Lights, camera, Christchurch: the city on film

Movie stars Chris Pine, left, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor made the post-apocalyptic film Z for Zachariah near ...

Movie stars Chris Pine, left, Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor made the post-apocalyptic film Z for Zachariah near Christchurch in 2014.

Craig Zobel​ would take morning walks in the empty centre of Christchurch when he was here in 2014, through one vacant lot after another, "where there had clearly once been these big, multi-storey buildings". 

It would have put the US film-maker in a suitably apocalyptic frame of mind. Zobel's second film, the low-budget science-fiction drama Z for Zachariah, was mostly shot around Port Levy on Banks Peninsula where a large, old farmhouse became the refuge of a young woman played by Australian actress Margot Robbie, who thinks she may be the last person alive. 

The sunny hills and valleys of the peninsula look tranquil in the film and the fictional disaster that destroyed the world seems remote. But when you know the time and place, it is hard to not sense the real disaster just over the horizon. An earthquake presence seeps in.

A small wooden church was built at Port Levy for the production of Z for Zachariah in 2014.

A small wooden church was built at Port Levy for the production of Z for Zachariah in 2014.

"It was interesting, as we didn't originally intend to shoot this post-apocalyptic fable near Christchurch," Zobel says by email. "We had started our location scouting on the North Island. But shooting so close to Christchurch certainly affected all of us, and I feel it definitely coloured the atmosphere of the production." 

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* Film review: When a City Falls
* Review: The Art of Recovery
* Iranian filmmaker comes to Christchurch
* Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey on winning big at the Sundance Film Festival
* Ghost Shark 2: an unexpected journey
* Margot Robbie glamour rolls into Port Levy
* Review: Sunday

Zobel had been aware of the disaster in the US but he was floored by the scale of devastation when he arrived and looked around. Some of the crew were locals who "had gone through some pretty difficult and grim situations", while others from elsewhere in New Zealand were also getting their first look at the ruined city. 

That city even made it onto the screen, Zobel says.  

"We actually shot in some of the ruins. In the opening title sequence, the main character wanders through what is supposed to be the remnants of a US town in the Appalachian Mountains after a nuclear event. We filmed the exteriors in West Virginia, but the interiors were shot in McLean's Mansion in Christchurch."

Dustin Clare and Camille Keenan play a couple pondering their relationship in the ruins of Sydenham in 2012, in the film ...
Johanna Macdonald

Dustin Clare and Camille Keenan play a couple pondering their relationship in the ruins of Sydenham in 2012, in the film Sunday.

The interior of McLean's Mansion even appears in the trailer. In post-earthquake Christchurch, once grand buildings can double as the site of nuclear war or relics of the US coalmining industry. The city has felt like a readymade setting for disaster movies since 2011. So far, documentaries have exploited that more than fictional stories, but dramatic features are catching up.

A film called Sunday was the first. Director, producer and co-writer Michelle Joy Lloyd remembers that her cast and small crew were shooting on the first anniversary of the February 22, 2011 earthquake. They took a short break to mark the occasion.

The Isaac Theatre Royal is made up to look like a 1950s cinema for the film Heavenly Creatures.

The Isaac Theatre Royal is made up to look like a 1950s cinema for the film Heavenly Creatures.

It shows that Sunday was a quick response. Lloyd grew up in Christchurch but lives in Melbourne. Her film started coming together as an idea as early as October 2011. Her husband Ryan Alexander Lloyd was director of photography. Actors Dustin Clare and Camille Keenan are a couple who played a couple and collaborated on writing about the fictional Eve and Charlie, who must consider whether their relationship has a future. 

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It was low-budget, costing just $200,000, including the costs of distribution. The Before Sunrise trilogy by Richard Linklater was an influence, Lloyd says. As in the Linklater films, which have been set in Vienna, Paris and Greece, the city had a role. 

"The environment plays a big part in the mood and tone of the film," she says. "In a way, the broken city of Christchurch represented our characters and the state of their relationship, and posed the question, can the broken be fixed?"

