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Anoushka Klaus, from 'Jake'

Anoushka Klaus (photo: Sacha Stejko)

I'm fascinated by actors and how they shift into other roles in filmmaking, especially writing. Anoushka Klaus is a recent find. She's appeared in Shortland Street and Nothing Trivial, in lots of theatre (including Girl In Tan Boots, F*ck Love, Golden Boys and The Sex Show) and in three features, including Bloodlines, written by Donna Malane and Paula Boock (Best Script NZWG awards 2010) and directed by Peter Burger.

Anoushka produced her latest feature, Jake, a sci-fi movie just out in New Zealand. Jake will be playing at the Paramount in Wellington from 11 July, when there'll be a Q & A session hosted by Jonathan King. It's had great reviews–
'Imaginative and endlessly witty.' – Sarah Watt Sunday Star Times
'The smartest bit of low-fi high-IQ science fiction New Zealand has produced.' – David Larsen Listener
'An entertaining and insightful slice of Twilight Zone-ish fun.' Dominic Corry

Tell me a little bit about your pathways, as an actor, and from acting to producing.

I came to acting via a somewhat different route than most, so my journey is actually in the reverse – producing to acting. I always wanted to be an actor but while I was at university I had put on weight and lost the confidence I needed to pursue acting properly. I had an agent and I was creating and performing in plays, singing and dancing publicly but for some reason pursuing acting professionally just became too scary so I turned to directing and producing my own short films for a few years as it seemed the closest I could get to acting without 'acting'.

Then, as fate would have it, I decided to do Meisner as a means of becoming a 'better director' and by the end of the first class I knew I was kidding myself. This was around the time I met Alastair. Al and I were both working at Images & Sound and he was doing the titles for a short film I'd made when he invited me to join Hybrid for their weekend 'filmmaking practices'.

When Jake first came up, I was going to be a much smaller role but we entered the 48hour film competition right before we went into casting and on the strength of my performance Doug offered me the role of Violet.

Anoushka as Violet
Since then I haven't really looked back. I am now first and foremost an actor, and producing is actually going back to my previous set of skills rather than moving from acting into it.

Where does film fit within your work?

Jake was my first feature as [lead] actor and is my first feature as a producer. Having made a handful of short films where I was often the writer/director/editor/producer, I was quite keen on the challenge of making a feature (especially if I got to do a little acting with it). I think we were all blissfully naive at the outset as to how long it would take and I'm quite grateful for that. It's been a really fruitful but super challenging journey. As an actor it provided the experience I needed to get casting directors to notice me and as a producer I hope it will become a calling card that allows us to make more features (hopefully with financing next time).

Jake is a very unconventional story that we'd originally planned to shoot in the weekends as part of our 'filmmaking practice'. Then I encouraged Doug to consider professional cast...and we were able to get our hands on a Red the production values grew along with our expectations.

We made the decision really early on to not wait around for permission to make it, so we chose the somewhat ominous path of self-funding and self-distributing. It was shot over 23 days in and around Auckland in 2009. Sixty percent of it was shot over a two week block and then the rest over weekends.

I played a character called Violet Merrill. She is the ex-girlfriend of Jacob and is the catalyst that sparks his desire to fight back. I was really drawn to her because I felt she was one of the key elements within the film for selling the high concept of 're-casting' to the audience and it was also important to me that she seem 'fight worthy'.

As a producer, I was heavily involved in the development, casting and pre-production. I focused on acting while we were shooting and I am currently coordinating the marketing and distribution of the film. The two other producers Alastair Tye Samson and Doug Dillaman (who also wrote and directed the film) are both editors by trade so they did the lions-share during production and post-production. We each had our particular focuses at different points but it has really been a team effort the whole way through.

Anoushka (right) on set with production manager Amanda Cairns-Cowan
What've you learned as a producer and how will you use that?

Having an unconventional genre can be a blessing and a curse. It's given us a real point of difference from other films that are coming out but it has also made it challenging in terms of festivals and funding. Having said that, if I were given the chance to go back over and do it again, I wouldn't change a thing in terms of the story. I'm glad we didn't try to make it fit in a box. It has provided some really interesting challenges on how to market the film to potential distribution, media and audiences but that's all part of the fun and I think we've learnt more because of it.

I started this film as a general 'producer' but I have found that my strengths and enjoyment lie in the development and marketing areas of producing, so that is what I'll focus on more next time and let someone else who is better at it do more of the pre-production/production coordinating.

What about your longer term goals?

I am personally very passionate about making films that not only pass the Bechdel Test but also have woman making big choices that drive the story and aren't just reacting to the events around them. While Jake doesn't pass that test, I loved the unconventional story and jumped to be on board as I believe as it will provide us with a producers calling card so we can keep moving towards creating the films we want to make in the future.

In terms of what is next, Hybrid has a slate of feature films that we are developing, one of which I am writing. It is a psychological thriller about the lengths one family will go to protect the dark secrets of its members. It investigates the notion that blood may be thicker than water but do your family really have your best interests at heart? And yes the protagonist and antagonist are both female... :)

The plan is to look for development funding to help workshop the script as much as possible through script consultants, workshops with actors and really do thorough investigation into the world the story lives in. I definitely want to have financing this time around as I want to be able to get it right on paper first and I think it's important to be able to pay people. One for free is enough.

