THE N TO Z OF FILM PODCAST: WONDER WAHINE: MY YEAR WITH HELEN
In this episode Andy & Rajeev are joined by Gaylene to discuss her career and My Year with Helen. Listen to the podcast below:
MY YEAR WITH HELEN
You'll find a raft of Interviews on the My Year With Helen website.
TELLING OUR STORIES
Interview with Gaylene Preston
The Arts Foundation, NZ, October 2011
Gaylene Preston tells the audience at Forsyth Barr Laureates On-Stage in Wellington, October 20, 2009, why she is making films. She explains the lack of exposure to New Zealand stories when growing up and how this motivated her to tell our stories.
A GENTLE VOICE IN A NOISY ROOM
An Interview with New Zealand Filmmaker Gaylene Preston
By Mary Wiles
Senses of Cinema, On Line Film Journal, 2010
Mary M. Wiles lectures in the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. This interview was conducted with Gaylene Preston at her home in Wellington, which also serves as her production studio.
As Preston led me back towards the kitchen, obviously the central gathering place in her modest home, I was struck immediately by the array of black and white family photos lining the walls of the hall corridor, showcasing family members who have become vivid, memorable characters familiar to film audiences around the world. The bedroom had been converted into an editing suite, the front living room into an office where papers and documents lay unopened. I had caught Preston in transit; she had just returned home from the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where her recently released film Home by Christmas had been screened as part of a selection of Antipodean films. While abroad, she had learned of the unexpected death of her long-time friend and collaborator, respected Maori filmmaker Merata Mita, with whom she had worked on the landmark documentary Patu! (1983). Preston was en route to the Sydney International Film Festival the next morning. At Sydney's State Cinema, Home by Christmas was voted third most popular film in the Audience Award category. Fifteen years earlier at this same festival, her documentary War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) – which in many respects can be considered a companion work to Home by Christmas — had not only been voted the most popular film but also Best Documentary. The Cinema Studies Program at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in association with the Christchurch Art Gallery and Rialto Cinemas will host a retrospective exhibition of the director's work in 2011.
ABROAD AND AT HOME
Can you describe how your interest in filmmaking evolved; where and when you first decided to become a filmmaker; your early experiences as a woman forging a film career within New Zealand?
I'll summarise for you. I studied painting at Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury…
Do you continue your painting at all today?
No, I do a bit of drawing occasionally. I studied for three years. I did not graduate. In fact, I would be one of the better known 'failures' from the Art School. I took the first job available in Christchurch in 1969—early 1969—and I got a job at Calvary Psychiatric Day Hospital. I found myself in a very progressive environment at that little day hospital. I was an nursing assistant and because I had a background in drama and the visual arts, and it was the open minded place it was—nine months later when I had to fill in 'Occupation' on my passport, I wrote 'Art Therapist,' a term I thought I had made up, but when I got to Europe I found that it was a very well established discipline.
Anyway, when I got to Cambridge in the UK, the first job that I got was as an assistant librarian at Fulbourn Psychiatric Hospital and I sort of found my community there. Part of the assistant librarian's job was to direct the hospital Christmas pantomine every year. Using that as a platform, over three years with a small multidisciplinary group, I managed to establish drama therapy across the hospital, and we also managed to lobby to get an art therapist position set up.
So we were doing improvisational drama therapy, and we could see how useful it was for institutionalised patients. They thought they were getting ready to perform a play. A play institutionalises the performance. You have to learn your lines, and you have to learn your moves, and you repeat them over and over. The problem these patients had was that every day was the same as the day before, and every week was the same as the week before, so we were trying to de-institutionalise them. All over Britain hospitals were being closed down. These institutionalised patients were on the brink of being shut out and shunted off to bed sitters without real support. Anything that could be done to help them reclaim their sense of spontenaety was crucial. Anyway, I had a bunch of mates—I was in a small experimental theatre group in Cambridge called Whole Earth. We were a theatre group that was political. We were interested in forging a fusion of acid rock and Brecht, and we were constantly rehearsing; we did very few actual performances.
Anyway my Whole Earth mates, they came out to the hospital, and one of them had an 8mm camera, so she said, 'Oh yeah, we'll make them a film. A film is great. Every take is fresh.' And then my friend who was shooting the film eloped, and I got left with a little pile of film cans on the dining room table when I came in one night. I had to solve the problem of making a film out of the material we had shot so far, so that we could screen it to the patient group. And I didn't even know that you cut it up—you know—you could take the bad bits out and cellotape together the best bits. So I made this silent film. Then we needed to make a sound track. I borrowed a tape recorder that was probably about as big as this half of the table. It was a big green thing. I thought it was fantastic because it had two tracks. Two separate tracks! And if you pushed the tape recorder and projector buttons at around about the same time, you could play the film, and it nearly achieved a weird synch. So my first films were made as silent movies with a sound track added, because once I made that film I then moved to London, and I started working in drama with West Indian kids at Brixton College of Further Education. I started making films with deaf kids. It was fantastic for them to be able to actually say a line of dialogue because you can record each word one at a time and then cut it together and make it a sentence. So anyway, my interest in film grew out of doing that community therapy based work.
Were you at all interested at that time about what was going on in the film world? It must have been a very vibrant time in Europe with people working in the post-New Wave period.
It was —it was amazing. I was part of the London Women's Film Group. We met every Wednesday in the Women's House in Earl Street, and there were woman in that film group who had jobs in the industry. They just seemed to me to be really upset most of the time. I gradually realised that if I stayed in the UK, then chipping away at the edifice was pretty well what I was going to get to be doing. Most of the people that I was involved with in London outside my actual job were people who were campaigning for sexual politics and progressive politics, often within the large monolithic unions because you know the left was very hard bound in those days in Britain. I pricked up my ears when I got messages from home because there seemed to be more possibilites. I heard about this bus that was going around doing concerts for kids using film and performance. So, though I was living happily in Britain, I started to get a bit home sick. Around this time, my friends in London took me to see This is New Zealand —the now quite famous three-screen installation by the NZ National Film Unit. The way that they took me to see it was unusual. They said, 'Right, we're taking you on a magical mystery tour for your birthday, so what time are you home from work'? And I said, 'Oh, I'll be home at 4 o'clock'. 'Great'. And I walked in at about half past four, and suddenly they grabbed me, blindfolded me, shoved me into the car with a joint in my hand, and off we went. We drove for 20 minutes. They guided me across big wide streets blindfolded, and they're not worrying too much about me because we are now late. We are having to nearly run with me, still with the blindfold on, and we walk into what I think is a big ferry building. It sounds like a big building. Then they take the blindfold off, and I am standing with my nose just about one inch in front of these two black vinyl doors, and on the doors is a big sign in white-on-black that says, 'This is New Zealand'. And I pushed open the doors and I walked into the dark where a film was just beginning—it was just that moment after the lights have gone down, and the film hasn't started yet. We hustled into front row seats, sat down, and up it came—this three-screen blast. The Southern Alps, we are flying over Aoraki, and I just thought, 'Oh, I have to go home. They can make films there!' That film really brought me home, which was not the result my friends were looking for.
It did the opposite.
