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Kirstin Marcon & 'The Most Fun You Can Have Dying'

Kirstin Marcon’s The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, adapted from Steven Gannaway’s novel Seraphim Blues, opens in New Zealand cinemas on 26 April. It’s a special film for me, because it was one of the few women-written features in development at the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) when, long ago, I started to analyse the NZFC's investment record. Kirstin’s already written and directed two short films. She’s Racing (2000) screened in competition at Edinburgh Film Festival, Torino Film Festival, and Chicago International Film Festival (where it won a Silver Plaque). It also screened at Telluride Film Festival, with Australian indie hit Chopper. Picnic Stops (2004) was selected for competition and as an official Selection at festivals including the Hof International Film Festival, Germany, Expression en Corto International Film Festival, Mexico, and the Creteil Festival de Femmes.

Kirstin with focus puller Jason White
How did you get into filmmaking?

In the late 70s my dad made an 8mm horror film with the older kids in our country primary school. The whole school trooped into the screening room, and we sat cross-legged on the carpet and watched this mysterious silent film. The children were walking through the forest, and one by one the last child at the back of the line would disappear. I thought it was magic.

The next film I remember is an old British farm safety film called Apache, also a horror, screened a couple of years later on a 16mm projector in the same primary school screening room. In that some children are playing a game on a farm, and one by one they die in gruesome and horrible ways. It gave me nightmares for years. But that’s definitely where it must have begun for me, seeing the power of images on screen.

I wish I could say that as young girl I sat in the dark and realised making films was something a person could do, but the truth is of course I didn’t. I went to film school by accident (starting with a media studies gap year), but somewhere in my first year - in that heady time when you’re 18 and every film you watch makes you rethink everything you know - I fell in love with the idea of making films myself.

Few people make a feature without having made at least one short film. You made two. What did you take from those experiences intoThe Most Fun You Can Have Dying?

I’ve actually made three shorts on film, my first was my final film school project, shot on 16mm with my student loan, and finished a few years later with a tiny CNZ grant. And I’ve made quite a few more on video – at film school, and more recently through four years of entering Ant Timpson’s 48Hours.

The most successful short film I’ve made I learned nothing from. I learned my real lessons painfully by making mistakes. I’m proud of all my work, and especially proud of the amazing work my collaborators have done on all my projects, but as a director I’ve often had to seriously critique myself.

For example I got carried away with things like tracks and helicopter shots on one of my shorts at the expense of the story. As a result, with my feature I did two specific things. I worked incredibly hard on the script to make the main character Michael as accessible to the audience as possible. The second thing I did was have a philosophy of ‘sticks and handheld’. The whole film is shot that way, bar one very motivated opening shot. The overall shooting style is deliberately simple, relying on framing rather than flash, and I think the film is better for it.

What film writers and directors have influenced you? And who have been your role models, inside or outside film?

The people whose work has inspired and influenced me are Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Christine Jeffs, Niki Caro, Catherine Breillat, Christine Vachon, Callie Khouri, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Vincent Ward, David Cronenberg, Pedro Almodóvar, David Lynch, Alfonso Cuarón, Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz and many others.

My role models are my friends and family. They constantly remind me that filmmaking is less important than having relationships that mean something.

Why did you choose to make this story? Were you looking for an adaptation? Were you advised to try an adaptation?

I had tried many times to write an original feature length screenplay. But I’d get halfway through and lose faith in my ideas and my voice. Having the maturity as a writer to sustain a feature length script is something I’ve learned on this project, and it really helped me that underneath my own work was something I believed in (Steven’s book.) For me it was a practical decision, and one I made on my own. I don't know how to stress enough that no one asked me to make a feature film, let alone cared enough to suggest an adaptation. I feel I have literally forced my way in. I critique myself all the time, but along with that exists a belief that the way I see the world is interesting and different, that the images in my mind deserve to be up on the big screen. (I try to hide that from people in real life though!)

I approached Steven’s novel with love, respect, gratitude, and the willingness to do us both justice and make it into my own. I would not have served his book well by slavishly transferring it to the screen. Instead I transformed it into the film I needed and wanted to make, and one that I believe is ultimately very true to the form and spirit of his book. I did love writing the adaptation, (other than the usual moaning about how hard writing is!) Depending on who you talk to it’s either easier or harder than writing an original script. I think some of the challenges are different, but a lot of it is exactly the same. My biggest advice to anyone considering an adaptation is to think carefully about the length of time you’ll be spending with the source material and make sure you really love it (I did.) And then be prepared to let it go.

Michael (Matt Whelan) and Sylvie (Roxane Mesqida) 

As you know, I—and many other people—long for more features with women protagonists, yet globally and in New Zealand few of these films are made and women make even fewer of them. In New Zealand in the last few years, the only feature with a woman protagonist is Roseanne Liang's My Wedding & Other Secrets, though Dana Rotberg's Medicine Woman is on its way I too have written (and much loved) a script with a male protagonist, but because women get to direct so few features I'm always especially disappointed when a woman writer/director chooses to have a male protagonist. I wonder whether, as women storytellers, we've 'learned' to place men at the centre of stories, and/or whether sometimes we do this because we know investors are more likely to support a project with a male protagonist. Were you encouraged to have a male protagonist?  

