A barefoot filmmaking story
Development-the-movie’s being made for a global audience (see here and here). It’s for women who want to make movies, and for the people who love them. But it’s a local film. All its locations are within easy walking distance from where I’m writing this, in my room overlooking Oriental Bay, in central Wellington. (The room’s walls have been brownish purple since January because it’s also a studio now, to come back to for filming interiors.)
There’s the Oriental Bay beach. The band rotunda at one end. The New World supermarket just beyond its other end. And the wooden houses of Oriental Bay and their gardens, tucked around little apartment blocks.There's Courtenay Place nearby, with its movie theatres and bars: party central by night and a village by day. It’s visually stunning, and I love it all.
And the story’s local too. Nancy Coory inspired it (that's Nancy in the pic at the top). She lives five minutes away, and we’ve been friends for a while. Nancy’s taught me to take theatre (and poetry) seriously—though I’ll never read or watch plays with the knowledge, attention, and discipline that she brings to them.
And as I heard Nancy’s stories about her long, rich, courageous, life and watched her beautiful face, shared her laughter, I began to imagine another woman, with some of her qualities, who lives in Oriental Bay: Emily. And Emily’s friend, Iris, based on women I knew at Pipitea marae, years ago. And the women filmmakers Emily meets. Like women who meet at the Deluxe café next to the Embassy Theatre in Courtenay Place. Who eat legendary icecreams and orange cake nearby, at Kaffee Eis. Who stage shows at Bats Theatre, or at Circa a little further round the harbour. Actors, writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists. Who collect seaweed on the beach. Visit the local doctors and therapists, yoga and qi gong teachers, the sauna. Who shop at Moore Wilsons, have another cuppa at Caffe L’Affare. Who fall in and out of love.
And then I wrote the Development screenplay. Nancy, to my delight, agreed to come out of retirement to play Emily. And then (as you’ll know from the website), with Erica as chief cheerleader and a production structure established (as you’ll also know from the website), I began to look for local actors to complement Nancy. Pinky Agnew of course, as she’d inspired some aspects of Greta. Lynda Chanwai-Earle, who felt just right for Frederique. Madeline McNamara, the ideal Viv. Loren Taylor, the perfect Meryl. Then, a while later, Nancy and I saw Michele Amas in Blood Wedding. Oooooh. She was amazing--- Would she play heroic Louise, Emily’s daughter who’s losing her memory? Nancy and I love Louise, and we thought that Michele would be the best Louise in the whole world. Michele and I met at the Deluxe. I took her round the corner to meet Nancy. Michele said Yes. Nancy and I celebrated.
And then, before we were quite ready, Michele had an opportunity to go to Europe for a year. Could we film her scenes before she went, I wondered? She was performing in Ninety, but had Mondays free, and some other times. And Pinky was very busy too, about to start rehearsing for Grumpy Old Women (in Blenheim tomorrow!), and had just two days that overlapped with Michele’s availability. And Erica was caught up with another feature, Desiree with an exciting family event. But DOP Aline Tran was available, and Stef Ng and her offsider Rowan Watson were there for sound. Rebecca Barnes was happy to be the Assistant Director. I felt completely confident in them all. But what about a director? Because so many of the actors were also writers and directors I’d hoped that Development would be collectively directed. But the actors, for various reasons, didn’t want to direct. And other directors were not available.
Because I’d directed only one feature-length doco, about a single individual, with a crew of two, and some of the Development sequences with Louise have a group of actors—and extras—and because I’d have to manage the production as well on those days—with a lot of help from Rebecca whose hard work, networks and talents I find extraordinary—I hesitated to direct. But. The days when everyone was available were arriving fast, and I’d run out of options. I took a deep breath, several deep breaths, and lots of advice.
What got me in the end was the advice from a veteran filmmaker: Directing means you get to go more deeply into the script.
And it did. I feel the luckiest scriptwriter in the world to have seen a clapperboard with DEVELOPMENT (etc) on it. To see Lynda, Madeline, Michele, Nancy, and Pinky bring the script alive, with Jessica Latton (Tui the Masseuse), Mandy Hager (the doctor) and Phil Darkins (Bob). They added to the script in ways I couldn’t have imagined. They conveyed the subtexts so so well.
No-one advised me beforehand about the emotional responses I’d have, and they surprised me. Sometimes I had tears in my eyes as I watched. When I saw the turquoise of Pinky’s jacket against the grey seawall as she leaned over to call to Madeline, and watched and heard her say “There are other ways to tell a story”—several different ways, each of them pretty special. When I saw the intimate screen relationship between Emily and Louise as they walked towards the camera, outside the Paramount. And at other times.
