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March 8, 2004 | by  | in Features |
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Aunty Gaylene: Greymouth’s Peter Jackson

Today Hollywood’s Academy gives its verdict on a great New Zealand film; there is another New Zealand film in cinemas at the moment that is worthy of your attention, Gaylene Preston’s Perfect Strangers. Down on the West Coast, where she comes from and the film was made and set, she’s their Peter Jackson.

‘They are so proud of Perfect Strangers. I get treated like Peter Jackson in Greymouth. They didn’t have a red carpet for our opening night so they laid a stone beach from the footpath right into the theatre.’

The very good film tells of The Man (Sam Neill) and the woman, Melanie (Rachael Blake), whom he abducts on his boat and takes to his rickety bach. Preston cleverly busts genres, blending the romance, thriller, black comedy and psychodrama.

Preston says it was greatly important to go home. ‘I think I am only just beginning to understand just what a life-changing experience that was for me.’ It was a lot of fun. ‘Pure pleasure. The landscape is somehow internalised and you know where everything is. The local community were so supportive too. They even took responsibility for the weather until they realised we liked the rain.’
The film – produced by Preston’s longtime collaborator Robyn Laing – fits in with the idiosyncracies of the locals. ‘The whole thing appeals to their innate paranoia. Psychologically, the idea of their place being set apart from the rest of the South Island seems to fit fine, and they laugh more than the average audience – it’s a darker sense of humour there. All New Zealanders thrive on tall tales, but West Coasters tell the tallest.’
Indeed, the film has a strong vein of black humour; Preston’s use of a freezer full of frozen chickens is especially amusing. Her prescription for a good film – ‘mess with my head. Make me think. I like to have a film with me days later’ – is achieved here. When asked how semi-autobiographical it is she quips: ‘Well I couldn’t possibly say. People might start checking freezers I’ve been near for signs of life.’

In any case, she drew on an eclectic range of influences. ‘I like my stories bent. I wanted this film to work like a Randy Newman song. And probably the short stories of Roald Dahl (Kiss Kiss) and films like Cul De Sac and The Collector get a bit of a conversation in there. Generally I really like the films of Milos Forman and Ken Loach but I don’t think they influence me exactly. They inspire me.’

Preston, 56, single, misses Greymouth, particularly the landscape. ‘I grew up in a small town participatory culture and because of the geographic isolation, everyone gets good at a lot of things – makes for a very resourceful community. I hope they never lose that. The place is booming now, and they are celebrating their history and saving more old buildings than ever before. I miss that pounding sea and those big black hills, but I get back there a bit because the whanau is there.’

This savagely stunning landscape is of essential importance to the film.
‘The place is not merely a backdrop but rather more like a fourth character. It moans, it gleams, it imposes itself on every scene. That’s because some of Melanie’s conflict comes from being stuck in a threatening and alien environment from which she cannot escape. I was very lucky to have Alun Bollinger as cinematographer because he knows the place even better than I do. We were filming over the road from his home. It’s a psychological and spiritual place. Our turangawaewae, so to speak. I believe film captures the spirit of things along with the more obvious things like the light and the dark.’

It’s Sam Neill’s first role in a New Zealand film since The Piano, Preston wrote the part with him in mind. ‘I can’t think who could possibly have played that part if Sam hadn’t wanted to. He was involved from an early stage but when it came to the final moment, he needed talking into it. I think being an actor must be one of the most scary things you could think of doing. I’m constantly in awe of what they do. Sam was very focussed. Thorough. Thoughtful. Terrified too. When I met him he was making films for the National Film Unit, so I guess I always approach him as a filmmaker – it’s just that he’s in front of the lens and I’m behind it.’

Neill describes Preston, in another interview, as ‘A little bit aunty, a little bit tyrant, a little bit art film director. Gaylene’s from the West Coast, and they breed strong women down there. But they still like a nice cup of tea, and a bit of a chat.’
Why is his character only known as The Man? ‘The story is told from Melanie’s point of view, and she never knows his name. I think there’s a time when you introduce yourself – probably within the first half hour of meeting someone. If it doesn’t happen in that time, then it gets uncomfortable… Also, he is the man, the one she might dream of meeting, he just happens to be her worst nightmare too.’
It’s an ambitious film, though some parts aren’t entirely convincing, Preston pulled the challenge off. ‘Perfect Strangers is essentially a two hander. There’s no third person to cut away to. The structure of the story is set by the journey. You can’t take most scenes and move them earlier or later because the psychology will be wrong. There’s no parallel cutting- apart from when Bill (Joel Tobeck) is in the shed and Melanie and The Man are taking pot shots at him – so that imposes real discipline on the cut and the performances. It’s quite complex but it has to look simple.’

