Skip to main content

Nathalie Boltt, Clare Burgess & 'The Silk'

I love it when New Zealand women make short films outside ‘the system’ and find success. The Silk is one of these successes. It's Nathalie Boltt's adaptation of a Joy Cowley story, co-produced and co-directed with Clare Burgess. The Silk's been accepted at eleven festivals* where it's won seven awards: five Best Narrative Short Film awards, a Best Acting Award and a Best Cinematography Award. I also have an ongoing interest in actors as writers and directors because it seems to me that they often move behind the camera with real ease; and Nathalie’s a hugely experienced actor as well as a writer/director, so that's another reason to interview her.

Nathalie Boltt
Q: What drew you to The Silk and inspired you to adapt it for the screen? Is it your first script? Were there any particular challenges?

Clare and I had worked together on her short film, Tango, and wanted to collaborate. She showed me Joy Cowley's short story, The Silk and it was one of those punch-in-the-stomach moments (that short stories are so good at) that made me think this is important, this is special, don't ignore this. And Clare and I were luckily both at a place in our lives where we could say – 'Let's do it' and were both in a position to jump into action. I was frustrated with the acting world, she was ready for something creative outside of her day job. We both had this buzz of 'why not?!' we had a little money in the bank and we lived across the road from each other(!), so it seemed like a fun idea to split the pressure and do it together.

When I started writing the script, I found that Joy's story is so filmic and cleverly written, it practically turned itself into a screenplay. It honestly took only a few hours to adapt it. There were minor changes in the drafts that followed, but the key story was clear right from the start.

I was a writer before I was an actor, so it's not my first script for the screen – I have written for a number of TV projects in South Africa and here. But it's my first film script. I'm working on two feature scripts, but they're still in the early stages.

Q: Did you act in Tango? What drew you together?

Clare directed Tango but didn't put it into the film festival circuit. It's a fun movie (she might want to show it online now!) I played a support role - the party girl in an office-romance story. It was hilarious – I usually get cast in strong leading lady roles, but this time I got to act drunk and talk dirty. Awesome! I liked that Clare could see my fun side and the relationship blossomed from there I guess. Clare is a very organised, driven but fun and supremely social person. She has taken on some massive jobs as a VFX co-ordinator and producer at Weta Digital, but, like me she loves music (she has directed music videos) and is creative and loves a good laugh and to get on the dance floor. It's a great mix and we're a great match.

Q: I think you and Clare both came to New Zealand from elsewhere and have wide experience in the film industry. In what ways did both these circumstances help and not help? (This question partly because I’ve been writing a piece for someone about diasporas that carry women filmmakers into and out of NZ and have begun to understand their significance. I’m not sure, but I think that women who arrive on the inward diasporas may be a little more confident/ ambitious/ competitive. Certainly they provide a strong and enriching presence.)

Clare comes from the UK, worked at the Jim Henson company from a young age and then came to Wellington to work at Weta and is still powering on like a bat out of hell. I can't say what drives her except a similar energy to mine, which involves having the feeling of wanting to be productive and creative and really live life to the full – a feeling of always running out of time. Neither of us are any good at saying no. We both burn the candle at both ends, but it's just in our nature to want to do more. Coming from South Africa, I guess I just have a work ethic of 'if you don't work, you die'. There is nothing to catch you there if you fall, no unemployment benefits etc. to fall back on. It's also a dangerous and fast-paced place. So I guess that drive to get ahead, be different, be brave, is in me. And no, it doesn't sit well sometimes with other people. In New Zealand, I have been told to tone it down a bit.

Mr Blackie (Don Langridge) reminisces as Mrs Blackie (Kate Harcourt) sews

I've learned good things from being in this country, though – don't talk about what you're going to do, just get on with it. Then show us what you've got. People are also incredibly generous with their time, energy and creativity. I don't think The Silk could have been made in Johannesburg – there's too much poverty and competition to help out newbie film makers. I imagine the same could be said for a place like LA – people want to know what's in it for them – it's all about the money. It's hard to know when and how much being an immigrant with a different background counts against you. All you can do is be as respectful as possible of a country that has let you in... and carry on doing what you love.

Q: How did you fund The Silk? What were the challenges?

We applied for funding, but didn't get it. So we funded it ourselves. At the time we were disappointed but I could see that as a first-time film maker you need to show funders that you're not just a fly-by-nighter. There are definite advantages to self-funding. Clare and I worked as hard and fast as we could and got the film made pretty quickly. We made it the way we wanted to and made some incredible connections – good, talented people, who did us favours because they believed in the project and us. And we love them and will remember them for future projects!

The directors watch the playback
Q: How did you and Clare manage the co-producing and the co-directing? What films and filmmakers influenced you? What were the pleasures and surprises involved and again the challenges?

We didn't have a formula, but basically just shared decisions. If I felt really strongly about something then Clare would often defer to me and vice versa. For some reason it just worked. It's not to say we didn't have times of tension but they were far fewer than the times of sheer delight when we knew we were doing something good and that our idea was coming to fruition. I'm really comfortable working with actors and so I concentrated on that, while Clare has more technical experience so she focussed on that. We've shared all the admin and promotion of the film, which is awesome as alone it would just get overwhelming. I think our set was so calm, not only because we had an outstanding crew and cast, but because there wasn't one director taking all the responsibility on themselves. We had and have each other's back and that's a great way to work. It really brings out the best in both of us.