Yeah, it did the opposite. So with difficulty, I left my lovely life in London where I had it pretty good; like I had three days a week well paid part-time work down at the College of Further Education, and four days a week off to do what ever I liked. I had a badge that said 'Einstein was a Part Timer'. I mean it was very creative time for me all of that period. Anyway, I came home.
Was the transition hard?
Very. I don't actually think that I really, really, really arrived home until Perfect Strangers (2003).
Maybe you identified with your father to some degree – I mean the person that went away and then came back and had to face a great deal of adjustment.
Well, I don't know…. I think the way that my father dealt with it was actually the opposite to me. He just came home from the war and went, 'I'm never going back there again'—and never did. He wasn't going one millimetre out of New Zealand—he would eventually go to Australia much later in his old age. He didn't talk about it but he stayed home. Whereas for me, ever since I came back in 1977 I've always had to head out on a regular basis. In a funny way when I finish a film, I need to still go and sort of set my compass—I set my compass over there in the Northern Hemisphere.
Different from other filmmakers like Jane Campion though, you've chosen to stay here in New Zealand. I think you said at one time it's important to make films for New Zealanders because no one else will do it if you don't.
So did you ever cross paths with Campion?
Only at parties. See, as I arrived in New Zealand, Jane left.
So, you were like ships passing in the night, and she never really came back to live.
Well, she is back here occasionally—down south, but there has not been a conversation there. I would have liked there to have been, I like conversations with other directors, but we have never really been in the same place at the same time.
It would seem to me that New Zealand offers a kind of safe haven in many ways for voices like yours, so that you're not just completely subsumed or overwhelmed by everything else that's going on around you.
Yeah, because you need a bit of quiet to hear the inner voice. I think if you were summing up my films you could say that they are quiet—they don't easily fit a sort of political filmmaker profile. I think that they've got really strong politics in them, but they've also got…there's an interest in fantasy and whimsy that sits around the ideas. I think I've got a gentle voice, and the film room is noisy…
Did you become, when you came back to New Zealand, less prone to identify with movements like the feminist movement or other film movements, or did you still feel connected to certain aesthetic traditions? It seems like in Britain you had this period where you were identified with certain movements and you enjoyed that collective spirit– did you find yourself more isolated here?
No, I found myself very involved, because here was a new industry emerging and there was this maverick urgency. But there was also a very sophisticated discussion going on, particularly among those of us who were making documentaries. There was a bunch of people in Wellington during 1978/79/80, they came and went, but there was a core group who were having an intense conversation about what film was for, and what change could be achieved using film—which side was the camera on and what were the ethics of tax payer funded filmmaking. That's how Patu! happened. During the Springbok Tour of 1981. That was an extraordinary piece of collective filmmaking— Patu! We all went out; we stole film stock, we shot extremely dangerous situations, we…
Were you part of the cinematographic crew on Patu!?
My credit on Patu! is 'middle New Zealand co-ordinator',—it's an in-joke. Basically the collective stood alongside Merata, and we made sure that all of the independently shot footage went in one direction—it all went to Merata to make a feature film. One film for the cinema, because we saw that as the liberating space, not television which was pretty locked up here. There was a real feeling that independent filmmakers— it flowed out of Pacific Films to a degree—that the independents were the filmmakers of the people; we reflected local concerns and I felt like I was part of a small community of activist filmmakers, progressive thinking people, who were politically sophisticated—many of them Maori—most of them gone now.
Unlike the UK, the politics in New Zealand suited me because it's little. There's not enough of us to form factions. Actually, the 1981 Springbok Tour protests were a really good example of that. On one end of the spectrum you had the churches marching, you know, ladies from Thorndon, and on another end of the spectrum you had the gangs getting involved. There was a sometimes very fraught conversation going on between all of them; but somehow these factions were able to agree to disagree on fairly basic things and take action on what they did agree on. And that was about racism in sport. On the 1st of May 1981, more than 300,000 people marched to ask the Government to stop that tour. Now in a country of just over three million people, at the time, that amounts to around 10 percent of the population hitting the road across the country to state, really clearly, a heartfelt view. I always think that for every person who is actually on the street in any protest, there are two or three that aren't there but support the cause, so it was an overwhelming phenomenon. Did the Government stop it? No. So we stopped protesting and picked up cameras and stood with the anti-racist movement often in the middle of the line, staring down the police batons rolling film we had begged, borrowed, or stolen.
I didn't make Patu! —Merata did—but I certainly played a part along with Martyn Sanderson, Waka Attewell and Vanguard Films and others, recording that extraordinary moment from a very different point of view from the other footage that was shot during the tour. We didn't shoot from on top of buildings; we shot down among the protesters, and all of that footage was put in one place, which was with the independent un-vetted voice of a Maori woman filmmaker who was able to go away—pretty well into hiding—and make her film with total creative control. We decided that, and we stuck to it. That remains an extraordinary thing to me because filmmakers get very attached to their footage. Especially if they have the raw stock!
I agree. Do you find that that spirit, that kind of community spirit and political spirit, is still alive today in New Zealand?
I think among documentary filmmakers most certainly.
Obviously what you're pointing to is a strong tradition of women, activists and filmmakers who have enjoyed long, very prolific and successful careers. Merata, of course, serving as the mother figure, in many respects, of that particular documentary tradition.
You see, that tradition of documentary filmmaking is deeply rooted in independent work. If you look at the films of Barry Barclay, if you look at the way Vanguard Films have just carried on making their movies, that's the old guard. And I have played my part one way or another. I was making films that reflected my concerns. In All The Way Up There (1978), about a disabled 21-year-old who climbs Mt Ruapehu with Graham Dingle, the centre of that movie is the interview with Bruce Burgess whose disability is quite extreme aphasia, which has a huge impact on his speech. It takes him a while to say what he has to say, and we had to subtitle it. The commissioning editor at TVNZ said, 'Whatever you do, don't interview him. Go away and get some good wallpaper footage, and then put a commentary over it.'
But making a film where the audience are brought to that interview and feel able to sit comfortably and wait to hear what he has to say, no matter how laborious, that's the reason for making that film. It's all about changing attitudes.
I feel like Titless Wonders (2001) continues in that spirit, where again you're focusing on women who have been invisible, whose scars, whose experiences have been not spoken about publically.
That's an overriding interest. When I came back from the UK, I felt that our kids, our teenagers, were extremely invisible. I came back to New Zealand and felt like everybody was asleep; that there was this big wave of unemployment about to hit, and nobody was prepared for it, least of all the kids who were going to be the ones that wore it, which was exactly what happened. Learning Fast (1980) was a way of revealing that process. That took two years to make. So I suppose by choosing the less obvious political subjects, but choosing to focus on the personal political, that's where my work sits, always has, you know, all of it. Political filmmaking for me is to make consciousness-raising films that screen in prime time or at the movies. They're actually masquerading, if you like, as mainstream populist movies. All of my work's been around that idea. So today we've got Home by Christmas having done a million bucks at the movies, and actually, it's an anti-war film, masquerading as a nice old codger entertaining you. But actually, it's got a very clear —I mean I'm reflecting my father's opinion—but it's got a very clear anti-war theme.
