She is a suc­cess­ful Kiwi film-maker. She is also mar­ried to movie man of the mo­ment Taika Waititi, whose ca­reer has seen them re­lo­cate to LA. The move has opened up new op­por­tu­ni­ties for Chelsea Win­stan­ley, who talks to Leena Tailor about the dif­fi­cul­ties

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - EDITORS LETTER - WARU airs on Maori Tele­vi­sion at 8.30pm on May 13.

The Kiwi film-maker mar­ried to Taika Waititi

There are two Chelsea Win­stan­leys. One is “Taika Waititi’s wife” – the long­time part­ner of the hot­shot New Zealand di­rec­tor, who ac­com­pa­nies her hus­band to glitzy pre­mieres along­side Chris Hemsworth, par­ties with Snoop Dogg and lives in a hilltop home in the celeb-heavy Los Angeles neigh­bour­hood of Stu­dio City.

Then there’s Chelsea Win­stan­ley the award-winning pro­ducer and di­rec­tor. A ded­i­cated mother-of-three. A child of di­vorce, who en­dured the pain of sex­ual abuse, los­ing her abil­ity to walk and solo moth­er­hood all be­fore she grad­u­ated. While the scars re­main – phys­i­cally, in the ti­ta­nium rod still in­serted in her leg, and emo­tion­ally, in the un­wa­ver­ing in­ner de­mons of abuse – the driven Kiwi has as­sid­u­ously tack­led ev­ery hurdle fired her way. To­day, on a sunny af­ter­noon in Cal­i­for­nia, she’s like any other mum, sip­ping cof­fee and mus­ing over the chal­lenges of reignit­ing her ca­reer, while her two-year-old daugh­ter, Matewa, crawls onto her lap wait­ing to be read a Maori chil­dren’s book.

“I’m 42 and was freaking out, think­ing, ‘I can’t go back to di­rect­ing now. I’m an old fart!’” she ad­mits. “But it’s your ideas, sto­ries and what you have to say that matters. The great thing about LA is I’ve found some cool film-mak­ing mums and I needed that fe­male bond­ing as op­posed to just hav­ing Taika’s mates and blokey co­horts. I needed my own net­work of women, so we can sup­port each other. Now, I feel like this a place where I can rein­vent my­self and it’s the per­fect time.”

Per­haps it’s only fit­ting that Chelsea has found her pro­fes­sional place amid the palm trees and sandy stretches of Cal­i­for­nia, given that it was the beach town of Mount Maun­ganui where she first dis­cov­ered a pas­sion for sto­ry­telling, thanks to hours spent tap­ping away on her aunt’s type­writer.

Af­ter her par­ents di­vorced, when she was seven, and her two sib­lings left home, Chelsea re­mained with her dad John, who runs a home

im­prove­ment busi­ness, un­til he re­mar­ried. She then joined her psy­chother­a­pist mother, Cherry, in Auck­land, where she de­vel­oped a love for art and pho­tog­ra­phy and be­came en­am­oured of film-mak­ing af­ter view­ing leg­endary film-maker Mer­ata Mita’s 1980 documentary Bas­tion Point: Day 507 at school. Chelsea was work­ing as a pic­ture framer when her life changed dras­ti­cally.

“I got preg­nant at about 19 and had an abor­tion be­cause I thought, ‘I can’t have a baby.’ Then, lo and be­hold, it hap­pened again and I was like, ‘Am I meant to have this kid?’ So, I had a baby 10 days shy of my 21st birth­day and thought, ‘This is not go­ing to change me.’ I had no idea what was com­ing my way.’”

Nor did she an­tic­i­pate her part­ner would walk out three months af­ter their son Maia’s birth, leav­ing Chelsea a young solo mum on the ben­e­fit. By Maia’s first birth­day, she yearned to get her creative juices flow­ing, so when a friend with two young sons de­cided to head to Waikato Univer­sity, Chelsea joined her. The two lived to­gether with their kids while study­ing.

Ea­ger to ex­plore her ma­ter­nal

Maori her­itage, Chelsea (who is of Ngati Rang­inui and Ngai Te Rangi de­scent) would drive to her fam­ily’s marae for weekly te reo lessons, but one win­try night she hit loose gravel and smashed into trees.

“I was sur­prised I was alive when I saw the car. They cut me out, my face was smashed, I broke my leg in three places. My dad came rac­ing into emer­gency and fell to his knees be­cause I looked like I was dead.” Spend­ing six months learn­ing to walk again, she found her­self back in Mount Maun­ganui and “feel­ing de­pressed”, un­til she stum­bled upon an ar­ti­cle about news­reader Susan Wood bal­anc­ing work with par­ent­hood. In­spired, she penned a let­ter to Susan, who gra­ciously in­vited Chelsea to meet her and tour TVNZ. Chelsea turned up on crutches, but the visit proved the fi­nal push to trans­fer her com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­gree to Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, which would en­able her mum to help with Maia while she stud­ied.

