Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Stephanie Johnson on Peter Wells

To mark the death of writer and film-maker Peter Wells on Monday, the 103rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the fourth issue, September 1993. The photograph and cover shot are by Simon Young: this was possibly the first time a mainstream New Zealand magazine sold in supermarkets had an out gay man on the cover. The intro read:
The Piano wasn’t the only New Zealand film to make a big splash at Cannes this year. Desperate Remedies, directed by Peter Wells and Stuart Main, was in the prestigious “un certain regard” section and sold spectacularly well around the world, including the all-important US market. But the Film Commission wasn’t so enthusiastic, at one point deciding that the film shouldn’t be made. Stephanie Johnson talks to Wells about his sensuous fairy-tale.
In the last decade Peter Wells and Stuart Main have made a number of remarkable short dramas and documentaries, including Jewel’s Darl (based on a short story by Anne Kennedy) and A Death in the Family, which won awards here and in the US and Canada. Their first feature is the startling, sensuous and liberating Desperate Remedies.
Wells is also a successful writer of fiction. His short-story collection Dangerous Desires picked up the Reed fiction award and rave reviews at home, and will soon be published in the US, with potentially lucrative sales to the large gay market there.
Main loathes being interviewed, so while his shadowy presence lurked about their lovely Ponsonby villa, I talked to Wells in his study, from which you can see the glinting harbour and the puffing chimneys of the Chelsea sugar works.

SJ: What are the logistics of co-directing?
PW: People always ask about the co-directing. It’s not as strictly demarcated as one of us directing the camera crew and one of us directing the actors. The film can break up in different ways — like in this film-I worked more with Lisa Chappell [who plays Anne Cooper] and Cliff Curtis [as Fraser].

What a find! He was wonderful. Such a decadent face. Had he done much work before?
A bit. He just appeared out of the blue. Watching him last night [at the premiere], I think he’s the first Maori actor we’ve seen on film who isn’t self-conscious.

The common wisdom is that co-directing can’t be done.
Because Stuart and I have been it for quite a long time it crept up on people before they could make a judgment. In some of the films we’ve made together I’ve directed, Stuart’s been first assistant director and editor. In other films I’ve been writer and set director and he’s been director.

I suppose you and Stuart had the odd disagreement?
Yes, we would’ve. I suppose with this film Stuart was much more remorseless than I was in terms of style.

But you were remorseless about the actors keeping to the text?
[He laughs] With the partnership, people are always fascinated by the technical processes of it. I think  it’s allowed both of us to investigate all sorts of areas which individually would have been very difficult to have brought off. Like creating a kind of queer cinema. Because we've been able to do it together there’s been support and a kind of push/pull relationship.
I think if we’d been doing it individually, almost inevitably we would’ve gone overseas. As it is we’ve created our own sort of island, and now there’s Garth Maxwell and all sorts of other people, and so it gets bigger and bigger. That’s been the most creative aspect of the partnership.

Who yells out “Action”?
Stuart does normally. But we talk a great deal before we begin the project. We do quite a lot of rehearsal, an unusual amount for film. With Desperate Remedies, as with Death in the Family, we did our rehearsals with a video camera there, so we were planning our shots at the same time. It’s: only in rehearsal that you start to discover what you’re doing.

Desperate Remedies is such a vision — it has such a look — that I wondered how you’d arrived at a vision like that together.
It was worked out really with Stuart, me, Michael Kane and Glenis Foster, who are the set and costume designers. We’d sit down in this room and we’d talk forever. The basic starting point was we didn’t have a big budget so we could be as extreme as possible.

How much did it cost?
$2.1 million. In terms of international budgets it’s tiny.

Do you think the costs of it were kept down because it was shot indoors? If you’d actually gone down to the wharfs, you would have had to dress them and park a sailing ship there.
We’d decided we didn’t want that kind of film.

There were jokes in that scene that I think only New Zealanders or possibly people from colonial countries would appreciate — from both sides of the fence. Like “Natives No Problem" on a placard.
New Zealanders will have different readings of the film to others. People have said to me it doesn’t have any point of view of history, and others say it’s revisionist. I see the film as an escape from history, although it has a point of view on history.
When I was doing research I read about a family who lived in New Plymouth at the time of the land wars. They were such desperate times then, when people had to withdraw into a stockade and their houses were burnt down and they lost absolutely everything. They had to stay in the stockade and try to eat whatever was in the cupboards, and then when that  disappeared and they were all sleeping in a room, it was all sort of desperate. And it really appealed to me as a philosophical territory. Desperate Remedies is not as desperate as that, but we wanted the feeling of a stockaded town where everyone’s pushed in and so people are going to do all sorts of things, even though it’s all sort of exaggerated and mad and wild.
I would call the film a queer take on Mills and Boon. Stuart and I as little poofters growing up loved all that sort of Mills and Boonie historical romance kind of thing. A lot of the pleasure came from the fact we were able to take Historical Romance — the great heterosexual genre — and change it around so that what is always meant to be the great ending is subverted.

