As part of New Zealand Film Month, Rialto Channel is proud to present Fantail, screening on Wednesday 31st December, 8.30pm.
Writer and actress Sophie Henderson’s low budget debut feature film exceeded all expectations, including her own. Recently, Henderson spoke to Francesca Rudkin about moving from theatre to film making for REMIX magazine.
When actress and writer Sophie Henderson didn’t get the funding she needed to turn her drama school monologue into a theatre play, it was, she claims with a smile on her face, “the best thing that ever happened to me”.
Encouraged by her husband, director Curtis Vowell, Henderson then submitted her idea for the New Zealand Film Commission’s low budget Escalator scheme. After a lengthy process, they were granted funding to produce their debut feature film Fantail, the story of a young woman struggling to hold her family together as she works the graveyard shift at the local petrol station.
It’s a beautiful tale about culture, identity and family, and is filled with fascinating characters that draw you into what is a humorous, melancholy and, at times, dark drama.
The film debuted at the 2013 NZ International Film Festival, receiving eight NZ Film Award nominations, including Best Actress and Best Screenplay for Henderson. It was also accepted into the 2014 Rotterdam Film Festival and the Melbourne Film Festival, where it won a People’s Choice Award. “It went better than I could have ever imagined”, says Henderson about her first foray into filmmaking.
That doesn't mean it wasn't without its challenges; the first being writing a film script.
“It was so different”, says Henderson about writing for screen instead of stage. “I think the first draft I wrote was pretty much just putting the play into final draft, so it looked like a screenplay, but mainly it was about showing the story instead of telling it. In theatre all you’ve really got is dialogue and gesture and it’s all kind of in a wide shot, but in film you can tell the audience were to look, and reveal the character through action.”
The Escalator scheme requires filmmakers to work fast and the talented duo ripped into a twenty-day shoot only five months after getting the green-light to go ahead. This was followed by a year of post production, and even though Henderson’s grateful she avoided the normal seven years it takes to make a film, she confesses a little more time would have been useful.
“We had to fix things in the edit that we could have fixed in the script. We totally re-wrote the film in the edit and did pick ups. It was great, it was a learning process, and I was welcomed into the edit room, which never happens - generally writers are banned.”
With the encouragement of a mentor, Australian screenwriter Alice Bell (Suburban Mayhem) Henderson is working on her second feature film script. Manhunt is an adaptation of a short story written by her mother Katie Henderson, and will also be directed by Vowell. It tells the story of a woman who always falls for the wrong guy so makes a boyfriend out of crafty things. “She folds one, knits one. Its very whimsical”, says Henderson.
Unlike Fantail though, when it comes to writing Manhunt Henderson is refusing to write to a budget. “I’ve gone wild”, claims Henderson gleefully. “It’s between the first and second draft and I’m not thinking about budget. I don’t care, someone else can tell me later.”
For all this bold talk, Henderson enjoys the nature of low budget filmmaking. “What’s great about making a low budget film is you know that no one is doing it for the money. You know that they believe in the creative team or they believe in the script and they want to tell a story.”
Currently Henderson works as the general manager and programmer for the Basement Theatre, as well as taking roles on screen and on stage. Asked what she would do if she had a choice, Henderson answers without hesitation, “I’d be working full time as a writer and doing some acting on the side.” There may be very few screenwriters working full time in New Zealand compared to writer directors, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this quietly determined young woman has a damn fine crack at it.
Fantail screens on SKY TV’s Rialto Channel on Wednesday 31st December, 8.30pm