When the news came out that the Lord of the Rings would be filmed here in New Zealand, there were plenty of questions about how New Zealand would look as Middle-earth, and why Peter Jackson was so set on doing it there. The landscape has provided its own powerful arguments for why the film was made here, but the discussion of what Peter Jackson might have to bring to Middle-earth hasnt really been covered. His has been a surprising, unpredictable career so far and Id like to revive some of that early-days speculation we used to have and turn it to a discussion of what New Zealand film-making is and what it might have to offer this particular work of literature.
Id like to offer an invitation to anyone who works in the film industry in NZ, or who has an interest in NZ film, to contribute their ideas and insights to this discussion. I hope this article will serve as a starting-point for a kind of forum. My knowledge of this field is too limited to serve as a reliable guide; instead Im going to step back slightly and look at the kind of voice that NZ film shares with the other arts here with which Im more familiar.
The question came up a few years ago, after the worldwide release of The Piano and An Angel at my Table, when an English friend asked me if these films were a fair representation of what New Zealanders were like. I couldnt answer. Like? Were we different, I wondered? He tried to describe what he saw - films full of darkness, repression, strangeness. We were in Spain at the time, which kind of answered the question by blatant contrast. New Zealand is unlikely to produce a director like Almodovar, for instance. Our filmmaking tradition is rather small but does seem to have its own peculiar flavour and it could be fun to speculate on how much PJ will find that useful to apply to Tolkiens story.
The first people I asked about film in NZ talked about the way films are financed - they tend (apart from LOTR ) to have a tiny budget and rely on money that ultimately comes from the government. The feeling was that there isnt the time and money to fully develop scripts or spend a lot of time polishing the details - with money in short supply, who has time to put their life on hold doing that? Most directors go overseas after their first big success, just so they can work in an environment where its possible to do everything without the mad rush to finish before the grant money runs out and half the crew have to go out and look for other work. The financially-based view of NZ film-making is that its defined by its low-budget nature and by the fact that the money comes largely from the NZ Film Commission - which seems to be inevitably run by people who are white middle-class liberals.
I disagree that this defines film-making in NZ. Most countries our size will have similar budget concerns, and many will have similar government-administered systems for funding movies - run by the same kind of middle-class liberals. The thing is, white-middle-class-ness isnt a quality thats cloned identically all over the world. And were not making the same kind of films as similar-sized countries. I doubt that well ever make the same films as Finland or Costa Rica. Were different people.
As though to prove that, in this months Onfilm magazine there was a quote from Peter Jackson: " the subversive streak in me gets an incredible kick out of the NZ Government, through the Film Commission, financing incredibly gory films like Braindead and Bad Taste. "
I was reminded of that question again, What is NZ like? by an Australian friend last week. He was trying to pin down the nagging homesickness that had plagued him as soon as he got out of Auckland. He identified it as an awareness of being at a vast distance from any kind of heartland. "Theres nobody out there, the streets are empty, you look out to sea and it faces towards nothing." One of the best images in film of what it feels like to be here sometimes is that famous aerial shot in The Piano which looks straight down on the piano itself isolated on the empty black beach with the waves coming in on it. Civilisation itself so tiny and abandoned to the tide.
I thought of the contrast with the people I knew in Europe, whose ancestors have lived there since the Stone Age. Culture piled on culture. The greatest contrast with this emptiness here:
"I remember a grey day when I stood by the gate and listened to the wind in the telegraph wires. I had my first conscious feeling of an outside sadness, or it seemed to come from outside, from the sound of the wind moaning in the wires. I looked up and down the white dusty road and saw no one. The wind was blowing from place to place past us, and I was there, in between, listening. I felt a burden of sadness and loneliness as if something had happened or begun and I knew about it... In listening to the wind and its sad song, I knew I was listening to a sadness that had no relation to me, which belonged to the world."
Thats from To the Is-land, the first part of NZ writer Janet Frames autobiography. The film An Angel at my Table is based on it, and one of the first images in it is the one of the tiny child standing alone on the empty road.
That feeling is what we Europeans here try to blot out. But our first line of defence, as colonial settlers, was to conjure up a society that was so smotheringly conservative, so blinkered in Englishness, that it appeared to turn its back on the empty land and live in cotton-wool. You see that in the art of of the colonial settlers both here and in Australia - the first artists drew trees that tried to persuade the viewer that eucalypts looked like symmetrical English trees, that the light was gentle and diffuse under a sky soft with puffy light clouds when in fact its an intensely cobalt sky full of a light that is as heavy as cream in Australia and sharp as a knife here.
