Vincent Ward: The accidental film-maker

Vincent Ward sees film and art as being closely related, with one developing into narrative and the other staying as an idea.
Vincent Ward sees film and art as being closely related, with one developing into narrative and the other staying as an idea.

Universities were very different places in the 1970s. Forty years ago, Vincent Ward headed south after wrapping up the seventh form at Kuranui College in Greytown and enrolled in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury. He was long- haired, intense, fairly quiet, perhaps slightly disorganised.

He was planning to study painting and drawing and was so "hopeless" at photography that another student, possibly future artist Merylyn Tweedie, asked if she could use his photos as teaching tools. "These are fantastic!" she exclaimed. "I've never seen someone make so many mistakes."

That self-deprecating story comes from Ward himself. He grins as he tells it. Other stories are in the public record, such as the time he exhibited a smashed-up motorbike as a sculpture. "I had lots of bike accidents, starting when I was drunk on my 15th birthday and didn't quite make a right-angle corner," he says.

On this occasion, an actor friend sourced a bike from an insurance company. It had been written off and the rider had died. Ward made wax masks of people screaming and covered the bike in oil.

"I remember doing a lot of welding and it drove everyone insane while they were preparing for their final submissions. I got really told off."

Ward was not exactly a model student. But is there such a thing in the art world, especially back then?

"What was incredible is that I was here for six years," he says. "But for three and a half years I wasn't here [at the University of Canterbury]. I was in the Wairarapa. I was in Wellington making A State of Siege. I was in the Ureweras for two years. I was given this freedom. As long as I could deliver films, as long as I would turn up a number of times a year, they would put up with me."

Could a student do that now?

He's not sure.

"It was a very hands-off approach to teaching. I did film by accident. I thought, I can learn this on my own. I didn't really have a desire to be a film-maker."

Now 58, Vincent Ward is slight and grey-haired, but still boyish looking. He is back at Canterbury thinking about the 1970s because the university recently awarded him an honorary doctorate and appointed him adjunct professor in the School of Fine Arts. The institution that came close to failing him now calls him one of its most "illustrious" alumni.

There were good opportunities and he had obvious talent. Maurice Askew was the moving image lecturer and he had worked in British television. Askew was also chairman of the university's Film Society, which exposed Ward to the best of European art films. Ward remembers that he loved Herzog, Wenders, Antonioni, Pasolini, Bertolucci, Visconti, some Bergman, some Tarkovsky. While the new wave of New Zealand cinema - led by Geoff Murphy and Roger Donaldson in the North Island - was taking its cues from American action movies, Ward looked to the serious Europeans.

It paid off. After his student films A State of Siege and In Spring One Plants Alone, Ward co-wrote and directed Vigil, the first New Zealand film to screen in competition at Cannes. That was in 1984.

Ward fashioned a very distinctive vision. Vigil almost single-handedly created a Kiwi Gothic cinematic style. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) and Map of the Human Heart (1993) were romantic and highly fantastic quest films.

Soon Ward was in the belly of the beast, living in Los Angeles. His bold idea for Alien 3 was canned during pre- production and now survives as one of the greatest science-fiction films never made - and as a story credit on the film made instead. Another idea, The Last Samurai, was eventually adapted by Ed Zwick and filmed in New Zealand with Tom Cruise, but Ward kept a producer's credit. An imaginative but sentimental film about the afterlife, What Dreams May Come, starred Robin Williams and became Ward's biggest hit.

He returned to New Zealand in the new millennium for River Queen, which became shorthand for a film production that went off the rails. Crew members reportedly dubbed it "drama queen".

The perception is that film-making became more fraught for Ward when he got to the level of What Dreams May Come and River Queen.

"They're all fraught!" he says. "They're all demanding, to be more accurate. I think What Dreams was great, considering we had a lot of resources. I was able to do things I would never have normally been able to do and I had a lot of people supporting me."

He points out that the other parties involved with What Dreams have offered him projects since. And he remains friendly with Williams.

"With a big-budget film, it is about whether you are going to get to make the film you want to make. The higher the budget, the more people want to have a say about what that film will be. It can damage the integrity of it."

River Queen showed that to make it as a movie director, you must be a general as well as an artist. You have to get the vision that is on the page or in your head onto a screen while managing a small army and worrying about money and the weather.

Its star, Samantha Morton, got sick and the production stopped. There were rumours of diva-like behaviour and budget problems. The insurers panicked and Ward experienced the humiliation of being fired from his own movie. But he was rehired after three and a half weeks, which he believes is less commonly remembered.

"River Queen was weird because it got ballooned. Normally when someone is dismissed from their job and then gets hired again, after working on a project ultimately for 4 1/2 years full time, you go, OK, so what?

