Aftershocks run deep

00:55, Jun 28 2014
gaylene preston
ON LOCATION: Film-maker Gaylene Preston.

Hasn't Canterbury had enough drama already?

No-one owns an earthquake. But how soon is too soon to relive the tragedy of the Christchurch earthquakes on TV via a primetime drama series?

"The aftershocks run deep" is the tagline for Hope & Wire, a dramatised television mini series screening next week on TV3 which aims to tell the common stories of the Christchurch earthquakes.

Funded by New Zealand On Air's Platinum Fund to the tune of just over $5m, an amount which would typically accompany a feature film budget, the three two-hour episodes of Hope & Wire weave together news footage and dramatised recreations based on true stories following the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes between 2010 and 2011.

It's about our city but Cantabrians are not the target market for this story.

We know all too well of the havoc wreaked since the devastating earthquake tore our city apart at 12.51pm on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people.


Hope & Wire is intended as a way for the rest of the country to gain a deeper understanding of the Christchurch earthquakes, outside of news reports.

There's a psychological earthquake that follows the physical earthquake and it's the psychological earthquake that Wellington filmmaker Gaylene Preston wanted to explore with the series.

But some Cantabrians have been wary the series itself could create a psychological aftershock, with many people posting on social media of their distress having simply viewed the trailers for the TV3 series.

Preston, who was made an officer of the New Zealand order of merit in 2002 for her film work, chose to make a drama series, not a documentary, because she wanted to contribute without "racing around, pushing my camera into people's lives in the middle of a crisis".

"I felt much more at home observing, absorbing, and distilling the larger story that could be rendered into truthful human characters played by actors," she says. "I am one of the very few filmmakers in the world with experience in both dramatic feature film and documentary, but there is an assumption that somehow documentary is real and therefore truthful and drama is artifice and therefore not truthful. To me all filmmaking and story telling can be either."

Originally titled Faultlines, the series became Hope & Wire, named after a song by Lyttelton band The Eastern, when Preston met big bearded Adam McGrath in Wellington record store, Rough Peel Records, owned by Paul Huggins who moved to Wellington when his Christchurch store Real Groovy was destroyed by the quakes. Huggins released The Eastern's double album Hope & Wire.

The album was recorded by Ben Edwards on borrowed gear in a red-zoned home in Dallington in 2011, and through their music, The Eastern tell the collective stories of Christchurch and a resilient group of people battling to retain their dignity and pride while fighting the good fight.

"I am firmly flying my flag from the toughest, meanest four letter word of them all ... HOPE," McGrath has said of the song's origins. "The wire part? Well it rhymed with liar."

Preston says the title "holds the kaupapa" for the series and defined how she proceeded.

"From the dusty road still shaking outside the Lyttelton Library, where the Lyttel Stitches women encouraged people to join them making hearts that eventually went on the wire fences, the phrase 'hope and wire', was articulated by Adam McGrath and turned into a poem and a song. That embodies everything I believe in regarding community art: They were the very first practitioners of transitional architecture to my mind."

The Eastern Family - as the extended members of the band are known - also feature in the dramatised television series, something McGrath says he had to "trust" was the right move for a group of people which has always staunchly stood for truth and heart.

"There's a line between translation and exploitation, I believe the show does not cross it," McGraw says. "During the process we were living on trust, trust in Gaylene, the crew and everyone else who worked on it. I believe that trust has been rewarded. The show works hard to talk both with and for us not just as people from Christchurch but as people period."

He describes himself as being "defiantly cynical" when he met Preston for the first time to discuss The Eastern's involvement with the series.

"I wasn't cynical about her work, I think highly of her. She has captured New Zealand experiences in film, fiction and documentary over nearly 40 years of work in such a real and true way.

"The quakes were still pretty raw for a lot of us and the idea that someone from out of town would show up and want to turn it into a narrative? I thought, 'get the f... out of here'."

But he heard Preston out anyway.

"I thought about the work, Home by Christmas, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us and Bread and Roses, she's never sold out. Then I told her a few stories and took her around Christchurch a bit and I watched her talking to people, listening and observing."

Preston knew she was being closely watched.

"Adam is a big man with a heart to match, which may disguise just how thoughtful he is. Adam approached with care," Preston says. "His act of trust became far bigger when he allowed me to use Hope & Wire as the title. I hope the series will repay his generosity by bringing a larger audience to the band and the songwriter, but I know that wasn't what he took into account. I reckon he'd turn down an invitation to sing for the Queen of England if the principle didn't sit right with him."

