Courtesy of fellow Aro Valley filmmaker Elric Kane, online now is the first film I directed, Three Nights, made in 1997…
[Sadly I've had to take this link down for the time being]
When we made it, I had this idea about making a long film about the end of a relationship, and I wanted to develop it with actors, using a lot of improvisation, and a minimal, long take approach. I’d met Colin Hodson in the Victoria University of Wellington film classes we were both taking – he’d recently come back from a period in New York where he’d been working with people like the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman, and I think he was open to something a little more engaged with something new than he was seeing in Wellington’s fairly conservative theatre scene of the time – let alone the even more reserved film scene. We’d talked about music more than anything, and he was into doing something improvised.
The actress Zoe had been in my then partner Diane McAllen’s experimental short Spirit Level (1996), so we knew her a bit, and she seemed interested then too – although not so much of an extremist in perspective, I think she liked the idea of working within improvisation as well.
So, part of my notion was to create a fictional failing relationship by workshopping and documenting different parts of how the relationship progressed. We had a couple of sessions at Zoe’s house in Newtown – the first time I just filmed them talking to each other, interacting as themselves, the second time, we decided to have a go at pulling together the way they “started out”, or “first got together”.
I really can’t remember if we’d written anything down at all about it, I think there was some plan discussed, but not too much of one. We shot the bedroom scene – there was some action before that, that I didn’t keep, but once it got to the scene that’s intact now, I knew that, firstly I should just keep rolling, and see how long it took Zoe and Colin to exhaust the possibilities… and then soon after, that these weren’t necessarily possibilities they were going to exhaust in a hurry, as long as they were free to respond in the ways they did.
So – this moment seems critical to my early practice now – the idea that the best way to get a good performance from an actor, was to allow them to be as close to a person as possible…
And the best way to do that was often to provide an environment where they could do that… and to trust the actor you chose to come up with a lot of the details of their character on their own. At this stage the easiest way to do that seemed to be to allow them to be as close to themselves as possible… And of all the films I made, Three Nights is probably the one that contains the least constructed performances – but they are still performances too, full of choices and variations, happening all the time – as always occurs in an improvised and open environment.
We all felt a bit excited after the night’s shoot – it felt like we were onto something! There was a student video awards at Vic coming up, so we decided to try and turn our night’s work into a short about the start of a relationship. After Diane and I did a paper edit, we went into Zoe’s partner Jake’s office and edited it from camera onto the S-VHS deck sitting there in about 2 or 3 hours. And, film made – I don’t think we spent much money at all on it, beyond an S-VHS tape for the master to complete on.
When we showed it at the student video things, it was pretty much ignored in favour of the usual hack-in-training dreck that works at such events… But hey we liked it, and as was the style of the times, showed it at the 1998 Fringe Film Fest [a phenomenon of the 90s, that used to be a serious place you could show and talk to people engaged in making films before it got ruined by middlebrow industry producers who hated to hide their scorn for people making work they couldn't understand and about which I can get really steamed up if you want to hear it]. We got a good evening slot, and a big crowd for our session… and here, people liked it! People laughed and responded, people liked the performances, the tone, the directness of it.
However one person who’d not found it a completely positive experience was actress Zoe. After seeing it, she decided she wasn’t up for doing a whole big film in this way… So we Diane, Colin and I regrouped, rethought, showed a few people this little short – one of them was Vic film lecturer/ historian Russell Campbell, who earlier that year had not let me into his Film Production course, which had been running at the same time as we were shooting. Russell later coined the notion of the Aro Valley group, and has been one of the main commentators on it.
In fact I insisted Russell let me show the film after class one day, and also watching was a filmmaker who had gotten into the course, Robyn Venables. She expressed a keenness for the film and in “working with Colin”, so she became our new lead actor… And remained an increasingly confident lead actor for the 3 first features I made, the second two as Nia Robyn. As she recalls:
“I freaking love this film. I remember the day I saw it. It was at the end of film crit class and it was the first day i really liked you CW. Before that you were that slightly annoying guy with the encyclopaedic knowledge of film that always dominated the class…”
Watching the film now… I notice a couple things I find interesting. One is the intrinsically New Zealand nature of these characters – All the films I’ve made have been about the way relationships function in NZ culture, and this is quite aggressively so… In ways that I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable about. I would then have feel very uncertain writing a character who says the things that Zoe does in the film about sexual politics, but they do seem very much in line with women I have known, and the way in which they are awkwardly articulated is even more so…
The other thing I notice is how aggressively unpolished it is! Obviously shot in one night, obviously artificial in structure, there is no effort to disguise the minimal nature of it, you can hear me snickering, hear the power cable banging on the floor, the reframings are rough as hell and not cut out, they’re wearing the same clothes for every night of it - But it partly works because of that – I’m in hindsight, really pleased to think this is the first film I made. It feels like all the attention was put into getting the right things right, and none whatsoever to anything else – and more, for the angry young “enfant terrible of NZ filmmaking” I started getting lazily tagged as later on – all the choices were the opposite of the ones people were making in the NZ films around us at the time, all so concerned with physical craft, process invisibility and script structure…