The Eagle has landed

ACTING CHOPS: Loren Horsley stars in acclaimed Kiwi film Eagle vs Shark.
JEFF MCEWAN/Dominion Post
ACTING CHOPS: Loren Horsley stars in acclaimed Kiwi film Eagle vs Shark.

Yes, it's finally at a cinema near you. Eagle vs Shark - the debut feature comedy shot in Wellington by film-maker and Oscar nominee Taika Waititi - is there for all to see. Tom Cardy talks to one of its stars, and co-writer, Loren Horsley.
Review: Eagle vs Shark

The very funny, offbeat and unapologetically Kiwi movie Eagle vs Shark confirms Taika Waititi as one of the best new talents of the decade. Then there's Jemaine Clement's performance as uber nerd Jarrod - more evidence that he's one of the country's funniest comedians.

But one of the biggest surprises in this determinedly Wellington film is the performance of star and co-writer Loren Horsley. Critics and audiences here and overseas have been mesmerised by her role as the shy and kooky Lily, whose unconventional romance with Jarrod begins with a video game at a party that determines who is eagle and who is shark.

TAKING FLIGHT: Eagle vs Shark director, co-writer, and Horsley's partner, Taika Waititi.
MAARTEN HOLL/Dominion Post
TAKING FLIGHT: Eagle vs Shark director, co-writer, and Horsley's partner, Taika Waititi.

Among the several awards the film has garnered in the United States, where it opened in June, Horsley won the best actress and best female performance awards at the Newport International Film Festival.

Horsley's only disappointment with winning the awards was that she couldn't attend the ceremony - she was busy promoting the film in New York with her partner Waititi and Clement.

"Meryl Streep and Vanessa Redgrave - who are my great, favourite icons - were there that night. I couldn't believe it, but it was lovely," she says, laughing it off.

In all of this Hollywood has taken notice. For the first time Horsley, best known in New Zealand for television's The Strip and Atlantis High and feature comedy Kombi Nation, has an American manager and they want her back to try out for television and movies.

It's still early days and Horsley is keeping her feet on the ground.

"The feedback is very good. They all say 'Come on over, there's lots of talk about you.' But I find it very hard to separate the bullshit from the truth. I don't want to do television. I've had lots of meetings over there and you kind of do this whole 'meeting' thing where they say, 'You are really exciting, we're really excited about you. We love you, you're amazing'."

It's been a similar case for Waititi, who has also had offers to direct overseas, which he has turned down.

Horsley got a taste of Hollywood and the American media's view of New Zealand during the promotional tour. "The whole experience is very surreal because they treat you like part of the star system. They do it for everybody. We had a suite in the Four Seasons [hotel in Los Angeles] and they'd hire a whole floor and we'd sit in a room and they'd just feed the press to you," she says.

"You get very bored with yourself very quickly. You find yourself answering the same stuff and your eyes start to glaze over. There were some Lord of the Rings questions which came thick and fast and there was, 'It's so beautiful I want to go there'."

The film was shot around the Wellington region at the beginning of last year. But for Horsley it was an intense 18 months of her life - including co-writing the story with Waititi and helping in post-production. At the start the couple fleshed out the film's "emotional continuity" on sheets of brown paper. "Mainly we had long conversations where he [Waititi] would go away and type and then I'd read and then we'd talk about it. It was kind of a mixture of brown paper and frustration and then he'd go away and write."

A film's star co-writing a film with the director, let alone their partner, can be a minefield But Horsley says it's one reason Eagle vs Shark works. "It is the benefit of knowing each other very well. We usually have the same kind of feeling. Our philosophies are very similar and our tastes very similar."

Another important factor was developing the script - including workshops - at Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Screenwriters Lab. "It was unbelievable. Not only do you get the chance to have a read-through in front of an audience, you get to rehearse and film scenes and then watch them with an audience. You can really untangle things in that process."

Horsley says while the film is from Lily's point of view, Waititi had equal input into her creation and - contrary to what some people believe - she is not based on anyone they've met. Lily's appearance - dowdy clothes, straight brown hair, body language and mannerisms, contrast with Horsley's blonde curls and outgoing nature.

"It really came from that feeling of being 'awkward but open' and there she was. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted her to dress. With the hair, I was sick of playing characters with blonde curly hair, because a kind of a feeling goes along with having hair like this. Once we had the wig that was amazing."

During filming Lily even crept into Horsley's own life. When she'd change into her own clothes after a day's filming she'd find she was reacting to wearing them as if she was Lily.

"Psychologically it was very interesting. It was very funny."

With Lily nailed, Horsley says there was just one other area that needed to be ironed out - behaving romantically with Clement while knowing her partner was behind the camera. Clement and Waititi are old friends, best known together as live comedy duo Humourbeasts.

"I was quietly nervous about going into it doing romantic stuff. We thought, 'This is going to be a bit hard'. We got a chance to get some of it out during rehearsals. The blushing and the awkwardness of it really helped, so we just decided to embrace it really," she jokes.

"Kissing your best friend in front of your boyfriend added to the shame."

  • Eagle vs Shark is screening now
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