Monday, April 8, 2013

Interview: Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor.

HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, the debut film by Miriam Smith and Christopher Pryor, was one of the more unexpected breakout hits of last year's NZFF. The story of three nuns remaining in a 120-year old convent in Jerusalem (New Zealand) - also known as Hiruharama - and the Maori youth whose lives they touch is beautifully and quietly observed, full of humor and honesty, acknowledging the challenges the children face without being a "social issue" documentary. Despite its many virtues, its slow pace and lack of a propulsive narrative made it seem an unlikely bet to play in theatres across New Zealand for months on end; however, bucking the odds through self-distribution, it did exactly that.

On the 10th of April (THIS WEDNESDAY, just sayin'), Rialto Cinemas Newmarket is hosting a special screening at 6:30 PM of HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, with Smith and Pryor present for a Q&A. The occasion is to promote the crowdsourcing initiative for their new film, THE GROUND WE WON, which is currently in production. Entry will be via donation, with all proceeds going to the new film - or you can contribute online here.

This seemed as good an excuse as any to do our first interview, conducted via email to their as-of-yet undisclosed secret shooting location. Even the interview turned out to reify their status as a team: while my contact was Pryor, the answers appear to all come from Smith, or at least sometimes are written from her point of view, except the last question, which I'm reasonably sure was answered by Pryor.

Most documentaries in New Zealand that play at the festival never step past its boundaries, but HOW FAR IS HEAVEN has had a rather successful run all around the country. Could you speak to your experience self-distributing the film and what you learned from it?
We actually loved the experience of self-distributing the film. It’s hard work, but allows filmmakers the opportunity to build relationships directly with cinemas and also to experience the full life cycle of a film - from making a film to connecting to cinema audiences. We did a lot of direct marketing - such as sending letters to community groups who we felt might be interested etc. We also did an extensive tour of the country to do ‘Q&A’ screenings, which was a wonderful way to meet the film’s audience, create a screening event that helped to build publicity, and also allowed us to do lots of flyer drops etc all around the country! We also worked with Trigger Marketing for the film’s publicity who did a fantastic job. Self-distributing the film really highlights the importance of needing to know who your audience is and how to reach them - something to think about from the conception of an idea.

What's been your biggest surprise in audience reactions to the film?
The biggest surprise with HOW FAR IS HEAVEN was that audiences nationwide were open to the film having a complex narrative structure, and one that raised questions, rather than gave concrete answers. We were really happy to learn that they enjoyed the complexities, the gentle contemplative pace, and that this not only held their attention throughout, but also often stirred them to think about the film for days.

Presumably, while handling the release, you've also been setting up your new film, THE GROUND WE WON, which I understand you're already shooting. How have you managed to get another project off the ground so quickly?
We have actually been developing up THE GROUND WE WON for the last few years, so began the process before we had even completed HOW FAR IS HEAVEN. In fact, we found the location/community where we are now filming on the way back down for a filming trip to Jerusalem/Hiruharama. Chris had long had the idea to make a cinema film that explored the culture of a rural rugby club/team in NZ, so we had been looking for the right place for ages, and thanks to his eternal desire to travel different back roads, we finally found the perfect place! Thankfully, the good people from the rugby club were up for it, when we had our first meeting with the team about the idea in 2011 one of the guys said “we always thought there should be a film about us”. And so it all began...

The Ground We Won - on Boosted from Deer Heart Films on Vimeo.

From a distance, as an immigrant to this country, rugby seems a strange left turn of subject matter after HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, albeit more obviously commercial. What drew you to the subject matter, and what affinities do you feel between these two films that may not seem obvious from a distance?
Chris and I are both rugby outsiders - and yet we, like all New Zealanders, have grown up in a culture that is so steeped in the “love of the game” that rugby feels almost omnipresent. We wanted to learn why rugby is so deeply important to the lives of so many people here, and explore the world in a cultural light. Surprisingly, the world of rugby hasn’t been explored in a cultural sense since the landmark play FORESKIN’S LAMENT, over 30 years ago - so we felt it was high time for a contemporary exploration - this time being an observational documentary for the big screen. I guess the link to HOW FAR IS HEAVEN is that we see rugby as defining the core set of values for NZ - in this way it is essentially our nation's biggest religion, or unifying philosophy, that shapes and defines many people’s lives. So we have set out to explore this ritual of rugby, in a philosophical light, and through this come to understand ideas around the perceived role of a man in NZ today. We are also doing a lot of filming with the men from the team on their farms - so are weaving their daily lives into the fabric of the story. Like HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, THE GROUND WE WON will be mainly observational - as opposed to being built out of interviews, facts and figures. We have Sir Colin Meads on board the film as the narrator - who will add another layer of philosophical insight, as opposed to “telling the story”. We have been filming for over a month now and are loving the process - there is a bounty of great bawdy jokes and laughter here.

As a filmmaking team, how do you divide your responsibilities?
For THE GROUND WE WON, Chris is director/cinematographer, and I am producer/writer. In terms of shooting, Chris films everything, and I operate the sound boom. Outside of actual filming and logging the footage, our time is spent getting to know the local community and world better. We are eternally discussing story and ideas of what we should film as things evolve, so that we can continually respond to what is happening and try to “get it in the can” in a way that is most interesting.

The impetus for the upcoming screening of HOW FAR IS HEAVEN is to raise money for THE GROUND WE WON, using the new Arts Foundation crowd-funding initiative, Boosted. Can you speak to how you came to use crowd-sourcing as part of your strategy for getting this film off the ground, and what makes Boosted different from other platforms?
We liked the idea of using crowd-funding to raise some of the funding for the film as it seems to us a great opportunity to connect to the film’s audience from the outset. We chose Boosted as we love that it is supported by the Arts Foundation, and encourages genuinely philanthropic support, whereby the artists/projects don’t have to give “rewards” in return for donations. The reward is the finished work and the feeling that each donor has helped to make it happen! We feel this is an important shift in crowd-funding thinking, for as we all know, artists/filmmakers resources are limited enough without having to administrate and pay for “rewards”. Also, with Boosted, because no rewards are given, the donor is entitled to a tax rebate - which we feel is another great plus for the donor.

Given the commercial success of HOW FAR IS HEAVEN and the seemingly more commercial subject matter for this film, it seems strange that the Film Commission isn't fully supporting this. Or is there something I'm missing?
The NZ Film Commission are supporting THE GROUND WE WON and have generously granted the film both development and production funding. The reason that we are also crowd-funding for contributions to post-production, is that the NZFC have a policy whereby they can’t give 100% funding to any production - therefore, we committed from the outset to finding additional funds from elsewhere.

What filmmakers/films, or other works of art, are you currently drawing inspiration from as you work on your film?
One of the early inspirations was listening to PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake' album... I'm currently reading 'The Classical World' by Robin Lane Fox (ie greek/roman myth/history)... and it's very hard not to think of Bela Tarr on these foggy rural mornings ...

No comments:

Post a Comment