Filmmaker Gaylene Preston talks to Elisabeth Easther about Helen Clark, the United Nations’ corridors of power – and just being stuck in the corridor.
Over the course of her impressive career, Gaylene Preston, 70, has made short films, feature films, commercials and television – moving effortlessly between drama and documentaries.
Her works have screened locally and around the world, and, as a result, her metaphorical mantelpiece groans beneath the weight of awards. In 2001, she was the first filmmaker to win an Arts Foundation Laureate Award; in 2002 she was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit; last year the Screen Production and Development Association honoured her as an Industry Champion for her “significant lifetime commitment to film and television”.
Many of her films are concerned on some level with justice in society; they also tend to have a strong female focus, from the Sonja Davies biopic Bread & Roses to the
touching War Stories our Mothers Never Told Us.
Preston’s latest film, My Year with Helen (in cinemas August 31), is a revealing account of Helen Clark’s work with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and also a riveting behind-thescenes look at the selection process for the UN’S secretary-general. Featuring global themes, this film is also an intimate look at one of the most influential New Zealanders of all time.
NORTH & SOUTH: Looking at your films, it’s clear you possess a strong social conscience. How did that evolve?
My parents both left school at 13. My mother grew up [in Greymouth], the eldest of five, in a house with a boat beneath it, so when the swamp rose and the water came up they could get out. Those things are just a generation from me, yet I’m one of thousands of privileged people who grew up fully resourced. Free healthcare saved my life a couple of times before I was seven. I was educated for free to tertiary level. I’m part of a lucky generation.
N&S: What were your ambitions when you were younger?
GP: In those days, if you were a girl, it was assumed you’d get married and have children. So in some ways, tertiary education was considered wasted on girls. But when I was about 11, I announced I wanted to be a doctor, and my mother’s response was to take me to our family GP. She said to him, “She wants to be a doctor” and I remember him looking at Mum, as if to ask, “Is this a problem?” She said, “We can’t afford it, and she’ll only get married.” Dr Russell knew me to be an arty girl, and he asked: “Gay, how’s your maths?” I said, “Terrible.” And he said, “You need maths to be a doctor.” I thought, okay, my other options were nurse or teacher, so I decided to be an art teacher.
N&S: How did your fabulous free education prepare you for that?
GP: When I was 10, we moved from Greymouth to Hawke’s Bay, where I was lucky to go to Colenso College. My parents didn’t really want me to do that fifth year at high school, so our front room filled with teachers, sometimes one at a time, sometimes together, to negotiate how I could stay on. My teachers were amazing.
N&S: How did that set you on a path to filmmaking?
GP: Thanks to my wonderful art teacher, I went to the Canterbury School of Fine Arts, where I had a running argument about modernism, narrative and storytelling with the powers that be. When I left art school, I didn’t actually graduate. Soon after, I went to Cambridge and found a job in the library at Fulbourn Hospital, a 900-bed mental health institution. As the assistant librarian, the role of directing the Christmas pantomime – featuring patients and staff – fell upon my slender shoulders and it was there, over three years, that I started to develop my interest in drama therapy, which included making an 8mm film. From there, I was hooked.
N&S: When did you start actually calling yourself a filmmaker?
GP: Returning to New Zealand in the 1970s, I was offered a job at Pacific Films, but it wasn’t till I got the sack that I really became a filmmaker. I made an independent doco with [cinematographer] Waka Attewell about a young man with cerebral palsy climbing Mt Ruapehu with Graeme Dingle. After it did well here and overseas, I thought, great, I must be a filmmaker.
N&S: What was the seed for My Year with Helen?
GP: I’d just made Hope and Wire about the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes and I was feeling a bit depressed about the state of the world. I didn’t think Helen Clark would have renewed her contract with the UNDP if she didn’t feel she was making a difference, so I got in touch and asked if I could follow her with cameras.
N&S: What’s the UN like? It’s such a big character in the film.
GP: I was a UN virgin. If I’d done any research, I’d have known it wasn’t going to be easy. Have you ever been to the UN as a journalist? You can’t just arrive and shoot and, once you’re in there, you can’t go anywhere without a minder. The media have got just two little corridors where they’re allowed to be – print in one spot, video in another. As a doco, we wanted to look over at the other media, but there was no way. Even when they got to know us, we still couldn’t move out of our area – not even three paces to the left.
N&S: Was making the film ever so difficult you thought you couldn’t complete it?
