Last week Sundance, next week the Berlin International Film Festival - not bad for two friends from Kapiti. James Robinson caught up with award-winning film-makers Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland in Utah.
Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland are battling jet lag. The Wellington film-makers stand in the aisle of Park City's Egyptian Theatre, getting their first few moments to themselves since arriving at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
They're steeling themselves for the debut of their Kapiti Coast-shot, New Zealand Film Commission-funded labour of love, Shopping. An almost six-year journey is about to come to a close in the grandest possible setting.
Shopping is one of 119 movies accepted to the Sundance schedule, out of more than 4000 submitted. It is about to launch inside the same Robert Redford- founded bubble that pushed movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Little Miss Sunshine and Beasts of the Southern Wild into the Hollywood stratosphere.
The Shopping team at Sundance includes Albiston, 40, and Sutherland, 42; the four leads in the movie; composer Grayson Gilmour; a media man; and an American publicist.
The gang convened the night before, on the first day of the premier festival for independent film, with most coming straight from New Zealand. After updating the movie's social media channels, they got a little rest before, as Albiston puts it, they were "escorted pillar to post" on premiere day: interviews, photo shoots, the works.
Park City is a serene toy-town etched at 7000 feet into mountains in Northern Utah. The temperature is below zero. The Egyptian Theatre, in Main St, looks like it is set up for a school play, with cheap Sphinx statues mounted on top of columns either side of the screen.
As a scramble for seats takes place within the sold-out theatre, Albiston and Sutherland chat with Trevor Groth, the festival's director of programming. He tells the pair how great it is to have them back at the festival. In 2010, the two picked up the jury prize for international short film-making for The Six Dollar Fifty Man.
For Groth, seeing film-makers use Sundance as a platform to help them graduate into making feature films is a thrill.
This will be the first time Albiston and Sutherland watch the film with an audience and the first time they see it outside of Park Road Post, the state-of- the-art post-production facility that they moved into after Sir Peter Jackson had put the finishing touches on The Hobbit.
These two relative unknowns from New Zealand are debuting a movie in esteemed company. In the coming hours, and within a radius of no more than a couple of kilometres, new films are being debuted by Joseph Gordon- Levitt (Don Jon's Addiction), Daniel Radcliffe (Kill Your Darlings), Naomi Watts (Two Mothers), Dave Grohl (Sound City) and Jessica Biel (Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes).
For the two film-makers, the journey to Sundance has been a long one. They have known each other since the 1970s, when 8-year-old Sutherland tried to beat up 6-year-old Albiston's older brother at primary school in Raumati Beach.
This chapter in their journey began when the NZ Film Commission, which maintains a relationship with festivals around the world, submitted Shopping to Sundance in August. One Sunday, late in November, Albiston got a congratulatory text from a producer that didn't specify what the good wishes were for. Sutherland was home and didn't get to his emails until much later in the day. Each was suitably elated by the news.
One of Shopping's opening shots tracks Kevin Paulo - a 21-year old tradesman in his first acting role - on a bike heading down Wellington's Kapiti Coast.
Set in 1981, the film encapsulates Wellington and New Zealand at the time, from the omnipresent lush shots of the coast and The Clean blaring from speakers in Slowboat Records, to the old-school Dominion newspapers, the ubiquitous Cerebos table salt and the green and white paper $20 notes. This is the part of the world where Albiston and Sutherland were reared. They considered shooting elsewhere, but their hearts just weren't in it.
The film centres on Paulo's character, Willie, a half-Samoan teenager, as he struggles to reconcile his allegiance to his family and frustrations towards his violent, menacing father with a dangerous new set of friendships with a band of crooks fronted by a mysterious Polish man, Bennie.
The movie's questions around the bonds of family, racial identity and domestic violence don't make for light fare. It's a bold and engaging film, serious but never self-important.
Shopping is a personal movie for Albiston and Sutherland. Its theme, which Sutherland says is "that family is worth fighting for", is drawn from a period of Sutherland's own life, but the story is not autobiographical.