With many sleep­less nights and hos­pi­tal vis­its due to Maia’s eczema caus­ing him to scratch him­self “to smithereens”, try­ing to jug­gle univer­sity and moth­er­hood re­mained a chal­lenge, but she quickly found her call­ing ma­jor­ing in tele­vi­sion.

Hired at Kiwa Pro­duc­tions af­ter grad­u­at­ing top of the class, Chelsea directed the Me­dia Peace Award­win­ning documentary Tame Iti: The Man Be­hind the Moko, then fell into pro­duc­ing, which led to two sig­nif­i­cant en­coun­ters. One was meet­ing her film-mak­ing idol, Mer­ata Mita, who strolled into the of­fice one day. “I stood there freaking out!” The other was Taika, who she in­ter­viewed for a TV documentary se­ries pro­fil­ing Maori artists.

“That was the first time I met him, but noth­ing hap­pened. Then we met again on Boy, but noth­ing hap­pened prop­erly un­til af­ter that,” re­calls Chelsea, who had started a pro­duc­tion com­pany by then. “It was like the typ­i­cal, ‘Oh, you’re quite hot!’ But we were in­ter­ested in each other’s work, es­pe­cially be­cause my back­ground was doc­u­men­taries, which is quite dif­fer­ent from his – he’s got that odd­ball hu­mour and comes from a com­edy base, whereas I was more se­ri­ous. We kind of hooked up af­ter that.”


It was dur­ing film­ing of 2010’s Boy that Chelsea got the call from Mer­ata Mita, ask­ing if she would pro­duce Sav­ing Grace: Te Whaka­rauora Tan­gata, a documentary about child abuse. Thrilled to work with her hero, Chelsea had no idea what would un­fold.

“We took a rough cut to Maori Tele­vi­sion and af­ter­wards I asked if she wanted to go home or get some kai. She looked at me and said, ‘I want to go home,’ but the way she said it wasn’t nor­mal… ‘go­ing home’ meant some­thing dif­fer­ent.” By the time Chelsea got her car, Mer­ata had suf­fered a heart at­tack, col­laps­ing on the pave­ment and pass­ing away. Torn, Chelsea de­cided to com­plete Sav­ing Grace. “I wish I’d had the guts to say, ‘This isn’t for us to fin­ish,’ but I was young and naive, so thought I was do­ing the right thing. I al­ways re­gret­ted it, but made peace with it re­cently as I’ve helped her son, Heperi, make a film about her. I learned more about her than I ever knew and though she’s not phys­i­cally in this world, I think about what she would say a lot – es­pe­cially dur­ing Waru.”

Waru is the brain­child of for­mer Short­land Street star Kiel McNaughton and his wife, Kerry Warkia, who sought eight fe­male Maori di­rec­tors to cre­ate 10-minute sto­ries for a documentary high­light­ing child abuse. The film, which makes its TV de­but on Maori Tele­vi­sion on Mother’s Day, came at a time when Chelsea felt a pull to re­turn to di­rect­ing af­ter pro­duc­ing oth­ers’ projects for so long, in­clud­ing Taika’s What We Do in the Shad­ows.

Hav­ing re­mained in New Zealand while Taika was helm­ing Thor: Rag­narok in Australia, Chelsea de­cided it was time to re­turn to the di­rec­tor’s chair her­self, but ad­mits she thought twice about di­rect­ing such a deeply per­sonal sub­ject.

“I’m a sex­ual abuse sur­vivor my­self, so that both drew me to the project and re­pelled me. But the more we hide it, the more it hap­pens.”

Chelsea’s chap­ter in Waru, sub­ti­tled Kir­i­tapu, “is about hav­ing a voice and the courage to speak up”. Named af­ter her nan, Kir­i­tapu Borell, and cousin/Labour MP Kir­i­tapu Al­lan, Chelsea aimed to high­light how child abuse isn’t just a Maori is­sue and show a woman tak­ing back power – a nod to her own ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I want any­one who’s been abused to know they can take back con­trol of their lives. You can get to a very dark place, but the strength is in get­ting through that. The beau­ti­ful thing about Waru is we all came with dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and shed dif­fer­ent light on the is­sue.