I was thinking of how you grew up –obviously you went abroad, and this had a great deal to do with shaping you professionally and personally. But really, you came from a typical Kiwi family with typical Kiwi parents. Did they play any role in forming you as an artist? Did they give you that impetus to speak your mind or to have a unique personal vision? It seems like a lot of your films are generated from within this family.
Yeah, which is interesting, isn't it? I grew up in a participatory culture. First of all in Greymouth and then in Napier, and in both of those places, like most little towns in the 50's in New Zealand. . . you know, everybody would say, 'Oh, we made our own fun. We entertained ourselves'. So if you could sing or dance or were the slightest bit precocious, you kind of got pushed on stage. So that meant I was in the Sunday school concert at the age of three and from then on I was an entertainer; my mother who was very shy was quite appalled at this but supported me. And as far as the arts are concerned, my generation got fast-tracked—we got an art based, play based education— big time. When we walked into our primary schools, we were handed a big fat paint brush into our chubby little mits and confronted with big easels and paint pots, and there was a sandpit and this scary lady who played the piano, and we all had to learn to folk dance and sing harmonies. A whole generation of us, who were working class kids got put through to university—educated far beyond our parents' wildest dreams— for free. I'm a part of that, and through that time I found not a single New Zealand story on our bookcase at home.
But all this education became a source of conflict eventually because I got interested in a much larger world and wanted to leave home to go to art school. I was kicking over the traces wearing black tights and big jerseys and black eyeliner and white lipstick— that wasn't what I was supposed to be educated for. I was meant to be wearing a white cardigan and teaching piano part-time while working in a bank waiting to get married. Well, that was not going to happen. We, my generation of women, have lived way beyond our parents' expectations. When I made my first independent film, All the Way Up There, my father and mother came to a screening. At the next family gathering my father took me aside—he'd realised that I was going to be a filmmaker without steady work, standing outside the institutions—he worked it out, which is quite clever for a milkman from Napier. Anyway, he said, 'Look love, I'm retiring next year. I'm 75 and I'll be retiring, and that milk run of mine, that's the best milk run in Napier; you can do it in three hours a day and then you've got the rest of the day for yourself. Why don't you have the milk run? You would have steady money coming in every week.' You could see how he had thought about it. So I make my first movie, and my father offers me his milk run. So there is how it was supported – how the arts were supported.
HOME BY CHRISTMAS: RECLAIMING THE COMMUNAL MEMORY
As we are on the subject of support for the arts, could I ask how you acquired funding for Home by Christmas?
With great difficulty over a very long period of time. I don't think that there's any such thing as an easy film to fund, I don't think that there ever was, but it is especially not the case now. I produced, directed and wrote Home by Christmas. I didn't produce it alone; I have two producing partners – Nigel Hutchinson, who came on board after a year or so, and Sue Rogers, who stepped up to the plate a year or two after that. I'll just go through the process of how it got made because you can't really separate out financing as a separate issue from the rest of the evolution of the film – well, I can't because I was involved with it all.
A friend of mine, Nigel Hutchinson, said to me, 'You have to come and be our artist in residence for a week' —his place was a completely isolated little cottage on a peninsula in the Marlborough Sounds. So I went there to have a think and clear my head after having made Perfect Strangers. That was when I realised that the war story that my father had told me was still sitting there in my computer; a series of interviews that had been transcribed, with scenes that I had worked on over the years. And I thought, well, that would be a good project for me. I like to just follow my nose you know, follow what interests me. Choosing a project means you're going to live with it for a long time. So anyway, I started—I could see how making a work that was based on oral history, like closely based on oral history that included dramatic interventions, would be a really interesting form for me to explore as a filmmaker. So then I wrote a script, by taking the transcriptions and cutting them down. I wrote some of his story into imagined dramatic scenes, and sometimes I let him just tell the story. I decided to do that because the way he told the story was about as interesting to me as what he was describing. And also, it's what he doesn't tell that really has huge reverberations. So I always knew that the interview needed to sit in the middle of the story. You've got choices at that point; you can say, 'Well, I'll dramatise the whole thing', but I never wanted to do that. I wanted to have the interview in the centre.
So I wrote a script and put that into the Film Commission, and they gave me some development money. In that development proposal I mentioned that I felt that it was not going to be possible just to develop the script in the usual way by writing and rewriting and getting assessments because I had to know whether a central reconstructed interview was going to work. So with this tiny amount of development money, I cast Tony Barry to play my father. Tony is an actor whose work was not unknown to me, but I didn't know him particularly well. Anyway, it was my sister who said, 'Tony's well worth looking at, he's awfully like Dad'. So I went over to Sydney and gave Tony the script; he loved it. The next task was to get Tony over here to see if we could pull off a reconstructed interview because if you don't believe that interviewer in Home by Christmas, you haven't got a film.
That's right, but you never doubt it—I never did. How did you work with him to ensure that he would have that authenticity?
I thought I would just muck around with my PD150—my little Sony camera. Alun Bollinger had read the script and really liked it, so the idea was that Alun and I would just muck around here in this house with Tony being Ed [Preston's father]. And then it somehow grew. Some people round the corner had some Thomson Viper cameras, and once they knew Alun was coming to town, they wanted him to try out these new-fangled cameras; to run those cameras you kind of needed a crew, and the next thing, we had a crew.
Did you shoot the interviews here in the house?
Yeah. We came to shoot the interviews here in the house because I could control the location. If anything we shot worked, it could supposedly be in the final film. I could do subsequent shoots in the same location—my home. If we had been developing, financing, shooting in the way that you normally do, we wouldn't have been shooting in my home. It's not very convenient when you're trying to work, to do it at home—to have your house full of film crew. However it worked really well. I stepped in to work with Tony one-to-one because we certainly didn't have money to pay for another actor to come in and play me. If I had been making the film the usual way I would have cast an actor to be me, a younger actor. When I interviewed my father I was 40, and my father was 80. When I interviewed Tony in the film he was 67, and I was 60.
I must say, in the film, it doesn't really come across that way.
No, no, it doesn't does it. Mind you, we did our best to make sure it didn't. But that decision made the difference with the interview because I could make Tony really talk to me, I could catch his eye and direct him as he was going—the way a good documentary interviewer does. So a lot of the decisions that were made were made because it was a muck about, where we were just trying to find out how we could make this thing work. Actually, I'm sure that if I had had another actor it would have just been too hard. It would have been just about impossible.
Did he work from the transcripts of the tapes that your father did? Obviously you cut and edited the tapes to make a kind of scripted transcript.
But did he work verbatim from that transcript or did he improvise at all along the way?
We both improvised, but it's a strange kind of improvisation because you're not allowed to make it up; you have to improvise using what you've heard. I wouldn't let him learn the words. It's a very interesting medium; once you take an interview out of a tape into a transcript, then edit the transcript and then go back to editing the original sound tape, its amazing how much you've edited out from the sound tape—just in little wee ways of saying, 'the' instead of 'a' or you know just changing things slightly. It was very interesting going back and doing a new sound edit and those sound edited tapes were what was used for Tony. So he was given those to listen to as he biked around Sydney. One of the hardest things was to get them onto a cassette tape because he had a walkman; he's the last person alive with a walkman! Fortunately he was really busy, and he didn't learn any lines. I had told him not to learn them. But actors will always want to learn the lines because that's what actors do. They learn the words.
