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Linda Niccol – New Zealand Writer & Director

Linda Niccol at Newport Beach
I love New Zealand-based films about 'us'. And I love the diasporic elements in New Zealand women’s filmmaking: the contributions of women writers and directors who – like me – come to live here as children or adults and contribute differently than those from families who've lived here for generations; and the contributions of the women – some of them the same women – who move in and out of New Zealand to work. Our global reach.

Best known are Jane Campion, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Christine Jeffs, Niki Caro (in pre-production on Callas, starring Noomi Rapace!) and Dana Rotberg, whose White Lies/Tuakiri Huna is currently attracting acclaim and audiences in Mexico. And there are others. Dianne Taylor wrote the first NZ-India co-production, Pan Nalin’s Beyond The Known World, now in post-production. Writers and producers Donna Malane and Paula Boock define their Lippy Pictures as a production company ‘making quality film and television for the local and international market’. Their Field Punishment no 1 recently won a Gold World Medal for Drama Special at the 2015 New York Festivals International Television and Film Awards and their adaptation of Kate De Goldi’s award-winning The 10pm Question, to be directed by Yasemin Samdereli, is steadily moving forward as a co-production with Germany with production funding secured from the New Zealand Film Commission. Fingers crossed that their project also benefits from Pro Quote Regie’s activism and the new European awareness of the inequity of women's film funding, thanks to the European Audiovisual Observatory's research and the work of many others.

Linda Niccol’s diasporic elements also interest me. Co-writer of Second-Hand Wedding (2008), the eighth-highest grossing New Zealand film ever in the most recent list I could find, her Miss Adventure won the highly competitive New Zealand Writers Guild Unproduced Screenplay Award in 2012 and her Poppy and Looking for Lila Ray were also placed in the top 10, an extraordinary achievement. And she’s been consistently a finalist or winner in overseas script competitions.

Producer Glenis Giles and Linda Niccol on location with The Handkerchief
For instance, she won the Kaos Films Short Film Script Contest in 2006 for The Handkerchief and was a Sloan Science Award finalist with The Tear Collector in 2010. Last year Poppy won Rated SR Socially Relevant Film Festival's screenplay award and was in the top five in the Spirit Quest Film Festival competition. Linda has also written and directed a short, Dangerous Ride, which was selected for the WIFTI Showcase in 2012 and for New Zealand's Academy Award-Accredited Show Me Shorts fest. The Handkerchief was selected for the New Zealand International Film Festival, the Newport Beach Festival and the Rated SR Socially Relevant Film Festival and recently won a United States’ BestShorts Excellence Award.

You started out as a journalist. You’re now a director at Mission Hall, a design and advertising agency, where you have multiple roles. You’re a successful short story writer. That could be plenty. Why film as well? Is there some sibling rivalry in there because your brother is Andrew Niccol, or is there a familial something you share that pushes you both in the same direction?

I never intended going to what I call the dark side – film writing/directing. Why would I as the eldest sibling of two very successful writer/directors? But it must be genetic. My sister Fiona was the first in the family to go from newspaper journalism into directing news and current affairs programmes such as 60 Minutes and 20/20, travelling internationally with presenters such as Genevieve Westcott to break stories in places such as Sao Paulo and Washington. Fiona trained with Communicado’s Neil Roberts and was one of the first New Zealand female directors in her field. She was a tough little nut, sharp as a tack, feisty and big hearted. She was recognised internationally and in New Zealand for her work. The legacy she left me when she died of MS was the motivation to look at disability and social issues through a different lens.

Andrew’s path into film was from advertising (as was mine in some ways). He wanted to tell stories that were longer than 30 seconds. His stories are very futuristic and big idea based. Mine are more intimate, though equally high concept.

You started in film as a screenwriter. Was Second-Hand Wedding your first screenplay?

My first screenplay was The Tear Collector. Andrew mentored me through the process of learning to write film. There were many, many drafts. Then I wrote White Native the story of an albino Maori boy coming to terms with his colour. Then I adapted The Handkerchief from a short story I’d written. I was also working a lot with Paul Murphy writing short film scripts that would help him get his career as a director off the ground. I learnt from the act of writing and enjoyed the freedom of screenwriting, which I found was easier to dip in and out of than short stories, and let’s not mention the novel. I was asked by Paul to write a new draft of what was then Garage Sale [later Second-Hand Wedding], written by my friend Nick Ward. It was a great opportunity, as I knew the characters well, understood their motivations and also knew the setting, which enabled me to write to location. Introducing singer John Rowles into the story added some humour, tension and drama.

What genres interest you? What themes?

I’m not sure about genres – I like things that aren’t classifiable by Hollywood standards. I enjoy independent films, especially those with women protagonists. I loved Ida – possibly a perfect film in my eyes - deceptively simple and utterly beautiful. As for themes I do like women who fight against expectations and prejudice. According to a very large and detailed horoscope book I own, I was born on the Day of Emancipation.

When and why did you decide to direct?

The Handkerchief drove me to directing. I had to see it as I had imagined. Although it took seven years to get into production – the Kaos Films prize mean that someone else made it first (the hanky in the script was replaced by a packet of fags) and I had to turn down the initial funding opportunity provided by New Zealand Film Commission’s short film POD Conbrio – I felt it deserved to be seen. I managed to raise the funds through PledgeMe, sponsorship from Ecoya, and generous personal donations. I directed Dangerous Ride first though, which was a smaller budget and another film that had stalled at the point of funding. I used the money I was paid for Second-Hand Wedding to pay cast and crew.