Preston has her own earthquake story.

When she was 10 years old her family moved from Greymouth to Hawke's Bay and in the following year there was a big cluster of earthquakes.

"I have done several oral histories of Napier earthquake survivors. The really interesting and neglected story of Napier is the miracle of the rebuild."

Preston first "put pen to paper" for the series in December 2011, but the idea had already been forming for a year.

"I thought it would be a feature film. I can't begin writing until I know the beginning and the end, and have a rough idea of the whole. The act of writing is then a deeper exploration that in this case has been continuous for the last two and a half years from the page to the screen. With Hope & Wire the whole process was a writing process."

Preston and scriptwriter Dave Armstrong created story families from vastly different walks of life in order to tell a larger tale.

Preston says the three character families gave her the ability to not only look at the quake reaction across different social groups, but also different age groups, from young children and teenagers right through to the elderly.

"Drama allows us to tell a bigger story. The youngest character is four, the oldest is 90 and the characters span all ages in between," Preston says.

"Also the earthquakes are a very different experience for you if you have resources and influence, than if you don't; very different if you are mortgaged to the max or not; very different if you live in Bexley or Holmwood Rd. It's not the same earthquakes to everyone, and everyone reacts to shock differently. That's the larger story I wanted to tell."

Viewers follow the blows dealt to these characters by fate, faultlines, greed and bureaucracy as they struggle to come to terms with the "new normal".

The central story is inside the red zone where, in a dishevelled villa, Joycie (Rachel House) and Len (Bernard Hill) rent a property from small-time property developer Greggo (Joel Tobeck), a "glass half-full kind of guy".

Greggo is the sort of man who leaps out of bed, away from his lover, to drive naked through the streets to check on his properties after a quake.

After the February quake "munts" their kitchen, self-described couch- potatoes Joycie and Len move the couch into the backyard, cooking on a wonky barbecue, and begin to care for stray animals abandoned by their "quake- runner" owners.

They collect a few stray people too, including homeless boy Dwayne (Anton Tennet) and runaway teen Monee, played by Preston's daughter, Chelsie Preston- Crayford, who is hiding with her dog Unty from her abusive white power thug boyfriend King (Kip Chapman).

There is a lot of violence in Hope & Wire, not all of it dished out by the earthquakes.

When their landlord Greggo tries to use new emergency powers to evict them, Len hoists a Crusaders' jersey onto a stick as a flag and declares their backyard to be the Free State Of Muntville.

This central storyline was inspired by a photo essay in The Press by staff photographer Iain McGregor titled Camp Mother's Big Adventure, about a couple who were forced to live in their backyard but who made the best of the situation.

"Gaylene Preston approached me about it," McGregor says. "She told me that she wanted to pay homage to my photos.

"We had a coffee and she asked me if I wanted to appear in Hope & Wire. She wanted me to play a cameraman for the TV reporter who was pestering them. I found that offensive. By telling their story through my photographs, I was trying to help them, not pester them. I turned down Gaylene's invitation."

Preston says that the photo essay gave her the inspiration for the heart of the story, which revolves around caregiver Joycie and her soulmate Len.

"I met the photographer and took advice. The Free State of Muntville is my own construct inspired by the tendency of South Islanders to want to claim independence from the authorities in the north. The Muntville backyard is an amalgamation and distillation of what many people went through."

Hill is the standout star of the series, he is among Britain's most accomplished actors, working in film, television and theatre. His major film roles include King Theoden in Lord of the Rings, Captain EJ Smith in Titanic, Cole in The Bounty and Yosser Hughes in Boys From the Blackstuff.

He plays Len, who, having arrived in Lyttelton in 1976 and played his part as a union advocate, is now a bored welfare beneficiary who has found a late-life love with his darling Joycie, a caregiver. He's a lovable curmudgeon with opinions on everything, which he shares from the couch.

Preston met Hill while he was in New Zealand working on The Lord of the Rings.

"Bernard has a strong identification with New Zealand ever since he was in Roger Donaldson's The Bounty. He has a particular affinity with the South Island and when Christchurch suffered such a big disaster, he felt it keenly."

Other key characters revolve around a middle-class family who live in Merivale and a young family who live in Bexley.

In the "white middle-class" home of lawyer Jonty (Stephen Lovatt), wife Ginny (Luanne Gordon) and their two teenage children, the cracks are mostly in their relationships, not their dwelling or holiday home.

Ginny, a housewife and mother, who often wears pearls, discovers after the February earthquake that nothing she thought she knew about her life was real.