I think having a team like Hybrid is a huge advantage as a filmmaker. What we found during Jake is that Alastair, Doug and I all have very different strengths and weaknesses so we complement each other quite well and are able to push each other when we need to.

Alastair, Doug and Anoushka just before the premiere
I think a huge challenge I face personally is the fact I have so many different titles...too many 'slashes'. Recently I have started to call myself a 'filmmaker' rather than an actor/producer/casting director/wannabe writer, because that is ultimately what I am and what I do. I tell story by making films. The way I make those films may differ project to project and that is something I think people may find difficult to classify in terms of how to invest in me individually. At the end of the day, I just want to tell good stories.

As you may know, only 6% of 48 hours films were directed by women this year. Do you have a theory about why so many women produce 48 Hours projects and why so few direct?

Ohhh great question! Hard question...hmmm.

With our team, we have been developing Alastair as a director and I have been focusing on developing as a writer and actor which has been a very conscious decision on our part. It doesn't mean I'm not allowed to direct but at the moment I'm not as interested in it as I am in writing and acting. I am very concerned at how few women direct though and I think making people aware of the lack of women directing is an important step to encouraging more women to take up the challenge, particularly within the 48 Hour competition.

If I were to take a guess at why...I think it comes down a lack of confidence and fueled by that blasted 'tall poppy syndrome' we all suffer from here in New Zealand. I'm wondering if women need to be given permission, therefore encouraged, by their teams to step into that role more. I don't know if men find it easier to put themselves forward than we do but I know during the process of Jake, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, there were times I found myself waiting to be given permission to do things and I was a producer! It is something I try hard not to need now but it took a long time for me to know I was even doing it so maybe there are other women out there who are unconsciously waiting for permission too?

At the same time I don't want women being directors out of pity or for the sake of just being PC. I think women need to find their need to talk. I think having the award for best female direction is good for awareness but ultimately the work shouldn't be judged on what gender the director is.

Personally, I'm now so frustrated by the ways women can be portrayed on screen that that is what drives me to try to make a change. I think women are still finding ways to sit comfortably in leadership roles so some conscious encouragement from their teams could be big help moving forward.

How many short films have you written/directed? What were their names and their themes? What have you learned and what do you enjoy about writing and directing?

I directed five short films, four of which I wrote, between 2005 - 2007. The first was called Two Guys & A Balcony and was inspired by some guys I met who had come from a lot of money and grown up in a boarding school setting. The shoot was terrifying and I had no idea what I was doing but I did cast it with professional actors so the performances hold up much better than my script or direction did...

The next two (including a 48hour film) are best forgotten...because I lacked a lot of clarity when I was making them. That's really all I have to say about them...

The next was a short called Put Your Hand In Mine that I was invited to direct. It follows a father as he separates from his wife and daughter. It was a great learning curve getting to work on someone else's script and some of it I am still quite happy with but I think I lacked the confidence at the time to really interrogate the script and develop it as a director.

The last one I made is my favourite. It's called Late and it's just a skit really. It was a little script I wrote in a lunchbreak while working at Images and Sound and we shot it over one and half days with a tiny crew (4 people) that included DOP Andrew Stroud (who is just phenomenal) and two actors (Toby Sharpe & Elizabeth McGlinn - also both phenomenal). My focus with that one was learning how to set the characters up properly before the action happens so it was more an exercise than anything else but I'm happy with how it came out. You can watch it here.

Alastair was kind enough to do my title and credits for Late and it was while we were hanging out in the edit suite that I put my hand up to act in Hybrid's next 48hour film (that Doug was directing) and that was where my Hybrid journey began.

I really enjoy directing but I am now more interested in acting and writing. I will probably look for someone else to direct the shorts I've written so I can learn more about writing. My ideas are much larger now, more complex and investigative, so I think passing the directing to someone else is a good thing.

What are the challenges for you (apart from the slashes)?

To be totally honest it's all to do with confidence...having self belief and feeling like I deserve a place in the room is something I struggle with a lot. I can suffer from a bit of crowd phobia so I'm not the greatest networker in the world even though I love people and love films. I'm just not great at walking into a room of filmmakers and starting conversations. I've learnt to do this as a actor but I still find myself lacking the confidence to say "Hi! I'm a producer". Having Jake out in cinemas is helping though.

With Doug in the Sunday Star Times
The weird thing is I'm not shy when it comes to talking with media or potential sponsors about our film. I don't suffer shyness when it comes to doing the job if I understand the context and needs of both parties involved but I do find 'mingling' a form of torture sometimes so I would like to improve this and find the joy in it.

Do you have a preferred role when making a film, beyond development and marketing?

I see myself as having three disciplines - acting, writing and producing and I would probably rank them in that order in terms of preference. Acting will always be first and foremost now so a lot of career decisions centre around my ability to play and pursue roles. Keeping a lot of flexibility in my schedule is important for this. It doesn't mean I won't write or produce something I'm not acting in, but the script, team and/or money would have to be worth taking my time away from it for me to do it.

Once Jake is finished I'm really looking forward to getting to do some more writing. I really enjoy writing but I don't know if I'm any good at it yet so I'm looking forward to giving it a proper go and seeing what we can create.

Website (with screening details)

The Punk Rock Way To Make Movies (New Zealand Herald interview)