Gay­lene Pre­ston

Film­maker Gay­lene Pre­ston talks to Elis­a­beth Eas­ther about He­len Clark, the United Na­tions’ cor­ri­dors of power – and just be­ing stuck in the cor­ri­dor.

North & South - - Face To Face - By phil gif­ford

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.”

He­len Clark speaks dur­ing a ques­tions ses­sion with can­di­dates vy­ing for the po­si­tion of United Na­tions sec­re­tary-gen­eral, in New York in April 2016.

Gay­lene Pre­ston be­hind the cam­era.

Top: Gay­lene Pre­ston at the world pre­miere of her film My Year With He­len. Above: A woman walks along a United Na­tions hall­way lined with por­traits of past sec­re­taries-gen­eral.

He­len Clark ar­rives for the world pre­miere of My Year With He­len at the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val in June.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies (left), and Randy New­man.

Lorde the lyri­cist: “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark.”

Chef Sam Man­ner­ing and writer Karen Mcmil­lan.

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