I have experienced some criticism, so apologies in advance for the rant. I think the idea that a filmmaker of either sex can be ‘told’ what kind of films to make is problematic. And especially problematic is the idea that there are films women shouldn't make. Filmmakers don't choose projects cynically, it’s too hard and life is too short. The words I had in my heart as I worked on this script were:
Artists don’t wonder, “What is it good for?” They aren’t driven to “create art”, or to “help people”, or to “make money”. They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so to achieve peace.
That’s David Mamet in Three Uses of the Knife. I put deep personal truth onto the screen where others can see and judge it, and see and judge me, because I had to.

The Most Fun You Can Have Dying is about a guy who dies of cancer. That is literally one of the hardest subjects to finance, even if you treat it like we did. The fact that it was an adaptation with a male protagonist meant nothing in this instance. Beyond that as a writer and director I feel androgynous. The major female character in my feature is the culmination of the women in my short films. And every character in my film, male and female, is part of me. I did not choose this project about a man because I thought it would be an easier road. I did it because it was the film that I had to make or walk away.

I think women have the right to make films about men. I think that as a woman writing about a man I have an insight and power that is special and different. I think it’s a powerful thing as a woman to write about men, to create images of men. If any gaze has been privileged in this film, it isn’t the traditional male gaze. I do not believe as a director I have been colonized by the male gaze. But I think it’s possible some men may find it hard to see beyond their expectations.

The central male character is presented to the audience as vulnerable and available, his physical beauty a profound tool in my palette as director. The very first thing the CEO of the NZFC said upon viewing the cut was “this film could only have been directed by a woman.”

Sylvie (Roxane Mesqida) and Michael (Matt Whelan)

What about the nudity in the film? There's full frontal nudity of a woman, but none of a man.

I’m glad you asked about this, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to talk about it. The script I wrote contains several scenes of full frontal male nudity, presented in a realistic, unstudied and natural way. I had a committed and professional actor who was willing to go the distance with me. But the truth is I found I simply didn't have the artistic freedom on my first feature (at the budget level we were at) that I hope to have later in my career. Enough said.When I discovered I wouldn't be shooting any full-frontal male nudity, I did think very carefully about the female nudity in the film (also written into the script). I decided to keep it. I may not have had the complete freedom to do everything I wanted, but as the director I’m still responsible for my choices in response to limitations. I own every decision.

The nudity is a naturally and realistically filmed moment of happiness, silliness, and love between two characters who have briefly come together. The female character lies in a bath smiling at the man she’s fallen for, then without a thought for herself, without fear or boring self-consciousness, she steps out of the bath and throws herself into his arms shaking her wet hair in his face. I can honestly say that this moment is entirely unmediated by any desire on my part to package her for the male gaze. She’s there as a thinking, feeling human character, with thoughts, desires and a sense of humour, shot in natural light and without other enhancement.

This is why.

As a young woman I found the way naked women were presented in French and other European films to be a glorious revelation, a personal subversive feminist awakening. I saw that the female body was a thing of absolute beauty, no matter what size or shape, no matter how harshly or softly lit. I saw that European women were not ashamed of their natural bodies and I loved it. And I understood that this meant that my body, the body I was so ashamed of thanks to our culture, might be beautiful too. Those films empowered me to ignore the parade of poreless, airbrushed, plastisized and contorted models in images all around me. Yes, the character who steps nakedly and unselfconsciously out of the bath is a very beautiful woman. But she not a woman who it will hurt other women to see. Her physical presence in that scene, her fresh lovely beauty, is not of a kind that diminishes or punishes other women.

Tina (Sophie Henderson), David (Pana Hema-Taylor), Lizzy (Clementine Howe) and Michael (Matt Whelan) hang out in the back yard of David and Michael's Hamilton flat.
It took a long time to get The Most Fun You Can Have Dying financed, seven years. What were the difficulties? Is it a co-production? Where did the funding come from in the end? Beyond tenacity and hard work, what do you think got you through that notorious barrier between advanced development and production funding: good connections, good timing, good luck, good allies and/or advocates? Any key experiences here? Did you have to put other aspects of your life on hold? (I’m thinking here for example, of the way that some women delay having children until they’ve made their first feature). Any advice for other filmmakers about getting a project through, especially for women filmmakers?

First the financing. We began the process of financing around three years into the script development, and in hindsight a draft too early. Our first foray was SPAAmart in Brisbane. We worked extremely hard on our pitch materials and our presentation (literally several weeks of work). I think this is a key aspect. The confidence that solid prep and great looking materials give you in a film market is invaluable. A year (or so) later and with a much better script we attended No Borders in New York. We had redone all our materials, and reworked our pitch. We came home with a US financing deal to bring to the NZFC. Ten days later as we prepped for a production finance application the global economy collapsed and we lost the deal. With our deadline approaching and no deal Alex went to Europe and managed to raise a UK financing deal. The NZFC rejected that financing structure (while assuring us they were still interested in making the film), but we were effectively back to zero. There were a few months of despair. Some time later effort went into a German deal that never came together, and then in early 2010 we went to Paris and Alex put together a French financing deal. That also fell over, and Alex instead raised some money through two ‘Angel’ investors. At that point the NZFC gave us the rest of the money we needed to make the film.