Jed Brophy & Rose McIver on Dangerous Ride set
I learnt that it’s important to surround yourself with experts when getting a film into production. I was lucky enough at every turn to find myself guided through the process by Glenis Giles. Her reputation is such that she can pull a crew together that will work well and be respectful of each other and the story, and of course the budget. I have the utmost respect for all the crew I’ve worked with as well as the fabulous acting talent – Jed Brophy, Rose McIver, Claire Van Beek and Luke Hawker. I would work again with cinematographers David Paul and Renaud Maire in a heartbeat.

Claire Van Beek and Renaud Maire on set of The Handkerchief
Whose work has influenced you?

I love the European and American films of the 70’s. Perhaps because films like Death in Venice, Don’t Look Now, The Conformist, Harold and Maude, Easy Rider, The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and so on, really concentrated on story and mise-en-scène to thoroughly support the story, they retain their visual and emotional power years later. I admire the work of Lina Wertmüller, also and will be re-watching her films. Lately I’ve enjoyed Locke, Under the Skin, Still Life and Boyhood.

Advertising with its then large budgets (1990s) and opportunities helped me learn about casting and directing talent, how to behave on set and how to solve problems as well an understanding of the technical and storytelling aspects.

Are you a feminist and if so does this affect your work choices?

I do believe in most of the feminist principles but I’d prefer my work to talk for me. Female protagonists feature in all my scripts but in a number of my short stories I have written from a man’s perspective.

I have definitely found responses to my film females less than positive. These comments are usually around predicted audiences for the films, even though the female cinema audiences are growing and the young males who used to make up the numbers are dwindling in favour of on-demand viewing. As for females of colour or females with a disability (who feature in some of my stronger work) there is definite resistance from funders, broadcasters and distributors, again around audience.

Linda directing The Handerchief
My crews so far have been selected on their ability to do their job and give me support as a director. I like to work with a balance of female and male crew - females for the more cerebral aspects such as hair and make-up and costume and males for the heavy lifting. But funnily enough, checking through the credits many of my HODs have been women. I also prefer to wear a dress and always lipstick while directing.

I love the ‘Attributes’ entry in your CV– ‘humour and wit, humanity and tenacity’. And when I see details of your success I think ‘there goes a tenacious woman with a strategy in mind’. Can you write a little bit about that strategy? It seems that your global orientation extends beyond the usual submitting to competitions and  festivals?

Be great to have a strategy but having one relies on plans and goals that at the moment have no foundation in the fluid world of filmmaking. Backing myself financially and not taking no for an answer has worked to a degree and as you have so astutely noted, I’m absolutely trying to get paying work offshore. I have a Green Card and would like to think this may help with opportunities in the U.S. (Please call now!) I spent six weeks there this year, writing with a new collaborator, attending some great seminars, The Rated SR Socially Relevant Film festival and trying to get some traction. Canada is also a possibility. I am definitely tenacious and as my ideas are probably before their time, I have learned to hang on.

Back in 2012 you provided a wonderful example of success-through-blind-reading – what’s happened to those unproduced screenplays? Where have they got to in the development process?

Although I received quite a bit of producer interest around Miss Adventure the initiator of the original story, Joe Lonie, wants to hang on to it so it’s not ripe for development. Gibson Group optioned Looking for Lila Ray for adaptation and I wrote a treatment based on it, which was intended for a Chinese co-pro that didn’t fly. I’m going to apply for New Zealand Film Commission funding, again, for Poppy this year.

Have you abandoned any of your projects? At what point might you give up and what would make you do that?

Yes, White Native is abandoned at this point. I couldn’t get anyone to read it. Getting people to read scripts is really hard, especially if you’re relatively unknown or underrated and this applies particularly to women female producers in New Zealand, other than the supportive and underrated Glenis Giles.

By Light Alone – a sci-fi novel I optioned for a year and adapted into a screenplay is another one that although the story is rich, current and has a kick-ass young female protagonist is possibly too complex for a film – it would make a great series. And, as I’m an unknown writer in Hollywood it would be hard to achieve its estimated US $35 million production budget.

How hard it is to maintain ‘humour and humanity’ in the face of the filmmaking challenges you meet, especially around finding a producer and funding? What strategies do you use to nourish yourself?

At the moment I’m more than happy to write part-time. I’m focussing on developing screenplays that would work in multiple territories across the global market. I have found a wonderful collaborator in the form of a young man from Quebec who I met online via an ISA Writers gig posting and then met in person in LA in February this year. Vincent Thibault is a generous and exceedingly astute writing partner. We have completed a screenplay in record time – it’s making its way into the hands of international producers – and we are about to embark on another one. Vincent’s enthusiasm and ideas are a great source of joy.

What do you need at the moment?

Selling the above-mentioned script (or any script) would be a major breakthrough. So would picking up the phone to a request for a script editor, I really enjoy the process of working on another writer’s work to make it the best it can be. Failing that, I’ll keep writing, entering contests and film festivals. And if those people making Thunderbirds want Lady Penelope to have better lines, maybe they’ll call.