Melanie Lynskey on Heavenly Creatures, changing Christchurch and The Changeover

Christchurch has changed a lot since Melanie Lynskey was last on a film set there.

It almost a quarter-of-a-century since the then Taranaki teenager found herself in the Garden City making Heavenly Creatures with Sir Peter Jackson and Kate Winslet.

Now she's returned to help bring to life to a contemporary version of Margaret Mahy's award-winning 1984 supernatural novel The Changeover. The 39-year-old actress plays Kate Chant, a mother who is battling grief, EQC, insurance companies and a just as malevolent force who wants to suck out the souls of her children.

Speaking while onset in east Christchurch last week, Lynskey says the city feels very different to when she was here in 1992 and was based in Methven in 2001 for Kiwi road-movie Snakeskin.

"The city is just in such  process of recovery. It's been very sort of heartbreaking to see the sort of devastation that's been happening from the earthquake and yet there's something very extraordinary about how people are rebuilding and the vibrancy and vitality that people have. There are so many great food places, little stalls. Just to see people's energy has been really incredible. There's a different life to Christchurch that I have not felt in the past."

Melanie Lynskey says she has enjoyed her fortnight on the Christchurch-based set of The Changeover.
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Melanie Lynskey says she has enjoyed her fortnight on the Christchurch-based set of The Changeover.

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Lynskey says she talked to a lot of people who lived through the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes to prepare for her role. "People have had all kinds of different experiences with the EQC and their own personal insurance. It has been very interesting to hear the different stories."

The Changeover co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie keep a close eye on proceedings on-location in the ...
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The Changeover co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie keep a close eye on proceedings on-location in the production's relocated house.

Although admitting that she couldn't resist a visit to the Margaret Mahy Playground during her two-week stay ("Oh my God, the slides, you could never build something like that in America"), Lynskey says she's resisted the temptation to revisit any old Heavenly haunts.

"I don't know if I could honestly visit Victoria Park (where they recreated the murder of Honorah Rieper).  There's such a specific energy in that place that felt a lot bigger than all of us. I think we were all surprised, when we went there to film, how potent it felt that somebody's life had ended there. It just felt not really like a place you want to hang out in."

Lynskey says she remembers feeling like she was "in a dream" during the shooting of that movie.

STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ.

British actor Timothy Spall was welcomed to Christchurch by Mayor Lianne Dalziel and members of the Christchurch City Council ahead of shooting on a film version of the Margaret Mahy novel The Changeover.

"I just couldn't  believe the whole time that I had been chosen. So the first few weeks, I was like, 'I'm going to get fired' and then I didn't get fired. I just remember the great joy of getting to act every day which was something  I'd always told people I wanted to do and everyone told me I was crazy and it wasn't a real job.  The weather was beautiful while we were filming, I remember that."

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The main reason she agreed to come back to the city for The Changover was a link first created through Heavenly. Or rather, a person she says she owes her career to – Changeover co-director Miranda Harcourt. The pair first met when Heavenly director Sir Peter Jackson asked Harcourt to coach the 15-year-old, who had only done school plays before.

"I was so moved by her power as an actor and she taught me so much about controlling emotion and conserving energy. I have such respect for her as a person and artist. She's just one of those people I wouldn't, couldn't say no to."

Melanie Lynskey's last film made in Canterbury was 2002's Snakeskin.
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Melanie Lynskey's last film made in Canterbury was 2002's Snakeskin.

And despite confessing that her resolve to be involved in the project was tested by it being delayed a few times ("I kept keeping the time free and at one point I was like 'guys, I've been unemployed for a long time'"), she says that now that it has all finally come together it has been great.

"Everybody is so good at their jobs and the house we're using is amazing – it feels so lived in. The only thing is they took pictures of my little sister [Millie] who is working on the movie [Lynskey blushes, as she confesses that she isn't in the same standard of accommodation as her] to have around the house and everytime I see them, my brain does a leap – 'oh, that's supposed to be your movie sister'."

Obtained with the help of Laing Homes and the Christchurch City Council, the Chant's wooden home is an evocative place, even if it is a tight squeeze for cast and crew. Co-directors Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie are squeezed into one bedroom, while the action takes place next door or in the lounge.

Producer Emma Slade says trying to find the perfect house was "quite challenging"

"With so many houses now gone, it was harder to find something than we expected. Many we looked at were too old and others were too new."

And once they eventually found something, they had to get permission from the government for it to become the first house brought back into a "red-zone".

An effusive Harcourt says even this one required clever disguising by their production design team because of its brand new roof. "It was great on the inside because it's pretty s…. but we had to kind of break down the outside by putting a tarp and tyres on the roof."

To add to the lived-in feel, the production team have also created a weathered, slightly-overgrown driveway.

Now more than halfway though the six-week shoot, which has also taken in a chase scene at Bexley and a visit to the now iconic Dance-O-Mat, Christchurch-raised McKenzie admits the mood of the city has organically swept its way into the story

"There's an openness and a sense of excitement about the place. But also, being out here [in east Christchurch surrounded by greenery and unoccupied houses] is kind of spooky and slightly disturbing in its own right, so we haven't needed to play that up too much."

McKenzie who says he has sworn off drinking until the shoot is complete, admits he's looking forward to the wrap party and a Dry River Chardonnay, "not that I've put any thought into that".

Also starring Timothy Spall, Lucy Lawless and newcomers Erana James and Nick Galitzine, The Changeover is scheduled to hit New Zealand cinemas in late 2017.

 - Stuff

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