One Thousand Ropes director Tusi Tamasese not bound by genre convention
The contrast couldn't have been more marked.
After Samoa's wide open spaces, which provided the backdrop for his debut film The Orator, writer-director Tusi Tamasese found himself filming many of the scenes for his latest work One Thousand Ropes in a cramped Wellington social housing apartment.
But setting was all important to Tamasese's new film, even if it did mean feeling like he was trapped, as cast and crew squeezed into the confines of a house in the inner-city Arlington Apartments.
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Set to debut in Kiwi and Samoan cinemas this week, One Thousand Ropes is the story of Maea (Sons for the Return Home's Uelese Petaia). Trying to face his past, his daughter and his inner "demons", the former fighter is now working two jobs – as a baker and a pregnancy masseuse – just to try to make ends meet and atone for the violence that divided his family and exiled him to solitude.
Tamasese says that even when he was writing, he was looking to base Maea's story in some of kind of "transitional place".
"Arlington was that sort of place. We had a location manager that gave us a number of options, but there was something about Arlington and the occupants that came through that made it the appropriate setting for Maea's story.
It's one that the 41-year-old father-of-three has wanted to tell for some time. A treatment for a short-film about a traditional healer had foundered due to lack of funding, but, in the wake of The Orator's success, Tamasese decided to be more ambitious.
"I wanted to combine that idea with a horror film and a story about an anti-hero. I thought 'I'll try and get a story around all three things and see how it comes up'.
Taking cinematic inspiration from Guillermo De Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, Japanese ghost stories and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, the Wellington-based film-maker admits finding the right tonal balance was a massive challenge.
"One of the things I tried to avoid was using special-effects on the ghost – make her sort of more natural. I wanted audiences to ask themselves, 'who is the bigger monster in the room – the healer or the spirit?' I also didn't want to push the ghost story too much, because I thought that would change the direction of the film."
The response from audiences and critics at last month's Berlin Film Festival suggest Tamasese got the combination right. Cinemagoers were buzzing with questions and enthusiasm after its world premiere at the historic Zoo Palast cinema, while The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney thought Tamasese sustained the "deeply felt drama's subdued intensity with impressive control" and Screen International's Allan Hunter thought the director had delivered plenty of "intrigue, craft and slow-burning command of mood and atmosphere", while turning what could have been simply a horror film into a "brooding social realist drama".
For his own part, Tamasese confesses that he still hasn't really recovered from the trip to Berlin.
"Just the love of film and appetite for different films there was quite inspirational. I still can't quite get over people wanted to watch my film, even though it's in another language, Samoan, and set in New Zealand."
The resulting demand for Q&As and interviews had its price though, the film lover says he didn't really get to see any other films while he was there.
When asked how he manages to juggle the dual responsibility of being a writer and director, Tamasese is quite clear about his process.
"It all happens during the writing. When I get the story right, the director in me starts to have their input. I see shots and how that shot relates to that. I'm quite open to changing things as needed on-set, but the main thing is the writing process – if I get the writing right, if the material is there, then it's easier.
"I'm actually not really a good director," he shyly laughs, "I rely on the people around me."
One major change he did make, this time, after writing the script for One Thousand Ropes was around the main character Maea.
"In the script, the main character was quite brutal and physically intimidating. I began looking for an actor that fitted that description. But then my Mum and brother suggested Uelese who, like them, was based in Samoa. So I told my brother to do an audition and the result was this guy, who almost looks like Santa Claus, delivering something that's got this almost gentle feel to it. I thought, 'this is more powerful than what I've written. Someone who doesn't look intimidating, but still brings out violence – I'll try this one'.
One Thousand Ropes producer Catherine Fitzgerald, who was in Berlin with Tamasese, says she was impressed, but not completely surprised by how audiences responded to the finished product.
"One of the things I admire abut Tusi is that he doesn't shy away from asking the audience to become a participant in the film. But this for me for was really interesting, because this story is quite challenging to the ideas of masculinity and the question of women taking their share of power and finding their own strength. The fact that that is connecting across cultures is really inspiring to see."
Both she and Tamasese hope that it strikes a similar chord with Kiwi and Samoan audiences – premieres have been planned in Samoa (with leading man Petaia leading the way with the organising), Wellington and Auckland – before Thursday's general release.
"I hope viewers take away an understanding that there is a part of society that is disconnected, but that there is also hope," says Tamasese. "The strength of the human spirit to succeed over these situations is great and I just hope audiences come out of the movie and have a conversation about it."
One Thousand Ropes (M) opens in New Zealand cinemas on March 23.