GP: There were a couple of times, and it wasn’t because I couldn’t get access to Helen. She gave me complete creative control, which was very generous. The UNDP was fine with us filming there, but once we were across the road for the secretary-general debates, it became really hard. No quarter is given in that system. So we’d shoot for two or three weeks and sometimes it’d be slim pickings – but there’s a point of no return and once that point is reached you just carry on. We did get enough to tell this story, just by going back and back and getting lucky. N&S: You didn’t know the secretary-general bid was going to happen when you began… And to think there’s never been a woman in that top role.
GP: We talk about the old boys’ network, and that notion really colours My Year with Helen. You look at the UN, nine male secretaries-general, eight who preceded [António] Guterres. None have been terrific. But as soon as there’s a woman candidate, the bar is raised and people expect her to be a combination of St Teresa and William the Conqueror.
N&S: To see the layers of Helen Clark’s life – the high-powered leader of the UNDP, the giddy social media enthusiast, not to mention the devoted daughter…
GP: Helen is extraordinary, and you kind of take it for granted because she’s our Auntie Helen, but she was the top-ranking woman at the UN and the second top-ranking official. I’ll be very interested to see what she does next.
N&S: And what about you? What’s next for Gaylene Preston, filmmaker?
GP: My daughter Chelsie says I’m terrible to live with if I don’t have a film. And I have come out of this one feeling really energised. The outrage is still burning, which means there’s definitely another film in there. +
Asked in a recent interview if he ever thought about his legacy, Randy Newman said, “If my obituary doesn’t start with something like ‘Newman broke a hip in January’, it’ll start with ‘the composer of “Short People”’. That’s the way it goes.”
Newman, who has ploughed a unique path on dazzling, witty and often biting albums, while simultaneously composing mainstream, Oscar-winning soundtracks for movies like Toy Story, sees the joke: his worst song, “Short People” – which he sums up in one word, “crappy” – is also by far his biggest hit.
So, here’s some great news for Newman’s fans who love his music beyond that 1977 single. (From his Little Criminals album, “Short People” is so cheesy and nasty it’s actually hard to resist finding it a guilty pleasure.) He has a new, original album out called Dark Matter and it’s terrific.
Newman has always ranged from the heartfelt to humour that can be so sharp-edged it’d make a misanthrope flinch – but can also be just straight-out funny.
So it is with Dark Matter. In “Putin”, which is about who you think it is, it’s hard not to crack a smile when Newman sings, “He can power a nuclear reactor/ with the left side of his brain/and when he takes his shirt off/ he drives the ladies crazy/ When he takes his shirt off/makes me wanna be a lady.”
Humour is something few other songwriters attempt in popular music. In a BBC programme this year, Newman said his penchant began when he was growing up, as a way of placating a father with a fearsome temper. Young Randy learned that making his dad laugh would calm the household.
The funny songs, he has said, are the hardest to write. “You need a joke at the start, another in the middle, and then you have to have a funny finish.” They’re also his favourites. But he thinks his fan base, which has grown from tiny beginnings in 1968 to selling out the Royal Festival Hall in London in a flash, probably prefers his straight ballads. (He has a song on Donald Trump virtually written, but says the lyrics need more work. The chorus at the moment is, “He’s a dick.”)
Lovers of either Newman genre will be well served by Dark Matter. The album opens with “The Great Debate”, where Newman takes on not one persona, as he often does, but a cast big enough to stage a musical comedy, including “an astronaut, doctor, a lumberjack and a life coach and, on the other side, the true believers”. He’s never written long songs before, but “The Great Debate” runs over eight brilliantly skewed minutes, addressing everything from, yes, dark matter to evolution; to whether Newman himself is a straw man who “doesn’t believe anything he has to say”.
The other eight tracks are more orthodox, or at least orthodox in the Newman universe. The late Sonny Boy Williamson, who died in 1948, laments still being the only bluesman in heaven, in “Sonny Boy”, while US president John F. Kennedy reveals to brother Bobby his feelings and concerns for Cuban salsa singer Celia
Cruz, in “Brothers”.
Musically, as always with Newman, the palette is wide ranging. There’s a big hint of Broadway. He cheerfully acknowledges he’s always been out of step with current musical taste. Consider his very first, selftitled album, from 1968. “It’s like I’d never heard the Rolling Stones,” he told New York magazine’s David Marchese. But he can also throw in his favourite musical style, gospel – although he’s a non-believer.
The contradictions are part of what makes Newman’s music so captivating. It’s a pleasure to report that Dark Matter finds him on top of his game. M eanwhile, Ray Davies, late of the Kinks and another musician unafraid of the acidic, has produced the best of his solo albums with Americana. It’s a reflection as much on his dreams of the States, as an introverted kid growing up in London, as it is on his adult experiences living in the US for much of the past two decades.