“The most in­cred­i­ble part was get­ting to screen it at marae. There’s noth­ing more sat­is­fy­ing than tak­ing work home to your whanau be­cause half the time they don’t know what you’re up to – or just talk about that hus­band of yours! To see peo­ple take own­er­ship of the is­sues was in­cred­i­ble. One of my un­cles said, ‘You all know me as the chau­vin­ist fella, but this movie has changed me. I’m look­ing at my grand­daugh­ters and wife dif­fer­ently. We men need to step up and sup­port our women.’”

To par­tic­i­pate in some­thing that has helped trans­form such at­ti­tudes has been some­what heal­ing for Chelsea, who wasn’t even “waru” (eight) when she was abused. Years of ther­apy have en­sued, but to this day the ex­pe­ri­ence has im­pacted her abil­ity to trust, love and feel wor­thy.

“For most of my life, I’ve swept it un­der the car­pet, but it al­ways

“It’s hard when you’re apart. We moved to LA to get our fam­ily back to­gether.”

sur­faces. It took away my in­no­cence as a child, with­out my con­sent, and I har­boured a lot of anger towards that. I’ve been an an­gry per­son for most of my life and that’s some­thing I’m work­ing on con­stantly. But the big­gest thing has been not be­ing able to trust, be­cause when you’re a small child you trust ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one, so when that trust is taken away, you’re con­stantly look­ing be­hind you, wait­ing for things to fall to pieces.

“That’s the sad part – try­ing to get to a place where you don’t ex­pect the worst and [know] you are wor­thy.

“When you’re abused as a young per­son, it’s so se­cre­tive and you’re put un­der this cloud of dirt­i­ness. It’s like, ‘It’s your fault.’ You grow up

[be­liev­ing it] and think­ing you’re not wor­thy of much be­cause of it. To rec­on­cile that as an adult means go­ing back to that lit­tle per­son and go­ing, ‘It’s okay! You didn’t know any­thing! You were made to do things you had no con­trol over.’”

For a long time, Chelsea kept the pain to her­self. “Who are you go­ing to tell when you’ve just been shown that older peo­ple can’t be trusted? And no one’s go­ing to un­der­stand you at that age be­cause you don’t even know how to ar­tic­u­late what’s just hap­pened. So you keep it to your­self and that’s de­struc­tive inside and builds up. It’s def­i­nitely con­trib­uted to my failed re­la­tion­ships. That whole trust is­sue, al­ways be­ing wary and not want­ing to send the wrong mes­sages.”

But with Taika, Chelsea was able to open up in a way she never had be­fore. The cou­ple, who have two daugh­ters (Te Hinekaahu, five, and Matewa), have been mar­ried for six years and his sup­port has been a wel­come light as she in­creas­ingly re­alises the pos­i­tive ef­fect of ex­press­ing her tur­moil.

“The older I’ve got­ten, the bet­ter

I’ve been about be­ing more hon­est. I’ve spo­ken to him about my abuse and he’s one of the first peo­ple I’ve done that with, so that’s a huge thing for me. I wouldn’t nor­mally tell any­body this sh**! But the more I talk about it, the more I re­alise how much it helps you let go, so you don’t have to own it any more. He’s def­i­nitely the one I’ve shared the most pain with. His first response was, ‘I wanna f***ing kill him!’ But it’s more just him be­ing sup­port­ive and not shut­ting down, di­min­ish­ing me or mak­ing me feel like past child­hood stuff doesn’t mat­ter. That’s been re­ally nice – some­one who wasn’t like, ‘Ugh, gross,’ but more like, ‘Wow. Let me un­der­stand this a bit more.’ Be­cause you carry around all this shame and it’s so dumb be­cause what have you got to be ashamed for? You didn’t do it to your­self, but that’s one of the myths and [vic­tims] need to re­alise, it’s not your fault.

“I don’t even think I’ve fully rec­on­ciled it yet. I’ve just writ­ten a short film, which I’ve had in my mind for so long and it’s a love let­ter to my­self, talk­ing to that in­ner child and young girl. I want to deal with it and set it free… set her free.”

It was Waru that helped spur Chelsea into start­ing the film then ded­i­cate 2018 to di­rect­ing. While she has con­tin­ued to pro­duce and was in­stru­men­tal in se­cur­ing rights to make a Maori lan­guage ver­sion of Dis­ney’s Moana, her pas­sion for di­rect­ing has largely re­mained on the back­burner un­til now. Reignit­ing it is a move she’s well aware will bring new chal­lenges to fam­ily life, given the high Taika is still rid­ing fol­low­ing Thor: Rag­narok. While proud of his suc­cess, the mam­moth gig came soon af­ter Matewa’s birth and kept the fam­ily apart dur­ing film­ing.

