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Loren Taylor – Loving What She Has

Loren Taylor on set of Apis (photo: Glen Maw)
Loren Taylor inspires me. Based in Wellington, and an actor for film, television and theatre since she was 17, she's also a writer, director and sought-after casting director, a beloved and versatile and influential dynamo, who has received New Zealand Film Commission funding to make her short, APIS, and to develop a yet-to-be-titled feature. I long to see both films.

Loren worked with Taika Waititi on their award-winning screenplay for Eagle vs Shark – picked up by Miramax and released world wide – and won Best Actress at the Newport International Film Festival and the St Tropez Festival de Antipodes for her critically acclaimed role as Eagle vs Shark's Lily. She also wrote and directed the Phoenix Foundation video for Give Up Your Dreams – a homage to the work of Soviet film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky – starring Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. And  she writes and directs commercials for international and local brands. Most recently she directed Treat Her Right for the New Zealand Council for Trade Unions’ Equal Pay campaign, where she worked with cinematographer Ginny Loane. Her video for the Green Party's Great Greens campaign is just out.

As a casting director for film and commercials Loren has a co-casting credit on What We Do In The Shadows, and collaborated on Derek Cianfrance's film, The Light Between Oceans. She's also on the board of the Story Camp Aotearoa – a screenwriter's lab that brings international mentors to work on scripts including Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville) and Gyula Gazdag (head mentor at Sundance).

This interview was such a life-enhancing pleasure! Thank you, Loren.

Loren at Story Camp Aotearoa

Q: What drew you to Treat Her Right and Great Greens?

I have fallen into making commercials, but only because I've found two great and unusual agencies that allow me to make work I'm ethically aligned with! It means I'm not working on ads with Fonterra or McDonald's-sized campaign budgets – but I can sleep at night.

I was also working as a casting director for money and was enraged that 99% of the roles I was casting were for men, and that I was always working for male ad directors! So I'm really loving the opportunity to have rigorous conversation around gender at the writing and then casting stage, and to be making commercial work that attempts to redress the balance. Work that comes from an inherently feminine perspective!

I was raised a Green – my lovely 85 year old grandmother Bobbie Taylor is in the Greens video. I was delivering election pamphlets for the Greens in Lyall Bay (in a bitter southerly gale that was hurling dust, sticks, rubbish, sea salt etc in my eyes) during the recent council elections, so the offer to work for the Greens in a creative capacity was much more appealing. And Treat Her Right - a no-brainer.

Q: What most delighted you about working on these campaign videos, and how do you feel about the finished work?

The collaborations with the cinematographers Ginny and Adam were a highlight – both deeply generous artists. Ginny is the most philanthropic person I know. She worked for free on Treat Her Right, and was utterly committed to making it the best it could be – on what would have been the unit table budget for the type of ads she's usually on. She is a real mentor and I owe her so much.

Ginny Loane on set for Treat Her Right  (photo: Jinki Cambronero)
Adam was also fantastic – a beautiful eye, a searing sense of humour, and a wildness and willingness to dive into a completely insane schedule.

And then there is Double Denim a Wellington agency run by Anna Dean and Angela Meyer, [two women who specialise in reaching the female audience and whose recent campaigns include Treat Her Right, Justin Lester’s campaign for Wellington Mayor and Flick Electric #flickyourself campaign. Film folk know Anna for her campaigns for Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows.]

I really admire Anna Dean and Ange Meyer – they are powerhouses, work horses and passionate about what they do. It is deeply satisfying to have two fearless brilliant women working in this very male-dominated industry.  

I think both of these campaigns have huge heart, and a feeling of strength and inclusiveness. And I think visually they are both really beautiful and dynamic.

Q: As as well as directing, did you write the scripts for both projects and for Give Up Your Dreams? Who else was involved?

The concept and script for GUYD were mine, I collaborated with Double Denim and Bevin Linkhorn on the script for Treat Her Right, and with D.D's Ange on the Great Greens campaign. Paul Wedel who edited GUYD, Treat Her Right and Great Greens was a key collaborator on all projects. The edit is the final stage of writing after all. He's an amazing editor – he's also a musician so has a glorious sense of timing, and belongs to the film society (a prerequisite).

Q:  Have you used these three videos as a kind of preparation for your feature?

