Just a moment
One late-night decision eventually helped Jackie van Beek to make her debut feature the best it could be.
“I thought, nah, I’m not doing this,” says Jackie van Beek.
She’s describing getting home at midnight after working all day. “I was so tired, and I thought, oh man, wasn’t there that directors mentorship thing I was going to apply for? And I checked the website and it was due the next day. And I was so tired.”
Audiences will know van Beek from TV3’s sketch comedy show
Funny Girls and from her turn as a vampire’s servant in Taika Waititi’s
What We Do in the Shadows, for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the New Zealand Film Awards. She also won Best Actress at the 2014 Show Me Shorts film festival, for her performance in her own film Uphill, which is a kind of out-take from The Inland Road, her first full-length feature.
“I’d just moved back to New Zealand when I made Uphill; I’d made my first films in Australia and then in London. I was writing The
Inland Road at the time. I wasn’t in official development. I was just working on the script by myself. I had been for years, and I’d got to the point of really wanting to make it happen. And then I got this phone call from the New Zealand Film Commission. They said, we’ve been looking at your short films and we’d love you to make some in New Zealand now you’re here. So I said, absolutely, I’ll apply for my feature film. And they said, why don’t we start with a short, so I said okay, I’ll apply to make a trailer for my feature film. And they said, well we can’t fund a trailer... what about a short film? I said, I don’t want to make any more short
films, I want to make my feature. So they said, well, why don’t you take a scene or a sequence out of your feature film and apply with that. So that’s what I did.”
It was encouraging to be invited to apply for funding. “I’d never even thought to talk to the commission. It seemed like this big organisation for people who knew how to make real films... I’d just been cobbling together community money from anywhere I lived. To get that phone call made me think — maybe I can do more.”
The Inland Road is an intimate drama, set in rural Otago. Four characters from very different backgrounds are thrown together in the wake of a tragic accident, with the story’s weight and energy heavily dependent on the strength of the performances. “The thing that excites me about directing is directing performance. I’ll never rehearse a character by themselves, I’ll always put them in a room with other actors, so there’s someone to react or resist or embrace or challenge.”
Before the shoot started, she insisted on a two-week rehearsal process. “I got that, because I said it was a non-negotiable; and it’s cheap to do, because you don’t need gear or a crew.” She spent the entire first week with the two young first-time actors in the cast, teenager Gloria Popata and Georgia Spillane, who was 5, plus one of the two central adults.
“We just rehearsed those three, on set in the farmhouse in Arrowtown, and it was incredible. I learned so much. I’d wanted that process so I could hear the actors saying the lines I’d written for them, and let me tell you, I did a lot of rewriting that first week. I mean, Gloria, a 17-year-old Maori girl from Flat Bush, comes in and a 41-yearold Pakeha middle-class writer hands her a script? I’d spent a lot of time teaching in South Auckland, so I wasn’t too far away. But every actor has their own little things they say, and I started writing those into the film, and the more of Gloria I was able to put into the film, the more she could improvise without clashing with the character. It’s her first acting role — she’s done a little bit of kapa haka. She’s astonishing. We auditioned 330 girls for that role and she was the only one who scared me.”
The shoot went off smoothly, and van Beek settled down with her editors to assemble a working cut. “We were going pretty well, but I knew there was a stronger film in there, and I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t work it out.” And this is where it turned out to matter that she had forced herself to stay up late that night and write the application for the mentorship with the Directors and Editors Guild of New Zealand. She won a three-day mentorship with Niki Caro.
“Niki came over to New Zealand and we sat around the kitchen table, and I showed her the current cut I had. She read the shooting script, and we talked, talked, talked about what was working and what wasn’t. We cut up pieces of paper and used Vivid markers to write things, we shifted pieces of paper around the table, and she said, oh look — can you see where the holes are? And I saw a hole at the beginning, and I saw a hole at the end. And she said, all you have to do is go back and write a little bit more story.”
So a full year after shooting had wrapped, van Beek wrote two new scenes, and got three cast members to come back and shoot them. “And that was when I thought, yes. I’ve fulfilled the potential of this story. It’s only my first film, I don’t know how big its potential is, but — you always know when you’re falling short of what a thing could be. In hindsight, the decision to stay up an extra couple of hours and write that application hugely affected the outcome of my first feature film. I love it that so much can turn on a moment like that. And that’s what I write stories about, as well — these little things that can have huge consequences.”
We were going pretty well, but I knew there was a stronger film in there, and I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t work it out.
ABOVE— Georgia Spillane and Gloria Popata in The Inland Road.