It's hard to believe when you're watching him on film that he's actually speaking to some degree a script or speaking from the recorded transcript. It's so natural that you never get a sense of that at all.
Well, that's what we had to achieve. We had to work really hard to get to a really relaxed place where we could achieve that. When I'm making a documentary I'm always trying to get the person to get off the tape recorder version in their memory—the tape recorder memory is not pure memory, it's a retelling of how the story is usually told. There is remembering what happened, then there is remembering how to tell the story. I prefer the former. It makes more compelling cinema storytelling for one thing, but also, it's more pure and immediate. Human memory is quite complex. The soldiers they would go out into battle, something horrendous would happen; they would end up back in the bar, having a beer or two, and their only chance of being able to talk about the horrendous stuff was to find a way to tell it that had a punch line, that made everybody laugh. So the well-told war story always has a horribly funny punch line. It's a performance—right? But when I make a documentary, I'm wanting to get past mere performance of storytelling into something more immediate, truthful, compelling. I'm always digging to try and punch a hole in the tape recording of how the story is usually told, to pass through that layer of memory into moments that might suddenly illuminate the pure memory. I've probably spent years of my life thinking very specifically about interview and very specifically about interview on film and what it really ought to be. Because if you want to make a film it's got to be cinematic, and the great pieces of cinema have brilliant performances in the centre of them, and what is a brilliant performance? From an actor, a brilliant performance is where there doesn't seem to be any glass between the performance and the screen—immediacy is everything.
Actually I've ended up with a very specific niche interest that comes from long exploration of what memory is. Once you do any work in oral history, you know that what this person says happened and what that person says happened are so mutually exclusive sometimes—you couldn't believe that they were in the same room at the same time, but they're both speaking their truth. What is interesting about oral history is you get all the truths, and you add three and four and five and six people, and you start to get a story net. You start to see how the situation might have been in the round. I mean, there's no doubt it's a very different story of a battle if you're stuck out the back sending messages to the colonel, or if you're digging a hole and burying dead people under fire. And because of the way that the old soldiers came together around the bar at the RSA upon their return, they homogenised their versions to all sort of fit a story that was convenient to tell in the 50's, and of course, stories are always quite quickly made convenient to tell, but it's a strange kind of edit of the reality of the thing over time. So I was always just trying to dig to get beyond that and into different more original territory.
It's interesting what you've just said about different perspectives; it seems like your mother's version of her 'war story' in War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (1995) is a very different recounting?
Totally—couldn't be more different could it—my point entirely. Tui [Preston's mother]—she's a completely different kind of storyteller to my father anyway. I couldn't have chosen two more different storytellers really. My father is very matter of fact. Supposing they are both telling a story about going down to the dairy. My father might say, 'Oh well, you know, we had to take this dairy. It was on a hill, and the Germans had it. We wanted it, so we had to take this dairy, and we did. And after it exploded, and we'd all settled down a bit, I said to Dinghy Taif …'. You know, I mean, it's all like that. Unembellished. My mother is a far more conflicted personlity. She might tell it this way, 'Well, I knew that nice girls did not go down to the dairy. It just wasn't done in those days, and I knew that I shouldn't go down to the dairy, but this one day, well one thing led to another, and I went to the diary. And I knew I shouldn't have, but then of course, well…'. See, completely different—totally different. One very elliptical storytelling full of internal disharmony and indecision, and one terribly matter-of-fact about awfully big things.
I think my father's 'war story' was a very sly war story—political in terms of the statement he had to make about war in general and very clear in terms of the particulars of his war, told in a very generous 'one of the boy's' way. My father's war story is not the one that gets told in the official versions.
I don't think that your mother's got told either until you told it or until you let her have the opportunity to tell it—both very unique.
But the reason I told them… the reason I thought they were important was because in New Zealand, because we have such huge budgetary restrictions — you know, we're a small territory— so the amount of movies where we are able to put our version of the war or our version of any damn historical thing up there is actually really limited. So the reason that I wanted to tell Home by Christmas was to put something into the film catalogue that reflected an ordinary soldier's version of the war. It wasn't the English version or the American version—that's our version. It's not the Australian version; it's our version—that one. And not only that, but it's from a man who truly, truly is an anti-hero; he's otherwise invisible. It's a story of a man who went away in a flush of excitement, got over there, didn't like it and unashamedly tells you about all the things he didn't like. And even when he escapes, he does it by accident, not because he's trying to get back to his army to fight on, but actually because he could. He took the opportunity. Why? Because he wanted to get the hell out of it and go home to his wife and kid. So, there's no heroism in my father's story as he tells it—none. You can't find nobility in there. The only nobility you have is of an ordinary man doing what he could to try and avoid being a part of this terrible thing he had got himself into. Now that's usually described as being a coward, but the way he tells it without artifice means that he takes the audience with him. So again, I'm just consciousness-raising. I think the film's claiming back some territory in the communal memory actually.
It's an oral history. I don't know if you've ever heard about the African griot, who is the person in the culture endowed with multiple functions—as a dancer, a storyteller, a performer. But in ancient tradition he was the storehouse of the oral tradition of the community. This was before there was writing and written records. So the griot's performance became part of the recounting of history, and this is how history was passed down.
Oh, well, I'm just one of those.
Or a griotte, in your case... Could you comment on the structure of the film and the use of film stock and colour to identify the various narrative strands?
It's a collage, a patchwork quilt of a film. Because of the way the Viper walked in the door, the interview was shot on HD, which gives it a kind of digital 80's feel; it's flatter; it's beige; it lacks mood, but it feels authentic. The flashbacks are all on 16mm, shot on split focus lenses. Split focus lenses work on a mirror system which means as you're moving the camera or even if you're not moving the camera, you can move the focus in the frame. Similar to how your memory works, you have a frame, and you can move the focus in it in your head. So that's used quite often in the flashback story. Once you're in 1942, you're with the split focus and the heightened colour. We worked most of the palate of the film from my mother's house coat—the floral dress you see worn in the first part of the film.
The red, white and blue seems to come up quite a bit, was that was intentional on your part?
Well, that wasn't the case in my head at all, but the way we decided to treat the archive was that we would slightly colourise aspects, just like you have a black and white photograph, and then you hand tint it. So the archive—each shot is treated as its own post card. We didn't match grade the archive footge to be the same through the film. It's actually very different—each shot. And of course you are either adding red or you're adding blue—adding yellow is a bit harder. If you add yellow you just get brown, so that's how the red, white and blue…
WAR STORIES AND HOME BY CHRISTMAS: GAYLENE'S 'WAR AND PEACE'
I see, and of course, you use your own home photos too. All those photographs, were they passed to you by your mother and father?
