortable with a shooting-style that was performance-led, and a good camera operator. I watched lots of films, and lots of short films, and in the end what drew me to Jac was that after each of her short films (and she has shot quite a few) I could close my eyes and remember the story as a series of images. Jac had done a mixture of commercials and shorts. Her work was visually inventive, and she was passionate about the script. We met, and made connections very quickly. As Trevor said, “It was like she’d downloaded our brains.” She also came recommended by Kirsty Cameron (our Costume Designer, and a director in her own right), and that meant a lot.
Q: What were the pleasures and difficulties of the shoot and the post-production?
A: I can honestly say I loved every minute of making this film, and it wasn’t without struggle, but I was in heaven every single minute. It was a long time coming for me, and I just wanted to come out of it knowing I had no regrets. And I don’t. Of course there will always be the things you wish you had could have done better, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’m proud of what we have achieved.
Q: You’ve said that “Apart from the novel which provided the initial inspiration, After the Waterfall is a 100% New Zealand film, and New Zealand will be our most important audience”. What makes it a New Zealand film?
A: What I mean by that, is simply that the funding, and all of the cast and crew are from New Zealand.
Q: You’ve also said “Some people say my films are dark, but I say darkness has its own light.” Can you explain this a bit?
A: I’m obsessed with the truth. A lot of people think I’m obsessed with the dark things in life, but my husband once told me, he thinks it’s because I find beauty in the truth. But the truth is sometimes hard to take, it’s hard to look at, and it’s hard to live. It’s especially hard when it’s about the dark places in our own hearts. I am the Queen of Denial, denial runs in my veins like blood. I read somewhere that you should never take a person’s denial away, denial is a form of necessary protection, and I know this to be true. But I think there’s something we can learn from the dark places in life, but this knowledge—this light—is hard won.
Q: What will happen now, with After the Waterfall? When will it go on general release? And what will be your next project?
A: After the Waterfall had its world premiere in Beijing in June, and will have its New Zealand premiere at the Auckland Film Festival on 14 July. There will be two further Film Festival screenings in Auckland and two in Wellington. We have a Facebook page which we will update with further news, and a website on the way.
I am currently working on a fantasy film called Black Skies Blue, which is based on a book my brother Dylan Horrocks is writing. He pitched it to me while we were tramping in the Urewera, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I have extracted a portion of the plot, and am writing a ‘sister version’ of the story. I went to Beijing for the premiere of After the Waterfall, and I loved it, I haven’t been so excited about a place since I ran away to London, so my new dream is to make a film there ... But I am also available for work—I am so available! Now that I’m out of the garret I don’t want to get stuck back there, I want to keep directing … anything at all. No job too small.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thank you.
Marian: And I've just noticed that Cushla Dillon edited After the Waterfall. So I'd like to add that--
Marian: And I've just noticed that Cushla Dillon edited After the Waterfall. So I'd like to add that--
July 14, 8.30pm, Skycity Theatre
July 22, 8.15pm, Bridgeway Cinema
July 24, 8.15pm, Bridgeway Cinema
July 30, 8.30pm, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa
July 31, 3.45pm,
You can book here.
Soundings Theatre, Te Papa
You can book here.