Her favourite part involves sound designer Tim Prebble’s innovative use of a fantail. ‘I like the little fantail that flutters through the theatre when Melanie looks up during her struggle up the bush path taking The Man back to the bach about thirty minutes into the film.’
A major theme – the female victim – has been a motif throughout Preston’s career. ‘Yes. This time I thought it was time to explore the darker side of the female psyche – to take a victim and explore a move to predator. The female baddie is usually the sexy femme fatale. Perfect Strangers explores how “ordinary every woman” might go if she had autonomy but didn’t know what to do with it. There’s another thing too – “And they got married and lived happily ever after” always seems to me to imply quite a lot of doing of dishes for the princess. I wanted to see if I could get Melanie to a place where she could maybe live happily ever after but remain dangerous.’

Preston has been one of New Zealand’s finest filmmakers since her 1984 debut Mr Wrong. The NZ Arts Foundation anointed her NZ’s first Filmmaker Laureate in 2001; she is also a member of the NZ order of merit for filmmaking. Preston’s best work, in my opinion, remains 1995’s War Stories: Our Mother Never Told Us: the moving, inspiring stories of seven elderly New Zealand women’s experiences of World War Two. There is more to her oeuvre though. How does Perfect Strangers compare with her other films?

‘I like every film I make to be different from the rest, but there are
similarities to other things I’ve done, I suppose. This is a relative
to Mr Wrong. The Cleveland Film Festival is going to screen them both in April interestingly… but basically, like the Bob Dylan song, I don’t look back.’

Last year, Perfect Strangers was the centrepiece of the London Film Festival. Films by fellow fine New Zealand filmmakers, Jane Campion’s In the Cut and Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia opened and closed the festival. Unfortunately, neither film was a New Zealand story, and neither director is making films in New Zealand.

Preston is staying, committed to telling NZ stories. Luckily, there are advantages- as well as disadvantages– to making films here. ‘Total creative freedom…. I get to make my own work in the relative quiet with friends who I’ve worked with before and we all seem to have just got better at it as we have gone on. The down-side is that maybe I don’t get to make so many films as I would like.’

She does have plenty of concerns with the health of New Zealand’s film industry. ‘We need to be making ten NZ stories a year – half of them with budgets over five million. Critical mass. The service industry sector of our film industry is growing exponentially while the telling of local stories has remained static since 1985. We are in danger of being swamped.’
The cure is always easier than the diagnosis, Preston has an intelligent prescription. “One. NZ Film makers need to be able to access the local private investment community. Two. The Film Fund needs to reconsider its criteria for investment because not enough of the films they have committed to have actually gone into production. This suggests a structural problem… A greater participation from NZ television into the arts generally would be most timely.’
Helen Clark’s government recently set up the Large Screen Production Grant. Films that cost more than $15 million – made chiefly or completely in NZ – can get funding rebates of up to 12.5 percent. ‘We’re a naïve bunch. Pathetically grateful to be of service. We’re the most delicensed uncontrolled film industry in the world… Who cares where they shot… The Last Samurai? New Zealand-produced and –directed films sell New Zealand. The real value to the country is a good home grown local film maker – Peter Jackson being the most outstanding example. When we make a NZ film of one of our own stories, the value is unquantifiable.’

There is another problem with the government’s magic bullet theory, the average New Zealand film costs between $3 and $5 million. ‘The Production grant scheme needs to be extended to allow films with NZ cultural money to participate, and the 15 million bar to be lowered.’

