Annie Collins, Editor Extraordinaire
Annie’s a legend. I know her from an unfinished project we worked on years ago, Something For My Grandchildren To Hold, a documentary about Irihapeti Ramsden (1946–2003), best known as the primary architect of cultural safety as a concept and in practice, and a member of the Spiral Collective that published the bone people. I don’t see Annie often, but I love knowing that she’s there in the world, working harder and better than almost anyone I know.
Since this 2013 interview, Gardening With Soul won Best Documentary at that year’s New Zealand Film Awards. Annie had two nominations as Best Editor, Documentary and won, with James Brown, for He Toki Huna: NZ in Afghanistan. She was also nominated as Best Editor for the feature Shopping, which won Best Feature Film. In 2014, Annie won Best Editor at New Zealand’s Oscar-qualifying Show Me Shorts festival for Eleven, the beautiful multi-award-winning short written by Kate Prior and directed by Abigail Greenwood. At the New Zealand Film Awards 2014 she was nominated for Best Documentary Editor for Voices of the Land: Nga Reo o te Whenua and edited Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story, winner of Best Television Feature. She also won Women in Film &Televisions’s Great Southern Film & Television Award for Outstanding Contribution to the New Zealand Screen Industry
And she keeps on keeping on, very often with projects by women. Her most recent projects are two shorts, Nine of Hearts, written by Kelly Joseph and Briar Grace-Smith and directed by Briar, The Lawnmower Men of Kapu, written and directed by Wiremu Grace and the Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader-written and -directed feature The Great Maiden’s Blush.
Before this interview we caught up on the road, as we drove to Auckland together, Annie’s car packed with editing gear for her latest gig. Talking almost all the way. I haven’t seen Annie since. But Cushla Parkowhai’s Kōrero Ki Taku Tuakana: Conversation With My Big Sister, with Merata Mita in 1988, reminded me that Annie had spoken about working with Merata, in this interview — Marian Evans (interviewer)
Gardening With Soul has just gone into New Zealand cinemas. Jess Feast’s doco about Sister Loyola Galvin is a beautiful story about a nun in her nineties, a member of the remarkable Sisters of Compassion Order, founded by Mother Suzanne Aubert (1835–1926), who work ‘in a spirit of compassion, openness and integrity to meet the needs of the aged, the sick, the oppressed and the powerless in our communities’. Gardening With Soul follows last year’s How Far is Heaven, also about the order, directed by Christopher Prior and Miriam Smith. To celebrate Gardening With Soul, I decided to interview its editor, Annie Collins.
Annie’s worked on every kind of project imaginable: many features (including New Zealand classics from Sleeping Dogs and Goodbye Pork Pie, to Scarfies and Out of the Blue — Best Editing Awards for both as well as for 2012’s Two Little Boys — to Lord of the Rings and this year’s Shopping); countless docos (a special love); short films (including Sima Urale’s O Tamaiti, winner of the Golden Lion at Venice), commercials, corporate training videos (including a series on the law which won an ITVA Silver Monitor), trailers and promos. And in the predominantly small-budget New Zealand industry, where roles are often flexible, she’s had to handle music, FX and dialogue, ADR, post-production supervision, lab liaison as well as the picture edit.
Annie’s worked with many women directors: Merata Mita, Sima Urale, Andrea Bosshard (and her co-director Shane Loader), Shirley Grace, Clare O’Leary, Melanie Read (Rodriga), Monique Oomen (The Nineties, which won ITVA Best Documentary and USA Golden Apple), Kate JasonSmith (Xmas for Lou which won Best TV Drama), Pat Robins. She won the Media Peace Award for Double Take, which she directed.
Annie was interested in only one subject for this interview, the ethics and integrity of editing documentary. But I couldn’t resist asking about lots of other things. Annie kindly transcribed the long discussion (thanks a million, Annie!) and when we finished editing (negotiating priorities we didn’t share; for sense and discretion and some repetition I couldn’t justify), I was thrilled to realise that she provides an excellent example of the creative-life-making arts practitioner, the subject of Beyond ‘Career’, my post before last.
Editing is so straightforward that directors can do it themselves. Why do they use an editor?
There are a few directors around who can do that — who have such a clear vision and such a specific vision of what they’re making that they should be cutting their own films. However, every director I’ve worked with has really enjoyed the collaboration of another head and another head coming from a different angle, able to see in the footage things that they have missed, have gotten so used to that they are just overriding them, conceptual things they didn’t see in the footage. When you’re talking about documentary which is the main thing I’m interested in, there are often threads of ideas and concepts which an editor can see, but when the director has already sorted out the questions they want to ask, or feel that they know about the subject, they just ask a specific range of questions and miss all this sideline stuff. They even miss things that are in the frame because they’re not expecting to see them so they DON’T see them.