Davies was the first rock star I ever interviewed, in 1965. In Auckland with the Kinks, he asked if the latest, appalling Elvis Presley movie Kissin’ Cousins was screening. “I’d like to sneak out and see it,” he said.
I thought he was being cynical. Now, I’m not so sure. He could be lyrically sharp-tongued right from the early days of the Kinks, but there’s also been a tiny hint of the naïf in his music, an apparently genuine, nostalgic sweetness.
In his new album’s title track, for example, he sings of himself and his brother going to the movies, and longs for the days when “in my schoolboy world/i always get the girl/ on that great silver screen”.
It’s the switches from the lonely ache of that track and the heartfelt “Message from the Road” to the sly cynicism of “The Deal”, which skewers Los Angeles’ hustlers, that makes the album work so well.
And talking of social observers, there’s Lorde, a young woman of such startling intelligence her recent essay about the “difficult second album” was as beautifully crafted as anything I’ve ever read about music or fame.
“My idols wanted to talk to me, or more to peel back my neck skin and drink me alive,” she wrote. Has there ever been a more brilliant or succinct critique of what happens when someone’s suddenly the red-hot flavour of the moment?
That second album, Melodrama, has scarcely left the CD player in my car (old-fashioned, I know) since it was released in June, largely because my six-yearold grandson, Cooper, loves it. “Don’t play your music,” he gently scolded me. “I like pop music.”
And now, as I think anyone drawn to an album that has great lyrical skills and depth would, I love it too. Aeons have passed since romantic teenage angst was a part of my life, but hearing those emotions expressed with such raw power by someone such as Lorde, who’s apparently only just lived them, has a fascination regardless of age.
Cooper’s favourite track on Melodrama is the hit single “Green Light”, but I can’t go past the slinky noir of “Writer in the Dark” and its chorus line, “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark”, which crackles with a threat that could ring true at any stage of life. +
The phrase “food for invalids” conjures in the mind an unappetising array of Victorian- era dishes: broth, bland boiled arrowroot, jelly – all to be endured with a stiff upper lip.
Thankfully, the meals in Everyday Strength: Recipes and Wellbeing Tips for Cancer Patients reflect a wealth of 21st- century nutrition. There’s a dish of salmon, buckwheat and fennel, garnished prettily in a bowl with capers and dill; mushrooms piled onto polenta with vivid dollops of salsa verde. Restaurantworthy, lip-smacking stuff.
But the delectability of these dishes – created by Sam Mannering, executive chef of Auckland’s Pah Homestead cafe – doesn’t stop them being a doddle to prepare and adapt to individual tastes and needs.
The idea for Everyday Strength sneaked up on co-author Karen Mcmillan, who has previously shared her own story and others’ experiences in Unbreakable Spirit: Facing the Challenge of Cancer. A long-time hospice volunteer, she lost both her parents to cancer and was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. For those who are told they have cancer – an average of 60 New Zealanders a day – food can become foe, she says. “People get really fearful about eating.”
And while articles and opinions abound on which foods may help to prevent cancer, few address what to eat when you’re battling it.
Everyday Strength echoes the advice of oncologists, who tell patients to have what they enjoy – with an emphasis on plant-based whole food.
“Just enjoy the good nutritious food you’re eating. Don’t feel you have to go on a crazy diet,” says Mcmillan. And beware of wellmeaning friends bearing pseudoscientific advice, she adds.
Mannering has designed a variety of recipes to cover the possibilities of individual treatment outcomes – which can vary from weight loss to weight gain – but they share common threads: being alkaline rather than acidic, mild in flavour and avoiding tough, chewy meats. There’s also a section of foods to appeal to kids suffering from cancer, such as healthy versions of chicken nibbles, sausage rolls and jam tarts.
Mcmillan, who is also a book publicist, met Mannering during the promotion of his 2014 cookbook Food Worth Making. When she approached him to work with her on Everyday Strength, she wasn’t aware he’d had cancer himself; in fact, he was treated for a third bout of melanoma while writing these recipes.
Mcmillan wishes she’d had a cookbook like this one during her own battle with cancer: compact in size; large, easy-read font; advice served in easily digestible bites. “When you’re going through cancer treatment, you’re often exhausted,” she writes, “and there’s already an information overload with the medical side of things.”
As well as helping curate the recipes, Mcmillan consulted the team of experts she’d worked with on Unbreakable Spirit for tips on how to deal with nausea, lack of appetite, skin and hair care, and other common side effects.
Of all the books she’s written – from novels to war-vet memoirs – Mcmillan says she’s most excited about this one, given its potential to play a positive role in people’s lives as they grapple with a cancer diagnosis.
“We don’t promise to cure cancer, but we do hope to make each day a little brighter.”