Leonie Reynolds & Jo Randerson: 'Disappear in Light'

Leonie Reynolds

Leonie Reynolds is a scriptwriter and documentary filmmaker. Her documentaries and a short comedy have played on New Zealand television and in festivals both in New Zealand and overseas and her first documentary, Hard Words, won the Rangatahi Award at the New Zealand Media Peace Awards.

Leonie’s worked as a storyliner and dialogue scriptwriter for South Pacific Pictures’ Shortland Street and as a journalist, Leonie has written on theatre and film for many publications.

Leonie’s Disappear in Light has just had its premiere at New Zealand’s Documentary Edge Festival. It’s an observational documentary about writer, performer and producer Jo Randerson and her largest scale theatre work to date:  Good Night - The End,  a black comedy about death, and about what it means to engage with life. A woman filmmaker’s film about a woman writer is a rare event and I’ve been celebrating.

Why did you want to make a film about Jo?
I’ve been an admirer of Jo’s writing ever since I read her short fiction collection The Spit Children. I felt like I was in the presence of a really unique and compelling voice, a wonderful strangeness. And she’s just as compelling onstage, as a performer. I hoped other people would be just as intrigued as I was to go on the journey of getting to know Jo and her creative process a bit better.

Jo turns
How did you decide that the film would focus on the making of Good Night - The End? Where did the title come from?
I knew Jo had a major project in the works and I thought that following the evolution of a show would give a great natural structure to a film. The title came from one of the clips I named during the edit process, actually – a shot (that I used for the poster) of Jo disappearing from the stage wreathed in luminous smoke. Disappear in Light is also a kind of metaphor for death itself – which is largely what the play (and that moment in the play) is about.

Creating a new work is a huge challenge. Making a film about the creative process is also a huge challenge. What was particularly difficult about doing the two things at the same time? What were the rewards?
I can only imagine how much more difficult my presence made the task of rehearsing and constructing the play. Being creative is a challenge at the best of times, and doing it with a camera on you would be a bit like going on a date with a camera on you, I’d imagine. I’m afraid I think the difficulty was taken on by Jo and her team and the rewards were for me – in terms of getting a documentary out the other end. Though it was difficult for me too – there are times when you know the people you’re filming would really rather you weren’t there, that they’re very much over being filmed even though they may not be saying anything, and it can be a challenge to just keep turning up and shooting under those circumstances. But Jo and her team, I think, took the filming on as another creative challenge – to hold focus and work under that increased level of difficulty. I salute them all for that – especially director Andrew Foster. To direct under the gaze of a camera – I can’t imagine anything tougher.

What did you learn about Jo and her process that intrigued, surprised, delighted you? What did you learn about the creative process, your own and Jo’s, from working with her? Has observing and recording Jo changed the way you yourself work?
My feeling about observational documentary making is that the creativity happens in the edit – during the shoot you’re just a recording machine. The shoot part of things is all about stamina. I have spent quite a lot of time around the theatre so nothing about the construction of the show was really a revelation – except that I was reminded how hard theatre artists work for that ephemeral opening night.

Thomas at mirror
As a scriptwriter, what differences and similarities have you identified between writing a fictional script and structuring a doco?
I’ve spent a lot of time studying three act structure, to the point that it’s instinctive. That was really useful in the edit – I knew how to shape a story. Editing really is writing when it comes to documentary.

What documentary makers have influenced you?
Well, Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog is probably my favourite  – but I’d never imitate his process – he lies! He’s admitted it! He thinks up poetic things for the camera and gets people to act them out or repeat them as though they’re the truth. Grizzly Man is probably the only film he didn’t lie on – because it was constructed through found footage. I still haven’t figured out how I can manage to be a fan of his while massively disapproving of the way he goes about his work.

What’s your next project?
I don’t think I’ll be making another observational documentary – the size of the commitment is like scaling Everest. One ascent per lifetime is more than enough. I suspect my next project could be in new media, but I haven’t decided yet – time to take a break!

Barbarian Productions
New Zealand Book Council 
The Arts Foundation