Mm'mm well see, probably the making of those films— let's talk about War Stories and Home by Christmas together for a minute. When I was little growing up, the house had a bay window along the side, and I could get down between the couch and the window, and there was a chocolate box and in the chocolate box were all these black and white photos, plus negatives, and I wasn't allowed to touch those photos, you know, sticky fingers. But I would hide in that secret spot and look at those photos. I remember one particular day, there was music on the radio, and the fire was burning, and my nana sitting by the fire and I was behind the couch looking at these photos, but I couldn't ask anybody anything about who was in them because I wasn't supposed to have them. So I must have spent a bit of time trying to make connections with them, making up stories —you know—in my imagination how little kids do that? It's a very vivid memory.
I did the same thing.
Did you. Maybe it was common? So you see it all comes from there, combined with—I had really bad eyesight. I don't know why I put that in the past tense because my eyesight is still not good, but I was really into drawing and colouring in, which I would do on the floor and not get noticed. I loved it when my mother's friends from next door came over for morning tea, which they did quite regularly. They were in and out of one another's houses those women. And every now and then, they would talk about the war —with me under the table—ears flapping, but they would forget I was there. So I would hear—I can't remember specific stories, but I'd hear very specific pain shared, you know what it's like with little kids. They pick up the feeling without understanding the details. So from an early age I knew that my mother's time during the war was difficult and that my father's was not. Then as I grew up I came to realise that in the other households of school friends of mine, it was the other way around. Their dad was usually the one that had the problem. Whereas, my father wasn't at all like that. He was just this anchor in the household, he held it together for everybody. So making a documentary about women's experiences in World War II was kind of obvious to me, and I was always really interested in the rugby club aspect of my father's trip away – the rollicking yarn aspect. And of course my mother was the sort of person who had her own internal pain anyway—brought up with an alcoholic father, so she was always going to be a bit easy to rattle emotionally.
Was her story that she revealed on film, was it a surprise for you or did you suspect as much?
Well, I was digging—I had interviewed my father before that, before he died.
So her concerns weren't the same as his…
He's being protective of her—he knows he's dying and no matter how far I want to dig, there's going to be a beginning, a middle and an end, and it's going to be dictated by him and that's pretty well how it worked—very generous, very warm, very clear—right; that was him in every aspect of his life. So it wasn't until after he died that Tui told her story in War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us.
And in fact, the title is significant; pointing to the fact that she hadn't ever told you?
Well, I think I must have got it by osmosis, but certainly her sitting there telling wasn't something that happened until there was a camera on it. My father died in 1992. Ruby and Rata (1990) had just left the cinemas, and I interviewed Ed over Christmas New Year 1991, and Tui looked after Chelsie who was three. It was during this period, Tui said—song ['As Time Goes By'] from Casablanca came on the radio—and she said, 'Oh, that was a very special song for me during the war'. And I thought, oh, that's interesting. She said, 'Yes, oh, with your father and I'. And I thought, that's funny, Casablanca didn't come out till 1943. I understood that she was telling me something truthful. I had recorded ten tapes with my father—that's 15 hours of tape. My father then goes into remission and refuses to mention it ever again. So there's no way that I'd ever be able to film him. I mean we went off to the Sydney Film Festival screening of Ruby and Rata, and I had three or four days with my father, just him and me in Sydney. It was like he hadn't told me anything about the war—it never happened, off the radar—in only the way that he could do. I think you can probably understand how he did it, with lots of jokes and evasions.
Do you suspect that he knew about your mother's liaison during the war or…
I have no idea. She said that they never talked about it. But I don't know, they could have both known.
There are places where you can't go.
Especially a daughter who is also a filmmaker! In any case, everybody tells their version. They're not lying, they're just telling you their version. So I asked Judith Fyfe, who with Hugo Manson, had set up the New Zealand Oral History Centre ten years earlier. I said to Judith, 'Could I pay you a pathetic amount of money, and would you go and interview my mother because I think that there's a story there'? And she said, 'No, certainly not, that's exactly what we don't do'. Anyway, I got talking to her about stories of women and World War II and things that I thought were important gaps that were emerging in the communal history and that we should get cracking before they all left us. Judith did go out and interview Tui, and I said, 'What did she say, what did she say'? 'You'll have to listen to the tape, and you've got to get her permission to listen to it'. 'Fair enough'. And you know what? I never did. I never listened.
And then two years later Judith and I got cracking, and we raised money to make an oral history of women in World War II. We worked with wonderful interviewers like Alison Parr and Jane Tolerton and Susan Folkes—brilliant interviewers and others. And we trained up Queenie Rikiana Hyland with other Maori interviewers and said, 'Go and interview your aunties. We are not talking to only service women. We want the stories from ordinary women—just go and interview your aunty'. 'You were alive during World War II. What happened to you'? We had money to do 20 interviews, and we got 23 out of that, and we raised another lot. I think in the end we'd got 60 or 70 interviews – and I think we got 12 or more in te reo Maori.
Anyway, impetus was building. The Museum [National Museum and Art Gallery in Wellington] wanted to use some of our interviews for an exhibition. We had Geoff Walker of Penguin Books wanting to make a book. Could I get a film made? No. We kept going to the Film Commission and getting booted out the door and told it wasn't cinema, it was television, and I mean you can forgive them for that I suppose—it's seven old ladies talking about the war with a bit of archival footage thrown in. Anyway, I had some film stock that I had bought off Kodak on a special deal; so after two years of trying, I just got a camera and did it. Got started the traditional way that most New Zealand documentaries get made, by picking up a camera and just shooting. Well it was Alun who shot them. With that footage from the first five subjects it was possible to raise some money for a film because it was clear they were amazing interviews and that they would work as cinema. When they asked what would make it cinema, I would say, 'Because a filmmaker's going to make it and it's going to have a Dolby stereo sound track'. Quite arrogant. But I held to the idea that in New Zealand it is cinema that remains the liberating social space.
New Zealand television has been such a tragedy in that it has not been consistent. There hasn't been any consistent public service space in the television area, and every time there's a new Government they completely rejig all television. It's been a very expensive missed opportunity, culturally speaking, for the New Zealand audience. So therefore with a completely commercialised television network and a teeny, tiny amount of New Zealand films being made every year, the audience is so starved that if you actually give them a film that reflects any kind of truth in terms of the world they inhabit, they're so grateful they gallop into the theatres.
Well, I guess that they are inundated from global products being circulated.
More so than most places. If you actually give the New Zealand audience something that they can really click with, it's like they're having a glass of water in the middle of a desert, they are hugely grateful, and they never forget it. I think whenever a film reflects in an entertaining engaging way to a New Zealand audience a part of itself that has been hitherto under the radar, they go in numbers. That accounts for Boy [Taika Waititi, 2010], you know. Boy is reflecting a very energetic aesthetic and sensibility of a generation that hasn't had its say. And I just wish that we could find a way in New Zealand to pull ourselves together and actually understand how important this is because, you know, we're really still talking about memory, aren't we?
Because we have personal memories and how those personal memories get expressed is a part of our communl oral history. There's the way we choose to tell it, and there's the way that we actually remember it. Our films are a flagship, which becomes how we choose to tell it. We need stronger funding of local storytelling on film. Having said that, when I look at my generation of filmmakers across the world, and if I then decided to look at only women filmmakers who are my peers, there are very few of them who have managed to keep going, so it's hard the world over. It's very difficult to make a work that is self-generated and not commissioned. Most of my films start between my left ear and my right ear—in my head—and get made independently without creative interference. So if you like my work, or if you don't like my work, whatever you think, it's mine. There are so few filmmakers who have managed to keep on going. I'd say if we did decide to make a list, we'd find that at least half of the list would be French filmmakers, wouldn't they?