Unconsciously, yes, I think I have. Walking a line between realism and imagination, hunting for the most visually expressive way to tell the story. It was one of the reasons I was willing to direct ads – there are plenty of amazing film-makers who have cut their teeth on commercials, Jonathan Glazer, Roy Andersson (I only know of the male ones – that needs to change!). They are like miniatures and require you to hunt for an essential feeling and to find the most interesting way to express it – really valuable things to practice, and I definitely feel like it is sharpening my cinematic razor! – looking forward to slicing some patriarchal shit through the throat!

Q: Have you selected cinematographers – Tammy Williams on Give Up Your Dreams (and 2nd camera on Treat Her Right), Ginny Loane on Treat Her Right, Adam Luxton on Great Greens – because you also want to experiment with visual styles?

The director DOP relationship is a very beautiful one. In its ascent it's symbiotic.

Shoulder to shoulder: Adam Luxton and Loren working on Great Greens (photo: Tim Onnes)
It's my favourite collaboration on set. Ginny gave me great advice which was THROW AWAY YOUR STORY BOARDS! Instead write a list of what each shot is, why it's there, and what you want it to evoke. It's all about 'creating feeling'.

Creating feeling: Adam Luxton and Loren working on Great Greens (photo: Tim Onnes)
Q: Rhythm – in choreography and in sound – is a highlight in your work.  In a Guardian interview about Give Up Your Dreams  you said “Digging has a lovely percussive rhythm to cut with – or against”. You so deftly relate sound – of voices or a digging spade or music – to movement: a dog’s wagging tail in Give Up Your Dreams, a woman who swings around and says “Dance”, in the Great Greens video. 

I am on the board of Story Camp Aotearoa, and we had my friend from Sundance, Joan Tewkesbury (who wrote Robert Altman's Nashville) mentoring with us at the end of last year. She advised to work with dancers whenever you can – for the purity of their access to emotion, how they tell stories with their bodies, their fearlessness. I absolutely loved working with the dancers on Treat Her Right. I showed them dance-film reference videos I love and then, when we were on set, asked them to improvise – we ended up with enough footage to make a really striking dance film. I am very keen to keep working with dancers whenever possible. It was Ange who thought to make the woman 'dance' in the Greens script so I can't take credit for that!

filming Great Greens (photo: Tim Onnes)

Q: What and who influence your work? 

Directors Jill Soloway, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey. Mary Oliver the Pulitzer prize winning poet, art, music, humans, my garden, my family, my past...

Q: How much influence can you trace to Tarkovsky, beyond Give Up Your Dreams?

Other than Tarkovsky's remarkable films Stalker and Solaris it is this quote –
During the last one hundred years one has somehow arrived at the false conclusion that an artist can manage without the spiritual; the act of creating has suddenly become something instinctive! The consequence of this is that the artist's talent, or gift, does not necessarily put him in a position of responsibility. This is why we have arrived at this lack of the spiritual element which characterizes contemporary art to such a large degree.
Q: You started out as an actor on Young Hercules, and then on Xena. Can you identify when you decided you wanted to write and direct and why?

The writing part woke up because I was so frustrated with playing the same characters - 'sassy blonde, love interests' – and I was very lucky that I have always been part of a highly creative community so it’s been natural to create your own projects.

The directing part was organic, because I've worked as an acting coach for children for years – in rehearsal and on set – and I was beside Taika every step of the way on Eagle vs Shark. I stopped acting for years due to sickness, and once I was well again I realised my curiosity lay in directing. I wanted to become a painter when I was young, so the visual aspect to directing is compelling, and I know, love and understand actors for obvious reasons.

But I think it was years of casting that sealed it for me. Tina Cleary has been my casting mentor and a very dear creative friend for years. I think it was spending literally years in the studio reading for her that taught me the most about directing and woke up a love for it – how to find the essence of a scene, to hunt for the places that are most resonant. Acting is like a fun holiday when I do it now.

Q: Do you have specific stories you want to tell? 

YES! I want to tell stories about repression, suffering, and the resilience of the human spirit – all overflowing with complex/funny/dynamic female characters.

Q: In the Greens video there are at least three other women who act, write, and direct – Aidee Walker, Chelsie Preston Crayford and Rachel House (most recently in Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Moana). Do you talk with them and others about why, as successful actors, you also write and direct? The conventional response is that women who act write to create parts for themselves and other women. But I wonder what else is at play… and if there’s a group of you who support one another.

Rachel and Chels are very good old friends of mine, but mostly because I live in Wellington and they live in the North I don't talk to them about work. Your question has made me want to!!

