IN FOCUS NZTECHO Autumn 2020 Issue 84
Who are we? We work at the front end of this business.
It’s morning. We arrive in the dark to empty paddocks, dark sound stages, obscure locations – nothing yet exists; we park up the trucks, erect the ‘easy ups’ – boil the urn, unload the camera’s. The pre-light crew have been working all night, they depart – some have described this process as ‘not work for sissies or the faint hearted’. A little later actors will stand-speak-move-sit-walk, open and close set doors, all of this activity for and in front of the camera. They speak the lines that are written on a script.
You might think the script is the movie, but to some who live in this ‘before-it-exists-world’ the script is merely those black bits on the page, a code of possibilities. Some have been heard to whisper that between those lines, in the white bits, is where the movie actually resides, that’s the thing that doesn’t yet be until we make it, that’s the bit what we do; but we keep those lofty ideals of creation and artistic prowess to ourselves.
…it’s still only 5:37am.
At $50.00 a day it sort of broke even, low-budget. We carpooled. Begged and borrowed equipment, mixed the old gear with the new. It felt inventive yet handmade. Craft? It felt like it used to be when there wasn’t much gear or infrastructure. It was in the summer break. Some of us had other work we could do in the weekends, others were financially supported by partners. This financial dexterity is at the core of freelance, and we wouldn’t give it up for the world.
A few years before I’d made the decision that it wasn’t my job to fix productions (as had sometimes been the need), as, at times, other issues were wrecked in the ‘fixing’ process. Putting that conceit behind had been a bit of a breakthrough not due in a small part with a growing cultural awareness. Perhaps a hangover from the years where the film industry pioneers from the tax break 80’s felt they somehow arrogantly ruled?
We did still expect support from the Film Commission, supporting New Zealand production being within their mandate. But, alas, support and great ideas can be the two strangers searching for the lost platoon in the misty forest where most encounters end in a firefight with loses on both sides. The inclusion of the successful ‘cargo cult’ and the attitudes of extreme wealth that come with it has been a slow but relentless creep through the last 40 years of the film and TV business. You first notice the extremes in the hierarchy, mainly a robust and direct way of communicating, which infiltrates and reaches into all corners and aspects of the industry. It becomes contagious.
During all this growth the low budget movie has been the bastion of the experimental, political, comedic and enthusiastic film maker. Perhaps artistic endeavour vs control of the industry is really the thing at stake here, not the survival of our business but the survival of our national cinema culture?
The low budget feature had a major upside, being nearly all self-funded from independent investors there were no studio or funding body pushing the shoot at breakneck speed, in that, ‘time is money’ way that film shoots operate. Instead performance and inventiveness and a bold style ruled this little perfectly-formed-flick. And then it occurred to me. It was the first time in many decades that I’d worked on a film set where we shot the movie not the schedule, the production changed my life and was one of the best experiences… because, actually, by shooting the movie we made the schedule work for us; a journey of looking in through the window and then entering a familiar room. We had perhaps been here before, before we knew too much and the deal didn’t rule the entire process?
It’s a delicate process this realm of the arts and the deal. The nature of the business forces completion with each other; we suffer with the ‘imposter syndrome’, those dark nights of doubt when we fear we might be found out? That reoccurring 3:00am nightmare when the weight of the work crumbles. The levity of the craft, living those freelance horrors, living from invoice to invoice, having enough to pay the rent.
It’s not that we have the need to rant and rave about art or want to shift the planet on an axis or be famous, we just want to be able to pay the bills and not feel abandoned. We like being ‘workers’. We are that community and we are loyal, the worst that could happen is low budget becomes the ‘new normal’ – nah that’ll never happen.
The self-funded, low budget, no-budget film making has long been bastion of the political, experimental; those little films that could, made on the weekends with the mates (Bad Taste), made on the streets during the riots (Patu) – an insight mainstream misses for the simple fact of being mainstream – shorts financed by an Uncle or family or investor-patron-of-the-arts. A proving ground to show the NZFC you are worthy of funding? …but alas low budget seems to have jumped the ditch into mainstream expectations. Large projects aside, they seem to have become the realm of the offshore production. Low budget seems to have become the only way of local stories and local production… low end of production has just got even more ‘Low’.
Is this the new normal for the start of the new decade?
You might need to look the other way and accept the fact that arts policy is being made somewhere up in the lofty heights of the food chain. The first you will know about these decisions is when the producer tells you what the going rate is, you know when you get told what your rate will be.
“Sorry,” they say. “There is no negotiation; my hands are tied.”
And the expectation quickly becomes ‘it’s better than nothing’ – this seems to be the new normal. You might get a bit of understanding banter… ‘Yes, I know it’s hard’, the production manager says, and then you spend all of your meagre wages on the nanny because both you and your partner are working to make ends meet.
Is this the dying echo of neo-liberal arts funding where the funding sector are doing what is normal for a bureaucracy and saving themselves first.
Meanwhile out in the world of early morning starts and truck stops, living from invoice to invoice, while the demands of the film business are slowly choking us as we try to maintain a vital local working infrastructure. Yet, in reality, the gaze is all about offshoring the industry because that is what the business of the industry demands. This is the result of a successful cargo cult manoeuvre.
