The little film that could
Max Currie grew up in Palmerston North, he went to Awatapu College and was a paperboy for the Manawatu Standard. Now he is making the news, rather than delivering it, with his debut feature film Everything We Loved set to open next week. Carly Thomas speaks to the writer/director about his film that is turning international heads.
One of the main actors in Max Currie's film Everything We Loved was paid in Lego, on a star-chart basis. Don't be appalled, he thought that was awesome. Ben Clarkson is 5, Lego is his currency and Lego Hero Factory robots are pretty cool.
Ben plays Tommy in Currie's first feature film, a psychological drama about a travelling magician who creates a beautiful but dangerous illusion to try to get his family back.
The film, written and directed by Palmerston North's Currie, will be making history next week. Currie's debut feature film will be New Zealand's first ever day-and-date release, meaning that the film will launch simultaneously across Auckland and Wellington film festival theatres and be available nationwide online.
Everything We Loved is on a fast track, halfway through its international festival season and already making an impact in Palm Springs, Transylvania and Munich.
However, the New Zealand release is the one Currie is most nervous about, the one that means the most.
"I'm excited that people from Palmerston North, all my old friends, will get to see it. There is a two degrees of separation thing in New Zealand and so many people have been involved. But, yeah, we're nervous."
The film is a risk that is a so-far-paying-off kind of scenario; Currie moved into his parents' shed to make the film, it took him two years, living off his savings and odd jobs during filming. He says it was tough. It still is.
"A project like this, where you're in it for the love - it knocks your life around big time. It makes you question what you want out of life, what you're prepared to give up to get it, what it means to be successful."
The idea for the film started in a moment of contemplation prompted by a conversation overheard at the gym.
"They're talking about an awful crime in the States, and this question comes into my head: what if the bad guy had recently lost his own little boy? And wow, I'm knocked out out by this juxtaposition of deep sympathy and horror. And that led me to wondering about Madeleine McCann - if she's alive, then she's being cared for and loved. And if that's the case - what are the people like who took her? And why? Those are fascinating, fertile questions."
It became a stream of consciousness that translated into the penning of a dark tale about why good people do bad things, unnerving in the questions that it presents, relatable in the answers that it reveals. The progressive thought pattern saw Currie take trampolining lessons, he practised levitation and learnt magic tricks. He played with Ben, spent a heap of time making bling-covered reward charts and he drove an electric piano over to lead actress Sia Trokenheim's house and set it up in her garage. This was to help Trokenheim, who plays Angela Shepherd, to learn to play Moonlight Sonata - which she does beautifully in the film.
Currie saw his pondering through to the final product. He went the extra mile and it shows; the film is recognisable, fragile and real.
"A big part of approaching this film was getting to know my actors and my DP [director of photography, Dave Garbett], their lives, their support people. Beers with Brett, cups of tea with Sia, meals with Dave cooked by his lovely wife, Lou. We all needed to trust each other."
Swedish-born, Trokenheim had just had her first baby, Terenzo, when they started shooting the film and she chose not to bring him to set. Currie says it was painful and brave of her to be filming so soon after giving birth.
"I'm convinced that one of the reasons Sia's performance is so mesmerising is because she was channelling those gut-wrenching emotions that come when a new mother is separated from her child. I admire her, she was incredibly generous."
Brett Stewart, who plays Charlie Shepherd, Angela's husband, had also become a first-time dad to son Louis about the same time. Currie says there was great support between the two new parents and it also informed their performance.
Trokenheim has gone on to star in TV2's Step Dave and she has previous credits in Sione's Wedding II, Shortland Street and This is Not My Life. Acting alongside her, Stewart stepped into his biggest role to date - and after six years out of the acting profession while he focused on his music.
Ben is a 5-year-old found in an Auckland hip-hop class whose wonderful imagination was what, Currie says, shone through. Everything We Loved was his first acting job.
"There wasn't a single tantrum. No tears. We made sure that the set was a fun place for him to be, he was the only one with his own trailer. He was amazing and he doesn't realise what he has achieved. I can't wait to see the guy he grows into. Ben's got no idea what a miracle he was for us."
Ben also has some chock-a-block sticker charts to his name and a fine Lego collection.
Having a 5-year-old on set for nearly every scene was a challenge and so was the budget. $250,000 is tiny in the grand scale of the film world, and was obtained through Escalator, a film-funding competition created by the New Zealand Film Commission. Currie says all the money went on screen, with plenty of goodwill and crew sleeping in cars during filming. Currie had to mould his film around the budget, which included a location that would not break it.
"When we stumbled on our location for the shepherd's farmhouse [in Kumeu], I got chills down my spine. Outside and in it felt like a place in mourning, where time had stood still. We didn't know it at first but the man living there, Jeff McCulloch, had lost his wife a year ago. So that grief in the unmowed lawns, the spider-webbed wind-chimes, the dusty shelves - that's real."
How did Currie go from a childhood spent in Palmerston North to this point? Where a conversation overheard has become a little, big film? One which sold out all of its screenings at The Palm Springs International Film Festival, where it was in competition as part of the New Voices, New Visions category for exciting new directing talents?
He went about it backwards, starting his screen career in 2001 in front of the camera as the openly gay host and director of New Zealand's ground-breaking gay, lesbian and transgender television show, Queer Nation. In 2003, he moved to New York where he worked as a barman while an intern at Film/Video Arts in SoHo and Bazmark on Broadway. It was during this time that he got out his pen and started working as a screenwriter for Palme d'Or-winning producer Bill Robinson (Gus Van Sant's Elephant). Writing for Shortland Street and the comedy-drama Step Dave followed..
Right beside him on the cusp of a New Zealand debut will be his producers Tom Hern and Luke Robinson, who also got here from the inside out. Hern started out as a TV actor and Robinson was a child actor at age 7, touring New Zealand with Bruce Mason (who was his grandfather). Fortunately for Currie, Hern eventually followed his calling to tell stories that he believed in and Robinson switched to the brass-tacks jobs of the film world as an assistant director, director, producer, editor and camera operator.
They are a close-knit crew who have made the most of a compelling story with very little funds.
Next week the red carpets will simultaneously be rolled out in Auckland and Wellington film festival cinemas for Everything We Loved It goes online on July 28 and live-streaming from the premiere will be available online.