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Let's split: Taking Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers to the world

Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami in Austin. Photo/Getty Images

What’s shaping up as the biggest local movie of the year, The Breaker Upperers, is coming to New Zealand cinemas and it’s been picked to open the Sydney Film Festival. We followed the Kiwi comedy’s co-creators Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami and producer Ainsley Gardiner to Austin, Texas for their movie’s grand unveiling. 

How does New Zealand comedy travel? Well, if it’s movie The Breaker Upperers, it goes economy via San Francisco to Austin, Texas.

There, at the state capital’s SXSW Film Festival, the film tickles many sets of Texan ribs, and between screenings, including the film’s world premiere, creators Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami scoff the famous local barbecue variety.

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Part of an array of music, comedy and technology conferences in Austin, the film festival has in recent years become an important launch pad for big-screen comedies – especially female-led ones such as Bridesmaids and Trainwreck.

For van Beek, Sami and their backers, it’s a chance to create a buzz for the film and introduce themselves to an audience that won’t know them from their careers spent making New Zealand television a funnier place.

Some in Austin may recognise them from their roles in What We Do In the Shadows, the hit 2014 vampire spoof by Taika Waititi (an executive producer on The Breaker Upperers) and Jemaine Clement (who has a cameo role as “Tinder date”).

Van Beek has directed a raft of short films and a feature drama, The Inland Road, and Sami directed the second season of Funny Girls. The decision to co-helm the film as well as write and star in it was partly inspired by the Waititi-Clement directing double act behind Shadows. Why not just do it ourselves, they thought?

In front of the camera, they play friends Mel and Jen, a cynical pair who operate a small business breaking up couples, which is hired by those who want to outsource the painful process of calling it quits on a relationship. It was van Beek’s idea. She took it to Sami.

“As women in our late thirties and early forties, we’ve been on this Earth long enough to have experienced the highs and lows of falling in and out of love a number of times, having our hearts broken and maybe even breaking a few hearts ourselves,” says van Beek. “So in creating these characters, we’ve been able to draw from personal experience.”

Ideas, scripts and workshops followed. In came producers and backers including Waititi and Piki Films partner Carthew Neal, arts patron-turned-film financier Sir James Wallace, as well as Ainsley Gardiner, whose Miss Conception Films was set up to “make films by women for women with strong female protagonists”.

The movie was shot last year. It stars James Rolleston in his first film since a 2016 car accident. Sami and van Beek had written the role with him in mind. It was especially heartening for Gardiner, who produced Boy, Rolleston’s debut, to see him back. “I felt grateful that I was able to be one of the people helping him to come back to acting after a really tough year.”

But the movie is the van Beek and Sami show and one they’ve taken on the road. The Listener asked the pair – and Gardiner – to keep a diary of their Texas excursion. Their pages arrived carrying some stains of what was once a delicious marinade …

Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek hard at work at SXSW.

The long road to the Southwest

Getting ready

Sami: It’s less than a year since we started shooting and we are already here. It has always felt like we were going fast making this film. I think that’s partly the Piki philosophy and partly running out of money.

Van Beek: SXSW feels like such a great fit for our film. This feels like a festival that really embraces comedy and female-driven films, too.

Gardiner: I got too busy to get ready for SXSW. I’m finishing a feature doco on female sheep shearers and getting ready to shoot another feature in the middle of the year. So I was rushing. I didn’t bring enough clothes or organise travel insurance.

Sami: Packing was an absolute shambles. I have been so busy lately that I spent the morning before flying out on Ponsonby Rd trying to find something cool yet casual yet chic for the premiere. Then I had to wait for a sleeping baby to wake to get into my room to pack. I really hope I have enough undies. Although if I don’t, I’ll have another excuse to go to Target. One of the big reasons I was excited about going back to the US was to shop at Target. Oh how I love Target.

With producer Ainsley Gardiner.

The flight

Sami: We all sat in the same row. It was pretty cute, actually. No fancy upgrades for us.

Gardiner: They made me sit by the window, even though I need to pee all the time. I gave my seat to Jackie when it was time to sleep so she could lean against the window, because that’s what producers do.

