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Sophie Henderson and Fantail

Fantail opens in New Zealand cinemas this Thursday, 5 June. It’s the story of service station worker Tania, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman who identifies as Maori, working to take her little bro Pi to Surfer’s to find their Dad. But flitting Pi causes plans to go awry. (The Maori myth of Hine-Nui-Te-Po, Maui and the fantail/piwakawaka is its starting point, see links below if you're unfamiliar with the story.)

Fantail was made through the New Zealand Film Commission’s low-budget Escalator scheme and it's been very successful. It premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year and screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Level K snapped up the global rights (Curious Film has the Australian and New Zealand distribution rights). It received eight nominations at the New Zealand Film Awards 2013, including a nomination for Best Film. And the reviews are very enthusiastic, too, look at all those stars! I'm excited because Fantail has a woman protagonist – true for only 14% of New Zealand Film Commission-funded features over the last decade – and it's written by a woman, Sophie Henderson, who also plays the lead role.

Sophie Henderson
Sophie is a fine example of a phenomenon that’s becoming more and more common everywhere – women actors also write, direct or produce, or all three. Think Amma Asante, Angelina Jolie, Julie Delpy, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Polley etc and, in New Zealand’s film history, the late Merata Mita, Fiona Samuel, Riwia Brown, Katie Wolfe and many others– Abigail Greenwood, Aidee Walker, Anoushka Klaus, April Phillips, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Jackie Van Beek, Kate Prior, Lauren Jackson, Loren Taylor, Madeline Sami, Nathalie Boltt, Rachel House etc. Fantail is directed by Sophie’s husband Curtis Vowell.

Fantail started as your monologue at drama school. You adapted it into a play. And then you and Curtis took it to Escalator as one of three ideas. Where did the idea for Fantail come from at the beginning?

The idea for Fantail came from my love of Maori myths and legends and my hate of retail. The Hine- Nui-Te-Po myth has always cracked me up because it's a bit rude. We used to have a line in Fantail ‘Maui’s gotta crawl up her fanny, yeah real!’ but Curtis made me cut it cos it was making a serious moment potentially funny. That was the starting point for the film, that myth. The character Piwakawaka, Tania’s brother, falls out of that - he’s cheeky and ruins everything too. 
Jahalis Ngamotu as Piwakawaka
Also, I worked in a shop for 8 years, it was my worst. I know how to pass the time in retail and I’ve met a handful of overzealous regional managers.

You’re pakeha. Fantail is inspired by a Maori myth and plays with ideas about Maori/Pakeha identity. What does Pakeha mean to you as a film-maker in general and, specifically, in writing and making Fantail? 

I want to be a filmmaker who tells New Zealand stories, but what makes a story New Zealandy? I’m not sure. I just feel like as a pakeha New Zealander, I don’t have much of my own culture. I hate rugby, I’m not a farmer, so I’m trying to work out what that is. I wish Maori culture belonged to me because I love it. And that's where Fantail comes from.

I heard someone say on a panel once that you shouldn’t write Maori characters if you’re not in the inner circle of Maoridom. I wasn’t brave enough to put my hand up and go ‘what about a Pakeha girl who thinks she’s Maori?’

There are Maori characters in my film but they are not whose story it is. I’m exploring why a Pakeha girl would think she was Maori and why she would want to believe that so badly. I’m not Maori, but I think Fantail might start a conversation about identity and how we belong to each other's cultures in New Zealand.

Fantail is screening at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival and it means a lot to me to have their blessing.

In an interview on Native Affairs, Curtis talks about how you received different questions in Rotterdam than you did in New Zealand.

People didn’t understand Maori culture and so they were fascinated by that, they had heaps of questions that New Zealanders would already know the answers to. I often had to repeat the Maui myth and explain that if a fantail flies into your house it’s bad luck.

Curtis Vowell & Sophie on the Good Morning show
Typically, a screenwriter hands over the script and her work is done. But it didn’t work like that for you, because your husband’s the director and you act in the film and it’s made through your own company. How did you manage all of that?

