Gaylene Preston (WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us, Ruby and Rata, Mr Wrong) is one of our most celebrated film makers and in her latest film Home by Christmas she draws upon her own family stories to offer a poignant and truthful insight into ‘the big silence’, the experiences of World War II shared by an entire generation but seldom told.
Guest MC documentary maker Leanne Pooley (Haunting Douglas, Untouchable Girls) welcomed Gaylene to the August Writer’s Room with words of praise. “I am very pleased to be here with Gaylene because her films embody an honesty, bravery and tenacity that is so special and so important. I love Home by Christmas because it embodies all of these things.”
Home by Christmas is based on Gaylene’s interviews with her father about his experiences during World War II and reconstructed with actor Tony Barry as Ed Preston. The film is a blend of archival footage and imagined sequences and tells the story from both sides of her parents’ wartime marriage.
When asked how Home by Christmas came to be, Gaylene described a passion for collecting stories that began early in life. “I was working as an art therapist in psychiatric hospitals in the UK. I heard a lot of stories in that environment and was always fascinated, not only by what the story was, but also by how it was told.”
As a confessed ‘story collector’, Gaylene felt it was appropriate and natural to collect the stories of her parents. “I was born after the war and always had an interest in my parent’s war stories. As a little kid, I’d hear things but it was really all a big mystery. The war was part of a shared experience that wasn’t shared. Everyone’s Mum and Dad lived through the event but there was this big silence surrounding it. Children hear big silences very acutely. Collecting these stories is rather like collecting the big silence, The big secret.”
It wasn’t until her father had received a cancer diagnosis that he agreed to sit down with Gaylene over a tape recorder and tell his story. “This was at Christmas time and it was his special gift to me.” After his death, Gaylene wanted to know the other side of the story, her mother was interviewed too. The ensuing oral history inspired the film WAR STORIES Our Mothers Never Told Us.
Home by Christmas combines the genres of documentary and drama. Gaylene chose it that way although she rejects the labels. “I had these little tapes I did with my Dad. I couldn’t use them because the sound was bad but I had this story that was so great because of the intimate way it was told.” The interview was reconstructed for the film. “It wasn’t just what he said that was fascinating but also what he chose not to say. There was no one way to portray this other than by reconstruction. Fortunately I found a brilliant actor who could do it.” She describes the film as a dramatic piece of storytelling, classical in its structure. It establishes the conflict (the big dislocation), introduces the heroes (“the old chaps”) who set off on their journey, follows the consequences and offers a resolution.
Balancing the dual roles of daughter and director in the film required thought and care. Gaylene said she had not intended to play herself but wanted to give the reconstructed interview extra support. The crew worked at her home because Gaylene felt she had some control there. “We shot a bit to see if it would work – and it did – so I put myself in because I wasn’t sure how I could direct two actors in that situation.” She added it was important for the audience to know the story was told by a father to his daughter. “How men tell stories to their daughters is different to how they might tell the same story to their sons. That relationship is part of the story.”
Actor Tony Barry plays Ed Preston in the film. Rather than learn a script for his role, Gaylene asked him to learn the transcript of the tapes she had made with her father. “So he didn’t learn the words of a script but I elicited the story from him, directing him as I would a subject in a documentary. I can’t talk about the reconstructed interview without being grateful to Tony for pulling it off. It’s a very tricky area for an actor. They like to learn the lines and perform them and that was the one thing I asked him not to do. So he couldn’t perform, but he wasn’t allowed to be himself either. He had to be Ed Preston.”
How people choose to remember what has happened to them, how they decide to tell a memory in story and how the storytelling shapes the memory again interests Gaylene. Her parents, Tui and Ed, told stories very differently. Whereas Ed would, in a matter of fact fashion, tell a story ‘like it is’, Tui’s brand of storytelling was “… internally conflicted, hankie-wringing and counter pointed. It’s interesting how we tell stories. Oral histories are particularly interesting. One person tells you this, and another tells you that, and a third will tell you something else. It’s like a spider’s web but you can clearly see in them all that we are the heroes of our own story but with several versions – it’s a story net. You get a three dimensional view.”
