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
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.