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By Ruth Hessey

Ruth Hessey (speaks with) Director Gaylene Preston and actress Rachael Blake about Kiwi magic, exploring fear and Sam Neill’s fart jokes.

Insidefilm, October 03, IF 59, Editor David Michod (Feature Film Profile Perfect Strangers pp12-14, Australia 2003).

The director, Gaylene Preston, is the sort of cosy woman you feel you could pour your heart out to over a cup of tea – and many people do. Rachael Blake, the lead actress, who is renowned for a screen presence that bites and bruises, is actually smaller, softer and more vulnerable than you’d expect. And the director of photography, Alun Bollinger, a wildeyed old hippie with long gray hair, bare feet and a leather belt bearing the inscription ‘Old Warrior’, is one of the best cinematographers in the world.

Plonk them down together somewhere along New Zealand’s lush and tempestuous coastline, with Sam Neill cooking dinner, and a deranged maniac on the loose, and you have the latest New Zealand film to hit the international cinema circuit. Hit being the operative word.

Perfect Strangers is the sort of audacious, brilliantly visualised, and slightly unnerving film we expect from New Zealand filmmakers. Coming from a country in which European and Pacific intensity have forged a unique and cutting edge culture (which all the jokes about sheep and fush’n’chups cannot eclipse), the Kiwis constitute the Australian industry’s closest rivals and friends.

“There is something deeply ‘bent’ about New Zealand,” Preston explains brightly, on the phone some days before leaving for a string of Perfect Strangers screenings at international film festivals.

“I think deep down New Zealanders with European ancestry feel unworthy of the beautiful place we find ourselves in.” On top of that, she points out, “we define ourselves by the Maori word ‘pakeha’, that is the name the native population gave us when we first came.” And she adds, “We are not big city people. Most of us grew up in small towns. In a small community where everyone has to agree, a hell of a lot is not spoken about.”
Preston agrees that all this produced a ‘cinema of unease’ in the 1970s and 80s – from Peter Jackson’s early splatter film Brain Dead, to the emotional tumult of Vincent Ward’s Vigil. If it doesn’t fully explain the reason for all the weird and wonderful films that have flowed from New Zealand since then, it’s the best explanation most New Zealanders can give you for the somewhat schizophrenic and at the same time amiable culture that has evolved there. “New Zealand society is now in a much better position,” says Preston, a highly respected documentary filmmaker before she arrived at Perfect Strangers. “It’s more clued-up, less mono-cultural, more tolerant of ‘difference’ than it used to be.”

In other words, New Zealanders have forged something Australia is still struggling with – a sense of national identity. A shared sense of place, together with an acceptance of how that relates to the rest of the world, could be the reason why New Zealand has such a high strike rate on the silver screen, and why Australia, still not sure if it’s One Nation or a haven for progressive modernity, has produced a muddle of mostly mediocre movies in recent times.

In the 1970s, Australians also experienced a cultural renaissance which led to an era of brilliant films. Our sense of difference was one that (for the first time in a history of inferiority) young Australian artists could record with confidence. There was a real awakening to what was unique in the landscape and the culture.

We are less sure these days, with the threat of American cultural imperialism, and confusion about just how multicultural we are and want to be, nibbling at our selfesteem. Most of our actors are struggling with dialect coaches to perfect their American accents, and most of our crews rely on big budget American productions to keep financially afloat from year to year. Meanwhile ‘refugees’ are incarcerated like criminals, and the media presents a relentlessly ‘whitebread’ face which does not reflect the cultural diversity on the streets.

And right next door (as poorly scripted films lacking a coherent sense of direction dribble into Australian cinemas), the New Zealanders are quietly attracting world attention. A modest film like Whale Rider has gone further, and made more money, than Danny Deckchair or The Night We Called it a Day ever will. New Zealand filmmakers don’t seem to be trying so hard to please. They are telling stories, whether you like them or not.
Which brings us back to Perfect Strangers and why it’s such a ripping good yarn.

“I like films where goodies are baddies,” Preston says. ”I have very strong ideas that black and white, goodie versus baddie films are bad for us. I’m also sick of going to pictures where everyone can guess the end before it’s even a quarter of the way through.”

The films that influenced a young and impressionable Preston were the creepy ones like Polanski’s Cul de Sac, and William Wyler’s The Collector.
In her first fiction film, Mr Wrong (1984), Preston told the tale of a woman who buys a car haunted by the ghost of a woman who was murdered in it. A quarter century later, she has returned to the ‘predator/victim’ relationship, determined to move it around.

Perfect Strangers is, she says, ‘all about exploring fear’. Determined to get away from the conventions of genre filmmaking, which she’s bored by, Preston has turned to the more nebulous and less reassuring conventions of the oldfashioned fairytale. ‘You know the sort of thing,’ she says cheerfully. ‘Once upon a time there was a king and his brother killed him…’

At the centre of her tale of love and murder, Preston has placed Melanie (played by a sensational Rachael Blake), a modern heroine who is ‘by no means some great liberated woman’.

“Melanie is a battler and a dreamer,’ Preston explains. ‘No matter how emancipated you are, one of the scariest things that can happen is falling in love. It’s terrifying. The first phase is like a colonisation of the brain. But Melanie turns out to be quite an opportunist, if not a predator. She’s not a passive player.”

Preston doesn’t feel that Perfect Strangers, with it’s wacko anti-hero (Sam Neill), and twisted “happy ending”, is in any sense a “feminist” film. “I abhor orthodoxy of any kind,” she says, “and that includes feminist orthodoxy.” Nevertheless Melanie is a woman of the moment. Sexually challenging, single, set adrift by her independence, Melanie sails to the brink of rape and murder, the fear of which feminism, capitalism and bright street lights have yet failed to dispel.