And I think what’s really important here, what I found out and what I learned from Maori director Merata Mita, is that the subtext you can see is grounded in your knowledge of your own culture. You can pick up things on screen or the little side comments that people make. The way that their eyes flicker at certain places and you know that there is a connection bouncing across to something else. And I’m always curious about those, I’m always curious about what people don’t say. For instance the thing about Gardening With Soul is that I took on that project because it is a film about the qualities of Pakeha culture [the culture of white people who’ve been in New Zealand for some time]. I’ve made a study of my own culture and I love it; and there were some things that I was picking up on which Jess, the director, who hasn’t studied it like I have, had missed.
Oh, you’re putting me on the spot! I don’t think I can go into that and it’s because they’re very personal things about Sister Loyola and to put them out there in public wouldn’t be the right thing. It’s interesting because you can see the dichotomies that exist in people’s characters and they affect how you cut because to show the character well, to do justice to them, you actually do have to deal with those dichotomies. But you have to deal with them with integrity. You can’t just pull them out and shake them around in front of the audience and go ‘ooooh, look at this!’ They’ve actually got to be bedded into a place that they come from and looking at where they’re going to.
Are you saying that you would not show the difficult side of somebody?
No, on the contrary, the difficult side of somebody is exactly what you do need to show but you cannot show it out of context — you need to know enough about what shapes that person so that you can indicate where that ‘difficult’ side comes from. And what interests me the most now, and this is for me personally, as well as the people within footage, is that people’s weaknesses are also their strengths. Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength, and your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. And it’s how people manage those qualities within themselves, and it’s why Sister Loyola in Gardening With Soul is so affecting when you watch her, because she lets you see her struggle. And boy, has she struggled! Here is a feisty independent woman who was taught as a girl, at five years old, by her father, about politics in this country in the 1930s, a really difficult time politically. And she learnt about that among all of her father’s friends, as part of the political conversations. And she goes into the Catholic Church.
And I’m going: ‘How on earth did she stay there? How on earth could you when you have that upbringing?’ And that is a puzzle which is throughout that film. And you can’t just wipe her off and say she was stupid to do that, she should have been somewhere else. When you think about the times she was in, and you think about the qualities of that woman and how much she loved children, still loves them, the order that she chose to go into was the place where she could do the most good. And she swallowed the Catholic side of it — she dealt with it when she had to — in order to keep doing the good work. That’s a pretty difficult road.
I don’t remember the bit about her father and politics…
Well, you don’t remember it because it’s not in there. And this is part of the challenge of being a filmmaker. You have a specific time frame to work within. We could put in all the extra bits about the characters we’re making films about, but after about ninety-five minutes you’re actually ready to go and have a cup of tea, have a break. And at that point you do not hear anything more so whether you put it in there or not, your audience doesn’t hear it anyway. So there’s a series of choices that you make and you’ve just got to do the best that you can.
It’s one of the shockers about dealing with such a long life as Sister Loyola’s — knowing that you cannot take everything. What’s lovely about the DVD is that we get a second bite at the material and for this one it’s really really important. The extra material about Sister Loyola and her father, her training in politics etcetera will go into the DVD. There is also a section about the founder of the order, Mother Suzanne Aubert, who set up the only order in this country that someone like Sister Loyola could possibly have entered, and stayed in and done such good work. Those two stories would give you five hours of footage. We had to make that decision and we made it a third of the way into the edit.
What are the characteristics of your editing?
When a director comes in and sits at this bench they have to be prepared to be challenged. If they’re not prepared to be challenged then they don’t stay with me for very long. And the first challenge is a very simple one: ‘Why are you making this film? For what reason are you making this film?’ In this country I use another word, I ask them what their kaupapa is, and in using that word I don’t just ask them for their reason. I am asking in what spirit are they approaching this film. The kaupapa is a direct reflection of the director, of the director’s spirit in approaching something. And they have to be able to answer that in one sentence, because anything more than that — paragraphs of reasons — is bullshit. They have to know very very clearly why they’re poking a camera at that person and exposing them to the world.
You mean a logline?
Nope. Not that. Absolutely not that. Nope. I want to know a deep heartfelt reason why they consider that they have the right to make this film. To ask of another person that they expose themselves. And they have to have a damn good reason otherwise I don’t want to be part of it. I was clearing out some files just last night, and I came across some material I’d written and presented at a conference in Auckland in ’96. I’d written about kaupapa and I talked about one director whom I’d asked what his kaupapa was and he came back the next day with a piece of paper with five words written on it. Past. Present. Future. Struggle and Hope. That’s a kaupapa.
