Quake series causes controversy

Film-maker defends quake drama

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 16:18 29/06/2014
Gaylene Preston
Fairfax NZ
Gaylene Preston cast her daughter, Chelsea Preston-Gayford, as a teenage runaway in the show.

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They said it of Robert Sarkies' film, Out of the Blue, which dramatised the story of the Aramoana Massacre. They said it of Peter Sharp's mini-series Erebus: The Aftermath.

Too soon, they said.

Film-maker Gaylene Preston's new television mini-series, Hope & Wire, set during and after the Christchurch earthquakes, is the latest dramatic interpretation of a tumultuous event in New Zealand's history. Funded $5 million by NZ on Air, the first of the three two-hour long episodes will screen on July 3.

So is it too soon for a fictional retelling of the devastating earthquake that tore the city apart on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people?

The director is the first to admit that for some Cantabrians, it will be too difficult to watch.

"Some of them don't want to see Hope & Wire or they do and they don't. They say ‘I've put this in a place in my head and I'm getting on with my life, is this going to disturb me?' and that's a question I can't answer," Preston says.

"I didn't make it for people in Christchurch, because they know what it's like. I made it for the rest of the country to have a way of knowing about it that's different to what has been going on in the news, that's different to what John Campbell can show you.

"As a film-maker I think images are very powerful and I understand why it's necessary to get these images out there to the world but they traumatise us in our sitting room and I think a television drama has a way of putting those images in context."

But Hope & Wire, Preston is quick to add, is not meant to be a rehash of the earthquakes. And it's most certainly not a disaster movie.

After the first earthquake, in September 2010, Preston was approached by film industry insiders asking if she wanted to go down to Christchurch and get some footage for a documentary.

Preston, who was made an officer of the New Zealand order of merit in 2002 for her work in film, has worked on both documentaries and feature films. Among these is film documentary War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, TV documentary Earthquake , first-hand accounts of the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake, and feature film Home By Christmas.

But she didn't feel it was the right time, or necessarily the right medium. The quakes were later the subject of a documentary by Cantabrian Gerard Smyth,When a City Falls.

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Preston was also coming to terms with the death of her good friend, screenwriter Graeme Tetley, who was in Lyttleton during the February earthquake and died from a heart attack soon after. While the quake was not directly responsible for his death, she feels the shock and heartbreak caused by all the devastation contributed.

Soon, the idea for a mini-series crystallised. Preston felt she and scriptwriter Dave Armstrong could tell the story of Christchurch in a different way - by creating characters who could show an audience the human side of life during the quakes.

Preston knew it would be a complicated project.

"We're not really in the habit in New Zealand of making realistic television drama, unless it's a cop show. Our television drama hasn't tended to be specific," she says.

"Maybe it's because we're such a small country and everybody knows everybody and therefore you're going to get hurt because the characters are too close to people you know."

NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson said the state funding body had identified post-earthquake Christchurch as a good setting for a drama but were wary of how it would be treated.

"Gaylene is one of the best film-makers in the country and we knew, for such a difficult story, there would be very few people we could trust to do it sensitively and effectively.

"It's a very high risk project, there's no question about that and Gaylene brought that risk down to measurable proportions for us. It all depends on the storytelling, not the fact that it's being told."

There was still nervousness around the public's reception to it, similar to that around other projects such as Robert Sarkies Out of the Blue and Erebus: The Aftermath - which were both received extremely well, Wrightson says.

"In some ways it's less invasive than a documentary because you're not putting a microphone in front of somebody and saying ‘How do you feel?' and it can be more captivating because it's a performed work."

Hope & Wire follows a handful of main characters from different parts of the city before and after the quakes. There's Len, played by Bernard Hill (King Theodon in Lord of the Rings), a former union advocate and bored welfare beneficiary who comes into his own organising the neighbourhood post-quake. There's Ginny (Luanne Gordon from The Strip,) an upper middle-class woman who finds her life isn't what it seems.

"It's actually a drama about smaller things, in a big context. It's actually like ‘how do you get a glass of water? How do you make a cup of tea? How do you stop your house being burgled and burnt if you have no neighbours?" Preston says.

"Trauma and shock is not the same for anyone and it can take a lot of time to settle down and hit people at different times."

Gaylene's daughter, Chelsie Preston Crayford, both acts - as teenage runaway, Monee - and works as a drama coach on the show. In 2012, Preston Crayford won a prestigious Logie Award for most outstanding new talent for her role in Underbelly: Razor.

The pair worked together on Home by Christmas, and Preston says having her daughter on set was a huge help.

" It was a godsend, it's like I'm in two places at once."

Preston Crayford agrees.

"Because of our relationship I was able to break quite a lot of rules . . . it wouldn't necessarily be OK in terms of hierarchy for the drama coach to ring the director and make suggestions.

"I'd be like ‘This is s..., you've got to do this', and sometimes she would say, ‘Yeah, that's right,' and sometimes she would say ‘F... off."

The women laugh.

"I think the basis of our relationship is an ongoing argument," Preston says.

When filming wrapped up in April last year, co-producer Chris Hampson told The Press it had been exhausting.

"But as Cantabrians know only too well, it takes a little bit longer to do everything. Everything you do is more difficult than you are used to."

At a special viewing for Christchurch residents involved in the series last week, it received a standing ovation. Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel was in the crowd.

"There is still a lot of trauma in the city but I thought it dealt with an incredibly complex series of issues in a very real way. It didn't glorify anything and it didn't exaggerate anything either," she says. "There's still quite a mixed mood around the city. There are literally people who can't move on. This series has the potential to tell a much deeper story than just the story of the Christchurch earthquake and that is the role of drama isn't it? It should challenge us to think." Hope and Wire airs on TV3 on July 3 at 8.30pm.

- Sunday Star Times

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