"We had a glitch doing it, but it was really what was made of the glitch. My challenge as a film-maker is to make the best of it, so I did extra shoots in London and New Zealand. People worked for free and helped me."

But the resulting film seemed muddled to many critics and Morton, ironically, was one of the best things about it. Ward says it has its "adherents", though. "The producer of Apocalypse Now saw it and wrote to me. He loved it. People come up to me about it still. I think it will have its turn."

But he agrees that River Queen is "definitely there" whenever he seeks funding for new film projects, which he and Australian writer Louis Nowra are doing at the moment. Ward's original idea for a screenplay became a young adult novel by Nowra, titled Into That Forest. As a film, it will be called Hannah and Rebecca.

The setting is 19th century Tasmania. Two 6-year-old girls are lost in the woods. To survive, they go wild, living as Tasmanian tigers, which are being hunted. The Sydney Morning Herald called the book "an exquisitely unforgettable colonial fairytale".

This has Ward written all over it: the colonial clash between settlers and native peoples; the world viewed through children's eyes; raw and inhospitable landscapes.

"It's a story about growing up, what it is to be human," he says. "It's about feral children trying to adapt back."

Ward has long been fascinated by people caught between cultures who try to adapt. When he made his student film In Spring One Plants Alone, he lived in a remote Maori settlement in the Ureweras, then revisited that Tuhoe setting and his own journey in Rain of the Children. The theme has come up again and again.

"River Queen is about people who are caught between cultures. I grew up with that. My mother was German Jewish, my father was of Irish Catholic descent. The Last Samurai was the predecessor of River Queen, in my mind."

In Map of the Human Heart, also written with Nowra, an Inuit boy with visionary powers is removed from his remote community. It then became a love story that drew on other parts of Ward's life, particularly his doomed pursuit of a Spanish actress.

Ward has said that when he and Nowra wrote that film, they threw everything about their disastrous love lives into it. Twenty years on, one imagines that they are older and wiser.

"Older, no wiser," Ward jokes.

If Hannah and Rebecca comes off, it will be the first Ward film since Rain of the Children in 2008.

"I had been doing it since I was 18, 19," he says. "After Rain of the Children, I needed a break. I'm fresh again now."

Returning to the film world, Ward has found it harder to raise money than it ever was. Not just for him but for all independent film-makers.

"It's not really a director's cinema any more. Films operate in narrower constraints in terms of how they are presented and the nature of them. Even if they get made, who knows whether they get released in any major way.

"Film is compromise. It's so much about that now."

There are no working directors he currently rates and he can't think of the last great film he saw. Like many, he looks instead to quality television. He loved True Detective and is curious about Jane Campion's Top of the Lake.

"I work on my own projects. I work incredibly hard. Seven days a week, generally. I take a little bit of time for my kids."

Ward's sons, Ariel and Finch, are now 10 and 7. He is in "a functional separation" from their mother and keeps living in Auckland largely because of the boys.

"I don't care where I live. I've lived everywhere. It's all the same to me. I'm going to become a German citizen soon, but I don't want to live there."

He can claim it through his mother. German film-maker Wim Wenders suggested to him over dinner - Wenders cooked, he adds - that Ward become a citizen as "no-one else wants to be one".

In the long hiatus from film-making, Ward went back to art. He made large, dark paintings, photographs and video works, and exhibited in New Zealand and China. He sees film and art as closely related, with one developing into narrative and the other staying as an idea. In both, there is his interest in metamorphosis and human vulnerability.

Art production is more solitary, but he refuses to concede that it is less pressured. "I did nine exhibitions in something like 24 gallery spaces in 14 months plus a huge art book. Don't talk to me about pressure!"

He acknowledges that there was some resistance from the art world, which is "by nature exclusive", when he made the transition from film-making. But he thinks his exhibition at the Shanghai Biennale in 2012 helped and he has "a very good dealer in Auckland", Trish Clark.

"Most artists now have a slash after their name. I'm a film-maker/new media artist/painter. The model of how people work has changed from being institution-led to network-led. It's more international than national. And it's about having different practices and being project-driven and moving between projects."

Artists must now be entrepreneurs and this knowledge is part of what he can bring to the University of Canterbury in his new adjunct professor role. The university has streamlined its practical and academic film classes in a way that mirrors the careers of artists. Networks, collaborations and relationships matter.

"We have to survive internationally. And that's part of the modus operandi of this university. It's got lecturers from all over the world and always has had."

He will come back to Christchurch during the academic year to look at student films and help out. Imagine having your undergraduate film project viewed and critiqued by Vincent Ward. It seems incredible.

This must be something of a coup for the university.

"I don't know," he jokes. "I don't know what they're getting into!" But seriously: "I think it's two-way. I'd like to be helpful. It feels a bit like coming home."

The Dominion Post