“I didn’t go to Australia be­cause I thought it’d be best to keep the girls in their cul­ture, plus I was still do­ing the Mereta documentary and Waru was hap­pen­ing. It would’ve stopped me do­ing what I wanted to do, kept the girls out of school and we would’ve been sit­ting around wait­ing for him to fin­ish work ev­ery day. In hind­sight it

was prob­a­bly the worst thing we could have done be­cause it kept our fam­ily apart for a year. The girls had no re­la­tion­ship with their dad. It’s hard to keep a fam­ily to­gether when you’re lit­er­ally apart and that’s why we moved to LA for the post-phase once I’d fin­ished Waru – to get our fam­ily back to­gether.

“That’s the hard thing about this in­dus­try, though. When you’re in a pro­duc­tion, you have to be so fo­cused, and finding space for fam­ily can be a chal­lenge. In Taika’s role, you’re needed by so many de­part­ments you have to be an oc­to­pus with eight arms. And, he’s not some­one who’s work­ing on one thing – he’ll be pitch­ing other projects or help­ing oth­ers.”

Un­de­ni­ably, Taika’s suc­cess has come with sac­ri­fices for Chelsea’s own ca­reer, but she’s quick to point out that moth­er­hood has been equally im­ped­ing. “You don’t just pop out a baby and re­turn to work,” says the 2015 Women in Film & Tele­vi­sion (WIFT) NZ Mana Wahine Award re­cip­i­ent. “There’s a pe­riod where you’re taken out of your ca­reer tra­jec­tory. I can in no way com­pare my­self to Taika and what he’s done, but if we didn’t have chil­dren I might’ve kept go­ing along on my tra­jec­tory too. Now, I have to recog­nise I need to get back on that be­cause it brings me joy, as well as hav­ing chil­dren. It’s dif­fi­cult, but I’ve had to go, ‘I can’t just be a full­time mum any more.’

“He’ll al­ways be sup­port­ive of me do­ing my own work; it’s just about how we make that hap­pen. I also need to make sure I have my own voice and di­rec­tion away from him, oth­er­wise I’ll al­ways be ‘Taika’s wife’, or ‘I make films with Taika’. I didn’t make films with Taika be­fore I met him, so I don’t need to af­ter!”

Hav­ing found her film-mak­ing feet in Hol­ly­wood, Chelsea will re­main there while Taika com­mences his next project, Jojo Rab­bit, in Europe. The girls are grad­u­ally set­tling in, with Te Hinekaahu’s lat­est ob­ses­sion bal­let and gym – “I think she’s go­ing to be the sporty one. Matewa will prob­a­bly be the aca­demic.”

Chelsea and Taika are mind­ful of im­ple­ment­ing their cul­ture in LA.

They have em­ployed a Maorispeak­ing nanny, they of­ten speak Te Reo at home and the girls main­tain rit­u­als like karakia be­fore din­ner. Chelsea’s son Maia – now 21 and pur­su­ing show­biz – has also re­cently joined the fam­ily in LA. “He’s wanted to be an ac­tor since school, so this is the per­fect place. It’s ruth­less and cut-throat, but you just have to keep be­liev­ing there’s a place for you here.”

Nat­u­rally, LA life has come with star-stud­ded mo­ments, the high­light be­ing when Chelsea ac­com­pa­nied Taika to a GQ party where she met rap­per Snoop Dogg.

“And the whole red car­pet thing with Thor was pretty spesh.

“Chris is re­ally lovely,” she adds about the block­buster’s hero. “And his wife’s gor­geous, inside and out. They come from such hum­ble back­grounds, lovely surfer fam­ily with beau­ti­ful par­ents, so they’re re­ally sweet.”

But while A-list pals and glam­orous shindigs may have been com­mon of late, Chelsea doesn’t take a sin­gle ex­trav­a­gance for granted. Af­ter all, it wasn’t so long ago her great­est joy came from an un­re­strained su­per­mar­ket run.

“I’ll never for­get the day I got off the DPB and had my first pay cheque. I just wanted to go to the su­per­mar­ket and buy any­thing I wanted. To buy the food you love – what a lux­ury! I took Maia and said, ‘You can have any­thing you want!’ To me, that was the ul­ti­mate.”

LEFT: Chelsea with her youngest daugh­ter, Matewa. OP­PO­SITE: Chelsea and Taika at an awards cer­e­mony in LA in Oc­to­ber last year.

Ch­eslea work­ing on the film Waru, and with her three chil­dren – son Maia, 21, and her daugh­ters with Taika, Te Hinekaahu, five, and Matewa, two.

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