– It’s not about supporting the artist it’s about the business of the deal.
The big question being ‘Is the NZFC fully funding local production?’ – And – is this low budget (under living wage threshold for crew). Is $1.2 million the new normal?
As one of my post-production colleagues said the other day ‘Is this just a sad case that’s worse than ‘the Mexican’s with cell-phones era?”
Low Budget has a website, its official – it’s a NZFC website and it’s a real thing. Not just the slang term off the streets, it has an official title and status. It puts in mind that time when the HMS Escalator pulled away from the wharf a few years back. It set the benchmark for budget cap with the promise of fame and fortune for the few that were on the bridge… but let’s keep in mind success and fame are all relative. Did the leg up system work? Remember the title sequence? – A wobbly shot of a… um err, um an escalator, with disembodied legs stepping onto the bottom step; is that a hesitant stepping, is that a bold step, stride forth with hope step? …. on the nose step?
Is the low budget feature film the quintessential expression of this struggling society of the kiwi battler? The suffer-for-your-art-syndrome of the kiwi way?
To produce the smallest and most profound movie still takes a certain minimum amount of equipment, the expectation is a certain level of ‘production value’ for it to cut through the noise of the internet, perhaps the ultimate still being that magic-red-carpet ride to LAX?
A little New Zealand film that ‘made it’?
But, as John O’Shea said – With a local film we should be more concerned with what they think about it in Taihape or Tolaga Bay or Timaru than Hollywood; John might be correct here. National cinema is where it all begins, there is no jumping the queue?
The powers that administer the funds might say things like you can’t have art without business… you could look them in the eye and ask them to explain? Ask them to explain how the deal will put bread in your pocket and send your kids to school with lunch? – ask them how they manage from invoice to invoice, and what is it they actually produce here? Go on this is your film industry too, but never ask an arts administrator about their weekly wage.
Are our lower rates just another way that we are feeding the internet monster of increased demands of the social media companies? Is this the dying death-roll of the cinema shark in the swamp in a world where the sunset is only relevant after it has been through an instagram filter, where crew are all checking their phones between takes? Just checking that the ‘making of’ feed to the ODT might include me, to make my existence more important by being in the back of shot related to a celebrity or influencer for the Netflix channel? – Oh, the glamour of the business? Yet your weekly rates are still less than 5 years ago?
Has this been the case where ‘low budget’ is now the new normal in the New Zealand Feature Film Industry; where working for less than a ‘living wage’ is something that has been imposed upon us? Are we looking at a situation that looks more like control than support?
I was reminded the other day about the Mune speech (2000) regarding the formation and result of the New Zealand Film Commission. Ian has always said it was bad timing to make that speech but I’m not sure such things can ever be timed well, as, for the simple fact, a bureaucracy has a function of self-preservation that is so pernicious that it will throw itself off the cliff before admitting it is wrong or out of touch; or for that matter change because of the times or openly change policy even though it would’ve realised behind closed doors that revolution is nigh.
A commission that loses their creative way so chooses instead to ‘control’ the industry and we are, as Mune said in 2000, still obsessed with the deal rather than the film; it would appear that there are no deals now just low end toil.
When ‘low budget’ is the answer then the question has to be ‘is this now the new normal?’ – And – ‘is this what we have become as the New Zealand Film Industry?
20 years ago there was a movement afoot to ‘get back our film industry’ – Ian Mune willingly fronted the brief but somewhat bloody revolution, some of us stood near enough to be hit by the lightening and collateral damage and we learned to never question an out-of-touch bureaucracy as their survival is more important that their tasks or mandate.
Yet those words of warning from 20 years ago might still be relevant today and be the thing that needs further discussion?
Meanwhile, in a camera rental carpark somewhere in Wellington I dropped by the other day, the first AC was fitting the truck with shelves for the new movie about to be shot in town. He steps down from the toil and wipes his brow. ‘Well it’s better than nothing, eh?”
Embrace the cinema of poverty as a rite of passage.
Precariat has a new cohort?
Ian Mune writes in his autobiography of the years leading up to 2000 and the first 20 years of the NZFC (Abridged from Rudall Hayward Lifetime Achievement Award speech).
“TV began to make New Zealand drama Pukemanu, Close To Home, The Governor, Moynihan. History shows us a corporate mind-set and subsequent control of artistic thinking quickly took over that golden era. Business started making artistic decisions as to what we watched on the TV. The NZFC is announced 5 years after the corporatisation of TV with a clear brief to support this burgeoning new movie industry. Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace and Vigil soon followed. 20 years down the track, we are looking at an industry in confusion… So what went wrong? In short, the control mentality has won the day. The Film Commission, unsatisfied with its wobbly attempts to support the industry, chose to lead it. Control. The first weapon and last – ditch defence of the truly terrified… We have become a marketer-oriented industry where the deal is more important than the movie… The people who are in control… who are even now dictating what stories the story-tellers may tell, are neither film-makers nor story-tellers. They are not leaders they are followers – of the market… And because they believe that a singular market-oriented paradigm imposed upon the story-tellers from above will work, they will sacrifice the very thing they are duty-bound to foster – the clear, passionate voice of the New Zealand artist. ”