The Changeover: How post-earthquake Christchurch's spirit was channelled into a YA classic
Monday night will mark the realisation of a long-held dream for Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie.
The Kiwi film-makers will join a packed house at Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal for the world premiere of their adaptation of Margaret Mahy's beloved and award-winning 1984 young adult novel The Changeover. It's the story of sixteen-year-old Laura Chant (Erana James) who has to save her little brother from the clutches of a malevolent spirit, played with relish by Timothy Spall.
McKenzie, who was brought up in the Garden City suburb of Bishopdale where the novel was originally set (although it was renamed Gardendale) and met Harcourt at the University of Canterbury, thought they'd lost the chance a few years ago when they discovered a Hollywood company already had the rights to adapt the novel. Although he never read the script, McKenzie says reports in entertainment magazines made it sound "more like Something Wicked This Way Comes, whereas we have set it around Laura".
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Fortunately for McKenzie and Harcourt, that production fell through and they snapped up the chance, with the prior blessing of author Mahy ("she was keen that we made it, she knew our work," says McKenzie), to move their project forward, finally beginning shooting in Christchurch around this time last year.
During a Stuff set visit to one of the film's Red Zone locations in September 2016, Harcourt said they originally planned to shoot interiors in Wellington, but visiting Christchurch changed their mind.
"We came here and realised you can't fake Christchurch and it has a spirit all its own and this is where the story began and where it has to be filmed."
Obtained with the help of Laing Homes and the Christchurch City Council, the Chant's wooden home in Wattle Drive was an evocative place, even if it was a tight squeeze for cast and crew. Co-directors Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie were squashed into one bedroom, while the action takes place next door or in the lounge.
Producer Emma Slade said trying to find the perfect house was "quite challenging".
"With so many houses gone, it was harder to find something than we expected. Many we looked at were too old and others were too new."
And once they eventually found something they had to get permission from the government for it to become the first house brought back into a "red-zone".
An effusive Harcourt said even the one they eventually selected required clever disguising by their production design team because of its brand new roof. "It was great on the inside because it's pretty s…. but we had to kind of break down the outside by putting a tarp and tyres on the roof."
To add to the lived-in feel, the production team also created a weathered, slightly overgrown driveway.
It was all part of the directors' plan to take the story "absolutely seriously", said McKenzie.
"Mahy's themes are deep and dark and we're not trying to domesticate her, or package her in a quirky kind of way."
Likewise, while The Changeover shared Sam Pillsbury's 1982 adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's The Scarecrow's sensibilities, the directing duo's cinematic references were far more contemporary and orientated towards today's teens. "There's nothing here that's ironic or nostalgic," said McKenzie, adding that post-earthquake Christchurch added much atmosphere to the story. "The mood of the place now has swept into the story. Being out here [in the red zone] is kind of spooky and slightly disturbing, although we also don't want to play that up too much. We didn't want it to be a film about an earthquake. It's a film about a young girl who has to change over and become a witch to save her little brother."
For her own part, Harcourt believed they were really lucky to be able to explore the city and showcase "all the different and really great aspects of Christchurch".
She said a major challenge in adapting the more than 30-year-old story was keeping a sense of contemporaneity. "Weirdly there's also a fairytale sequence in the book where Margaret talks about hearing earthquakes in the distance. That really haunted me when I read that after the earthquakes."
Also on set that day was acclaimed Kiwi actress Melanie Lynskey, back for a whirlwind visit to the city that helped make her name (via 1994's Heavenly Creatures). She plays Laura's mum Kate.
The Taranaki-born star said it was "very sort of heartbreaking to see the sort of devastation that's been happening from the earthquakes".
"However, there's also something very extraordinary about how people are rebuilding and the vibrancy and vitality that people have. There are so many great food places and little stores. Just to see people's energy has been really incredible. There's a different life to Christchurch that I have not felt in the past."
Fellow cast member Spall was also taken by his time in Christchurch. Speaking to Stuff back in June, he said he enjoyed the "beautiful Maori welcome" the cast and crew received at the Christchurch City Council and a last day visit to the Art Gallery. He also stumbled across a plaque to Mahy while out on a walk. "I picked up a couple of stones and kissed them and then tucked them away so they couldn't be moved.
"She seemed like a remarkable character and it's a fantastic book. We've done obviously a very modern version of it, given it a more 'peculiar quality' and my character [Carmody] Braque a more sinister quality. It perhaps more of a psychological thing, but it is still a story about a girl discovering herself."
The Changeover (M) will have its world premiere at Christchurch's Isaac Theatre Royal on September 25. The film opens nationwide on September 28.