Director Geoff Murphy hopes to include this scene of the Wizard in Christchurch in a future release of the original ...

Director Geoff Murphy hopes to include this scene of the Wizard in Christchurch in a future release of the original Goodbye Pork Pie.

It is about resilience – which was not yet a dirty word – and finding beauty in that which is broken. As Eve drives to Christchurch Airport to pick up Charlie, people on the radio are answering the question, "why stay?" Can loss also be opportunity? Will the earthquakes be for this generation what wars were for earlier ones? 

Watching Sunday in 2016 is to experience a Christchurch time capsule, both in the setting that appears on screen and the way those questions are asked and answered. There are Gap Filler sites that have since been transformed again. Re:Start mall was a fresh idea at the time. Beautiful shots of the Botanic Gardens and Taylor's Mistake suggest some permanence. 

The film captures the bittersweet end of a relationship even if the dialogue is not quite up to Linklater standards and the character of Charlie seems like a clueless oaf. Sometimes it catches post-earthquake moments we have forgotten. As the pair wander through Sydenham, the camera notices a line of graffiti on a wall that reads, "You are my sunshine, you make me". 

Writer and producer Emily Corcoran on the set of The Stolen at Ferrymead Heritage Park this month.
David Walker

Writer and producer Emily Corcoran on the set of The Stolen at Ferrymead Heritage Park this month.

The sentence was left incomplete. Was the graffiti artist interrupted? But it works nicely for the film, appearing on the screen like an unspoken and unfinished thought. 

The graffiti had gone again when the film was released in some New Zealand cinemas and online in December 2014. A small Australian release followed in 2015, along with DVD distribution and TV screenings. When Lloyd first screened the film in Christchurch, the time capsule response was a familiar one.

"People love seeing their city on the big screen." 

Jason Mill, left, Jesse O'Keefe and Aaron Keown take a break during filming of The Stolen at Ferrymead Heritage Park.
David Walker

Jason Mill, left, Jesse O'Keefe and Aaron Keown take a break during filming of The Stolen at Ferrymead Heritage Park.

That is true even when the city is on its knees. The other familiar response from viewers was: what happens next? Like Before Sunrise, the story leaves us hanging. But there are no plans for a sequel, Lloyd says. No plans for a film called Monday


When Melanie Lynskey​ comes to Christchurch this year to appear in The Changeover, she will experience a very different city from the one where she launched her career. Lynskey was still a New Plymouth schoolgirl when she was cast as Pauline Parker in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures


Feature film The Stolen is filming some scenes at Ferrymead Heritage Park, in Christchurch. The existing buildings have been utilised for the 1860's setting of Corktown.

It is not just a great New Zealand film, perhaps even the greatest. Heavenly Creatures is also a record of a lost Christchurch – both a visible place and a pervading attitude. Class is an important element of the Jackson version of the story. Working-class Parker aspired to a good life, embodied by British migrant Juliet Hulme who was living in a mansion in Ilam. It played on the idea that Christchurch's ambition, in the mid-20th century at least, was to be more English than England. 

But there was another, more vulgar influence, and that was popular culture. Christchurch was a city of gardens and faux Gothic buildings but it was also a city of movie theatres, which ringed Cathedral Square. Heavenly Creatures put some of that Christchurch on screen. 

The grand Ilam home is still standing and has been repaired by Canterbury University since the earthquakes. The old Christchurch Girls' High School building was demolished in 2011. Most of the cinemas disappeared decades earlier although it is fascinating to see Lynskey and Kate Winslet​, who plays Hulme, emerge from watching an Orson Welles​ film at the Isaac Theatre Royal as their fantasies start to turn paranoid.

Films made in Christchurch before the earthquakes are records of lost locations. You can see Lyttelton streets and demolished shopfronts in The Frighteners, which Jackson made after Heavenly Creatures.

The establishing shots and exteriors in the 2007 film We're Here to Help are a visual summary of the sedate, quiet city that was ruined by the earthquakes, as seen from the perspective of bureaucracy-battling property developer Dave Henderson, played by professional nice guy Erik Thomson. It is a world before the crash in more ways than one.  