The next challenge is: ‘Who are you talking to?’ They have to answer that question, and it’s not ‘The whole world!’ because that’s just bullshit too. They need to be pretty clear about it. When Gardening With Soul came in, I knew who I wanted to talk to, but I didn’t know who Jess wanted to be talking to.
Who did you want to talk to?
Young New Zealanders. Because Loyola is a role model and we don’t have too many of them. Not up on film. We’ve these great hulking brutes who play rugby who can hardly string two sentences together but people who actually talk about the qualities of how they work? Of what’s important to them or how they were brought up? What’s important in life and what takes you through? No — I don’t think so. No, there’s no one like Loyola in our footage these days and I wanted her to be there for young New Zealanders. She will always be there now.
What are those qualities?
Humility, determination, real grit. A deep love for growing things. A caring, yet none of this namby pamby I’ll give you everything you want. It’s a caring that says the way that you can learn is by doing it yourself and you can. I’ll stand back here and I’ll guide you but YOU can do it. A self questioning and finding out answers for yourself, not looking for things to be delivered on a plate. Not expecting other people to fix things for you, just going out there and making it happen.
And you can only do that on film?
A film does it better than anything else because when somebody walks and talks on a film, every time that film is shown, that person is alive. It doesn’t matter whether they died 10 years ago, that person is alive. So much of how people do things is shown, not talked about so yes, film is the best way.
The other thing about those first two challenges, the kaupapa and who are you talking to, is that if I have good answers to those two questions, I can cut a film. I don’t need a director to tell me a lot more than that.
Do you try to meet the subject?
I avoid it at every opportunity. So no, I don’t try to meet the subject, and it’s much much better if I don’t because what you learn about the subject and what you FEEL in their presence starts to be invested in the footage. Everybody else who sees the film probably isn’t going to meet the subject so all they get is what’s in the footage. And it’s really important that when I cut, all I get is what’s in the footage too, my eyes and my head are clear of other information. Otherwise I’ll start putting material up which I THINK is showing things, which the footage isn’t showing at all because I’m investing it with what I know about the subject. People generally get to see the film only once so that first impression that you get from footage is the only one you’re going to get — so if it isn’t really in the footage in the first place, the audience isn’t going to see it, you’re going to miss your mark. And that’s really the first important thing that I bring to the edit bench.
One of the things that I do — it’s one of the ways I try to maintain the integrity of dealing with people in documentary — is I use a process whereby I don’t allow the director in (!) until I’ve had a good look at the footage. Until I’ve done a first cut of the footage. I’ve had a conversation with the director about all the ideas they think should be in the film which they set out to capture and then I add the ideas which I’ve seen to that list and then I go through and cut those ideas. It’s also my responsibility to give the director my initial response to the footage, whatever it might be. I might hate one particular section, I might say I’m not using this piece, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe anything about this, I think it’s bullshit. Which is a fairly tough thing to say but that’s said privately at the edit bench and the director takes it on, goes ‘hmmmm, but I felt such and such with this’, and then I am challenged. ‘Why do I think that about it? Do I continue to think that every time I see that particular section?’
I’ll be cutting two things: a series of concepts — those ideas, and I’ll be cutting what I call reality sequences like Sister Loyola digging in the garden, having breakfast, her 90th birthday party, those are discrete sequences in their own right. That first pass over all the footage will take me between two to five weeks depending on how much footage I’ve got and there was a lot of footage for this, lot of ideas…
I’ve got all that cut, and then I invite the director back in and we sit down and view all the cuts from top to bottom. The challenges then are the filmic challenges and how to make a sequence work. By that stage they are the technical and craft challenges but the lovely thing is that when the raison d’etre of why you’re sitting at that bench cutting this particular footage is clear, the craft and the technical challenges, they often just dance into place.
And it becomes very clear when we’re viewing on a bigger screen whether we’ve got enough material to make a concept work, which of the reality sequences really carry you with them and are important to see. For example, the very last sequence in Gardening With Soul started out as twenty-five minutes of Sister Loyola and her helper digging over one of her gardens in Autumn. They start at the beginning of it and they dig each trench, put compost in it, turn it over and dig the next trench, and the next one and the next one and they get right to the end and then they clean the tools, walk down to the shed, wash their hands, tidy up all the bags that they’ve used, tidy up the tools and put them away. Her helper changes his clothes and says goodbye, and she takes one last look around and walks out and closes the door behind her. Now the entire sequence is beautiful, it’s gorgeous, because it just embodies all of the lifecycle that this woman is about. The care for the soil, the way she places the new compost in with all its wriggly worms is like the care that she would give children. Everything is there in that cycle. And then they prepare the shed and the tools for the next day, and she leaves. When we had played down the twenty-five minute first cut, it came ¾ of the way through a week and a half’s worth of work, and when it ended I turned to Jess with tears running down my face and said ‘That’s the end of the film’. And she agreed.
