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Eagle vs Shark had a girl in it too

The boys are getting all the attention, but Eagle vs Shark wouldn't have happened without Loren Horsley.

The rain comes out of nowhere. It's nearing midnight on the second Monday in June, and we're on the rooftop of the Delancey, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, at the after-party for the New York Eagle vs Shark premiere. A crowd of cool film-industry types – Michel Gondry, Cliff Curtis and the president of Miramax among them – scramble for shelter as flashbulbs continue to pop in one corner. But the bar's staff have it covered: they roll out a sliding ceiling to provide shelter from the storm.

Thunder and lightning provide a suitably dramatic backdrop for an incredible convergence in the careers of three Kiwi lads. Tonight, the media all want a piece of Eagle vs Shark's writer-director Taika Waititi, the film's star, Jemaine Clement, and his fellow Conchord, Bret McKenzie.

It's no accident that the film's US release coincides with the US premiere of the Flight of the Conchords' new 12-part HBO series the following Sunday. Leverage is a powerful marketing tool, and the Conchords are everywhere: on the subway and on posters plastered all over Manhattan.

"The more drums that are beating around [the film], the better, because it's hard to buy that kind of awareness," says Daniel Battsek, the Brit who took over from the Weinstein brothers as head of Miramax less than two years ago.

But with the spotlight more or less fixed on the lads (a New York Times photographer follows them relentlessly during the party), it's easy to forget that Eagle vs Shark wouldn't exist were it not for co-star Loren Horsley. She created the film's central character, Lily, a socially awkward burger-flipper in love with the egotistical, obsessive Jarrod. She pitched the character to Waititi, and she went with him to the Sundance Institute to workshop the story.

The New York press might be forgiven for overlooking Horsley. The slight blonde, glamorous in Zambesi, is unrecognisable as the pathologically gauche misfit from the film – that is, until she opens her mouth and you hear that deep voice and Kiwi accent. Indeed, she relates the tale of one US reporter: "She said, 'I wasn't sure if I wanted to interview you because I thought you were retarded and I didn't know if you'd be able to handle an interview.'" Apparently it was a compliment to Horsley's acting.

Unless you're a Downstage Theatre regular, you may be hard-pressed to place Horsley in New Zealand's acting sorority. Memories could be jogged by the low-budget feature Kombi Nation; or by her turn as trashy-yet-loveable exotic dancer Danielle in the Gibson Group series The Strip. Yet others may remember the corkscrew blonde seated next to Taika Waititi as the camera tracked past him during that notorious "asleep at the Oscars" moment.

Horsley and Waititi have been a couple for most of this century, and friends and collaborators for much longer. She worked on his acclaimed short, Two Cars, One Night, and she was the other half of his crew the year Waititi won the 48 Hours film-making contest with Heinous Crime. On Eagle vs Shark, she shares a "story created by" credit with Waititi, and most of the film's reviews agree that it would fall apart were it not for her unswerving portrayal of the stalwart Lily.

"Well, it would!" Waititi acknowledges. "She was the foundation of the entire story. I've always been so confused as to why Loren hasn't already become a movie star in New Zealand, because she's one of the most brilliant actors I've ever seen, and this is before we were together."

"Loren does an amazing job of building that character," remarks Battsek. "You just believe in her from the moment she comes on screen before the opening credits, and you go with her all the way."

On her way into the Sunshine Cinema tonight, somebody broke the news that Horsley had just won Best Actress at the Newport Film Festival, over Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. She's still reeling. "I feel like I have white noise entirely through my body. Jeez, home's a long way away!" It's not, actually. Her mum is with her at the party, and one of her best friends, actress Miranda Manasiadis, is just across the room - she happens to be Clement's partner. And after tonight, Horsley's on a plane back across the Pacific. "I've gotta get back home. Life has stepped ahead of my work for a moment."

In Wellington, Horsley is a member of the Chapel Collective, a group of film-makers whose low-budget feature Songs for a Dead Dog is in post-production. "It's a breath of fresh air to get back to a gentle community with good, rigorous, creative work. It'll be nice to be back there." Just how long she'll spend in Wellington depends on what her newly acquired US agent and manager find for her, and whether they can convince her to leave New Zealand for it. "I really believe in creating work back home and bringing it out like this, rather than being here and starting in the machine. It's complicated. It's interesting."

Waititi has huge faith in her. "Loren's got her head screwed on really well so she's safe, because her main thing is just wanting to work on cool independent films and just do stuff that interests her." Meanwhile, Miramax will be keeping an eye on Waititi. "We've really got to know him," says Battsek. "He's a really fun and smart and clear-thinking film-maker who's got a great point of view, and that's the sort of person we wanna be in business with."

Battsek explains the logic of putting a small New Zealand comedy up against summer blockbusters like Shrek the Third, Knocked Up and Pirates of the Caribbean. "The hope is that actually this is the best time, because there's a kind of steady diet of movies for one type of audience, but very few movies out there for an audience that loves a different sort of movie. This is a real piece of original film-making, so it seems like the right thing to do to put it up against the blockbusters."

It certainly made an impression on Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). He has become a proud acquaintance of the creative team behind Eagle vs Shark, and loved the film: "It was really touching and really funny and I understood most of the jokes, which makes me really proud."

When the flashbulbs are all done, Horsley and Waititi descend to Delancey's basement, where the Phoenix Foundation is about to play. (The Wellington band's album Horse Power has just been released in the US, and they're taking advantage of their status as creators of the film's soundtrack to leverage a few more fans.)

Outside, the rain has cleared to reveal a sultry New York City night. Waititi entertains famous friends at the bar while Horsley dances up the front to the band. She may not be the loudest person in the room, or on screen, but she's going to steal the show sometime soon.

EAGLE VS SHARK has its New Zealand premiere at the Wellington Film Festival on July 19, 2007.