I smiled too. Laughed. My eyes popped. I couldn't believe my ears sometimes. Actors: they're amazing. I wish for every screenwriter that they can spend a couple of days directing one of their scripts: those days changed me and probably my writing.
I felt so lucky too, to feel the warm support of the hard-working crew—all local, some living within walking distance—and to benefit from their professionalism. To enjoy the food Jenn worked so hard to make and deliver from College Street, and the presence of others who came to help. To experience the welcome from the management and staff at the Chaffers Street New World, where lots of the cast and crew shop, and where one crew member works. And the warm hospitality offered by Bats Theatre, nearby.
I’ll love everyone involved forever for their contributions to those two days. But. Another But. The days were long and hard. We scheduled more than we could manage (I’d been working on the six-page-a-day principle that I knew from TV). Darkness fell as we started to film Michele on the beach at dusk, as the script required; and we missed the scene with the police officer.
The second day was especially hard for Nancy, trooper extraordinaire, who had to fall in Courtenay Place, outside the Paramount (above). Seven times. She also had to negotiate the steep—typically Wellington—zigzag to and from my place, perched on a steep hillside.
When I went to Nancy's place, a few days later, to deliver the pages for the third day’s filming, we had a long talk and she decided, with my complete support, not to continue. I wanted to be able to say that no humans were harmed in the making of Development, and it seemed that going on would be harmful for Nancy who felt ‘regret and relief’ when we stopped. Fortunately, we can still use lots of the footage from those two days, and—especially fortunately—nearly all of the supermarket scenes. If we’d worked the next day when we scheduled the sequences with only Nancy and Michele, that would have been much more problematic.
There are lots of ‘if only’s’. If only there’d been more than that two-day crossover of availability, and/or scheduling that meant Nancy could work much shorter days. If only we’d had more resources and used those we had more imaginatively, to make Nancy a whole lot more comfortable. We did the best we could, but it wasn’t enough. And now Michele’s away till the end of the year.
The month or so since the filming has been difficult, because I’ve been so sad to lose Nancy. But one of the things I love about filmmaking is the constant problem-solving, the endless unexpectedness. And this time’s been very useful for identifying problems and considering how to resolve them. For reflecting on what worked and what didn’t. For making small and significant changes to the script—thanks to feedback from the cast. For working out how much more money we’ll need to shoot a ‘softer’ schedule with a slightly larger crew. Barefoot filmmaking still. But more gently.
Erica and I are now good to go. Instead of attempting to finish the filming as planned, in April, we’ve decided to follow a traditional low-budget model. We’ll shoot in parts later in the year, depending on cast and crew availability, and with another director (or two). And we’ll leave all the scenes that include Emily or Louise until Michele returns. A tiny bit of me hopes that when Michele’s back and we’ve organised more resources, Nancy won’t be able to resist joining in again, though we’re intermittently looking for a new Emily. In the meantime, Nancy’s happy to be Emily’s ‘face’.
We’re also looking for partners and for supporters of all kinds, including an audience who will buy virtual tickets for the free film experience we’ll send to their computers when we’re done. A lovely American woman has offered to help us with marketing from over there. Nicola Purvis at Russell McVeagh is a sturdy mentor, like three local directors; I’m forever grateful to them all, too.
A BIG THANK YOU to everyone who helped with our filming. Those not already named—
Cast: Jules Dwyer, Mike Dwyer, Nathan Meister, Todd Rippon (all—like Loren—good to go for the days we cancelled and generous in their understanding of the changes) and lovely extras Bella Elley-Fleming, Charlette Potts, Geraldine Plas, Kimberly Cullen, Lee Wilson, Maxine Fleming, Ruta Lesina Taua, Tilly Lloyd; & Crew: Alwyn Dale, Andreas Mahn, Brian Laird, Charlette Potts, Jackie McAuliffe, Jasmine Amohau, Jenn Shoesmith, Lala Rolls, Lee Wilson, Martin Lang, Megan Cook, Yohann Viseur & To Bridget Kelly for her yoga gear; To David White for equipment; To Elder Family Matters; To executive producers Cushla Parekowhai (Not Amused) and Alwyn Dale, Nick Chester & Rebecca Barnes; To Fiona Stewart at Foodstuffs; To Paul at Wellington Rental Cars; To Portsmouth and Leonne for equipment; To Stacey Ferdinands and Nicci Lock at Film Wellington; To Steph Walker and the others at Bats; To Steven McLauchlan, at New World Chaffers Street and the staff there, especially Ruta Lesina Taua, who kindly stepped up to an important bit part at very short notice; To Struan Ashby and Keir Husson at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts for equipment; To the Victoria Foundation; & to all our other supporters, listed on our website’s Supporters page (to be updated soon).