The language in the film is striking, archaic in a way. Like “those who light the fuse may live to be blinded by it”.
I enjoyed writing that dialogue. I worked with Debra Daley on the second draft. She was the script editor. We had a great deal of fun with that duelling dialogue. You don’t really know what anyone is thinking, but they’re duelling back and forth all the time.

The high-flown nature of the film is so refreshing. In New Zealand we still seem to believe that you don't blow your own trumpet — you make films about what you know about, your own life’s experience. It’s a death of the imagination.
It was a very easy screenplay to write even though it took five years. But the five years were really spent in the politicking.

The Film Commission asked you not to talk to anyone at Cannes about how they’d first knocked you back. What was the story there?
If something like this comes along, which is out of the context of all the films that have been made up to that time, of course it’s high risk. I’m so pleased we’ve got a Film Commission, and it’s absolutely essential that we do, but the voting situation on it is a strange one whereby there are always producers and directors on it. In a way, whatever project comes, it has to be fitted within the profile of their own projects. If your project comes up at the same time as one of theirs . . .
We went through a terrible stage when they’d spent something like $70,000 developing the script. We were going for production money and they said no, we’ve decided this film can go no further, it’s not on, it won’t work. So we just had to say you’re wrong, it’s going to be made. I talked last night to the people who said this film won’t work and they said, oh, we didn’t understand the way you were going to make the film.

Was it the style of the film that confused them?
I think so. In a way we also had to educate a lot of the actors. Stuart and I grew up in a time when on television there were a lot of old films on a Sunday afternoon, so you grew up almost unconsciously learning a history of cinema. These days the films are on at such terrible times nobody watches them, so everybody loses that history. So we sat down with the core cast, the six main actors, and we watched those fast-talking films of the 30s and 40s. Something that’s been lost is the speed at which people talked, the way they cut in on each other. When they watched them they suddenly clicked into the type of performance we wanted from them. In a way it was quite liberating for them to actually be bravura and to be able to walk right up to a camera.

There are lot of close ups. They’re all such beautiful people.
That’s part of the language of the melodrama genre. All the main characters are incredible-looking and all the extras are character faces. Everyone who isn’t part of the main drama is a kind of character face that you can read at a glance.
I kept thinking it was like a fairy-tale too. The opium-smoking caterpillars reminded me of Alice In Wonderland. [He laughs] I think it’s a fairy tale in both senses of the word.

Because you’d rehearsed the actors such a lot, how many takes did you do, on average, for each scene?
It varied. Not many with Jennifer [Ward-Lealand, who plays Dorothea].She has an almost faultless technical ability. It was interesting working with Jennifer and, say, with Cliff, because they were so different in their approaches and they challenged each other. Cliff is such a method sort of actor. He would charge all over the sets working himself up into a complete lather before a take.

Had Anne and Dorothea escaped so they could be lovers here without the eye of England on them?
They had no relation to England, really. Calling her Dorothea Brooke was a totally conscious thing. She’s the heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In a way we wanted to take a certain kind of Victorian independent woman of sensibility and place her in a quagmirey colonial situation.

The house that she lived in was extraordinary, with all the reflected surfaces and the feeling that at any minute it was all going to shatter.
They were the first scenes we did, the drawing-room scenes. It was wonderful for the crew and cast, because the first rushes we got back looked so staggering. We were all on a complete high.

I’ve never seen a New Zealand film as sumptuous as this. I remember after seeing it feeling relieved, as if a barrier had been broken and we were at long last allowed to make films that don’t have all the way through them: “This is a community announcement.”
Making such a theatrical film is a good thing, because I think New Zealand actors on the whole have had to be very  throttled in their kind of emotional range, more throttled than New Zealanders actually are.

Is that possible? Now, the other thing I wanted to talk about is the music. It really stands out, it’s one of the aspects of the film you remember.
Peter Scholes composed the score. He did a wonderful job. Music is another part of the language of that genre. We used the Auckland Philharmonia — 70 pieces, right down to a wonderful Russian violinist.

Writers who want to write films have got to deal with the fact that film-makers have often got such literal minds. It’s such a struggle that in the end many good writers think, I can’t be bothered, I’ll go and write a book.
For me as a writer I really like the fact that I’m involved in the film world. I notice for some writers that they see it as some form of prostitution. I think it’s a good combination to have. Financially it makes your life so much more possible, because writing for film brings in a lot more money. There are also craft considerations with whatever you’re doing. When I go back to writing fiction I find it very pleasing because it seems so limitless.

Have you started another screenplay yet?
I’ve got two I'm slowly working on. The ideas are just forming. I had a lovely conversation with Shonagh [Koea] about the rituals of writing. You know, how it’s such an important thing to have a routine and a rhythm.
I really underestimated how easy it would be to go from doing a film back to fiction. I just thought, oh we’ve finished, I’ve had a holiday now, so I can sit down and work. I’ve got back into that way of thinking that it’s a lucky thing, even though at times it feels like hell.

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