Sami: I watched Thor Ragnarok on the plane and then I listened to an audiobook by American comedian Rachel Dratch. The flight was sweet as, but I was up with jetlag the first night. I put in a midnight jetlag order at Target and I also googled where all the good barbecue joints are.

Gardiner: I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on the plane, but all the swear words were over-dubbed. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think Frances McDormand would have won the Oscar based on this mother-fudging version. I also watched the new Twin Peaks. Our movie is funnier than either of them. Much funnier.

Sami and van Beek.

The arrival

Van Beek: On our first day, Madeleine and I attended the Filmmaker Luncheon at director Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios – no press, just an event to allow film-makers to say hello to one another. We piled our plates with the best barbecue food in Austin and sat by ourselves at an empty table. Four minutes into eating, we realised no one was going to sit next to us, so we picked up our plates and squeezed onto a jammed table with a bunch of other writers, directors and producers. We had a ball.

Sami: Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater spoke and gave us advice on the festival. I also met talk-show host Ricki Lake. The 90s me freaked out.

World premiere day

Van Beek: The day of the premiere was extremely low key. I mostly lay around the apartment making phone calls to my husband, kids, mum and dad. Although it was a Saturday and the day of our world premiere, it was feeling more like a long Tuesday afternoon. Things started to liven up with the arrival of James Wallace and subsequently the champagne. Suddenly it was time to go to the theatre. The level of excitement jumped up as we saw a long queue of people snaking into the cinema while we all had as many photos taken on as many phones as possible in the 45 seconds we had available. And then after a quick intro, we were watching our movie with a bunch of Americans. Thankfully, there was a lot of laughter in the room. I wolfed down a large bowl of fries and sipped my champagne.

The queue for the premiere.

Sami: Sir James actually wandered around Austin giving flyers out promoting our movie. He’s been such a great supporter of our film. He’s also an absolute party animal.

Gardiner: It was interesting to hear this audience laugh in places that don’t always get the biggest laughs at home. The best thing was how many men were laughing loud and hard. The Americans love our sense of humour, and we do pretty broad comedy these days, so it isn’t inaccessible – it just pushes the boundaries a little and they love that.

Van Beek: I was pleasantly surprised to see so many men in the cinema. I mistakenly assumed our sessions would be jam-packed with women. Audience members keep talking to us about our “unique New Zealand voice”. It’s exciting that more and more people are now able to identify New Zealand humour, seem to like it and want more of it.

Sami: The screening was awesome. People laughed. It’s good when people laugh during a comedy.

Van Beek: We had a great Q&A afterwards and a lot of hugs in the foyer from enthusiastic audience members. Madeleine and I agreed we could genuinely say we had been “gently mobbed”. We had a 10.30pm dinner with our Breaker Upperers team, during which we all just kept repeating variations of “I think it went really well”. I snuck away, home to bed, just before the ribs came out.


The aftermath

Van Beek: I definitely feel like a “female film-maker” at the moment. It’s what everybody’s talking about. And I think that’s a good thing. Until it becomes normal for a female to direct feature films, it will be and should be a talking point.

Sami: I feel like the response to our film here hasn’t necessarily been because it’s a “women-powered” thing but because it’s a “NZ comedy”-powered thing. There seems to be a real appetite for New Zealand comedy at the moment.

Van Beek: Sitting at the airport in Houston before flying home, I feel like Austin is a bit of a dream already. Festival time is such a self-contained bubble – you arrive, meet a bunch of film-makers, have a ton of meetings with people you may never see again, buy souvenirs for the kids, drink a string of cocktails, try to see at least two films outside of your own screenings, do at least one all-night karaoke session and leave. We finished the festival off by having a whisky at the Broken Spoke, the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. That made me happy.

Sami: It’s nice to have a few screenings under our belts. I will probably be a bit more nervous seeing it at home with family and friends in the audience than I was in Texas. Bring it on.

The Breaker Uppers opens in NZ cinemas on May 3. It opens the Sydney Film Festival on June 6.

This article was first published in the April 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.