Everything is there and we had to distil that down, in the finish, to around about forty-five seconds. Because we had it longer, and people thought the film was starting again and they couldn’t stand it. If we had left it longer — say two minutes — it would have put a coda on the end of the film which would have undermined everything that had gone before, the emotion we had built before it. And those are the things that guide the pace of the film.
We knew we had a crucial area in Gardening with Soul which was the situation around the abuse of children within the Catholic Church. You do anything concerning the Catholic Church now, you must address the abuse. You cannot ignore it. And whether your subject ignores it or not, you as a filmmaker cannot ignore it. It is a subtext — and everybody in your audience knows that it’s there and if you don’t address it then you’ve undercut your entire film. You haven’t done justice to your subject. That was a huge challenge to Jess and I to make that work. Sister Loyola approached the abuse of children herself, she didn’t need to be prompted or asked about that, and she tackled it five times. It was very difficult for her, she had such strong feelings about it and such a struggle with her commitment to compassion in this situation. No one time did we have a complete reflection of how she felt but the closest she came to expressing it, we had footage with severe camera problems. It took a long time to work through a solution that truthfully reflected Sister and gave the film what it needed. We went back to that sequence and the sequences surrounding it over and over before we were satisfied we’d done our best.
When we looked through what I had done with the concepts trying to make them work, there were some we discarded saying we just don’t have the material to make that concept work. It wasn’t there, she doesn’t touch on it well, it wasn’t important to Loyola for whatever reason, so out it’s gone. There is a peeling away of ideas from the footage as the process goes on. And there is conceptual material like Mother Aubert’s story that we want to go in the extras.
Sometimes the problem of not being able to make a concept work means that you can’t work on the project together and usually that manifests itself in the first couple of weeks, usually because the kaupapa’s wrong, right up the front. I have walked away from documentary jobs.
What role does a script have through the documentary editing process?
If you walk into any of that with a script in hand, knowing your subject so well, and say, ‘right we’ll start at the beginning, and I want a sequence of this and this and this and this up front, and then we’ll go into this …. Blah blah blah…. And we will be finishing with that,’ the extraordinary serendipity of what happened in Gardening With Soul, with that end sequence and with a lot of other sequences, especially the opening sequence and the handling of child abuse within the Catholic Church — once you’ve got a paper script in here, before you’ve had that chew over of footage, before you’ve had a chance to respond emotionally to the footage, you have no chance of serendipity. It just doesn’t happen and you can never be sure that you’ve done your best by the footage.
Well that’s really interesting because you can’t get funding in this country unless you start with a script. For a documentary. Oh yes. In this country, now, there has been a period for most of this century where there has been no independent documentary funding. A documentary fund has just been established for feature documentary — for six of them — and you have to provide a very very good outline to get the funding. A director always has some sort of an outline but some things occur which need to be documented and you cannot possibly know where they’re going to go, what you’re going to come up with. You walk into it being interested in the subject, with a series of questions about it. Jess didn’t know what she was going to come up with, with Sister Loyola.
Jess is not a religious person. She was really curious about why this little old lady stayed sixty years in the Catholic Church, but she also had some questions about God. So she had a journey of her own. She could not know where that was going to lead because she didn’t know a) whether there is a God and b) what that could possibly end up looking like. So there were some things she knew, some things she could script, but the only script that she used was that within the four seasons she knew that she would deal with death in Autumn. She knew that in Springtime she would deal with new beginnings. She knew that in Winter she would deal with the preparation for life — both children and soil. And Summertime would be the abundance of return and the richness of where her children went to, what happened to them and what happened in her life. So she knew some questions she wanted to ask Sister Loyola and in which season to ask them. But she had no idea where those questions would go.
Why are you an editor and not a director?
Crikey — why am I an editor? I know why I’m an editor and not a director, that’s easy, but why am I an editor to begin with? Like so many things in life, I kind of lucked into editing. I didn’t set out to be involved in film. In fact I was a wife, a housewife. Had a couple of jobs. But I guess I always had a lot of… hesitating over the word ‘ambition’, because I don’t think that’s really it. Right from early days I was driven to make as much of myself as I could, I was driven to extend myself, to find out what I could do. And that drove me out of the marriage and into Design School and from Design School into film. And into the area of film which was probably what was most at hand at the time because it was Pat Cox who suggested it to me. He’d just set up an independent editing service and he had guided me on one edit. So I started out in editing.