The thing that got us over the barrier initially was me writing a script that was capable of attracting international finance (the fourth draft). With a film at our budget level we needed to prove to the NZFC there was international market interest in the film. (I think in the end they felt we had proved that beyond doubt.) I also rewrote the script several times to reflect the territories we were considering deals with. But the major thing that made it happen was Alex’s amazing persistence in raising money for this film.

As debut filmmakers a good connection for both of was (and is) our executive producer Timothy White. His expertise, wisdom and charm guided us through this process.

There were some painful coincidences. My partner of 15 years began work in the development team at the NZFC exactly one week before the meeting in which they rejected our UK deal and our whole film temporarily collapsed. That was awful.

My thoughts for women filmmakers? I wish there were more of us, and I honestly don't know why there aren’t. I personally didn’t put having children on hold. My son was three-ish when I first read the novel, and he’s eleven now as we approach the release. He’s thoroughly sick of this film by the way! The year of actually making the film was tough on him, I was away for five months, and during the shoot I was barely available. I am very lucky in having an extremely supportive partner. I wanted to make the film badly, and I’ve been willing to make sacrifices to do it. The biggest sacrifices would be time spent with family and friends, time to myself, and literally years of income.

Our New Zealand crew in Auckland shooting the front porch of Michael and David's 'Hamilton' flat.
Left to right: Giles Coburn, Eoin Cox, Abby Mounter, Jason White, Matt Whelan, Crighton Bone, Mark Wigglesworth, Robyn Grace
As you may know, women write very few of the features in early development at the NZFC, and then as projects move towards production funding their participation falls away even further. 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?

I think the main answer to what helped my project is in the financing question above (writing a script that could attract international finance, and having a producer who never ever gave up.)

Even though I’ve always seen this as a head-rush of a film about throwing yourself into life, the C and D words (cancer, and death) are the two things most likely to make a film impossible to finance. In spite of TV shows like Breaking Bad and The ‘C’ Word which have reached big audiences and are not ‘disease of the week’, financiers and broadcasters still run screaming.

Assuming the script quality was the same I would have found it much easier to make a film about a woman who didn’t have cancer, than a man who did.

I did experience some difficulty because of my gender, and also because of the way I come across as a woman. (Never at the NZFC though.) I have a fairly high voice (something I may have to work on changing) and it can lure people into thinking I am not someone they need to take seriously. It means I have to work harder to earn respect.

European crew shooting at dawn in Venice, on the corner of the Doge's Palace at the entrance to the Piazza San Marco.
It’s a delight for me to see that you have a woman producer—because so many women producers prefer to produce men’s projects—and to see that talented, committed, women like Sarah Rose and Aria Harrison continue to work in the screen industry. But your crew, like so many, tends to divide along traditional gender lines, so you have a male cinematographer and a male editor. Did this matter to you? Do you think this ever matters?

You’re right that most crews do have specific areas of gender imbalance, as mine did. But I don’t see any difference in value between the roles. My female costume designer and make-up designer are as talented, and had as profound a creative impact on this film as my male DOP and editor.

When crewing the film we were just trying to find the right people, regardless of gender.

Pana Hema-Taylor (David) and Matt Whelan (Michael) keep warm in between takes on location in Munich, Germany.
What were the pleasures and difficulties of the shoot and the post-production?

I still feel so lucky that I got to make a film. The biggest pleasure is just that, all the hardship and sacrifice was actually worth it. I’m proud of the film, and proud of my collaborators. It was such a joy after so long of just Alex, Tim and I slogging away to have a big group of people come on board with their talent and enthusiasm. I loved being on set, and in post - even on the hard days I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Difficulties… ahh. Can’t remember any!

Sylvie (Roxane Mesqida) on location in Monreal, Germany.
I’m always very interested in audience. When I interviewed Simone Horrocks about After the Waterfall, I asked her: “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?” The Most Fun You Can Have Dying is the almost the reverse, as I understand it, because most of the action takes place overseas. Did you have a core audience in mind, and if so, who?

We always saw our core audience being 16-30, but hope that the film will have enough universality to translate to people much older. We definitely see it as being a very New Zealand film. Its protagonist could only really come from here and the film is very much a high-stakes take on the traditional youthful ‘overseas experience’.

What’s next? Have you got another project ready to go?

I’ve got about three I’m working on! I love doing it too much to stop.




  1. Went to BFM preview. It's pretty powerful as a film. Punches above it's weight I reckon. Matt Whelan carries it very well. We do get to see his bum. So does Pana (and we see his bum too). The Doctor and the shetland ponies in flagrante got a big laugh. Quite a few tears though too -- so very affecting.

  2. I saw this film at the embassy in Wellington last week and it's one of the best Nz films I've seen in ages - Matt Whelan is SO good.

    PicCell Wireless


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