Over in Bexley, dope-smoking digger driver Ryan (Jarod Rawiri), is living in his ute parked outside his dream home with "gold taps" since his wife, his "teenage sweetheart" Donna (Miriama McDowell) fled with their two little girls after falling into deep liquefaction at their back door in the wake of the 7.1 jolt that started it all in September 2010.

As their neighbours gradually move out and Donna, too terrified by the "Christchurch taniwha" to return with her children moves on with life in Auckland, Ryan becomes the unofficial caretaker of Sunset Close, guarding properties from looters.

In this couple one reacts with "flight" and the other with "fight".

Ryan tries to fix what can't be fixed until he too becomes broken.

One of the series' most illuminating moments is a scene where Donna, well- dressed and walking down an Auckland street, and Ryan, dishevelled, covered in liquefaction and shivering in his ute, chat on the phone.

The juxtaposition of the imagery is savage and jarring. It is the epitome of the divide many Christchurch people have felt with the rest of the nation.

In the next scene in an Auckland office, a woman talks of how sick she is of seeing Christchurch on the news every night.

"I've got quake fatigue," she sighs.

Viewers are then shown images of Ryan's horrific daily battle to survive.

"When devastating footage is screened over and over it is really disturbing to the viewer," Preston says. "People feel helpless but then when they have done what they can, it remains distressing. One way to deal with that is to feel guilty and complain of earthquake fatigue. The big switch gets pulled. It's partly a result of the media having done a good job unfortunately. It's a phenomenon of the information age."

There's a theme about caring for one another that runs across the whole series.

Many familiar Christchurch faces are sprinkled throughout Hope & Wire. Christchurch actors and volunteers took on roles as extras with some given small speaking parts.

"Probably around 50 Christchurch- based actors worked with us," Preston explains. "Sadly, as Christchurch has no television drama infrastructure and the networks are all in Auckland, most actors who want to concentrate on screen acting, end up there - or Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles, London. Actors go where the work is. Several of our leads have strong Christchurch connections, like many on our crew."

Bill DeFriez at the Ilam School of Fine Arts film school facilities gave the team free access to the studio and facilities during the summer. They ran open auditions and found the teen stars of the series, including Lucy Wyma who plays Hayley.

The production team were based out in Templeton at Maddison Park for 17 weeks but other on-location shoots were done in the central city and Burwood. One person involved in the series says "tonnes of silt" was trucked all over Christchurch to replicate liquefaction for the drama.

Initially the shoot had been hoped to take just three weeks but it just became too difficult.

"Even before the earthquakes, Christchurch did not have any film facilities large enough to cater for a reasonable size drama production," Preston says. "Chris Hampson, who produced Hope and Wire with me, knew the local production limitations. These were 10 times worse after February 2011."

Does Preston consider Hope & Wire to be New Zealand's answer to Treme?

"No, they are very different. Hope & Wire is about the Canterbury earthquakes and aftermath and how the psychology of communal trauma and stress affects everyone differently."

Without meaning to pull out a liquefaction metaphor, McGraw says the series is more about people, "our humanity, our resilience and neediness" and how events can bring such things to the surface. "Our song Hope & Wire has now, for better or worse but hopefully better, been linked to this TV show," he says.

He was wary of the band being known as "that earthquake band".

"We said we wouldn't sing on top of a pile of rubble or anything like that," McGrath says. "We were firm about a lot of things. It was a big production and once they'd spent a whole day setting up for a scene and we arrived and we weren't prepared to do what they wanted and Gaylene just said 'OK'."

At a recent screening of the first two hours of the series at Hoyts Riccarton, 300 viewers stood and gave it a standing ovation. "I think this story is valid, it resonates with me," McGrath says. "I believe that work such as this can communicate far and wide, like good songs or books or in this case drama. I took her by her word that she would do her best to honour this story. I think she has. We believed this was worth adding our voice to."

Preston has a personal connection to the Christchurch earthquakes.

Graeme Tetley, her writing partner for most of her career, died in 2011. He survived being in Lyttelton during the February 22 earthquake but died of a heart attack a few weeks later. "He's one of many who don't show up in the quake statistics."

Tetley, to whom the series is dedicated, is responsible for one line from the lovable Len in Hope & Wire.

Perched upon his couch, Len looks the camera in the eye and says: "If you want to know where the earthquake was, it was right under my pink bum".

Hope & Wire screens at 8.30pm on Thursday on TV3. It is the first of three two-hour episodes. As the series screens, TV3 will show short videos showing the making of the series on its website.

The Press