Albiston confesses that it was tough to relax while watching the movie. Sundance audiences are traditionally stacked with industry types who will walk out of a film as soon as they've seen enough. He found himself taking note of people who had left their seat to see whether they were going to the bathroom or clearing out.
Compared with some films on the Sundance bill, very few people leave. The film ends to an enthusiastic ovation. The Americans seem to enjoy it, although one local moviegoer expresses confusion about the word "coconut" when used as a racial descriptor.
Sutherland and Albiston take the stage for the question-and-answer session that follows all Sundance screenings. Sutherland is half-Samoan and shorter than Albiston and always has a broad smile. Albiston is dressed in a Motorhead T-shirt spotted on Willie at different points in the movie.
About a third of the audience has stayed to hear the two talk, which is unusual for a film with a cast of unknowns and one made by directors with little media profile. The directors immediately invite the cast up. The group of New Zealanders (and one Polish actor) on stage displays a traditional Kiwi reluctance towards theatrics or self-indulgence.
When a member of the audience asks when they knew they were going to make the movie, Sutherland responds "when the New Zealand Film Commission sealed the deal with the money". The two of them joke about writing a terrible first outline for Shopping on the plane to the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.
"We were learning how to tell a story over this length throughout this whole process," Albiston says modestly.
Laura Petersen gets the biggest laugh from the room. Petite and not yet 20, she plays Nikki, the female lead. A year out of Kapiti College and months from starting a degree in theatre at Victoria University, she quips when asked why she got the role: "Because I do a really great bitch look."
After the audience has gone, Albiston and Sutherland look equal parts relieved and exhausted. Albiston talks about heading back to their room to take a nap before the premiere party.
Hours later, Park City's Main St is a mess. Every bar or restaurant has either a long line or has been booked out for corporate events. Somewhere, Grohl is playing a concert to support the release of his documentary, Sound City.
Tucked away from most of the madness in an alcove of restaurants, the Shopping party is in full swing at the Fender Music Lodge.
Paulo, Petersen and Byron Coll, one of the few experienced thespians in the mostly street-cast film, are gathered around a fire in the cold. They're laughing about the amount of free stuff on offer at Sundance. As independent as the movies are, product placement chokes Park City throughout the festival. Coll kids Paulo that he should go to the adidas shop and pretend he's an All Black.
Paulo was ordering a butter chicken curry at Coastlands Mall in Paraparaumu when Sutherland and Albiston saw him and thought immediately of the lead they were at that point trying in vain to cast. They approached him to audition.
Paulo wasn't flustered by two strange men asking him to appear in a movie.
"I just said, 'yeah, OK'."
The audition was on a Sunday, and Paulo woke early after a big night with friends. He'd forgotten about the offer initially and was contemplating how he was going to kill time until his mates were up.
A Kapiti resident, he is in Park City on leave from his day job of roofer and general tradesman, and helping a friend run a lawn-mowing business.
Following Shopping's release, he wants to keep acting.
"This is my first time travelling overseas. In fact, this is my first time travelling over a sea," Paulo laughs. "Well, unless you count the one time I went to Picton."
The young female lead, Petersen, was in her last year of school at Kapiti College, which Paulo also attended, when Albiston and Sutherland came in to hold auditions. She'd done some drama, but it hadn't totally taken her interest. Like Paulo, she's since caught the stage bug.
She filmed Shopping as part of a gap year. She's worried about her parents seeing the movie, which has some darker bits, even if they have both been supportive.
Both of the young leads appear remarkably balanced about their arrival in the Sundance fishbowl. Petersen says only that she hopes to get to a few good movies while she's here. Paulo says he's not one to approach celebrities, but if he sees any he'll give them a handshake and a nod.
The room is full at the party. Taika Waititi, in town with a short movie he helped write, shows up with a baby on his chest. Albiston and Sutherland dutifully work the room.
The New Zealand consul general to the United States, Leon Grice, takes the stage to make a speech.
"I tell people here that I'm the consul general and they say 'Oh, so you're [Flight of the Conchords'] Murray,' " he says.
