Kiwi actress Emily Corcoran on bringing her dream project to the big screen
It took courage for a woman to make it alone in 1860s New Zealand, and it took grit for actor Emily Corcoran to make a film about it. She tells Sharon Stephenson why giving up was never an option
IIt’s 8pm on an unseasonably warm Friday and London’s bars are overflowing with end-of-week revellers letting down their hair. Emily Corcoran would love to join them but at the moment that’s something of a pipe dream.
In fact, when the London-based Kiwi actor and film-maker finishes this interview she has to organise the UK and NZ premieres of her 12th feature film The Stolen, make calls to the US and Germany regarding post-production financing and sign off the distribution rights to Latin America. And only then will the 41-year-old return to the one-bedroom Paddington flat she shares with her husband Marc Bengue. She’ll hope her daughter Poppy, two, doesn’t wake up when she plants a kiss on her forehead and tip-toes quietly out of the bedroom.
Exhaustion might be etched into the dark circles under Emily’s eyes, but she’s thrilled to have made it this far: after eight long years, the feature film she wrote, produced and acted in is finally about to be released. “It has definitely been a long road to this point,” admits Christchurch-born Emily.
Her passion project, The Stolen, is set in the 1860s, when New Zealand was alight with gold fever, and tells the story of Charlotte, a posh English emigrant forced to take a huge leap outside her comfort zone when her husband is killed and her infant son is taken hostage. How Charlotte manages to track him down, while navigating a landscape of bandits, prostitutes and pioneers trying to make sense of life in a new land far from home, is at the heart of this narrative.
“It’s Charlotte’s journey from being a lady to a woman,” says Emily of the character she created after toying with the classic fish-out-of-water story.
“I’d met a lot of girls like Charlotte in London, rich princesses who I’d look at and wonder how they would cope being thrust into 1860s New Zealand,” laughs Emily. “Would they sink or do whatever they needed to do to find their child?”
Facing the hurdles
The film features British actress Alice Eve (Sex and the City, Entourage) and Pirates of the Caribbean star Jack Davenport, as well as Kiwis Stan Walker (who also supplied the film’s soundtrack) and Richard O’Brien, best known for The Rocky
Horror Picture Show.
Emily came up with the concept for the film around the same time she finished up as the associate producer of the Bafta-nominated film The Survivalist.
She’d noticed a lack of strong female lead actors and resolved to do something about it. It dovetailed nicely with her wish to make a feature film in New Zealand about the gold rush era of the 1800s. Emily began to research this period of New Zealand’s history – and especially the role of women settlers.
“I found that these women were extraordinary. They’d come from quite a repressive class system in England to a new land where they were free to be whoever they wanted to be. It really was an exciting time for New Zealand women.”
Not everyone was so enthused, however. “Early on, people told me that a period/western film with a female lead character wouldn’t succeed, that women
wouldn’t want to watch it, which was just crazy to me.”
At the time Emily was single, solvent and determined, so she pushed ahead. Disaster struck when the 2011 earthquakes ripped through Christchurch, delaying filming and resulting not only in the loss of Emily’s cast, who had to move onto other commitments, but also the film’s funding (cast and finance are often closely linked, so if one falls over then so does the other). It would probably have been easier, and cheaper, to film the sweeping period piece in the UK.
“But there’s nowhere else that can really replicate the look of New Zealand’s bush and the setting is such an important part of this story. Plus, my parents and friends were having such a hard time after the quakes, I really wanted to contribute to Canterbury in some way.”
So Emily picked herself up and started working the phone. She eventually stitched together enough finance to keep the project on track, including assistance from the late Sir Doug Myers, on the condition that The Stolen be filmed in Canterbury to help provide jobs for those affected by the quakes.
Emily had just cleared the funding hurdle when she found out she was pregnant to Marc, an architectural designer born in France and raised in London. “My dream was to also star in the film, so I was trying to figure out ways I could cover my bump during filming.”
As it turned out, further delays meant Poppy was eight months old when cameras finally started rolling on the five-month shoot, which took place in and around Canterbury. Filming outdoors in winter, working until 2 or 3am and then getting up a few hours later to do it all again, along with caring for her baby daughter, was certainly challenging.
All on board
“At times it was chaos, but I knew I couldn’t give up. I had 100 or so people depending on me for their incomes. The local community also got behind us, helping out with sponsorship and things like set building, so I couldn’t let them down. I just got through one day at a time.”
It helped that her mother Merryn, also the film’s executive producer and publicist, provided muchneeded support. As did many of her family and friends.
“You couldn’t throw a shoe on set without hitting a relative of mine! But I know what it’s like trying to get into this industry, you really need someone to give you the opportunity and I was glad to be able to do that.”
Script writing and producing has paid the bills for the past few years, but acting is still her first love and in The Stolen she plays Honey, a “tart with a big heart”. But getting by on a few hours’ sleep a night meant Emily worried about how she’d look on screen.
“I was looking as rough as a badger’s backside, so I decided to try some facial acupuncture. However, the acupuncturist accidentally gave me a black eye and I had to spend the next week fielding queries about my relationship with my husband! Fortunately this happened three weeks before the shoot, so my eye had healed by the time the cameras rolled.”
Being strapped into a corset for eight hours a day was no picnic either – or having to use the bathroom while in costume.
“I’m not sure how women back then did it, because with the crinolines and thick skirts, not to mention the bloomers which are tucked into your corset, it can take half an hour just to have a wee!”
Making her mark
Emily has spent much of her life criss-crossing the globe, leaving Christchurch when her parents’ marriage broke up and her mother moved her first to the UK then to Rome. Christchurch was home from ages 10 to 17, after which Emily returned to London to attend drama school. Not having an address book filled with English contacts meant after graduation she found it hard to get work in the industry she’d always loved.
“It’s that whole newcomer thing, when you don’t have connections, when you aren’t related to someone or went to school with someone, it can be hard to get noticed.”
So she started writing her own scripts, producing her first short film, The Invitation, made with a minuscule budget, which screened worldwide. Since then Emily has written, produced and starred in numerous films and TV commercials, working with everyone from the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood to Alfie Allen from Game of Thrones. It’s been quite a career, she admits, and one that looks set to continue with plans afoot for a couple of feature films, including a comedy, and a three-part allfemale political thriller she’s written for TV.
First up, though, is a good rest. “We’re coming home for the New Zealand premiere of The Stolen in Christchurch on November 23 and then we’ll have Christmas with my family. I’m knackered, so I’m really looking forward to having some time off.”
And as for the perennial question asked of every Kiwi who spends any significant time overseas: Would Emily ever consider moving back here?
“I’ve spent more time out of New Zealand now than I have living there, but I loved growing up in New Zealand and want my daughter to know that side of her heritage. She knows all her French relatives really well and I want her to have the same relationships with her Kiwi relatives. The ideal situation would be to come back every two years to make a film in New Zealand, particularly a film about New Zealand. That would be my dream...”
‘At times it was chaos, but I knew I couldn’t give up’