And there is something, there’s something about the images that just drives me all the time. About putting them together, about that moment of connection between one shot and another, about what happens that comes out of it. It isn’t just this shot and then that shot, it’s what happens at that moment of intersection. It can be magical. And I would say that ever since 1975 when I first cut anything, it’s like an addict, you’re always searching for that same high. And all the time I’m searching in the footage no matter whether it’s drama or documentary, but it happens more often in documentary, I’m searching for those moments of magic that happen. And there’s nothing like it. I’ve tried to go away from editing but I can’t. It’s so magical. Every film is magical, every one of my films has something in it. Yeah.
I’ve stayed in editing because I actually have the hands on for those moments of magic, for those moments of transformation. I’m not asking somebody else’s hands to do it I’m not having to translate about it. It’s immediate. There’s nothing between me and the image, there is no other person, I’m in there, there is no other person in between. And that I will not give up. I sometimes wonder how directors can ever work with other people if they have some sort of vision of their own. Because they have to accommodate a DOP’s vision, a sound mixer’s vision… And yeah, sometimes my moments of magic are carved away and whittled down, all sorts of stuff, but I’m still in the chair with my fingers on the keys controlling how much gets whittled away and still trying to retain the magic of it.
And I haven’t wanted to be a director. Mainly because I haven’t had anything to say! Except for Double Take. It’s a documentary about institutional racism in New Zealand in the 1980s and the reason I went into it was because I knew there was no other director in this country who had the training in anti-racism that I had had up to the point. No other Pakeha director and it had to be a Pakeha director and so I just went, ‘Yep, I do know what needs to be said, I know how it needs to be said and constructed and what it needs to be used for.’ I was at that stage working in anti-racism workshops and so I simply stopped other work and went straight into that.
That particular doco was used only in anti-racism workshops. That’s what it was built for. It worked hard for three years, that film. And interestingly enough I’ll be going to Auckland on Thursday, taking a digital copy with me to be uploaded onto an anti-racism website where it will continue to work [available only to trainers]. It’s cool. I’m delighted. Twenty-five years is one generation and we’ve come around full circle and we have to do it all again. The doco is out of date but some of the conceptual material in it is still relevant.
But there is a more basic thing about why I am an editor and not a director and this goes back to my family. And in my family my father ran a business and my mother worked alongside him in that business and she matched him hour for hour, had seven children and she basically stood at his shoulder and supported him. And that is my role model through everything. So although I sometimes operate as a leader and out in front and sort of leading a charge and I’m the person who stands up in a conference and challenges or whatever it might be, in fact, where I work best is standing behind a director’s shoulder and supporting them. And that’s why for me a kaupapa is really important because I am supporting somebody else’s vision. So it’s got to be a good vision. I’m much more comfortable where I am and I’m also perfectly aware that the real power in a film sits at that editing bench. I am quite quite cognizant of that.
Can anyone look at your work and say, ‘that’s an Annie Collins edit’?
You can look at any one of the films that I have worked on and once you are familiar with one or two of the documentaries that I have cut you will see it in every one of them. They all have that sort of flavour to them and it’s something that has concerned me, because I don’t want every film that comes off this bench to look like every other film that comes off it, but I actually cannot work any other way.
I think the commonality in my work is the process that I have been describing to you, my insistence on kaupapa and I won’t work on anything unless it’s there. Mmmm. That tends to cut out of my oeuvre certain sorts of doco or reality TV. I don’t get those because I don’t allow them in the door. So you’ll find that there’s a commonality running through the docos that I handle but the difference between, for instance, the doco on Barry Barclay, The Camera on the Shore, and Gardening with Soul, I mean they are very different pieces of work. What’s common in them is there’s some sort of, I dunno what it is, there’s some sort of humanity, I dunno, you might be able to answer this, I dunno. There’s some sort of heart sitting there. I know what I’m looking for when I’m handling the footage. Yeah, I can’t explain it.
What other editors do you look to?
In documentary I find that a really hard question to answer. There are documentaries that I will not go and see because I know who the editor is and I know their weaknesses and I don’t want to be sitting through a film that has not been as rigorously dealt with as I require films to be.
The quality that drew me in is that it isn’t about the editor, there’s a warmth towards the subject, there’s a handling of the drama characters which brought out the humanity and warmth of them. So that there were things within those characters that connected with you and drew you in and the poignancy of the situations — the edits were handled in quite poignant ways, the edits weren’t flashy or striking. It was quiet and very human and quite moving. And I see that from women editors more. I see it from women more than men.