Yes, they would. From your generation, Claire Denis comes to mind ...
Well, yes, and Agnès Varda, although she is older than me, but you know they are the models. My heroes.
What direction do you see yourself going in the future? Do you see yourself doing more fiction feature films, or do you feel like there are more documentaries and stories that you're wanting to recount from the community?
So, am I going to do a fiction film or a drama or a straight doco next? I don't know—the world's my oyster, isn't it? But I'll tell you what—Home by Christmas was conceived as the middle story in a trilogy and the other two are—I could call them '81'. One is a passivist stand that happened in 1881 during the Land wars, and the other is the stand that was made in 1981 during the Springbok Tour. I would like to work using oral histories, archival footage and dramatising for those two. So I'm just taking the long way round to make my 'War and Peace' – Gaylene's 'War and Peace'. Don't hold your breath, it will take a while.
HER LIFE'S WORK
Conversations with Five New Zealand Women
By Deborah Shepard
Auckland University Press, 2009
ISBN : 9781869404437
Her Life's Work chronicles the extraordinary life stories of five New Zealand women - Jacqueline Fahey, Merimeri Penfold, Anne Salmond, Gaylene Preston and Margaret Mahy. As artists, writers, teachers, filmmakers and thinkers each has carved out an impressive career, balancing society's gender expectations with the pursuit of a meaningful identity through creative work. Born between 1920 and 1947, these iconic women experienced immense changes in society during the 20th century that directly affected their working and personal lives. Their stories touch on major public events and challenges - the Land March in 1975, the rise of feminism, the occupation of Bastion Point, the Springbok tour of New Zealand. Author Deborah Shepard weaves a compelling narrative, based on in-depth interviews with these five women.
ON MAKING NEW ZEALAND FILMS
ScreenTalk with Gaylene Preston
NZ on Screen, NZ, October 2009
In this ScreenTalk interview Preston talks about how she started film making, thanks to a job as an art therapist in an English asylum. She discusses the films Mr Wrong, Ruby and Rata and Bread and Roses. She reflects on her long time interest in 'the stories that hold secrets, the things that you're not allowed to talk about', and discusses the role and status of New Zealand women directing film, then and now.
Ruth Hessey interviews Gaylene Preston
Inside film, Australia, 3 October 2003
Ruth Hessey (speaks with) Director Gaylene Preston and actress Rachael Blake about Kiwi magic, exploring fear and Sam Neill's fart jokes.
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 grey 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 self esteem. 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 'white bread' 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 old fashioned fairy tale. '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.'
...interview with 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!'
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.'
LIBERATING LEARNING - WOMEN AS FACILITATORS OF LEARNING
Judith Manchester and Anne O'Rourke interview Gaylene Preston
Suffrage Centennial Trust, 1993
'Being a post-war baby boomer, like most New Zealanders of that vintage, I grew up in a home with few books, and a very great emphasis on education and learning.
I consider myself to have had a very rounded education, which certainly continued well after I left school. It continues to this day. When I was invited to contribute my thoughts on my own learning I found the form of the interview – digression and stories – reflected very well the way I learn things.'
You have written: 'the best way for me to learn is from doing'. Would you like to talk this?
I grew up in a very participatory community. Because I was a girl I don't think my family expected me to achieve much. I liked to join in, so, from a very early age, that's what I did. I can remember a feeling of knowing things. I think that comes from a very clear intuition which I was fortunate enough to be born with. And I don't think I've changed much either. What I know about my filmmaking, I learned by doing it. My filmmaking grew out of a very practical response to a participatory experience.
I find it very difficult to cubbyhole things. There's a lot of literature that devotes itself to its subjects. To labelling things in ever-greater minute detail. I've never been able to subscribe to that. I've sometimes even learned the language of psychiatry. In the end, you haven't got a syndrome, you've got a person. And while it is quite interesting to pull things apart, hold them up to the light and intellectually explore them, it is even more necessary to put them back. I have always felt more comfortable with a holistic approach.
I suppose I was very fortunate to grow up in New Zealand in the fifties, in a small, active community. I grew up on radio. I'm a radio kid. When I was four I was performing on radio. I was stood on a table and put next to a microphone and told to recite. At school we would write book reviews, and the best of them we would read on the radio on the daily children's sessions. In those days community radio really was community radio. Little old Greymouth with it's 9,000 people, had it's own radio station. It was fortunate for me. I don't know how well I would go now because everything is so much more mass-produced, and everything is a lot less local. I think it is possibly more difficult for kids to participate in the broader community, particularly in the broader arts community.
From the time I was three, I was invited to every dog fight to recite. All through my primary schooling I would go home after school, put on my pretty dress, (at least once a fortnight this would happen), and with my sister go out and entertain the deaf, or the Salvation Army, or the old people at the local Old Peoples home. I always had a double life where I was learning the piano, learning singing and elocution and as I got older becoming part of the local repertory and local operatic societies. The two worlds didn't fuse much, and the learning was very practical.
School in those days was a pretty big institution for a small person. I can remember being lined up and sat in front of very mysterious cards. There were three dots on one of the cards, and there were two dots on the other; there were green and there were some yellow dots. I think in retrospect, the idea was that all the cards and all the dots added up to five. But I sat and stared at these cards for what seemed like ages, and all that I could work out was that green and yellow went together. Children naturally think laterally. I knew at the time that my conclusions were disapproved of as 'wrong'. Maybe the teaching lessons are more enlightened these days, but I went through school with a sort of question mark over my head. It was all a bit mysterious.
Later, I spent quite a lot of time in hospital in my sixth and seventh year because I had a couple of eye operations and then I had peritonitis. At this time I learned a lot from lying and listening to the radio. I think that radio is probably the greater educator of the age, actually. It can certainly stimulate your imagination like no other medium.
Institutions of learning can have their own effects on people that are not necessarily conducive to achieving the desired end result. For example: one day when I was in standard one, my teacher came to me, handed me my exercise book and said: 'take this to the headmaster'. Well I was absolutely mortified. I crossed the empty playground very slowly and went into the Big School. The floor of the Big School started above our heads, so you had to walk up big steps and stairs to stand on the floor of the Big School. Then one was confronted by the Big corridor lined with rows of gumboots. With great trepidation I walked down it very slowly, and knocked very tentatively on the headmaster's door. The headmaster was a very aw-inspiring person who wandered around with his nose in the air, and we were all very scared of him. He took me into his office. He sat behind his desk and read my exercise book while I sat, quivering in front of his desk on a chair far too big for me. Then he said: 'that's very good', and gave it back to me. Well, I felt terribly cheated.
