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It’s a rare duo who can co-write, co-di­rect and co-star in a film and re­main great friends, but that’s what Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek did. As An­gela Bar­nett finds, the break-up movie of the year was ac­tu­ally an im­pres­sive ex­er­cise in to­geth­er­ness

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When Madeleine Sami tells me her daugh­ter is only 5 months old, I’m im­pressed. Not only has she co-writ­ten, co-directed and co-starred in New Zealand’s lat­est com­edy, she was also preg­nant while com­plet­ing it?! Holy smoke.

“My part­ner had the baby,” she tells me, and I feel like a schmuck.

It’s as­sump­tions like this that get blasted apart in Sami and Jackie van Beek’s new film The Breaker Up­per­ers: that love comes in only one form, only men mas­tur­bate, and grey pubes should never be spo­ken of.

The film – and if you haven’t heard of it, you must be go­ing through your own break-up, wal­low­ing in your bed­room, lis­ten­ing to the Indigo Girls – was the dar­ling of this year’s SXSW fes­ti­val in Austin, Texas. Which means, in film cir­cles, it’s pegged as a win­ner.

The idea’s cer­tainly a win­ner. The rom­com slash buddy-com is about two friends who pro­vide a pro­fes­sional break­ing up ser­vice to those too chicken to dump an un­wanted lover them­selves. Who hasn’t wanted to avoid that awk­ward and painful con­ver­sa­tion? The movie takes this com­pli­cated thing called love and in­jects it with mis­chief, sis­ter­hood and cock­ups, then sprin­kles it with Ce­line Dion and 90s throw­backs. I’ve heard more cyn­i­cal friends yet to see the film ques­tion why ev­ery New Zealand movie has to be a camped-up fes­ti­val of feel­good. But per­son­ally, when I saw the preview, I laughed a lot.

Van Beek had the idea for The Breaker Up­per­ers in her kitchen. Stir­ring cof­fee. Hap­pily mar­ried, she wasn’t think­ing about split­ting up with any­body but “about the level of dread peo­ple have about break­ing up with a part­ner and how much money they’d pay to not have to do it them­selves”. She mulled it over then called Sami, sug­gest­ing they work on a script to­gether.

What’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing about this film is that Sami, 37, and van Beek, 41, take the lead in ev­ery di­rec­tion. They wrote it to­gether. The star in it. And they directed it too. Nora Ephron, Jane Cam­pion and Sophia Cop­pola have writ­ten, directed and pro­duced many of their films but it’s hard to find fe­male direc­tors who have also writ­ten and starred in their films. To­gether. With a best mate. Women are some­times said to be more col­lab­o­ra­tive than men; but “com­bat­ive and bitchy” is part of the fe­male stereo­type, too. And the eas­i­est col­lab­o­ra­tions of­ten re­sult from each party be­ing clear about their re­spec­tive role (I’m the boss, you’re the star). But what hap­pens when you’re both the cre­ator, the boss and the star? And di­rect­ing is such an al­pha role, it’s easy to imag­ine ten­sion, dif­fer­ences of opin­ion, some­one throw­ing down a mega­phone and storm­ing off…

Ap­par­ently not. Sami says they both had strong vi­sions from writ­ing the script, but if they had dif­fer­ences of opin­ion they’d just talk it out. “We didn’t have time to get all funny about things. We had to move as fast as we could.” Then she adds: “That’s not to say we didn’t dis­agree, but that’s part of the process. If we were agree­ing all the time, I’d be scared.”

“We didn’t have time to get all funny about things. We had to move as fast as we could. That’s not to say we didn’t dis­agree.”

Born on the same day of the year, they share some clas­sic Tau­rean traits, says van Beek: “We’re both gen­er­ous, am­bi­tious and stub­born as hell.”

But she feels proud they never took got stressed about di­rect­ing to­gether. “Once ev­ery­thing had been dis­cussed, agreed upon and set up, we’d shoot the crap out of it. And im­pro­vise!”

The plan had been just to write and act in the film but, as the shoot­ing date loomed, they couldn’t think of any­one to di­rect it, says Sami. “We thought of Taika [Waititi, who is an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer], but he was en­trenched in Thor, so the only thing hold­ing us back was fear. Nei­ther of us had co-directed in that ca­pac­ity, but we knew we could do it. So we de­cided not to be chicken.”

They’ve both been act­ing in drama and com­edy for years. Van Beek won Spada’s new film-maker of the year in 2013 and is best known for her per­for­mances in What We Do In The Shad­ows and 800 Words. Plus, she’s directed seven short films and this is her se­cond fea­ture. But The Breaker Up­per­ers is her first comedic film. While Sami is best known for Sione’s Wed­ding (1 & 2), Su­per City and Ea­gle vs Shark, she has also co-directed the lat­est sea­son of Funny Girls as well as mu­sic videos.

“Di­rect­ing’s not a tra­di­tion­ally fe­male role and you won­der whether you’re cut out for it,” says Sami. “That’s partly why Jackie wanted to di­rect. She told me, ‘We’ve got to stop mak­ing ex­cuses and do it!’”

“Women are still be­ing of­fered fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says van Beek. “And we put a lot of pres­sure on our­selves to do very well, which hin­ders you as a creative per­son. The fo­cus should be cre­at­ing the best, wildest or dark­est thing but if you’re try­ing to prove to ev­ery­one you’re a wor­thy choice, then your work won’t be very exciting. We need to push for op­por­tu­ni­ties and then re­lax, give into them, drink a bot­tle of vodka and di­rect the hell out of it.”

Per­haps even more of a tonic than vodka, is the con­stant stream of hu­mour be­tween van Beek and Sami. They each sep­a­rately tell me about their run­ning gag that one is in love with the other.