So it doesn’t matter whether the director is male or female, or the writer, you see that quality in the way it’s cut?
In drama you have to have a director who is directing the performance that way to begin with. I don’t think there’s a clear cut division between a director’s work and the editor’s work. You can look at my doco work and say, that’s an Annie Collins edit. But I look at my documentary work with a fairly cold eye now and I go ‘Yep, that one, that one, that one. And then I look at the directors who directed me on them and I go, ‘Yes, they were very very good directors’. And if I didn’t have such good directors those cuts would not be as good as they are.
So maybe it’s a little bit like a marriage, two people create a third element?
Yes, yes, there is something else that comes into play. You put two shots together and from that moment of intersection bursting out of it you can obtain magic. With a director and editor in the cutting room here, the relationship is very close, very intimate and out of it there can be this real atmosphere created but also a welling up of ideas and conceptual stuff that bounces out of this intimate relationship. Jess and I found that. She’s not the only director I’ve found that with. Rob Sarkies and I have that. With Jess and I, much to her surprise she found she enjoyed the editing process immensely because this room was filled with laughter a lot of the time. Besides good coffee and lots of cake and tears at times, but basically it was a room filled with warmth between the two of us and we wanted to get in here and working. And yeah, something else is created out of the middle of that.
I have noticed a gender difference. The men are much much more focused in their approach to the edit and also tend not to allow themselves to wander into a more compassionate way of expressing themselves. But for the directors that walk into this room there are more similarities than differences and the similarities are: not one of them brings an ego in with them. Or if they do it’s pretty quickly hung up outside the door the next visit. Because it doesn’t survive in this room. Nothing survives in this room except the footage. And I learnt that from Rob Sarkies who never ever brings his ego in, into anything to do with film. He’s very particular, he has a most specific artistic way of operating and he is full on all the time from when he walks in at 8am to when he leaves at 6pm but there’s no ego here.
The women directors, no egos come in, no and that’s actually the most important thing, because as soon as an ego walks in the kaupapa walks out because they are diametrically opposed.
Have you ever wished that you could have more women subjects like Sister Loyola?
Yes, yes, because it throws into sharp relief that so many of my documentary subjects are male. I don’t really mind whether they’re male or female subjects. I would like to see more films like Gardening with Soul being made but I don’t care whether they’re about male or female so long as they are good role models. So long as they are dealing with those really deep inbuilt qualities and ethics of our culture. That kind of film is missing here I think. And this is what I would like to see more of.
If somebody had spent some time and for instance, filmed my mother, she would have embodied most of the things that Loyola has — just an ordinary woman from a small town. Nobody knows her name, nobody would think to spend so much time and effort and resources making a film about such a little-known person. But there are people like her in every town, women like her in every town. And they are the ones who place our ethics and qualities in us, they are the ones who bring us up, they are the ones who give us our culture. So I would like, I would really like there to be more films about the most ordinary people you can think of. Loyola already had a profile, she’s in an unusual situation and she could do unusual work because she is in that situation. But by crikey my mum raised seven children, worked alongside her husband for fifteen-hour days, buried two of her children and lived a life where, if I think about strength she is the first person I think about. If I think about warmth and lovingness she is the first person I think about. If I think about the ability to put food on the table she is the person I think about. And there will be hundreds of people like this throughout the country and those ORDINARY people carrying in them those so-called ordinary qualities — that’s what we need.
And you’re not talking about reality TV?
I am not. I am talking about loving portraits of people with both their weaknesses and their strengths and how they cope with them.
Maybe it’s a good time to talk about Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi and what effect it’s had on you and your work?
Te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi — which is one of the founding documents of this nation — has played an enormous part in my life and still does. It began to play that part when I was engaged on Patu!, a film directed by Merata Mita, which was about the Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981.
And it wasn’t until I was on that film that I realized there were two different realities in this country — one for indigenous New Zealanders and one for Pakeha New Zealanders. And I also realized at that stage that my skills were adequate only for my own culture. And that if I wanted to really be able to do my job, first of all I needed to know who I am a damn sight better than I did. Because I’d never had to question myself and I sat beside a woman who questioned me.
Was that the beginning of the challenge about kaupapa?
Yes, that was the beginning of the challenge about kaupapa because that was the first time I came into contact with the word, that was when I began to understand the layers that are involved in the word and I learnt them in a working situation. I didn’t read about them, I learnt them on the job. In order to complete that particular film — Patu! — I had to draw on, I had to think about and draw on the things which my parents had instilled in me in terms of the qualities they held dear. And it was so tough working on that film with that particular director that unless I did something about myself, about strengthening myself, I would not have been able to complete it.