Clare and Nathalie with writer Joy Cowley 
One of the great pleasures of this project was getting to meet and work with Joy Cowley. She has been incredibly generous and supportive of us – I can't tell you how much I respect her. When we met her and spoke about the project, she invited us to her house, cooked us the most fantastic lunch, gifted and signed a number of books for my young son and told us 'I know the project is in good hands' and sent us off to go and make the film. Clare and I had no idea what we'd done to deserve this! But it certainly made us want to do Joy proud... maybe she knew that, more likely, that's just the way she is – positive. Now there's a lady who has changed the world for the better. She absolutely lives up to her name and there is something about her that makes me feel like there is more to the world than what we can see. She seems to have a direct line to some well of creativity and inspiration and I'm fascinated by her. I'm so grateful to have met her and Clare and I will be nurturing that relationship (see more below).

In terms of directorial influence, people like Miranda July (You and Me and Everyone We Know) and Michel Gondry come to mind. I like their humour and lack of boundaries. Their works speak of a genuine interest in trying a new idea rather than trying to impress anyone. I love P.T. Anderson's work (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood). He is a genius. Scary smart and so original every time. Oh to be a fly on his wall to see how he works. Then again, I'm a huge TV series junkie. I'd love to witness the brainstorming and writing processes of the teams involved in Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Episodes, The Killing (Season 1). It's always got to start with a great story.

Kate Harcourt as Mrs Blackie
Q: How did you choose festivals to submit to? How many did you try? 

I have a director friend in LA who has been making independent films for years and getting them onto the film festival circuit. It's so much easier with Withoutabox but of course there are festivals out there that are rubbish and just looking to collect entry fees. So this friend gave me a list of festivals that he rates as good – not just the really established ones – ones that are around 5 years old, a good track record, are open to new people, with quality line ups, and - hell yes – Prizes! We also signed up to Shortfilmdepot, which is more European. We're hoping to get into the NZ Film Festival and would love to be selected in Australia too. It's such a kiwi story with such incredible NZ talent, it really deserves to be seen down-under, so we will be pushing it here. We entered about 30 festivals in all - so I think we've had a pretty good hit rate. It's an expensive game, so it really depends on what your budget is for marketing your film. But do market your film! I was given great advice – 'don't just make the film and let it die. Treat it as your child. Promote it like a shameless parent'. This is your calling card to your next move and you want people to trust that you are up to the next task. Why else would they support you?

Nathalie gives notes to Don Langridge

Q: What have you learned that you’d like to share? What advice do you have for others who want to adapt and tell stories by and about women?

Just keep on doing it. Every day. Decide on a course of action and follow it. Regardless of how much time you have, do something that progresses your mission. Even if you write only a paragraph. Even if your movie is 2 minutes long. Even if all you do is take picture of something that interests you. At the end of the week/month/ year you'll have something to show and you will know what your next move is.

Before The Silk, I was generally unhappy with the end result of other people's projects - that I acted in. Instead of sitting around moaning, I should have just proved to myself that I could do better. I wasted time and energy. It's extremely empowering to get off your butt and do something, I highly recommend it.

Cinematographer Simon Riera and Camera Assistant Aline Tran

Miranda Rivers suggested that next time you're writing another role for a male ask, yourself - could this person be female? I find we're all so programmed to think male first - myself included! but so often, it could just as well be a female lawyer, spy, teacher, murderer, child, doctor, surfer, neighbour, zombie, helicopter pilot!!

Another tip is to find good people to work with, who get buzzed by your ideas and say 'Yes! Let's do that right now!' and if you don't have those people yet, then do it on your own until you do. I was told at least a decade ago, when I was primarily an actor, to make my own work. I ignored that advice because it was easier and safer to wait for someone else to give me a 'break'. That's just laziness – and fear. If you don't know how to record, edit, light a film, get someone to show you. Or recognise the talent in others and ask them to help you. For instance, I noticed how brilliant the cinematographer, Simon Riera, was on a film I acted in (Bloodlines). I never expected him to help us – I was terrified of asking him, but he was delighted to shoot our film. Our editor, Philip Boltt, was absolutely key in making The Silk what it is. He shaped that story and he helped us because he believed in the project. Good, talented, generous people.

Q: Are you going to do it again? Try a feature?

Absolutely. Clare and I have formed a company, Rodrigo Films, so we're official. (Rodrigo Road was where we lived when we were making The Silk - we'd hop across the street to each others houses, working til 10 or 11pm on storyboards etc - so we thought we'd bring that into our name – good times!) We have the option for a Joy Cowley novel - it's along the lines of The Silk, so expect the same magic! I'm going to write the screenplay and then we'll need to get cracking on finding funding so please spread the word and support us, morally, verbally, digitally, creatively, financially, any way you can! We're building our online presence via Facebook and Twitter  – please like and follow us – and we have a lovely website. We're going to look at crowd funding like Kickstarter and when the time comes.

If you'd like to make contact, please find me via my website. I'd be delighted to talk filmmaking!

* Dallas International Film Festival, Rockport FF, Vancouver Women's FF, Los Angles Women's FF, Macon FF, Green Bay FF, Annapolis FF, Fargo FF, Beloit FF, Portland Women's FF, Honolulu Film Awards, Oregon Film Awards