“One of us will re­veal, ev­ery few weeks, that [we are] se­cretly and painfully in love with the other,” ex­plains van Beek. This seems like a PR stunt, as the movie in­ves­ti­gates the bound­aries of love and friend­ship be­tween their two characters, Jen and Mel, and at one point they kiss. But Sami con­firms it’s their own gen­uine gag: “There’s no rhyme or rea­son why we keep this fake spark alive. She’ll be like, ‘I’m in love with you.’ And I’m like, ‘Jackie, I’m taken and so are you.’”

Van Beek’s in a re­la­tion­ship with co­me­dian Jesse Grif­fin (they have three chil­dren) and Sami is with pop star Pip Brown, aka Lady­hawke. She says they de­cided to write the gag into the film, with­out go­ing all the way and hav­ing their characters pair up.

“We play with the sex­u­al­ity be­tween the characters, but it’s pla­tonic. We wanted to be mod­ern with the por­trayal of love. We didn’t want sex­ual ten­sion, but we like the jokes about the mum [played bril­liantly by Rima Te Wi­ata] think­ing Jen and Mel could raise a baby to­gether. It’s play­ful.”

Watch­ing the film, I wanted Jen and Mel to have a baby to­gether too. When I tell them this I sense a small eye­brow twitch. “We loved the joke that, in this day and age, peo­ple would as­sume they’re gay.”

There go those dreaded as­sump­tions again. But ev­ery­thing in the film – sex­u­al­ity, love, friend­ship – is ad­dressed with hu­mour and light­ness. Mid­dle Earth has of­fi­cially moved over as yet an­other Kiwi film has con­firmed the eter­nal sun­shine on our spot­less comedic minds, which is ac­tu­ally very spot­ted and warped, a bit like our cul­ture. De­scrip­tions of Kiwi hu­mour poured out of SXSW. “A goofy blend of awk­ward dry and po­litely dark hu­mour,’” said film web­site Next Pro­jec­tion. “New Zealand com­edy is ab­surd and bizarre,” said Crooked Mar­quee.

“We need to push for op­por­tu­ni­ties and then re­lax, give into them, drink a bot­tle of vodka and di­rect the hell out of it.”

The film is packed with fa­mil­iar faces. “We lit­er­ally got all of New Zealand’s best co­me­di­ans and squeezed them in – with one line some­times,” says Sami. It’s also packed with un­speak­ables. “It talks about things that are not talked about,” says van Beek.

When Jor­dan, played by James Rolle­ston ( Boy, The Dark Horse) spots Mel’s few grey hairs he says: “Oh they’re so beau­ti­ful.” Sami says it’s one of her favourite bits: “That amused us – the thing that turns her on is feel­ing great about those grey hairs!”

When Te Wi­ata’s char­ac­ter is feel­ing amorous for her hus­band, she tells her daugh­ter, Jen: “He’ll be in the garage watch­ing porn. Bet­ter nab him while I can…” Sami says it’s nice to see an older woman on screen want­ing sex.

It’s also fresh to see women jok­ing about mas­tur­ba­tion on screen – some­thing, ac­cord­ing to van Beek, that’s usu­ally re­served for art house cin­ema. “Think about Amer­i­can Pie,” says Sami, “And how much male mas­tur­ba­tion fan­tasies come into a film, but peo­ple get awk­ward when it’s fe­males – like it’s weird or sa­cred.” Van Beek wrote a scene in an early draft where Mel (Sami) is mas­tur­bat­ing to a Bruce Spring­steen mag­a­zine “but it got cut”. Van Beek tells me they heard a few com­ments in Austin like: “It’s such great hu­mour and you guys are women!’ Va­ri­ety said: “The Welling­ton com­edy scene has launched a fe­male ver­sion of Taika Waititi and Je­maine Cle­ment.” I tell them I don’t want to ask them about be­ing funny fe­males in a tra­di­tion­ally male-dom­i­nated world, be­cause you can guar­an­tee Waititi and Cle­ment are never asked what it’s like be­ing males mak­ing funny films. But van Beek says she likes get­ting asked: “Be­cause if the me­dia’s ask­ing, then I’m guess­ing the pub­lic is ask­ing. Any in­tel­li­gent hu­man knows that men and women are equally funny but I think the au­di­ence still think men have a greater chance of be­ing funny pro­fes­sion­ally. And that needs to change.” Sami was asked by a writer years ago: “Are women funny?” She was hor­ri­fied that was even a ques­tion. “My mum’s one of five sis­ters; I’ve only known funny women my whole life. We have so many in New Zealand. Holy shit. An­gella [Dravid]. Rose [Matafeo]... Maybe some peo­ple ques­tion whether women are funny. I guess it’s go­ing to be that way un­til it’s not unusual.” It’s the only sub­ject they don’t make jokes about. Amer­ica may be pumped about this film, but the duo was adamant they didn’t want a Hol­ly­wood end­ing. “No dou­ble church wed­ding,” says van Beek. That said – with­out giv­ing any­thing away – it does end with some ex­cep­tional dance moves.

They were also adamant that their friend­ship re­mained in­tact. “We’ve known each other for 20 years,” says van Beek, “but what makes us such great friends is our abil­ity to make each other laugh.”

Sami can’t leave it there. “She’s got great en­ergy and gives me a lot of con­fi­dence. And we have a re­ally good time. I’m go­ing to ask her to marry me.” The Breaker Up­per­ers will be in cin­e­mas na­tion­wide from May 3.

“We got NZ’s best co­me­di­ans and squeezed them in.”

Sami and van Beek have a run­ning gag that they are se­cretly in love with each other.

The Breaker Up­per­ers jokes about topics mostly un­seen in pop­u­lar cul­ture.

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