The main thing that got me through that was remembering my mother saying to us kids — ‘you don’t come second, you come first’ — and — I watched her stand up under the greatest strain a mother can face and support her husband and not be beaten. Now both of those things are also the ways of operating that people who colonize another country use. I will not be second and I will not be beaten. They can also be used for good. And I remembered those and I held my head up. You remember your parents saying to you ‘hold your head up, walk up straight’? And I held my head up and went back in for all the weeks and months following. And that was the beginning of starting to understand who I am, what my strengths are, where they have come from and why I have them.
I look at Te Tiriti o Waitangi and I know that I have immense strengths to bring to the relationship that document embodies. They are the strengths that undermined that document. They are also the strengths that can uphold it. It depends on the spirit with which you approach it. It depends on your own kaupapa of how you approach anything because everything we do is a relationship. A relationship between you and me, a relationship between me and the director, a relationship between me and the subject. Relationships between me and my neighbours.
And after I’d finished working on that film I moved deliberately and solidly, while still continuing to edit, into anti-racism work based on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
And my understanding of subjects both Maori and Pakeha deepened and deepened. I have done a lot of work with Maori directors which has really increased my understanding but I absolutely know that I cannot cut indigenous material without an indigenous head beside me. Nothing that I have learnt, no matter how committed I am to the Te Tiriti o Waitangi — nothing qualifies me to cut another culture’s material without that other culture being present.
What about the Barry Barclay documentary, The Camera on The Shore?
Yeah. Indigenous subject, Pakeha director, Maori producer, Pakeha editor, so two Pakehas in the cutting room. When that director first came to me I sent him away because he couldn’t articulate a kaupapa. This was to be a film about one of the most respected indigenous filmmakers in the world — someone who was writing the textbooks on handling indigenous images. And then Barry died. And the director came back to me. He’d had a go at putting a cut up and he knew he wasn’t anywhere near where he needed to be. And I asked him again what his kaupapa was. And this time he could answer and we did the best we could. Because Barry had given the directorial role to that director. He knew what the problems would be but he thought he was going to be around. I required that it go back to the family before it was locked and that other Maori checked it. And I probably knew him as well as anybody. But there are holes. There were areas of it we stayed away from because we did not have the knowledge or the expertise to go there. My tears are for the loss of Barry.
He was one of your mentors?
Yes, there were a bunch of them. Merata would be far and away the strongest influence in my editing. Barry, Tama Poata, Martyn Sanderson, Jonathan Dennis.
What changes do you see happening?
The significant changes are basically in what comes into your home, the television area.
And the internet?
I’m just thinking about that. Yeah. And the internet, and with any luck, television will be subjugated into the internet so that what comes into a family is what they choose to come in rather than having second rate fare served up on the big box — something that somebody else chooses.
The biggest changes that are happening are the attitudes towards the actual craft of filmmaking, especially documentary out in the field. Because it is digital, because it is cheap to shoot, the discipline of focus, of walking into a situation and being focused enough that you understand what you need to point a camera at, of being focused enough to hear what you need to point your camera at — that has been massively eroded. In the beginning you had only so much filmstock, you had to be careful how much you used and you CHOSE when you rolled. The plus of digital is that you can shoot everything. Why is it then that filmmakers appear to think that because you can shoot everything. It doesn’t really matter how it’s shot, you no longer need to be mentally focused, you no longer need to listen because someone is still rolling — they’ll get it somehow. Well, no actually, they don’t. And that’s got to impact upon the subject while they’re being filmed too. The problem is that the people who have grown up only with digital do not know the difference. They cannot recognize what they’re doing. They cannot recognize the quality difference between focusing on someone when you’re shooting them and just shooting.
You’ve worked in a lot of docos. Why have you chosen to go into narrative film? Because there you don’t have a kaupapa.
Oh yes you do. Oh yes you do! Up front. I don’t see a great deal of difference between documentary and drama as far as the business of kaupapa is concerned. I don’t want to work on shit. You’ve got to have a reason to be making that film, you’ve got to have something to say — and that’s your kaupapa. You look at Rob Sarkies’ work — Scarfies, Out of the Blue and Two Little Boys. Ho! What was Two Little Boys about? It’s just a fart in a bottle really. But it wasn’t really — it was about manipulation, about relationships, about how one person controls another and how you go round in circles in life. Out of the Blue — obvious. Scarfies — blimming interesting stuff in there — just a film about a bunch of students and they get themselves into an odd situation with a basement full of marijuana. Except it’s a lot more than that. It’s about how you get pulled into making decisions that you would never ever normally make, never ever dream of making. Decisions of life and death. It’s a kaupapa. Interesting stuff.