Even post-quake films can be records of lost locations. It was reported this month that McLean's Mansion is at risk of demolition. Z for Zachariah may become our lasting memory of it.   

​​The 2001 film Snakeskin, written and directed by Gillian Ashurst and again starring Melanie Lynskey, was a story of drugs and skinheads on the Canterbury plains that put other Christchurch subcultures on screen. There is a band called Space Dust performing in an old pub on the road to the West Coast. Spotted dancing in the crowd is future Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, years before he became world famous as the face of the earthquakes.  

Parker has been an inspirational figure. Film maker and critic Andrew Todd explains that his and co-director Johnny Hall's ultra-low budget Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws, which was shot in Auckland and Christchurch, was partly informed by the 2010 earthquakes. In particular, "the notion of the mayor stepping in and becoming almost a celebrity in the wake of disaster" when Auckland is attacked by a ghost shark.

"And some of the locations we shot in do not exist anymore," Todd says. "Mostly homes, and a swimming pool that later fell off the side of the hill." 

But the most tantalising images of the lost city might be those in Geoff Murphy's classic road movie Goodbye Pork Pie, especially as most of the Christchurch footage, including of the Wizard lecturing in Cathedral Square, disappeared from the official DVD release. In his biography A Life on Film, Murphy writes that he hopes to remaster the footage and release it: "Thus there is a strong chance that the Wizard will live again and that we will yet catch a glimpse of the Cathedral as she once was". 

There is another vision of Christchurch to come. Iranian filmmaker Reza Dormishian​ was in residence at the University of Canterbury for a month in 2015 and is making a film that addresses the earthquake experience. He came to Christchurch through the university's recently forged connection with New Zealand director Vincent Ward. 

The post-earthquake city has also been captured in a series of documentaries. Christchurch film-maker Gerard Smyth was perfectly placed to record the February 2011 disaster in When a City Falls because he was already recording the September 2010 disaster and its aftermath. There is still no better visual account of the day the 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch. For some Cantabrians, going to see When a City Falls at the end of the same year was their first nervous trip back to a mall. 

Peter Young's The Art of Recovery recorded the response of community groups and artists to the absence of official activity in the city, with Gap Filler at its centre. It was a positive vision of guerrilla gardeners and benevolent taggers cycling between empty spaces. It was a tribute to the transitional moment. 

Christchurch also appeared in a Danish documentary in 2013. The Human Scale, directed by Andreas Dalsgaard, compares city-building in Copenhagen, New York, Dhaka and, yes, Christchurch. Dalsgaard was here in the optimistic interim between Share an Idea in 2011 and the release of the blueprint in 2012. In an interview with the Lumiere Reader, Dalsgaard marvelled at 106,000 shared ideas and was stunned by a tour of the cordoned-off "death city". 

An intriguing Korean documentary called Moving might be the least seen of the four. Director Park Kiyong​ began working on a film about Koreans in Christchurch in 2010 before the earthquakes made him quickly change tack. According to the book Film on the Faultline, edited by University of Canterbury film lecturer Alan Wright, Moving is "made up almost entirely of a single interview with an immigrant Korean couple in Christchurch who speak openly and affectingly about the extraordinary hardship of their life in New Zealand, their loss during the earthquake, and their spiritual struggle in coming to terms with that loss". 

There is an especially poignant detail in an interview in the book, when Park explains why he liked Christchurch in 2010. It felt like a European city to him, but there was something else: "The city attracted so many Koreans, especially Christian Koreans, because of its name. They believed that because of its merciful name not a single person was killed even when struck by the dreadful September earthquake."  


Like Heavenly Creatures, writer and producer Emily Corcoran's project The Stolen is partly about Christchurch's relationship to England. So was an earlier film, the micro-budget Sisterhood, released in 2008. 