Two days later, Albiston and Sutherland are sitting on a couch at Shopping HQ - a hotel room that seven New Zealanders and an American publicist are calling home for 10 days. The two friends have the sort of seamless rapport that comes from three decades of knowing someone. Sutherland jokes about stealing one of Albiston's lines in an interview. Albiston hassles Sutherland about when he tried to dish out romantic advice when the two were in high school. "Yeah, but Little Mark sat there like he was in church," Sutherland says.
After meeting in primary school at Raumati Beach and moving through the same schools, in each other's spheres but not exactly close, Albiston and Sutherland were reunited by chance in the mid-1990s.
Albiston was working for the Parapine wood-treatment plant on the Kapiti Coast, when Sutherland, who was working in community news for the now defunct Saturn network, showed up to write a story about run off from Albiston's workplace poisoning a local stream.
"They showed up five days late to do a story about it," Albiston says.
Sutherland found Albiston a job at Saturn and the two were soon spit- balling movie ideas on the job. Albiston went off to London and Sutherland went to Toi Whakaari and bounced around several television shows and movies.
Sutherland became frustrated with acting.
"The type of stories being made, right across the spectrum, weren't really enticing and they didn't have great depth," he says.
At the same time, Albiston had returned to New Zealand and set up Sticky Pictures in Wellington, partly as a response to how difficult it was to get anything made independently in New Zealand. Albiston pulled Sutherland into the Sticky Pictures fold and they were soon talking about movies again, this time drawing more on moments in their own childhood for inspiration.
Their short-films Run, in 2007, and The Six Dollar Fifty Man, in 2009, were made back-to-back, largely drawing on inspiration from Sutherland and Albiston's past. Run won an award at Cannes, while The Six Dollar Fifty Man took home accolades at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes.
Through making the two short movies, the two friends saw they worked well together.
"We've grown up together. We know similar characters and that influences the stories we want to make," Albiston says.
"It can be testy. There're times when we want to smack each other," Sutherland pipes in. "But most of the time we're able to smash each other's egos into shape until we make sense."
The last time the pair were at Sundance, in 2010, they were signed by an agent and a manager who flew them to Los Angeles for a week and set up meetings at major movie studios. They pitched a series of ideas, and one caught the eye of an executive who told them to "put that down on paper and we'll write you a cheque".
It didn't feel right. The two had enjoyed the independence of their film-making and decided to return to New Zealand and do their own thing.
"We told the guy that we've got his card and we'll be in touch, and we just left," Sutherland says.
Both directors repeatedly reference the importance of shirking accepted wisdom and doing what feels right: in New Zealand they had been told their script, business model and shooting schedule for Shopping weren't going to work.
Their touchstones in New Zealand cinema are movies such as Smash Palace and Goodbye Pork Pie.
"Those film-makers just got a tight group of people together and did it against the odds," Albiston says.
Whether Sundance gives the movie a global platform, or is just an honour of its own accord, Albiston and Sutherland are excited to be here. It's a nearly unmatched stamp of approval to have on their film.
Their week will be filled with screenings and sales meetings and media interviews. Albiston laughs that with interviews inevitably comes an American inability to understand his pronunciation of his own name.
"Reporters ask me what my name is and I say, Mark, and they're like, 'Mac'," Albiston says, mimicking a reporter.
"I reply, no, it's Mark, and then they're like, 'oh, Mike!' Now I just have to hammer it in my best American accent every time I introduce myself."
The "heads-down, bums-up" nature of their week, Sutherland says, means there likely won't be any good star- sightings.
"Oh, we did run into Taika. But he's from Wellington, so that doesn't count."
Shopping didn't take home any of the jury awards at the closing ceremony, but awards aren't really the focus for Albiston and Sutherland.
From here, they take the movie on to the Berlin International Film Festival next week for its European premiere.
They're both especially eager to bring the movie back to New Zealand, where it should land some time in the middle of the year, and to show future film-makers that movies can be made independently and outside the system.
Albiston and Sutherland are both mum about what comes post-Shopping, but they're evidently looking out and up with good reason.
"We've already started arguing about our second, third and fourth features," Sutherland says, chuckling.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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