The actor Sam Neills documentary on NZ film (which comes paired on video with PJs film-history spoof Forgotten Silver ) looks at the effect of this denial of our location on the culture in which he grew up. Hes about a decade older than PJ, who is very slightly older than me. We all will have grown up going to cinemas at which you had to stand to God Save the Queen before the film started. The documentary begins with Sam Neill in the Fifities, living in this insulated state of relentless niceness (New Zealand is still a nice place, but not quite as forcibly so as in the Fifties) and going to the cinema to see the rest of the world - big cities full of glamour and gangsters, the Wild West, the brave British airmen in their fighter planes. Never a film about this world here - what Janet Frame might call the Is-Land. Never our place, our accents.
There was a National Film Unit. According to Sam Neill they made mostly uplifting films about the paradisical landscapes and thriving agriculture of New Zealand. Given that the landscape is a major character in The Lord of the Rings, its a good thing that we have a tradition of dramatic landscape films.
Tolkiens landscapes are consciously loaded with mood and meaning. The first films that broke away from the NFUs Very Nice version of the NZ landscape understood how to make the landscape speak in that way. Neills documentary describes films full of rainswept lonely places, people going crazy....they saw landscape as a metaphor for a psychological interior - they looked at the darker heart of a menacing land. So Id identify that as a useful tradition for making LOTR.
Another big theme in local literature that made it into film was the Man Alone. Neill talks about the films that pit man against the hostile landscape, man against man, man against society, man against the odds, man on the run....sort of like Westerns, only with more rain. Or reverse Westerns - the stranger rides out of town rather than into it.
HIGH COUNTRY WEATHER
"Alone we are born
Alone we die
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger."
Thats James K Baxter, with his quintessential NZ poem.
When it isnt Man Alone, the next development seems to be road movies. Films like Goodbye Pork Pie, Sleeping Dogs, Runaway and Bad Blood which span twenty years from 1964 onwards - they were road films that proved to be hits at least locally. There are a lot of films that celebrate mateship, blokes overcoming the difficulties thrown in their path as they travel to...wherever. Neill calls the road the central image in NZ - lonely roads through indifferent landscapes ...The road, with its promise of freedom and anarchy." And in a sense, LOTR is going to be one of the greatest of road movies.
With the Eighties we suddenly had a film industry capable of making feature films regularly - as in more than one a year - mainly due to a tax loophole that made it an attractive proposition for companies to fund movies and write them off as a tax loss. We started to get competing ideas of NZ too - feminist films, camp films, arthouse films. Of the latter, Vincent Wards Vigil and The Navigator stand out - dreamy, strange, luminous and dark at the same time. Vigil takes that NZ darkness to the extreme, making an experience that is isolated, claustrophobic, almost wordless; the characters embattled by indifferent nature.
I feel like Im falling into the same trap as Sam Neills documentary - focussing only on the films that are dark and strange and twisted, and then arguing that they represent the NZ psyche. Im leaving out the slow dance of understanding and outrage that has led to the films about Maori/European relations like Utu or Other Halves; or funny films like The Race for the Yankee Zephyr, Came a Hot Friday. Or most recently, and maybe on at a cinema near you, The Price of Milk. My flatmates just walked in the door from seeing that - the whole theatre was laughing so much, she says, and yet it was no mere comedy, but full of dreamlike incongruous images that she found striking and powerful.
Could the Rings do that? Make us laugh even as were beguiled? The story has its moments of comedy which I think the British cast will play instinctively; Kiwi culture also shares the same laconic dry wit that Tolkien uses. What we dont do well at all is slapstick. When we try, the result often looks like everyone graduated from Terry Pratchetts Guild of Fools. Prove me wrong, I could use a good laugh.
I wish I could write more about the way we might take films in an existing genre imported from overseas and turn it into something that is bad Hitchcock or a half-hearted Western but brilliantly something else. That subject is for somebody with more knowledge than me to explore. I will say that one of the things that always strikes me about shows like Shortland St, the local hospital soap/drama, and the NZ/US productions Xena and Hercules, is how they subvert their own genres. There is often something slightly self-mocking about them that laughs at their own pretensions. That is a very local quality. Given that fantasy and irony are pretty much mortal enemies, itll be interesting to see whether any of that surfaces in the Rings.
Leaving the Shire
How did we get from the stiflingly conservative Fifties to the way we are now? Mr. and Mrs. Kimi from the TORN message board summed it up in two words: Jet travel. Since the Fifties weve become one of the most travelling nations in the world. I rang the Stats. Dept. to check this out. Last year, a normal year, the number of people making short-term trips out of NZ equalled a third of our whole population. 1.2 million travellers - or the same person made 1.2 million trips, its hard to tell. About 2% of the population left for good, or for more than a year. Asking around, the consensus is that there wouldnt be one single person in NZ that doesnt have a friend or relative thats been overseas; its a strong tradition for young people to head out for a few years to work or study or just travel before coming back and settling down. Weirdly, the same longing for Home (i.e. Britain) that made New Zealanders latch onto travel so strongly ended up in them encompassing a lot of other things besides, given that one of the favoured ways of gettting to London involves going slowly, over several months, through South-east Asia, India and Nepal. In that way, were totally not Hobbits. This many potential Bagginses returning with travellers tales have changed their Shire beyond recognition, and the country has embraced change. Yet, like Frodo, theres a generation returned Home to find there was no home any more - it had all changed.