We were schooled pretty strictly, I think in Greymouth Main School where I went for my formal education. Repetition seemed to be the basic teaching method. I guess I never learned to spell. I still can't spell. I had very little interest in detail, and an enormous capacity to be bored. Most of my school reports would say: ' Gaylene talks too much and needs to concentrate more' And that is probably still a criticism that could be levelled at me in adult life. I certainly find that some of the more tedious aspects of filmmaking are a real challenge to me, in terms of attending to the detail and not getting too bored. Because filmmaking is actually a very boring, tedious, detailed process.
When I went to Hawkes Bay, I joined a class that had had the same teacher for three years. I had acquired a pair of glasses on my way through Christchurch (having never worn glasses before) and arrived in Hawkes Bay, rather white and skinny, and all the kids at the school who were barefoot and brown, said I was brainy. So suddenly I became brainy. In a very short trip from Greymouth to Napier I became brainy! Three or four weeks after I arrived in my new school, the teacher to whom all the class were devoted, died! Between September and December of that year we had seven teachers, and I was the only child in the class that was in any way emotionally secure, because I wasn't grieving. I hardly knew the man. So I became Head Prefect. Brainy and Head Prefect! all in a couple of months, after a move from one island to the other. It bred in me a healthy disregard for formal status.
When I left art school and went to England, I learned to draw cartoons, to take photographs, and to make films. And I learned all those things in response to very specific requests that were made of me by my community. For example: during my involvement with the early women's movement in 1969 – 70 in Cambridge in the UK, the group was putting together a magazine. They said: 'you have to do the cartoons and you have to do the cover' and I had to be head prefect because there was nobody else, and I had to make films because there was nobody else. I was working as an assistant librarian in a large psychiatric hospital, and inherited producing the hospital play. This gradually grew into a film. I already had an overwhelming interest in the creative therapies. There is a big emphasis in psychiatry on working through things, this is done by talking about problems. That means that there are huge psychiatric hospitals that can't participate in therapy because, for various reasons, they're not talking. Some can't talk. Some won't talk. Using the creative therapies is also very good at levelling the group. The people who are very good at talking are usually university-trained professionals. If you really want to get things onto a human level, the best thing to do is to find ways of leaving words out of it.
I've always found teaching art in a school setting very difficult, because to me, art is not a subject, its and object. It's a way of communicating and it's boundless. You can teach geography using art. You can draw what happened to you yesterday. Anybody can, just as well as talking about it. You can find out just as much about geography by using drama as you can by reading books. And I think that unfortunately, arts have been minimized very badly in the twentieth century by being regulated to a subject in our schools.
When I was at school I used a lot of negotiating skills to turn whatever I was doing into and art subject. And I was fortunate in having progressive teachers who allowed me to do that. So, for example, we had a holiday project where we had to study flora and fauna in a square yard of our backyard and describe it in detail for our 7th form biology. There was an established way of doing this that was mathematical and chemical which I couldn't understand at all. So I drew everything. I had a progressive biology teacher who appreciated my effort even though it was 'wrong'. I was scored 'A' along with the top chemistry person. I could usually wriggle out of the boring bits of any subject by promising to draw maps for the geography teacher, graphs for the biology teacher, and charts for the history teacher. I would disappear into the art room, which was my haven at school.
I discovered that there was a round place. It was the art room. And I discovered there was another place outside of school, that wasn't home either, which was round. It was called entertaining. Both these activities were a way of skiving out of things I didn't like doing like housework, maths and the formal end of learning. In fact, just now I'm thinking that it would be very good to settle down for a year and read the classics, because I haven't read Withering Heights, I haven't studied Jane Austin. I have by no means read much.
Shakespearian plays performed. But I'm a bit illiterate in a funny sort of way. My approach to learning is practical and not that unusual. I think a lot of women have the same approach to learning. The mother of invention is necessity. She's also the mother of learning in my case.
You have a daughter who is now six, do you encourage her to learn in this way?
I don't think I could stop her. I think most kids learn this way, they had a pretty good go at stopping me. When you live with a small child it reminds you how you felt when you were that age, so I am remembering things that I'd forgotten. She knows who she is, but I think that most kids do and they get it bashed out of them. My parents always encouraged us in the best way they knew how. They paid for music lessons; they paid for elocution lessons; they paid for an enormous amount of formal learning. They were working class folk and what I'm going to say, I'm reluctant to say for publication, because I know my mother will be hurt by it, but in fact, those were expensive piano lessons: by the time I was eleven I was performing monkey on the piano. I could play superbly for my age but I don't play the piano much now at all, because I never actually learned how to play. I learned to read music from and early age, which means that I can't play the piano without music. It never jelled. I never had the kind of teaching that helped me understand how it jelled. A lot of the time, if I was playing something out of my head somebody would stride up the hall – the piano was in the front room – and say: 'Stop mucking about; your wasting your time. Do some practice' If I was playing something by ear, that was considered a bit of a sin. So, although I learned classical music for eleven years with money my parents could ill afford, I never really mastered the art of playing the piano. I worked hard at the piano, and I used to practice two hours a day. But there is a point you cannot go beyond with that kind of rote learning.
Take this piano here. It's got stickers on it, up and down the piano, and Chelsie plays it as she passes it. She's begun to be able to say: ' Well I can play this tune on the black notes, but if I want to play the same tune on the white notes, I have to play it here'. She's starting to make connections. She's much better at maths than I am. She has obviously a real talent for playing the piano, and I am now stuck with a bit of a dilemma because I know that learning too young with the wrong kind of learning didn't actually help me musically. I'm now waiting for Chelsie to really want formal teaching before I make sure she gets it. On the other hand, I know that there's nothing worse for anybody at any age, but particularly when your young, not to be pushed. If everything comes easy to you, boredom is a dreadful enemy. It is important to know discipline and how to concentrate. So the bright child does need to be pushed, in my opinion. The more gifted you are the more that gift comes with a price, so, as a gifted person myself and as a mother with a child who is gifted, I am aware of trying not to repeat mistakes.
Within the family, being educated and learning had a very high priority. In our house we had one bookcase and it didn't have many books on it. But I did however read an enormous amount of Enid Blyton. We were taken to the Lending Library every Friday. My sister and I had weekly magazines on order at the local bookshop. I can't imagine that any of these things were things that my parents could afford. But 'lying-around-with-your-nose-in-a-book' wasn't appreciated either. You'd better find a pretty secluded spot where you were out of everybody's way so they might forget you were there, because otherwise you would be made to do something else – like the dishes. When it came to sit school cert I only knew one person who had got school cert by sitting it the first times: and that was my friends sister, who had gone to university and was therefore a 'genius' as far as I was concerned. So I thought the chances of me getting school cert fist pop were absolutely minimal. So, somehow, particularly in the later half of my fifth form year, I really buckled down and I went in for studying in a big way. I had a table in my bedroom, and I wrote out copious notes. I swatted and I learned everything by rote. I studied exam papers with enormous interest. And I actually managed to guess the paper for that year's geography exam so I got some enormous mark. I ended up in the top few in the school. Suddenly by accident I got promoted to the A class. It was terrible. But I saved the situation by negotiating my way to the art room regularly.