I guess I had a lot to offer beyond writing the script and I feel very privileged that I still had some ownership of the story right the way through. I was on set as an actor and tried to not wear my writer’s hat then, but I was lucky enough to be invited into the edit room where I learnt a lot about storytelling. Collaborating with Curtis and our editor, Richard Shaw, was one of most rewarding and full-on experiences of Fantail. We rewrote my script in the edit and everyone had to be harsh about what was working and what wasn’t. We were ruthless, scenes went, the order changed drastically. Richard has great taste and I’m so thrilled I got to watch him edit, his instincts are bang on.

Fantail was the ‘wild card’ in your Escalator group. What did that mean for you?

When we were shortlisted someone from the Film Commission rang me with the good news and let us know that we were the wild card because we were the least experienced. I’m so thankful they took that chance on us. And it was really helpful being told that, because it meant we knew we had to work harder than any other team to prove we could do it. We got secretly competitive. Our team decided to shoot a teaser from the film with the development money we were given. That experience was great for us. The scene we chose meant we could test the balance of comedy and drama, and it gave us confidence that we could pull it off. We handed it in with our application and it’s probably what got us across the line.

You had a lot of help from women, something to celebrate. Can you talk a little bit about that and why your script attracted them so?

I was incredibly lucky to have some brilliant script consultants including Ainsley Gardiner (Boy, Pa Boys) and Philippa Campbell (Top of the Lake) as well as my mum Katie Henderson, who is an author. My main collaborator on the script was Katherine Fry who taught me how to write for film and believed in me right from the start. She had been on the selection panel for Escalator and took me under her wing. She is one of the most generous and nurturing people in the industry.

You’ll have to ask them what attracted them to the script, I don’t know… but all of these remarkable women gave their time to read and critique my work. They pushed me to go deeper with the story and uncover what it was about and why I needed to tell it.

Fantail was made for $250k. The other day, an established filmmaker told me that this kind of budget was for the ‘inspired amateur’ only, possibly in response to stories about low budget films spending a huge proportion of their budgets on legal fees, about writers and directors not being paid, about cast and crew not being paid. I’ve also heard of low budget filmmakers saying ‘never again’ because the stress of earning a living and finishing the film was too great. And for women I think, because we tend to earn less than men, a low-budget film may be just too great a risk. What do you think about all this?

I’d love to talk to that person, I think it’s an interesting point of view. Maybe we were inspired amateurs but that doesn’t mean our film is rubbish. It doesn’t mean we’re not artists. Our crew was made up of very experienced and dedicated humans. They all got paid and they all have points in the film. I knew they weren’t working on it for the money, they were working on it because they backed us and they connected to the story. We also gave some people the opportunity to shoot their first film, to be an HOD, to take the next step in their careers. I didn’t get paid, but I got more out of it than anyone else. It gave me experience, it gave me a writing credit, I’ve got work because of it. Not getting paid meant extra shoot days and that was my choice. It was what was best for the film. Curtis earned half as much as me, don’t worry. My contract says I get $1 for acting AND $1 for writing.

Our goal was not to make a great low budget feature, it was to make a fucking great film. I think in low budget the script and performances can be the first thing to let the film down – they give away what the budget is. Truthful performances and a good story costs no money. Like none. We weren’t experienced as filmmakers but we have a history in theatre, which is all about long-form storytelling and performance. In the theatre I’ve done, there is always a deep appreciation of the actor-director relationship. Everything else comes second to the performances and the story.

Would you like to direct?

No I wouldn’t, not at the moment, but a lot of people ask me that. I want to be the best writer I can be and if I’m going to do that, I don't really have time to develop as a director as well. Gotta get my ten thousand hours in.

Can you identify the moment when you became a writer as well as an actor? You acted in Fiona Samuel’s Piece of My Heart and Bliss and in Kirstin Marcon’s The Most Fun You Can Have Dying. Did this involvement in women-written projects inspire you?