Gaylene let Tui tell her own story in War Stories but she told her father’s in Home by Christmas. “His story was as truthful as he chose to tell it on the day I recorded it. I could tell Tui’s story without much reference to Ed but Ed’s could not be told without referring to Tui. This brings up what could be called re-enactments or dramatisations. I thought of them as ‘imaginings’, my interpretation on the screen. As emotionally potent as I could imagine, without disrupting Ed’s story but interjecting Tui’s side of things. The film is all about leaving home. It’s about the whole community. We sometimes don’t know who we are until we leave home and we define ourselves by that.”
Home by Christmas Editor Paul Sutorius has worked with Gaylene on three of her films (Bread and Roses, War Stories and Ruby and Rata) and knew Tui’s story very well. “Paul was never going to let me undermine Tui’s story, so that allowed me to completely commit to Ed’s. I wasn’t just wanting to tell my parents’ story for the sake of it. I think their stories illustrate a much larger rarely recounted experience that was shared by a whole generation. It’s a universal story and a social history too. That it centres in my family offered me, and by extension, the audiences, unusual intimate access to something much larger.”
The “cheeky girl” of the family, Gaylene says she “got away with stuff” she might not have tried had she been making the film about someone else. There were decisions to make about how far to take the unspoken truths of families. “My Dad’s big war secret was quite different to those of my friends’ fathers. As he left town with all the others they thought they’d have a big party, but unlike many of Ed’s compatriots, though he had a hard time, he did eventually have a bit of fun after he escaped into Switzerland. That was his big secret and he took it to the grave. I’ll never know if my parents talked about what happened while they were separated.”
Young Tui is played by Gaylene’s daughter Chelsie Preston Crayford. “Chelsie had recent experience with my mother because Tui brought her up from the age of 7 until she was 14. We lived in the same house so Chelsie knew Tui very well in the way that only a small child can know an older person. Chelsie brought beautiful details to the film. There are moments in her performance when you can really feel Tui. Chelsie brought a depth of understanding to the role and a lightness and warmth that really lifts the movie.”
When asked if Home by Christmas was the most personal of all her films, Gaylene replied, “It is personal because it exploits my family’s story to make my own pacifist statement about war but Perfect Strangers is my most personal work. That film is my analysis of post-feminism. I wanted to put the romantic myth into the freezer!”
Leanne opened the floor to questions and the audience was interested to know more about the actors’ use of the transcripts and tapes versus the script itself. Gaylene said she had written ‘screeds’ of dialogue and the words were available to the actors but they were not in the shooting script. “Marilyn Milgrom of the NZ Film Commission looked at the script for Home by Christmas and she said ‘just do the imaginings with as little dialogue as possible.’ That was a great liberation for me and for our actors because they could do it as a silent movie.” But the actor must still find the voice, tone and structure of the story. “When I can take the actor and introduce them to a real person who is like their character, the performances have more depth than if you just made them up. Making it up is a start but it isn’t going to get you the whole hog.”
When she and Graeme Tetley were adapting Sonia Davies’ autobiography for the film Bread and Roses, Gaylene decided to dramatise the story but not fictionalise it. “We would not make up new characters or invent situations that did not happen but we would dramatise in that we would look after the emotional life of the character, make a story arc but restrict ourselves to real action. That is dramatising.”
Home by Christmas may be an innovative ‘hybrid’ of documentary and drama but when asked if this form would attract audiences, Gaylene said that “form is a smokescreen” and the story is the thing. “Getting an audience in to the cinema is very competitive and I knew that any story I told about my parents would need to be compelling. You have to take your audience into a world that they would not inhabit otherwise. That is the journey people want in the dark. All engrossing, immediate. It can’t just be interesting to me because it’s my Mum and Dad. It has to have a lot of dramatic structure, the heart, the surprises, the characters, performances and the images of a movie.”
Gaylene was asked if Home by Christmas would have been harder to make had her father still been alive and she replied, “My parents enjoyed the movies and I think Dad would have loved it. He would have liked people laughing at a little story he told me into a little tape recorder.”
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen