Point proven

by Gordon Campbell / 03 July, 2004
The critically acclaimed new movie In My Father's Den is a good example of how a New Zealand film can be made with overseas funders and triumph in the end.

Already, it is being hailed as the best New Zealand film since Heavenly Creatures, and the film critic for the Australian called it one of the best films he had ever seen - rating it superior to Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies and to the Aussie favourite, Lantana. Yet Kiwi director Brad McGann finally decided to write and direct In My Father's Den only after dreaming about the two main characters. Oh, McGann had read Maurice Gee's novel some six months before and briefly considered it as a television drama, but had shelved it. Good book but overall ... too dated now, he felt, in its setting and character motivations. Then came the dream.

"It involved two characters, a guy in his thirties and a teenage girl," McGann explains. "They were standing in this vast space that I recognised as Central Otago. And they were talking of this being a place where the ocean had once been, and that it had never come back. I remember waking and feeling there was something else unresolved between them. I wrote down the details pretty much as I experienced them and rang Trevor [Haysom, his producer] and mentioned that I thought these were characters from the Maurice Gee novel. Yet, in the dream, it had seemed contemporary and there was an urgency about it ..."

Eventually, he and Haysom decided on doing it as a feature film. "But that's why the movie begins: 'One day in a town at the edge of the world, the tide went out and never returned.'"

Last month, In My Father's Den was chosen to open the Sydney Film Festival, and the film gets its first local screenings at the New Zealand Film Festival in July, before going onto general release around September. Besides its artistic merits, McGann's film is a good example of the pressures New Zealand films do face - and can transcend, if they're good enough - within the global marketplace.

All very well to repeat the cliché that we must make films that have our own distinctive voice. Yet to make them with adequate budgets, offshore partners are necessary - and those offshore investors and distributors tend to think they know the global film business better than we do. Which can leave us being asked to be ourselves but not too much, thanks. Eventually, In My Father's Den has proved to be a $7 million New Zealand film that overseas funders and distributors were willing to back - alongside the New Zealand Film Commission - and entrust to a novice film director.

McGann, 40, is now a veteran of the skirmishes involved in getting his vision onscreen, more or less intact. The plot of In My Father's Den revolves around Paul, a jaded war-zone photojournalist brought back to his Central Otago hometown by the death of his father. Almost at once, Paul develops a friendship with 16-year-old Celia (played by Emily Barclay, an Auckland video-store clerk and untried talent), who is the daughter of Penny, one of Paul's former lovers now married to Paul's brother, Andrew. When Celia disappears, the outsider becomes prime suspect - but, as with Lantana, the whodunit aspect of the story mainly serves to raise far wider issues about family entanglements, and the way the past can still resonate, and affect our lives.

From the outset, the quality of McGann's script was the initial selling point. In his first draft, he stayed more or less true to Gee's novel. Much as he admires Gee's work, McGann then used the rewrites to progressively prune away the clutter and the dated non-essentials from the story, in order to make it work as a contemporary film. Deliberately, he did not read the book again. "Maurice and I have grown up in different generations of New Zealand, but essentially we are struggling to speak about similar things. The way we tell it is different, but essentially it's the same story."

A fairly thick skin soon became necessary, to protect his script from well-intentioned advice. "I'm incredibly insecure about some of these issues - but at the same time, I realise I need to be strong, I need to be focused and I need to exert a certain amount of control." Something that comes with the territory surely, for a film director? Well, McGann says, he's not a strong believer in the myth of the film director as a volatile force on set. "One of the qualities I really admire in good directors is the ability to work with what's around them - to listen, and not force their vision onto the people they collaborate with." Surrounding himself with experienced people (eg, his cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, who shot The Piano) was half the battle.

Once offshore investors came on board, the whole tone of the production changed. Before that, McGann had been developing his script on a cosy basis with Haysom and his script editor Caroline Grose, but eight more people then entered the frame. Initially, he didn't know how to deal with each of them wanting to leave their stamp on the script. "A lot of people work in development," he says dryly, "and some of them can vicariously try ... they become part of the creative process in a vicarious way."

Tactically, McGann chose at times to deliberately include the suggestions, and then invite feedback. More often than not, he found the response would be that the changes were terrible, or unnecessary. Point proven. For instance? Well, there were the ostriches. "There was a scene where Andrew has shot all the ostriches. It was a real shitfight to get that scene, because we had to have all these ostriches, and it cost a lot of money. It was when people were saying, 'Detail, we want more detail on these characters, such as Penny.' Then we got to the edit, and people then said, 'We don't want that. We don't want to know about Andrew or Penny, we want to stay with Paul ...' So there was a lot of material I was encouraged to include in order to flesh out the script, that was then not used in the actual film."

Editing also had its moments. In the days before non-linear editing, he explains, everyone had to gather in the editing suite to make their inputs. Now, with digital editing, footage could be sent overseas on a fortnightly basis. That desire for reassurance being quite understandable, given the distance between Britain and New Zealand. "Yet, after a while, it felt like I was handing in my homework ..." and he finally put his foot down. "I had to say at one point, enough's enough ... We need time to work the material and allow it to settle, before we all jump on it."

Setting boundaries, he came to realise, was part of the game. Casting, for instance, briefly became an issue. Since Paul is an outsider, that helpful fact had enabled the casting of British actor Matthew MacFadyen - thus opening the door to British investors. Miranda Otto (who plays Penny) was formerly Eowen in Lord of the Rings and, although a valuable asset, she essentially came with the funding package. However, the British investors then pushed for an American to play Celia, a suggestion that McGann resisted on principle.

And what would have been so tragic exactly - if the likes of Scarlett Johanssen or Jena Malone had been cast as Celia? Well, McGann replies, they just would not have a sense of our history, or of growing up in a New Zealand small town. "And the tragedy would be that a highly talented person such as Emily Barclay would never get a crack at a major part, and we would be forever overshadowed by Americans. Personally, on a philosophical level, I find that to be offensive."

So as a first-time director at a crucial stage of production, he was still feeling brave enough to tell his overseas backers to butt out? "Yeah. As a director, there is a saying that you have to choose your battles. I chose them fiercely. Part of playing the game is really knowing when to stamp your feet and say no, and when to let something slide. It's a give-and-take thing. When you become stubborn, people don't want to work with you."

Contrary to Alfred Hitchcock's dictum, actors are not cattle. On set, McGann learnt that each actor can need different treatment, minute by minute. From the outset, he and casting agent Di Rowan - who chose Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider - both believed that Barclay was worth the gamble. "In a word, it comes down to instinct. You can go round in circles trying to find the perfect lead, but at some point you have to trust your gut." His own dealing with inexperienced actors in his short films was reassuring. "But the feeling was really there from the moment she opened her mouth. There was just total authenticity to her performance."

Ultimately, it seems ironic that his first feature film should find its initial audience in Australia. McGann had grown up in suburban Pakuranga in the 1970s, as both a surfer and a nerd, he recalls. In his twenties, McGann joined the rat race that is the Aussie film industry, with limited success. Eventually, he returned home - a bit like Paul - to start again, and has now rekindled his career with a story dug out of a New Zealand past that barely exists any more, but that continues to resonate. A case of life imitating art imitating life to some extent. "Yeah, there is some value," McGann concludes with massive understatement, "in concentrating on stories on your own home soil."

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