Preston’s unease is shared by many New Zealand filmmakers. Things could hardly be more buoyant for Peter Jackson personally, but when I spoke to him he was very concerned, particularly about the Film Commission. ‘There’s under-funding, and the Film Commission at the moment, in my opinion, are not a very film savvy group of people… I do genuinely believe that in the last five or six years the decisions and instincts of our Film Commission have not been very good.’
‘The Lords of the Rings has done a disservice in a way, because it’s provided a smoke screen. It’s made the government feel that we’ve got this incredible film industry. It’s given the Film Commission something to hide behind, so their inadequacies are sort of masked to some degree. I think you take away Lords of the Rings and you’ve got a very unhealthy, sick little industry.’

Preston praises The Return of the King, which should win the Oscars™ for Best Picture and Best Director today. ‘Peter and Fran have made an engrossing global mainstream movie with the strong message that we have not much time, and must decide how to use it – a message about human existence at a crucial time in human history.’
‘And I am delighted that they have done it round the road from where I live and that because I know the truth about them, they have buckled to my unreasonable demands and added their considerable expertise to various sequences in Perfect Strangers for a trillionth of the real price. [Weta Workshop helped out at mates’ rates] And Peter’s habit of making a film right up to the deadline has got everyone off my back,’ she adds, intriguingly.

Perfect Strangers has been highly acclaimed all around the world, but has received mixed reviews in New Zealand. Preston remains philosophical about critics and their role. ‘Of course the home crowd are the hardest to please. In a way they care the most, so if they see a NZ film and they don’t like it, they are less likely to just shrug it off as not their cup of tea like they might a Hollywood film, but are more likely to berate the funders and suggest the director should at the very least be taken to the wall and shot or put in jail for a very long time. etc, etc. They are entitled to their opinion.’

‘The problem lies with the cultural cringe around our home-grown story telling. A bad review of a NZ film can keep the audience away in a way that a bad review of a film from elsewhere does not. That’s one of the reasons we need to be making more NZ films – so the audience gets used to it and stops looking for the next big thing. Making work that explores the edges is always going to polarise. We must feel free to do it – particularly in a place with such a new film culture.’

She isn’t concerned that NZ tertiary courses pump out dozens of film graduates each year, yet there are limited employment opportunities here.
‘No. The sky is the limit. This is an industry that can just grow and
grow. I think The Lord of the Rings has demonstrated that once and for all. The more the merrier I say.’

Preston – in contrast to Kiwi directors like Lee Tamahori – is also known for her approachability and enthusiasm, her generous support and encouragement of young filmmakers. Her advice: ‘Do it now.. Don’t take no for an answer, and if they say yes get it in writing.’

She doesn’t endorse – or use – the chaos theory method of production?
‘It’s got to be all planned, planned, planned. Every little eye blink of it. Then if you’re lucky you can hit some really intuitive unexpected something on the day…’

Preston has a slick pitch for young people to come and see the film. ‘The older audience has more trouble with the genre busting that’s going on. Young people just want to have fun with all that. They are more open to the all the deviousness that lies just under the surface of Perfect Strangers. And a deconstruction of local icons is always going to appeal. Iconoclastic is forever young.’

Filmmaking is an addiction, Preston says, bringing to mind Martin Scorsese’s insight in his superb documentary on American cinema:
‘“Film is a disease” Frank Capra said. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche. As with heroin the antidote to film is more film.’ Preston is taking the filmic pill, her next project is ‘a transsexual musical.’

Perfect Strangers meant – like the making of many films in NZ – a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. But there’s plenty to compensate, plenty to like about making films. ‘I think I have lived a much larger life because of it… It’s a powerful medium for change, involving hearts and minds. I guess it’s also dangerous too, because of that.’ Preston thinks George W Bush and Don Brash are dangerous men, and adds that cinema can help with such people. ‘They manipulate perfectly those fears that sit at the back of some peoples’ heads. Their kind of politics works on our human belief in “goodies” and “baddies,” in angels and monsters. Hence we need a new mythology that illuminates complexity – particularly in our cinema culture world wide.’
What benefits does the cinematic medium have over other arts? ‘I envy writers who can sharpen their pencils and just write without having to raise millions before they can even start. And I envy painters and their ability to just rub it out and start again, put it under the bed and look at it in a couple of months time. And that fantastic free form space that a good musical improvisation can hit is hard to achieve on film, but in the end it’s hard to beat the telling of a story on super thirty-five mm [millimetre film] in Dolby stereo with the audience sitting in the dark facing the light on the big screen. Powerful. Permanent.’

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