Film No. 2 was a long time coming for Wellington's Alex Galvin, writes Nikki Macdonald. But the real mystery is how do you make a several-million-dollar movie with a paltry $100,000?
Alex Galvin obviously likes tricky puzzles. Such as how was a businessman strangled in a study with a single entry point in full view of assembled guests?
Or how can you make a credible feature film for around $100,000?
The answer to the first conundrum can be found in his new movie, Eternity, a murder-mystery/sci-fi hybrid set in the near future, filmed in Wellington, Hong Kong and Hawke's Bay, where the movie had its New Zealand premiere last November.
Detective Richard Manning (played by Elliot Travers) is transported into a virtual-reality computer game and tasked with solving a seemingly implausible murder.
But the game turns out to be a little too real for comfort. Unless he can solve the crime by the day's end he will be stuck in the virus-infected cyberworld for eternity.
The answer to the second question lies in the credits to Eternity - two listed names are actually pseudonyms for Galvin himself.
As well as directing and writing the screenplay, the Wellington film-maker also helped edit the footage and scouted all the locations.
Oh, and he also has an acting cameo, because he couldn't afford to pay an extra actor in Hong Kong.
Back home, however, he did manage to secure some recognisable actors, including Geraldine Brophy and Shortland Street newcomer Amy Usherwood.
Eternity is Galvin's second feature, following his 2007 debut When Night Falls, which was shot in an extraordinary 10 days, at a cost of around $50,000.
You'd think the stress of that would have given him enough grey hairs, but Galvin couldn't help but come back for more.
So for the past five years, Galvin, the 37-year-old has spent his annual leave, weekends, and evenings writing, shooting and editing Eternity, while holding down a full-time day job as a policy manager for Victoria University.
The idea for Eternity was born out of childhood summers in Christchurch ploughing through his grandmother's Agatha Christie collection, and a fascination with intelligent sci-fi, from 70s classics Soylent Green and Omega Man to more modern interpretations such as The Matrix and Inception.
Galvin wanted to explore perceptions of reality - hence the idea of a distinct world within a computer game.
In Eternity, New Zealand provides the empty, green, expansive, clean-aired world that by then no longer exists in reality, while the sensory explosion of the Hong Kong streetscape describes the polluted world of the future.
Why Hong Kong? Galvin made When Night Falls as a calling card: ''I thought, I'm going to make this tiny wee film about nurses stuck out in the countryside in the 1930s. Me and three friends will appreciate it and then we'll move on.''
It served its purpose. On a trip to a Hong Kong film market Galvin met producer Eric Stark, of Hong Kong's Shaw Brothers Studios, who had seen and liked When Night Falls.
And Galvin - who's been known to knock on random people's doors because he's liked the look of their window, or tripped over in the street because he's distracted by potential filming locations - saw the city's energy, the noise, the massive skyscrapers, the pollution and realised he had found his contrasting world, as well as his producer.
Galvin is anxious not to promote Eternity as a low-budget movie, because it has spent months trying to prevent it looking like one.
And it certainly doesn't look low-fi, with its opulent locations that will instantly trigger recognition for Wellingtonians - the echoingly empty Town Hall, Wellesley Hotel's spiral staircase, Parliament's inner sanctums - interspersed with Hawke's Bay's art deco architectural gems.
But it's hard to get past the enormity of the challenge of making a feature-length movie that includes overseas locations for such a tiny sum.
''To make this film normally, with the effects we had and the locations, you'd be looking at several million dollars,'' Galvin says.
In the absence of any Film Commission funding, actors and crew worked either for free or vastly reduced salaries and cash was scrounged from private investors.
Generous organisations opened up locations and closed streets for free.
While Galvin believes Wellington's film industry has a core of talented independent directors, he's frustrated that the city produces either $200 million Middle-earth movies or $1m to $2m movies, with nothing in between.
He admits he doesn't have another squeezed-budget movie in him, but he argues his entire life so far has prepared him for the task.
After graduating from Victoria University with a bachelor of arts in linguistics and music history, Galvin got a job with the Inland Revenue Department, where his mother, Noel, now works, and then at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Part of his job was writing mini-biographies for honours recipients, in seven lines, with its ''discipline of cutting away the fat and just making sure you got to the clear, concise elements''.
His training as an opera singer has also helped. Galvin's twin passions have always been music and writing. He joined the New Zealand Opera chorus in 1998, and that experience fostered his love of visual artistry and made him, he hopes, a better director.
''I've been directed a lot myself. I've seen really good directors and really bad directors. I like to think I'm an actors' director.
''I think maybe you've got to have a screw loose to direct. You've got to be very calm. A lot of people can't cope with it because they get 15 people asking a question inside a minute. I've seen people who've held down really stressful jobs who go on set on a tiny short film and they fall to pieces. You need to be very strong in what you want and also have a very good temperament.''
Although he's always loved movies, and had plenty of opinions on them, Galvin was a latecomer to movie-making, quitting his job in 2003 to study at the New Zealand Film School.
In the school's 13-year history, only a handful of graduates have shot feature films.
''Because it's not easy. There's no such thing as an overnight success. It's been 10 years of incredibly hard work. Every day on a film set is like planning a full-scale war. Imagine doing that for 25 of them.''
The key, he says, is minute-by-minute planning. And reverse budgeting - taking the good old Kiwi can-do approach of ''here's how much we've got - what can we do with it?''.
But there are rewards. At least you know people have seen the movie, unlike his 2007 novel, One Endless Day, Galvin says, his characteristic Cheshire grin splitting his face.
''If they buy the book, you don't know if they've damn well read it. I think more people went to the premiere of this movie than read my novel. I think it sold about 600 copies. I know a lot of my male friends bought the book and probably never read it. At least if you have a premiere you know they've seen it.''
And Eternity has already met success overseas, being selected for festivals in Boston and St Tropez, winning the Special Jury Prize at the California Film Awards and being nominated for four awards at the Madrid International Film Festival.Galvin is also heading to France, where Eternity will screen at Cinema des Antipodes at Cannes in May.
''London, via Beirut,'' he told his stunned travel agent.
Galvin's father, Badih, was part Lebanese, and Galvin is taking the opportunity to visit the home country for the first time on the way.
The greatest reward for Galvin, though, is seeing the unexpected results of a collaborative process.
''As a writer or director, I can only take the film so far. What is really great is when you get lots of people with different skills and talents in different areas to create something truly unique and special.
''What I love is when something turns out better than I ever envisaged.''
Eternity opens at Wellington's Paramount theatre on Thursday.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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