If that sounds a bit heavy, be prepared for a surprise. Perfect Strangers works best as an unpredictable, if spine-chilling thriller. It’s very entertaining because above all, Preston wants it to be fun. “We had the best fun making it I’ve ever had in my life,” she says. “Seven or eight old friends made the heart and soul of this movie. We’ve known each other for years. We might all be fucked in the head but we make our films with love and care. And that’s the hallmark of New Zealand films.”

Rachael Blake

Rachael Blake believes you rarely get a bland New Zealand film, ‘because the films echo the intensity of the landscape’. She should know. During the filming of Perfect Strangers, the landscape turned the petite actress into an emotional tri-athlete.

“New Zealand beaches are not sand!” she says, recalling the horror and amazement of the discovery during the shoot. “They’re full of boulders and ripped up shells, and the ice-cold Tasman Sea.” She shakes her head over a bowl of hot soup in a Paddington café. “There’s a scene where I’m in the surf, and the undertow is so strong, the water picks up rocks, so I kept getting thumped in the head. You have to deal with the terrain in New Zealand. You just can’t ignore it.”

Blake is very good at dealing with things, even at the risk of being knocked back by rocks. After her stint in the ABC’s phenomenally successful Wildside, she waited two years for more work of the same calibre. After Lantana (with a performance that stole the film), the process began again, with some offers from overseas, but a lot of disappointing material.

“I did wonder if pouncing about in heels and suspenders and a lot of makeup was the only path to success,” she says dryly. “Perhaps you are supposed to do one big trashy film and then you’ll get everything else. But so many roles were token women who end up with their clothes off.” Having come to the conclusion that such roles could never be for her, Blake admits she thought she’d never work again. “I said no to so much film and TV work, I thought I’d taken myself out of the loop and I’d never get back in again.”

In the meantime, she kept her head together doing voice work and documentary narrations. She and partner Tony Martin “turned into pioneers”, building a shed on property they own in the bush. And Blake kept “busy hands and a light heart” with needlework. “One Christmas I embroidered a hundred and fifty flowers on a linen tablecloth. I made my dad an apron, with matching embroidered mitts. I hand rolled the hems, and used silk thread. I think my family were relieved when I got acting work again!”

The script that lured her back was Gaylene Preston’s Perfect Strangers.

“Arrgh!!” she groans. “There are so many formulaic love stories. This wasn’t one of them. I went to Gaylene with more questions than anything else.” The risk paid off with a fierce performance from beginning to end, although many of the questions were never answered.
“The screenplay was pretty close to where I thought I should go,” she explains. “But Gaylene never stops exploring: the emotions, the way it’s blocked, the costumes. We’d rehearse one way and shoot another. Then I began bargaining with Gaylene – one for me, one for her. She’d end up with three different but usable takes. By the end of the film I didn’t know what we had. It’s the only role I’ve played where I knew less when I finished than when I started.”

That is also exactly what attracted Blake to the film. ‘I want to be true to myself,’ she explains, ‘but there are so many selves. I meet people every day and make instant judgments about them, thinking I know who you are underneath it all. But I don’t know. I don’t know your history, or how you will react under pressure. All we do is scrape the surfaces.’

The surfaces don’t survive the shingle in Perfect Strangers. “Melanie has an identity crisis,” says Blake. From being the victim castaway on a scary little island, “she becomes the most terrifying thing on it. But she comes through, and in the end she’s blissfully happy. She’s found the power to keep her reality intact”.

Of Sam Neill, Blake says: “Sam’s quite shy. I first met him on the side of a road, clutching a bag of apricots. He wouldn’t look me in the eyes. I thought okay, he’s a movie star, but it took two days for him to look.” After that they got on famously. No-one it seems, especially famous actors, are what they appear to be. “He loves playing with words. He won’t just say it’s pretty, he’ll say, ‘Oh what a sylvan glade.” He has the driest wit, and… he does the best fart jokes!”

Alun Bollinger

One of Rachael Blake’s keenest memories from the shoot of Perfect Strangers involves the day she found herself with Sam Neill’s foot across her neck, and a camera directly above her face, spinning towards her from a coat hook attached to a piece of rope. It was the only way to get the shot cinematographer Alun Bollinger was after.

“That’s when I balked,” she remembers fondly. Of course she’d already seen him hanging from a gaffer who was hanging from the mast of a ship as it sank, in order to get another shot he wanted. There was water everywhere and electrical cables too. “He works out the most ingenious shots,” she explains.

Blake survived, and the film is beautiful to watch. Alun Bollinger is not only a legend, he’s one of the top DOPs working anywhere, with a CV that includes credits for The Piano, Vigil, Heavenly Creatures, and the Rings trilogy. Preston and “AlBol” (as he is known to friends) go way back. They’ve worked together since 1979, when he shot her first documentary. His wife, Helen, designed the costumes for Perfect Strangers.
“We didn’t have to discuss anything,” Preston says of filming Perfect Strangers. “The look of the film was a way of being. The place is a fourth character, but the locations (New Zealand’s wild west coast where Preston grew up and Bollinger still lives) were just there.

Bollinger’s lighting (as much as his insistence on operating the camera rather than just pointing at it) is his signature, and the secret to it, Preston says, is that he never puts up two lights when he can do it with one. He looks at what’s there and builds around it.” He is also colour blind and seems to work with tones and depth of field in a way, which other DOPs working in colour do not. And yet the result is footage that seems drenched in colour.

Bollinger sat in on rehearsals too and, according to Blake, contributed to character development and the plot. “He keeps the process reasonably organic and intuitive and works from the actors,” says Preston, who adds: “I’m blessed to have had long creative relationships with people like Alun. We’re old friends and practically related.”