As producer, London-based Corcoran raised US $4 million ($5.6m) to make The Stolen, which has been filming at locations in and around her hometown in May and June 2016. Some scenes have been shot at Ferrymead Heritage Park – with its historic buildings and wide, empty streets, it always looked like a movie set in search of a movie. Corcoran hopes that a 19th century hotel interior built by the production inside a stables could survive as a permanent attraction. 

Other locations include Little River, Arthur's Pass, Ashley Gorge, Birdling's Flat and Waikuku Beach. In Corcoran's story, which is directed by British film-maker Niall Johnson, a young English woman played by actress Alice Eve must search for her kidnapped child in a version of the South Island in the 1860s. Both Eve, who appeared in Star Trek Into Darkness, and the other international star, Jack Davenport, have been kept away from local media. 

There have been challenges in filming in Christchurch.

"We did find it difficult to get all the crew we needed," Corcoran says. "We got a good chunk of the crew from the local community and promoted a number of people into jobs they hadn't done before, to fulfil the criteria that we hire as many local people as possible. But we did have to bring a fair few from up north just because there weren't enough with the skills down here."

She praises Court Theatre costume designer Tina Hutchison-Thomas, who is working on her first film. Make-up artist Richard Muller lives between London and Christchurch and has worked on the Hobbit films and Alice Through the Looking Glass. There are actors of international standard "who have either have to travel for work or they do theatre here". 

Some came to The Stolen through the Film Cooperative, set up recently by 25-year-old Josh Jones who wants to help develop an industry here. There are obvious gaps: Christchurch has beautiful scenery but no film studio, along with the skills shortages Corcoran talks about. After approaching Corcoran, Jones became an unpaid assistant to the producer and was then given a paid role as extras coordinator. 

Cooperative members are shooting behind the scenes video on The Stolen. Others are assistants in areas like make-up, editing and script supervision. If the Auckland industry runs on film and television and Wellington is "almost an extension of Hollywood and like London, almost too expensive for anyone local", Jones thinks that perhaps Christchurch can be like Austin, Texas, where the Austin Film Society and the City of Austin combined to support an industry.

Corcoran believes the Christchurch City Council should support the Film Cooperative to develop a resource of local film skills. In turn, Jones praises how far US$4m has gone on The Stolen.

"The production design has been exquisite," he says. "It's Spielbergian."

Some of the local people working on The Stolen could get picked up for The Changeover, says writer and co-director Stuart McKenzie. McKenzie and his wife, co-director Miranda Harcourt, began adapting the popular Margaret Mahy novel with Mahy's blessing in 2010. He worried that the earthquakes changed everything. But when he went back to the book while writing the screenplay, he noticed a spooky detail – that the novel, first published in 1984, mentions earthquakes in passing. 

"It was a chilling moment, where the book prophesied in a very subtle way," McKenzie says. 

Mahy set the book in the Christchurch suburb of Bishopdale, which she renamed Gardendale. It was a suburb McKenzie knew – he lived there when he was growing up in Christchurch. The post-earthquake environment of the city becomes a feature of the film, mirroring the supernatural changes of its lead character, 14-year-old Laura Chant. 

The budget is around the $4m mark and McKenzie expects that a little more than half of the film will be shot in Christchurch, and the rest back in Wellington, starting in late August – it would be both difficult and expensive to do the entire film here.

In terms of tone, McKenzie and Harcourt are aiming for the supernatural realism of the arthouse horror films Let the Right One In, When Animals Dream and Rosemary's Baby. The cast includes British actor Timothy Spall, young heartthrob Charlie Heaton, newcomer Erana James and international New Zealanders Lucy Lawless and, yes, Melanie Lynskey, star of that other Christchurch story about imaginative, troubled teenagers. 

"There is a nice synchronicity," McKenzie agrees. "I don't think Heavenly Creatures is overtly supernatural but it had that vibe going through it in terms of the girls' imagination."

The Changeover should be finished by the middle of the year, perhaps in time for the Toronto Film Festival. By then, The Stolen will have been out for a few months. Which will make 2017 the year that Christchurch really gets to see itself on the big screen. 

 - Stuff


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