I became a professional actor when I worked for Silo theatre on their Ensemble Project in 2007. I auditioned the day after I finished drama school and was chosen for this company of 12 emerging actors. One of the pieces we made was called Based on Auckland, directed by Oliver Driver. It was devised and I remember writing some scenes with Curtis for that – we were both in it. That's how we met. The scenes made it to the final production, so that was my first writing gig too I suppose.

Kirstin read Fantail for me, I was doing ADR for The Most Fun You Can Have Dying at the time and she somehow found time to read it. What an amazing woman. It was the first draft and she gave me some top screenwriting tips and suggested what to look for in a script consultant. Of course she has inspired me and to have her support means a great deal. She was at the NZ Film Festival screening of Fantail and came up to me at the end in tears. I’ll never forget that.

I adore Fiona’s work. She is a triple threat – writer/actor/director. I played small parts in Bliss and Piece of My Heart but she blimmin knows how to get the best performances out of actors. Her scripts are a pleasure to read and act. I can’t wait to see her Louise Nicholas telefeature, it stars one of my best friends, Michelle Blundell.

Jackie Van Beek, Sophie and Tom Sainsbury on a Script-To-Screen panel
On a recent Script-To-Screen panel (which has some fascinating discussion about making the transition from writing plays to writing screenplays) you said ‘Actors making films are ready to take risks. We’re also used to rejection and criticism. We just keep trying’. It made a lot of sense to me that acting builds resilience. And from my writing buddy who’s an actor I’ve learned that she has deep experience of engagement with structure, character and dialogue that I don’t and it enriches her writing and I’m envious of that! Is acting the ideal training for a woman who wants to write and direct films?

I think it’s an interesting career pathway but I’m not sure it’s ideal! Having interesting experiences in life and studying writing is probably the best way to get there. Or… just do it now. Talking about doing it is not the same. You don’t have to wait for permission to write. Do it now.

You are taught as an actor to risk. Risk big. Fail big. And so actors are brave, they have to be. We are so greedy to be original and truthful and memorable and that is the same when I write. I think performance and character will always be at the heart of my writing because I’m an actor. I don't ever want to write a dud role for someone. Working out what a character wants, how they change, their relationships and attitudes, getting inside their head – this is the same approach for both crafts. I think working on the stage has given me a deeper understanding of audience and comedy and pace.

When you want to explore a particular idea/ tell a specific story, how do you choose whether to write for theatre or screen?

If I can make it as a play then I’ll do that. It will save a lot of time and money. Almost anything is possible on the stage and it’s a good place to test work. In theatre experimenting with structure and form is celebrated. A screenplay is much more clearly defined. There are some stories I have up my sleeve though that need to be told on film. I’m really interested in using theatre as a live transmedia platform for my next feature, opening up a bigger story world so audiences are more engaged, more immersed. I think about audience a lot and a film will reach more people than theatre can. Theatre is so fleeting here.

I understand that your next screenplay is very different.

It's a comedy called Manhunt. Based on a short story by my mum, it’s about an artist who always falls for the wrong man so decides to make her own boyfriends – she folds one, knits one, grows one and sculpts one. It was another one of our Escalator ideas, so I’ve been thinking about it for ages. It’s currently in development with the NZ Film Commission and I am bashing out a draft.

Fantail on Facebook

The Making of Fantail: Sophie Henderson and Curtis Vowell in conversation (Pantograph Punch)

Sophie Henderson on Fantail (Lumiere)

Fantail Takes Flight (The Big Idea interview, with Renee Laing)

Native Affairs interview

Sophie talks to Tim Fookes (and explains the Hine-Nui-Te-Po story) Newstalk ZB

Here's a beautiful version of the Hine-Nui-Te-Po and Maui story, How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death, by Peter Gossage.

My favorite telling of this Hine-Nui-Te-Po story is in Wahine Toa, by Patricia Grace and Robyn Kahukiwa.

I've asked around about good versions online and suggest here and here.


  1. A fascinating interview. Thanks for posting. It's great to see such talent spearheading the making of movies in NZ!

  2. Thank you, Samantha! I hope you get to see Fantail, if you haven't already! It's great.


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