And what about Lord of the Rings?
That’s got to be my own kaupapa. Lord of the Rings I searched for a job on it because I knew it would be the biggest production in the world and that the editorial systems necessary to handle that would be immense and I would never get access to such systems unless I worked on those films. To begin with I got three months work, increased to a year and then again, in the finish four-and-a-half years. Does Rings have a kaupapa? Yes, it’s about good and evil eh? It’s about as simple as you could get! Though why they didn’t just give the ring to the eagle and tell it to drop it down the mountain I’ll never know! Now, I didn’t go off to the director and ask him to tell me about his kaupapa — I didn’t do that this time…. I was not one of the editors — I was merely an assembly editor and part of an entire editorial department that was fourteen strong. That’s a very different type of filmmaking.
So what did Lord of The Rings give you?
Rings gave me doing things in a New Zealand way, finding solutions to an immense problem, an immense set of circumstances that nobody else had precedents for. We set the precedents here. And because it was here in New Zealand and especially because it was here in Wellington with the sort of feel around filmmaking that Wellington has, we had the opportunity to be quite intimately involved in every aspect of it.
I think that the experience expanded me because it really disciplined me into working with a really big team instead of just the one-to-one that’s in a cutting room. Obviously, the huge systems in place to handle footage and to output it to various departments, they were immense undertakings. But of course I’ve not worked on anything nearly as big since then and nor do I want to. It gave me disciplines. It honed my disciplines a great deal. I’m really appreciative of that.
It gave me a complete understanding of the place of the editing bench within the entire range of people involved in a large feature film and we’re talking about VFX, Sound, Miniatures, motion capture, laboratory, the workshop — armourers, costume…..everything. We were involved with them all. And also, as each film was completing, the digital games people, the marketing people, all of those were funneled through editorial at some stage and had to be serviced. That whole interlinking of everybody was really important for me. It’s very important because more and more I’m working with newer and newer, younger and younger directors, people who work in an industry where every six months or so new technology is on the market I think that what it does for the younger directors is that they’re focusing on getting their film shot and they don’t have the experience yet of this whole network of post production that’s going to be serviced from this edit bench. You used to just shoot film and if you were going to be finishing on digital it didn’t matter — it just went through the telecine chain, the lab knew what to supply you with and away you went. Now it’s a very different thing. The workflow changes with each camera. From Rings I learnt where everything was going to go afterwards and that each one of them required specific formats.
Were you ever working overseas? Would you ever work overseas now?
In many ways I was overseas for four years on Rings — I was in a country called Middle Earth which doesn’t have a great deal to do with New Zealand. I’ve popped over to Aussie to give feedback on a film but quite frankly I’m not much interested in other countries’ films. It takes six months from go to whoa for a feature. Do I want to spend six months or more somewhere else working on something which is not relevant to New Zealand, is not relevant to Treaty relationships, which doesn’t mean a helluva lot to people I’m committed to, who are other New Zealanders? And the answer is, it’d have to be a bloody good director and a really good story to haul me away from here.
And what are you working on now?
The projects I’m working on now, I have a feature doco coming in in the next few weeks, I’ve just delivered a short film and I have another short film to give feedback on and that will take me right through to February next year when I have a feature to go with Rob Sarkies and I have another feature lined up after that as well. I’m always working. I would assess that I get paid for half of the work that I do, but that’s the nature of the film industry in New Zealand, especially of the material that comes to me. A lot of it is underfunded, or not funded, but they’re films that need to be made and I like them. I work for megabucks on a feature film if it’s funded, and that enables me to do the other stuff that I really like as well.
And that’s an easy decision?
Absolutely. I prefer working for nothing because you’re not beholden to anybody with what the film does. You’re just making the film that the director wants.
So sometimes the funders require changes?
Oh yes yes yes. Let us not go into the funders and how they like changing films!
Is there anything that you would still really really like to do?
I would really like to work with a director that has a head that can really bounce off the wall! I would love to work with a director and writer who are not bound by the restrictions of chronology. I just would LOVE to move outside the narrative.
Tell me more!
Well, almost every feature film in this country has a beginning a middle and an end and it goes in one straight line. And it’s basically as boring as batshit unless it’s a really interesting story and not a lot of them are. I’m just blimmin intrigued about shifting time. Because you can do it in film and why aren’t people doing it more? And the feelings, the magic that you can create by shifting time. And I’m not just talking let us have a flashback here or there, I’m talking real shifting of time. Example is Babel. Writer is Guillermo Arriaga — Mexican. I loved its shifting of time, the way that he played with it and you don’t know it until the very last shot.
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