I became brainy by accident when I was ten, because I was skinny and white and wore glasses, yet the kids in the A group who were skinny and white and wore glasses, I thought were probably very, very brainy. I discovered that they didn't seem to know very much about the world, however. I think that your curiosity to learn and your capacity to achieve are linked. Mine had been based on intuition. That's probably why film directing is what I do best. It is a very feely sort of thing. I'm educated. I think I'm well educated, but my intellect follows my intuition at least three steps behind – it's the Duke of Edinburgh in the hierarchy of my response to problem solving.
You're constantly deciding where the picture frame should be, what the focus of the scene is, how to stage it, and what does it mean. Often you're saying: ' This feels right, this feels wrong'. Later on, sometimes much later on, the intellectual ideas follow. When I'm working well and this process is working, I work very economically, very quickly, and find it all very satisfying. I think that's what most artists feel when they're working well: it feels like it comes through you. I don't have to think the idea – they don't even feel like mine. Connections are made. Ideas are like visitors that become realized, that's what it feels like.
Are you saying in a way that film makes it's own reality?
No the idea makes it's own reality. The story will impose it's own style, as long as you are doing quite a lot of questioning, listening, and interrogating of the idea.
I've hooked onto a film of yours in mind: Ruby and Rata, which to me, was a wonderful feeling of being caught up in an experience.
That's great because you see, Ruby and Rata had a very intellectual, very particular purpose, and that's the over-riding idea, the over-riding purpose as defined by, essentially, a very intellectual process, but, it was achieved by an intuitive process. I wouldn't like to have to break it all down to explore it, but having been involved in the creative therapies, I certainly trust enormously the forces of the unconscious. I know that I can file problems to be solved in my brain and go to sleep and wake up with clear solutions in my head. As I get older, I trust that process more and more.
Making films is really quite difficult, because you've got an intuitive creative process colliding with a mechanical one. For example: the art department has to supply all the props and the settings. The sound department has to know in any particular shot where to put microphones, how to get the best sound etc. There are a lot of technical requirements. The crew needs to know how you are going to shoot a scene before you arrive at the place where you're going to shot it, days before you're going to shoot it. But you can't let that rule totally. Within that pre-planning you have to make room for changes sometimes, having shot a couple of shots, I find that the scene really feels like it wants to turn a corner into new territory. Now, I've got two choices. Either we do what we planned because this is the storyboard and this is what we planned, or explore that new territory which is unknown. It might be more time consuming and you always have to consider the schedule that rules the day.
This is how directors get the reputations for 'changing their minds'. It's not to do with changing your mind. It's actually to do with going through a creative process that is not merely intellectual or intuitive or emotional or psychological but all of those things. It exists in the now. Pre-planning builds a really secure platform so that you are more capable of really pinpointing where the real focus and the real potency of the idea exists. It is an organic process. Very difficult when put into the mechanical and technical environment, which is filmmaking.
So making a film is an evolving process?
Well it ought to be. It does have a life of it's own, that's probably what I'm getting at. Absolutely a life of it's own. But it's a life that comes from painstaking attention to all sorts of details, which can only be planned in advance. Ruby and Rata: we had the locations almost a year before we had the film. It was cast well before we shot it. It was very well prepared. In a funny sort of way, I was so prepared for Ruby and Rata that I excluded people from participating to some degree. My process didn't leave much room for the actors. The actors came on set and I already knew, very clearly and very specifically, where they had to go, how the acting worked, and how I wanted to photograph them. I knew everything better than anyone else. That can leave people behind. Bread and Roses was a much bigger project with a much shorter preparation time. Sometimes I would arrive on a set that I'd never seen before and shoot immediately. I would have seen drawings but I'd never actually physically been in the space. Certainly never seen the set dressed. With actors I'd probably not even meet before (I'd cast then from video tape), with no rehearsal time, we would endeavour to do good work. There's fifty people standing around, and we have x amount of time to shoot the scene. And it's got to work. In that situation there's no storyboard; I will have a basic idea of where the potent energy for the scene might flow from. We will all need to find it. When it works, you can find it quickly and you can do wonderful work, particularly with an intuitive camera operator. But when you can't find it, the only way to proceed is to have the time. And we were very lucky with Bread and Roses sometimes to have that time. I lament the times when we didn't. Much less of an issue with Ruby and Rata, because it was much more planned.
But making a film you are capturing moments and these moments have to ring true.
Film's roles are very beautifully delineated to dovetail into one another in a very specific and expert way. Everybody is an expert in their particular field and that expertise has to overlap. The director just sits in the middle as the hub of the wheel. Of course the wheel has to go round, and that means that there is a tremendous amount of communicating going on. It always amazes me when you get a crew together that there are certain conventions in the film world about what you do and don't tell the director. You don't tell the director things that might worry them. This is something that I find incredibly annoying and paternalistic. As director, I think that I do need to know what is going on. I don't want to be protected from myself.
If you are thinking about learning and knowledge, a certain part of it is to do with having and ability to find out, and then ability to be able to cope with the information.
There's something else I'd like to say about learning. It isn't particularly pertaining to me as such, but it pertains to things I've thought about regarding education. Until a few years ago I had always felt that change was a good thing. CHANGE. A word with stars around it. And I totally agree with the idea that all knowledge should be available to everyone. At the same time, I found it fascinating to find myself living alongside a group of people in Aotearoa who didn't actually subscribe to these concepts. I would observe a Maori friend going through enormous hoops in order to gain knowledge. Being tested to be sure that they were actually the one who should have the information. This was completely foreign to me as a sixties kid.
But gradually I've come to appreciate that process. I feel that if the western world had been able, in it's evolution, to hang on to a more rigorous approach to knowledge, then perhaps the world wouldn't be in the bad straits that it is. For example: were knowledge to be carefully guarded so that only people who could really prove that they were capable of coping with that knowledge allowed to have access to the information, then the nuclear bomb would not be possible. That's a blatant misguided use of a very potent energy.
There doesn't seem to be much in the curriculum of any universities throughout the world about wisdom.
Wisdom isn't something that our institutions of higher learning are concerned with. What a shame! This could account for why so many universities in the world are devoted to learning about war and the mechanics of the military, but I don't know if there is a single university devoted to the mechanics of peace. I'm not sure. I could be wrong, but I haven't heard of one. This state of affairs is only possible in a set-up where learning is considered to be something that can be divided into 'subjects' where people can become 'experts', where facts are somehow given enormous importance, and the connection of the facts and the human reality of what the facts mean can be totally ignored.
Learning is a process, and it isn't just situated in the intellect, and it isn't just situated in the gut. It is a holistic thing. Paying more attention, as a society to the getting of wisdom, and controlling information would be very difficult to do now, because we are absolutely bombarded with information from the television. We know everything about a lot of things, and seem to be able to do nothing about any of them. We have never been more powerless it seems. It is partly because the world has been taken over by mass media.
It also affects the arts enormously. 'You want to be a singer? You want to make a record? You get yourself a record company. Make a video. Go international'. That's how it is. To remain steadfastly local while working in the arts is almost impossible; you're really swimming against the tide.
In my opinion people only learn what they are ready to learn. They're a bit like me when I was three. There's a really interesting process, which happens when you make a film, when you tell a story; people will come up to you and tell you things about it. In the end, it's to do with where people are at. You can't ever stimulate people to understand something that they are not ready to understand, because they don't.