How To Meet Girls From A Distance has been released to rave reviews. Rebekah Guy met up wiith star Richard Falkner and producer Ruth Korver for a chat.
"People who need people are the luckiest people in the world." That's an annoying song and I'm sorry to bring it up, but its message is wholly relevant to the story of the Traces of Nuts team and their rise to glory (the humble, indie kind) as movie competition winners.
I met writer/actor Richard Falkner and producer Ruth Korver in Albert Park, the day after the Auckland premier of their film How To Meet Girls From A Distance. They'd spent the morning trawling the city attending interview after interview, yet it was clear that the buzz surrounding the release of their film was keeping them buoyant and fresh.
Just over a year ago Richard, Ruth and co-writers Dean Hewison and Sam Dickson - collectively known as Traces Of Nuts - submitted a poster and synopsis of their movie idea to Make My Movie, a country-wide competition helmed by Ant Timpson and Hugh Sundae.
The idea for the flick was made specifically for the competition, so HTMGFAD wouldn't exist if not for Make My Movie, but at the time of submission the team had the barest of ideas about how the story would pan out.
"[We] ticked the box that said we had an outline, which I'm sure everybody did," explains Ruth. "But we didn't have anything. We had a poster, and a paragraph and that was it."
That paragraph formed the movie synopsis that was judged by the public as the best of the bunch, so Traces Of Nuts were handed $100,000 and told to get on with it. And they did, all within that very limited budget.
How To Meet Girls From A Distance follows the story of Toby (played by Richard), a cute but damaged man who likes to conduct "research" on girls he takes a fancy to. Read: he stalks ladies. He's having sessions with a relationship therapist, Carl (Jonathan Brugh), whose strength of sincerity is equal only to the depth of his tan. Toby's nice, unassuming mum is paying for these sessions, and his best friend is also trying to get him to come out of his shell.
It's a funny, well-written dramedy that's situational as well as character-driven, with enough quirk to keep it interesting but plenty of exposure to universal truths so it's not too esoteric.After all, stalkers don't usually engender that much empathy from an audience.
The character of Toby was written for Richard, and he jokes that it was entirely selfish: "I hoping to create a vehicle for myself, really".
However, the interplay between his comedic performance and the dialogue is something that he and co-writer Dean Hewison established long ago, Ruth explains.
"That comedy, that kind of bumbling everyman thing, where stuff kind of happens to him and he does what our production manager calls the "double-take" look, that's what we reckon is his signature look, that's something that Richard and Dean have worked out over time from working together."
Taking the film from inception to release was a crew of more than 200 people, including 120 extras.
"People suggested doing stuff like crowd-funding," says Ruth, "but because we were trying to keep the timeline within a kind of 48-Hour feel and speed, it was kind of put your energy into trying to get more funding or put your energy into the project. We got a lot of people to help, and got sponsorship, and got a lot of time and resources from people."
This is they key factor in the short history of HTMGFAD: the project was a true community endeavour. A great team assembled, a wonderful thing was produced, and so many people can be happy with what they contributed to. There are few feelings that come close to the warm-fuzziness of having been part of a well-oiled machine - especially one whose fruits so many people have received with such positivity.
A mere six months after beginning - a crazily speedy process given their relative newbieness - the movie was birthed, straight into the loving arms of the NZ Film Festival. And audiences loved it; HTMGFAD sold out its screenings and reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.
Last week the movie opened in cinemas as part of a relatively small general release. Only 14 theatres country-wide will show this wee gem, including five in Auckland, but it's a strategy, not just a cost-cutting measure. As executive producer Ant Timpson puts it, "There is nothing more damaging to a small indie [film] than going out too wide and putting everything into the first weekend."
You can expect to see HTMGFAD in smaller theatres because there's less chance of empty seats and higher likelihood of crowd synergy, Timpson explains. With a comedy it's all about that good feeling you get when everyone laughs at the same stuff, and that's why the efforts of the filmmakers are so impressive - audiences either get the funny bits or they don't, and it's a fine line to tread. But the risky decisions always yield the best rewards.
When I saw the film, guffaws, clapping, exclamations and people doubled over with laughter were abundant, and it really did feel like every person in that theatre was sharing an experience. And that's exactly what the filmmakers were going for.
The Film Commission and other sponsors including the NZ Herald were pretty hands-off, according to Richard. I suggest that must have been great for a team making a movie about stalking.
"They were like, 'here's your prize, go off and do it, hope it turns out okay'... It meant that we got direct communication with Ant as executive producer, and he was the voice of concern when we needed it."
I asked Richard what the audience is supposed to think, watching the stalking unfold in front of them, seeing Toby change from a nice guy to a bit of a weirdo, back to nice again and then maybe finishing up slightly weird.
"It was probably quite a gamble, but the idea was that we'd create a character that the audience warms to and then make the audience suddenly at some point go 'whoa, hang on'. I think one of the underlying ideas is that you think of stalkers as these unfathomable people, but in the world of Facebook and Twitter you can imagine yourself falling into that, you know?"
Ruth explains that co-writer Dean Hewison loves Dexter, a TV show in which the protagonist is a serial killer. "He really loves those characters that maybe do things that are beyond what you think is okay, but also challenge how you think about things that you consider to be okay."
There's a slice-of-life aesthetic to HTMGFAD that seems to have come about from Traces Of Nuts' previous work. Apart from a few years' of 48-Hours experience, most of them come from a documentary film and educational video background.
"With the speed that we did the shoot at, stylistically there wasn't the opportunity to do anything that complicated," says Ruth.
"It was more that we had the ability to move really quickly and make decisions, and go, 'shit, we're running out of time and we've got to shoot these five shots in one shot'."
"Or these five shots in one shot and one take," Richard adds, smiling.
"We were forced to use a pragmatic visual style, but I think that allows a focus on the story and what's going on with the characters. But with that said, I couldn't be happier with how [the film] looks. Some of the stuff that's going on in the background, there's sort of a second ot third viewing needed for that stuff, which is quite cool."
"In terms of budget, shooting in the city you know, using your friends houses, it was the only way we could do it. In the film, Emma's house is our house," Ruth reveals.
The working-bee sensibility that Ruth and Richard tell me about prompts me to ask what they learned from this whole process. Surely the amount of contributors to the filmmaking would make them think twice about attempting a similar project? That this would be a cautionary tale to others? I'm expecting an answer along the lines of "make sure you have a timeline planned in advance", or "have an accountant handy for budgeting advice".
Ruth's answer warms my heart: "We realised how much people will help if you just ask them. I think from that we learned that we should just always be nice to everybody. If you're going to do a project like this you're going to need help, and even up until the last couple of days of production, we'd put a call out on Facebook and people would just show up and say 'Sure, what do you need?'."
"When Ruth and I were up to our eyes in post-production and hadn't slept for a couple of days, somebody who had been working in the art department just came over to clean our lounge. It just lightens the load, you know."
Yes, you lucky people. I do know.
Read more in fortnightly publication Suburbanite.
- Auckland Now