As if I hadnt already digressed enough, and at the risk of having the bad manners to discuss politics, sometimes it seems like NZ in the Eighties was taken over by Sharkeys mob. Money, efficiency, trade, blah blah. "This country needs waking up and setting to rights...." Now, Im not about to accuse Peter Jackson of being overtly political, but am I the only person that thinks Lord Crumb in Bad Taste looks like former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon? If he could do that to the man that dominated the Seventies here, then it makes me happy to speculate that the Scouring of the Shire in LOTR could poke a stick at the economic greedfest of the Eighties in NZ while still staying absolutely true to Tolkiens story.
But its that earlier history thats like a nagging tooth that artists just keep prodding at with fascination - the whole Fifties denial of differences between people feels rather nastily familiar to people in the arts growing up here. While art was felt to be a laudable thing, until recently there was a general feeling nobody should be encouraged to actually do it themselves. Im exaggerating, but its safe to say that anyone of Peter Jacksons generation who wanted to write or paint or make films was probably regarded as weird when they were growing up. They werent conforming!
My own experience at NZ and Australian schools was that anyone with unusual talent or intelligence had good reason to despise conformity for the rest of their lives. I remember listening to Pink Floyds anti-teacher song in The Wall with disbelief. In this country anyway, no teacher could begin to outdo the oppression of the self-appointed Conformity Police amongst ones classmates.
And so the Fifties continues to fascinate - there was a whole society trying to blot out individualism and variety and replace it with a bland politeness. Nobody can be that nice all the time, and you get a sense that under the polite surfaces of society some people were quietly stewing on the edge of mania. Im not sure if NZ didnt pioneer going postal in the Fifties. (Bad Blood might be the film to watch on this topic.)
So our films now go back to explore the Fifties like an excorcism - BrainDead is set there as is Heavenly Creatures, and in both those films you see things just run amok. An Angel at my Table has that sense of wild imagination and feeling kept under a lid, and even The Piano, though set back in the previous century, explores that same territory of the clash between orderly propriety and passion. Desperate Remedies does it even more extremely...
NZ in the Fifties is the Shire though - so nice and orderly - and LOTR is in a way going to talk on one level about the journey away that we ourselves made, out of safety and into chaos, into a world less protected but hopefully more truthful.
Heres the paradox - our film-makers grew up in or just after this Republic of Niceness was at its height. Yet today we seem to be one of the most open and tolerant societies in the world, and its difficult to see how we got here from there. I mean, so far the way Ive descibed NZ, why would anyone want to live here? Well, isolation has its benefits, even in the arts. Not to brag, but heres a review of a recent CD of NZ composers asked to create a series of Fanfares for the Millenium." Here is the review from Simon Foster, of musicweb.uk.net:
"...one senses a freedom of expression in the post-modernist genre that can hardly be matched by their more famous American and European counterparts. The slight feeling of guilt that is found in so much northern post-modern music, coming, as it does, straight out of the seventy-year stranglehold of the modernists and the new Vienna school, is entirely absent in these superbly confident and brilliantly crafted miniature tone-poems."
How does all this relate to film? Well, it sums up something of the creative freedom that happens in the arts at their best here. What delighted me was that this was an outsiders view and it described exactly what is good about being here - in everything we do, there is so little tradition to fall back on that the first resort is to figure out our own way of doing things. This applies, as far as I can tell, right across the arts. Producers coming to NZ to film sum it up as a can-do attitude. Its surprising how often people figure out how to do something in a new way simply because there wasnt an expert around to tell them it wasnt possible. Sure, people finish their training in the arts overseas but usually by then the can-do attitude is ingrained, or they wouldnt have got there in the first place.
One of the things that I hope for most is that this creative freedom and isolation we still have will mean that as The Lord of the Rings is made, itll be made with an ignorance of the fact that its impossible to make a fantasy film that has merit as a mainstream film. Its supposedly impossible to make an epic fantasy with good acting and superb dialogue and believable characterisation. Fantasy films dont get Oscars and Academy Awards because genre films only appeal to the masses and never risk the grandeur or complexity or intimacy of a truly great film. I hope the Rings is made not knowing this is all impossible, and that Jackson succeeds in breaking the mould of all genres and all categories, to do something as utterly new and unheard-of as Tolkiens book was in its time. I think we have a chance.