Q: I remember when a group of you lived together down by Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand somewhere, making and doing all kinds of things in the centre city. What influence did the group have on your life and work?

Yes a bunch of us started WACT (Wellington Artists Charitable Trust) in the old NZ School of Dance premises. We had most of Wellington's music scene in the studios next door – Bret McKenzie, Age Pryor and others. It was like a ramshackle experimental music, film, theatre and art school. All of us were broke and living off our tabs at Deluxe cafe. It was a stimulating environment – though I found that I spent a fair bit of time cleaning, doing admin and falling into some old 'enabling' traps rather than doing my own work. Taika is such a power house and so prolific that I was often in his vortex – it was during that time that he made his first short film, and we started making very, very stupid films together. It was the beginning of our shift from theatre into film. Jo Randerson, Melanie Hamilton (who still works with Jo) and Gentiane Lupi were the women in that group.

Q: For others who choose just to get out there and do it, what advice do you have?

This is a very crucial time to be alive, so investigate fully WHY you want to make the work you do. What does it mean, what is its value, is it critical that you do it? There's a great Buddhist quote that my Mum told me the other day 'practice like your hair is on fire'. If you're going to be burnt alive – and film making does sometimes feel like that – then we need to make sure whatever flame is igniting us is the right one for the right reason. It's a huge privilege to be an artist, so you want to be sure you are being honest about what is driving you.

Q: Have you experienced any gender discrimination and if so, what problem-solving techniques have sustained you?

I think in many ways the gender issue has played out in me in an insidious way with regards to patriarchal wiring – choosing to enable others' creativity rather than inhabiting my own power. I'm so enraged by it now, I'm just fighting it out in the open with the work I am making.

Q: What has enhanced your resilience and given you courage? Do you feel you've missed out on anything? Would you change anything?

Just as Eagle vs Shark was released and I was about to step towards some great work offers overseas I had to face up to some serious historical sexual abuse. I spent 7 years in therapy, and during that time I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. So that was pretty much my entire 30's! It was a very difficult but profound time. I had to let go of my ambition, and pretty much every single idea I had about how I wanted my life to be. My family gave me courage, and poetry was the art form that got me through. I found I couldn't watch films because I'd get overwhelmed. Mary Oliver's book Dream Work (I discovered later that she had a history of abuse too) was an extraordinary help.

Jo Randerson gave me a quote by Viktor Krankl – 'To be made of light one must endure burning'. I love that. So no, I wouldn't change anything – even all the misery. I feel much more awake to life than I ever have, and I'm grateful for that.

Q: However do you decide what to do, when you have so many options? Have your values and/or ambitions changed since you had breast cancer?

It's a Westerner's privileged problem having too many options isn't it! Yes! Absolutely! I am determined to live a balanced life, make work that is about TRUTH and empowering women and to listen to the voice in my body that speaks very clearly about what feels right and wrong.

filming Great Greens (photo: Tim Onnes)
Q: When will we be able to see Bee? And how’s it going with Hawk Mountain? What would you like to share about either of them? 

Bee ended up being called Apis. After I got the funding I was having to give my attention to therapy for the abuse, and when I finally got around to filming it I was very sick and discovered I had breast cancer while editing it – so the whole process was very surreal and rather fraught! I learned SO MUCH with that film though. I loved writing it, being on set and then had a hellish time editing it. So to be honest, that film just doesn't feel like it reflects me, who I am as an artist or the kind of work I want to make anymore. It got down to the final selection for the Berlinale last year but hasn't had luck in any of the other international festivals. I'm choosing not to submit it to festivals here or close to home as I really don't feel like standing up in a theatre with it. But it's done the job in that it gave the NZFC the confidence to give me development funding for my feature. Who knows, I may step in and re-edit when I am clear of the baggage and release it to the world then.

I'm at a wonderful stage with my feature - no longer titled Hawk Mountain – so it's an un-inspired 'untitled' now! I'm feeling energised by it, which is a welcome relief after a long time of thrashing around with it. It's because I've FINALLY listened to the voices in my head that have been telling me which direction to take it in.

Q: How do you see your future?

My future? Yikes. Making films. Making a difference. Living well and gently. Stepping into my power. Loving what I have.

Music composed and recorded by Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords), Justin Firefly Clarke (Fly My Pretties) and Ben Wood (Trinity Roots)


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