Once upon a time in Otago
Charlie Gates checks out the premiere of the world's first 'pavlova western' and finds it is anything but Good for Nothing.
The foyer of the Embassy Theatre in Wellington is heaving with people. The men are wearing tuxedos, some wear cowboy hats. The women are in ballgowns.
By the bar is Oscar-winner and Flight of the Conchordian Brett McKenzie. Gollum actor Andy Serkis is here too, along with Hobbit cast mates Martin Freeman and Sylvester McCoy.
Wellywood has come out to play for the premiere of an unusual film.
Once the audience has assembled in the cinema auditorium, the film's female lead and co-producer, Inge Rademeyer, steps up to a microphone.
In a white gown, she begins to talk about the six-year journey that has led to this star-studded premiere. She looks to her fiance, director and co-producer Mike Wallis, and the emotion of the moment overcomes her. "Thank you for being my team-mate and sharing this adventure with me. I would do it again in a heartbeat," she says. Then the lights dim, the red velvet curtain opens and the film the couple created as a long labour of love begins to play.
Over those six years, the couple produced the world's first "pavlova western", which found international acclaim from legendary critics such as Leonard Maltin, appeared in the pages of Hollywood bible Variety and became one of the first self-funded feature films to get theatrical distribution in the United States. The Wellington premiere last month was the film's emotional homecoming ahead of the nationwide release this week.
The "pavlova western" is called Good for Nothing but is anything but. Just as Italy put its own spin on the old Hollywood standard with the "spaghetti westerns" of the 1960s and 70s, this is New Zealand's take on the timeless genre. Otago and the Mackenzie Country in the South Island were used as stand-ins for the Old West.
The film began its journey in Wallis' childhood imagination. He grew up in Dunedin, holidaying in Otago and the Mackenzie Country. He always felt the sun-bleached plains and canyons would make a great location for a western movie.
Six years ago, that dream started to take shape. Wallis and Rademeyer were both working at Weta Digital, on films including The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, but started to prepare for their own film in their spare time. Every Christmas for about three years, the couple would location scout in central Otago for western landscapes.
The film was shot in the Bendigo goldfields, Cromwell and on the Kingston Flyer steam train in Central Otago and Mackenzie Country in 2008.
They produced the film together with Wallis directing and Rademeyer cast as the female lead.
The couple kept the budget tight with a small crew, a homemade camera boom and a special trailer packed with everything they needed to make the film. "We were going to buy a house, but instead we made a movie," Wallis says.
Oscar-winning film editor Jamie Selkirk came on board in the later stages as an executive producer to help fund the film's post-production.
When it was finally ready to show to the world, Good for Nothing was sent to the world's film festivals for consideration and was accepted by the prestigious Santa Barbara Film Festival. It was there, in January last year, that the film caught the eye of US film critic Leonard Maltin, who described it as a "lively and original movie".
Maltin wrote: "I wish them every success with their cheerfully eccentric western and hope it finds the audience it deserves here in the States."
It sparked an avalanche of good reviews from prestigious titles: The Hollywood Reporter said the film was a "Kiwi spaghetti western filtered through the offbeat sensibilities of early Sam Raimi or the Coen brothers"; Variety said the film was "laugh-out-loud funny" and had a "winning balance of humour and pluck"; The Village Voice in New York said the film had a "nice comic sense of the brushfire eruptions of western violence"; The New York Times praised Christchurch cinematographer Matthew Knight and said the film "portends a promising frontier for Mr Wallis". These positive reviews eventually led to a US distribution deal, making Good for Nothing one of the first self-funded New Zealand feature films to be theatrically distributed in the US.
Rademeyer and Wallis went to New York to host the US premiere. They danced around their hotel room together after reading the Variety review.
The US release caught the interest of New Zealand distributors. It's a homecoming for a dazzling film that deserves to find a popular audience on its home turf.
If the New Zealand premiere is anything to go by, the film should meet with every success. As the credits started to roll, the audience got to its feet, giving the film and its producers a standing ovation. It was a fitting climax to a very Kiwi adventure and a labour of love.
GOOD FOR NOTHING (R13), directed by Mike Wallis
Reviewed by Charlie Gates
Good for Nothing is an exciting, funny and distinctly Kiwi take on the western. It has a healthy irreverence for the traditions of the genre, absurd humour and breathtaking South Island landscapes as a backdrop.
It proves the western is a genre that keeps on giving as each generation brings fresh ideas. But these new ideas can come from the most surprising places. Good for Nothing is a "pavlova western" shot on a shoestring budget by a Dunedin director, with Otago standing in for the sun-parched landscapes of the Old West.
It works. The plains, canyons and mountains of Otago are just as striking as the Spanish and Italian landscapes used in Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" of the 1960s and 70s. Watching cowboys roam in Grahame Sydney country is a real thrill. Our anti-hero is a nameless outlaw (Cohen Holloway) who kidnaps a young English woman (Inge Rademeyer) and must stay ahead of the posse sent to hunt them both down.
But the outlaw's motivation is not the usual quest for gold or revenge. Instead, he needs medical help for a certain dysfunction so he can have his wicked way with the hostage.
This surprising motivation is the first of many gleeful subversions of the western's conventions and iconography.
Scenes never go as expected as the western conventions become mired in incompetence and human frailty.
The film is also surprisingly funny, but has enough heart to ensure it is respectful to the genre, and never slips into parody.
The strong acting and driven plot are rounded out with solid cinematography by Christchurch's own Matthew Knight, fantastic sound design and a rousing, standout score from composer John Psathas.
Director Mike Wallis's debut film is confident, funny and entertaining.
It is also a labour of love. Wallis and his fiancee, co-producer and female lead Rademeyer, self-funded the shoot over six years.
It deserves your support and the epic western landscapes and score demand it is seen on the big screen.