Jackie van Beek puts the gags aside for The Inland Road

by Russell Baillie / 24 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Van Beek

Gloria Popata as runaway Tia in The Inland Road.

Best known for her comedy roles, Jackie van Beek takes a dramatic detour in her feature-directing debut.

Jackie van Beek laughs about taking the plunge when it came to directing her first feature, because it involved an actual plunge. Hoping to convince her cast that a high-country river near Glenorchy at the northern tip of Lake Wakatipu, which she wanted to use for a swimming scene, wasn’t that cold, really, she dived in herself. She emerged unable to speak and turning a glacial shade of blue.

“I was saying the words. But there was no audio,” she deadpans. The scene was left for another day, in another slightly warmer river.

The icy dip wasn’t the only misjudgment during the making of The Inland Road, her self-penned debut feature, which comes after directing seven short films. A mountainside horse-riding scene was ditched during editing, because van Beek worried it looked like “gratuitous cultural romanticism” in what is an intimate, earthy drama.

“And I did have the hunch the director hadn’t worked with horses before,” she says of the excised footage.

The low-budget movie took 18 months to edit, though van Beek had other commitments too, to her family and to her television comedy roles in the likes of Funny Girls and 800 Words.

It took the suggestions of director Niki Caro, who mentored van Beek last year under a scheme run by the Directors and Editors Guild of New Zealand, to help knock The Inland Road into a final shape. With some minor reshoots, the movie van Beek had started writing in 2008 was finished.

“She helped unstick me,” van Beek says of Caro. “I just felt so elated that I had finally found the potential of that story.”

The assured film is the tale of 16-year-old Tia (newcomer Gloria Popata), a runaway in search of her father in Central Otago. She’s involved in a car crash while hitchhiking, and after being discharged from hospital, she stays on a farm with the guilt-ridden driver Will (Scottish actor David Elliot) and his pregnant wife, Donna (Chelsie Preston Crayford), as well as their six year-old niece Lily (Georgia Spillane), whose father has died in the accident. There, she finds a substitute for her own broken family, but her presence begins to upset the domestic harmony of the farmstead.

“I started with the idea that I wanted to throw a group of very different characters into the same room after a crisis and see how they related to each other,” says van Beek.

Jackie van Beek. Photo/Ken Downie

“So I wrote the film for a teenage Maori girl, a young Pakeha girl and an exotic male from Scotland – someone who was foreign and didn’t know anybody. As I wrote over the years, it became more and more Tia’s story, and I realised she was the protagonist and we’d tell the story through her eyes.”

Van Beek found Popata after an extensive Facebook search and casting process.

“I applied for the role thinking that it was fake,” says the movie’s newbie star. “It took me a long time to process the whole thing. Acting was a dream when I was younger and I never thought it would happen. But dreams do come true.”

Popata says Tia reminds her of herself. “It was my first time acting, so I did find it hard at times, but Jackie was there to pull me through. She gave me confidence and made me feel comfortable.”

Popata headed with the director to the film’s world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February. She says that van Beek’s frequent use of close-ups made it a shock to see herself on the very big Berlin screen.

“I tried not to laugh,” she says, giggling. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever experienced something so awesome.”

What may surprise some about the film is that despite van Beek’s on-screen pedigree, it’s not a comedy. Her screen acting has tended towards straight-faced hilarity, as the screwball producer Pauline in Funny Girls or the vampires’ faithful helper in What We Do in the Shadows.

But as a director, all her short films have been dramas, mostly involving kids. Her first, One Shoe Short, was shot with two boys she met while teaching a clowning workshop to Aboriginal kids in Alice Springs. Another, Just Like the Others, she created with some kids she met on a London council estate.

“I do love combining spontaneous elements, and that for me is what young people represent – spontaneity, unpredictability. Adults often will think about it, analyse it, overanalyse it, fall in love with an idea, fall out of love with an idea. But a kid is just like, ‘What are we doing today?’ I love that.”

She says writing for and directing children may come easier from having three of her own with her husband, comedian Jesse Griffin, aka Wilson Dixon. Her oldest, 10-year-old June, is already in the family business with a role in a local short film. Mother and daughter just went to the Giffoni International Film Festival in Italy, where both their films were on the programme, and they’ll be back to take their bows again at the local premieres of their respective movies at the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Then van Beek heads back into the editing suite for her second feature, The Breaker Upperers, where she’s co-directing and co-starring with Madeleine Sami. It follows a pair of cynical misfits who earn their living by breaking up couples for money.

Yes, that one is definitely a comedy.

– additional reporting Helen Barlow

The Inland Road screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. 

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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