Film: The Kiwis are coming

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Indy Lifestyle Online
New Zealand's cinema is waking up after a long period of torpidity. Two highly individual films out next month bear testament to the county's emerging talent. James Mottram talks to the men who made them.

With a perspicacity that belies the Jurassic Park star's brash screen persona, Sam Neill has dissected New Zealand's contribution to the industry. A country that has gone through an identity crisis, argues Neill, perpetuated a pool of suppressed anger, social unrest and indeed madness as the inhabitants had to cope with isolation, fear of outsiders and social conservatism.

The Australian George Miller, director of the Mad Max films, adds that both countries use their "tough, perverse, idiosyncratic, potent" landscapes as metaphors for the unexplained. Which perhaps answers for the quirky nature of New Zealand's cinema.

It has gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. Jane Campion's 1993 three- time Oscar winner The Piano may be the flagship for the respectable tourist- attraction end of the market, but it nestles uncomfortably next to Peter Jackson's 1989 cult alien romp Bad Taste and his teenage parent-killer film, Heavenly Creatures. Such films, though, have not only been borne from cultural difficulty but from a reaction against a stagnant industry only recently coming to fruition.

Next month sees two releases from New Zealand film-makers which bear this out. Lee Tamahori's The Edge, scripted by David Mamet and starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, is a lavish Hollywood adrenaline rush in which its stars become stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash. Debut director Scott Reynolds' film, meanwhile, is low-budget (some pounds 1m) par excellence. The Ugly is a serial killer film that toys with the nature of perception. Telling three parts of its tale in concurrently overlapping flashback sequences, it focuses on a psychologist's quest to determine the sanity of an incarcerated murderer. Cast in hues of silver, blue, black and red, it spurns the earthy colours that typify New Zealand film.

The modern New Zealand film industry emerged following Roger Donaldson's 1977 futuristic political drama S1eeping Dogs, the first Kiwi film in 15 years and the first to be shown in American cinemas. Donaldson, who went on to score at the US box office with No Way Out, Cocktail and Cadillac Man, was also responsible for co-founding the country's Film Commission, an institution that has served its film-makers well.

Reynolds, who had funding from the Commission for The Ugly on the back of the success of his short Kiss Me Deadly homage, Game of No Rules, recognises their worth. "It's important that the film commission makes films like Bread and Roses and An Angel At My Table and also makes films like Braindead and The Ugly. That's what a small film commission does. If it's a great film and it's about a serial killer, make it; if it's a great film and it's about an orca whale, then make it.

"I try not to be a spokesman for anything other than great film," adds Reynolds, a 28-year-old cinegeek and son of a projectionist. "Australia and New Zealand produce great films, and a lot of rubbish, too. But what country doesn't?

"Australia, in general, makes quirky, clever movies, the Muriel's Weddings and Strictly Ballrooms. We make dark little demented films, like Once Were Warriors and Heavenly Creatures. I don't know if it's a conscious thing, or just a by-chance thing.

"The film commission took a risk with The Ugly. It's not about New Zealand culture. What good does this film have? It's a scary film, it's a ride, it's a trip." And yet poor reviews in its country of origin scuppered its chances at the box office.

The former TV commercial maker Tamahori, who debuted four years ago with the urban Maori drama Once Were Warriors, New Zealand's biggest ever money- spinner, concurs: "The New Zealand film industry is not diverse enough. The problem with it is that it has no resources and is always struggling on the smell of an oily rag. It's very poorly budgeted; NZ$8m to make three movies a year is just horrible. What keeps people alive are commercials and American TV series, like Hercules, which is shot out there. Peter Jackson still works down there, but it requires some emerging film-makers. Most of our good people have left. What else can you do? You can go where the money is."

Tamahori himself, following Warriors, went on to Hollywood to make the 1996, in his words, "overcast and underwritten" noir Mulholland Falls. The experience of moving to the Ivy League was "not such a big deal as people think", notes the silver-haired son of a Maori.

"It was actually harder to do Warriors because there were so few resources. Big-budget American films are easier because they throw money at them. The problems come from dealing with high-profile actors, with entourages in tow. At the other end, the financing studies have the best intentions but often they run off the rails because they're always trying to influence you, make it shorter, reconfigure the film with test audience results."

Ironically, despite his sanitisation, Tamahori is playing the system for his own purposes. Following his next project, "a Tom Clancey-ish thriller" (as yet untitled - "it's so horrible, we've thrown it out already"), set to star Robert Redford in a sophisticated action role a la Three Days of the Condor, Tamahori is returning to his roots. A labour of love for more than five years, I Shall Not Die is the story of a 19th-century Maori chieftain, which he intends to film his way, much in the style of a Lean epic. "The trick is I knew I could never set that up in New Zealand without the resources [he estimates US $10m]. Part of my plan really was to come to America, make two or three American films and get some cachet to score some dollars."

Reynolds, too, has been lured by the smell of the green buck. Despite rejecting script offers from the indie giant Miramax after the Cannes success of Game of No Rules, he finally buckled under the weight of the Weinstein brothers. His second picture, Heaven, based on a book by Chad Taylor and starring Martin Donovan and Patrick Malahide, though filmed in New Zealand, is funded by the force behind Pulp Fiction and The English Patient.

Does this mean the subservience to the dollar will lead to a lessening of individuality in favour of commercial pressures? Reynolds feels assured of the healthy nature of his country's film industry. Yet unless he, Tamahori and others retain creative control, actors like Sam Neill are going to be left with dinosaur sequels and little else.

'The Edge' opens next Friday. 'The Ugly' opens on 27 February. 'Century of Cinema: New Zealand and Australia' is available now, priced pounds 15.99.