FEATURE: 20 DECEMBER 2010
The October Writer’s Room, in association with the Screen Directors Guild, hosted a world first when guest writer/director Vincent Ward wore his glasses in public for the first time. “I’m coming out,” he said as he settled in with MC director/producer Dan Salmon to treat the audience to readings from his new book, clips from some of his films and candid insights and conversation about his career and adventures along the way.
One of our best known writer/directors is also ‘coming out’ as a painter/ writer with his new autobiographical book The Past Awaits, a hauntingly beautiful work that will be launched in his home town of Greytown this November with a weekend of festivities and special screenings of his films. Vincent took over a year out from film making to write his book, a balance of visual images and personal stories taken from his life and creative journey. He gratefully acknowledged the help of his two assistants, Lani and Emma. “They have helped me with amazing good humour on this project,” he said. “We’ve been working in what I call my South Pacific office. It’s actually a garden shed and we work at such close quarters that it’s important we get on well.”
Vincent’s groundbreaking films have stood the test of time and audience. Movies like The Navigator (1988) have a freshness, depth and vitality that keep them alive, well and attracting audiences today. Ward’s work is characterised by innovation, an adventurous approach and a seemingly fearless drive to explore, discover and undertake creative risks to make good films.
Rain of the Children (2008) has been described as Ward’s most personal film to date in which he tells the story of Puhi, an elderly Maori woman who was the subject of his earlier documentary In Spring One Plants Alone (1981). Puhi lived in a remote part of the Urewera Ranges caring for her violent schizophrenic son Niki and Ward recorded their day to day lives in his documentary. Puhi’s story and background haunted him for years and in Rain of the Children he brings her to life.
Vincent wanted to make a film that was part documentary and part “full on drama.” The film is based on Puhi’s story so Vincent engaged with the local people, learned their versions of the events and listened to what they had to say. “I interviewed 50 locals. The elders came out in support of us and told me their stories. They were very generous and honest. Always with this kind of film the local people come first and the relationship with them is more important than the film – so you have to be prepared always to stop and spend time, go to Tangis, and local evnts even when the crew is there. I thought, well, if the film falls over, if for any reason people are not happy so be it. You have to be philosophical about it because of greatest importance are the relationships you have with the local people and their interest and commitment to the film. This methodology meant I had a compass and an anchor and could develop the story with input from the local people.”
Ward had a structure in mind but described the making of this film as an ‘organic process’. “In the days of silent movies Charlie Chaplin would shoot a bit, look at it and then think about what to do next. Films at that time were allowed to grow organically. But then films got more expensive and that way of working meant it was harder to manage and estimate budget so the bigger films became the more constrained they became. Our way of working today is governed by timelines. Even in the script development process everyone involved in development is trying to go through one small hole to get the money and none of us ever quite fit. The films often come out fitting the shape that you had to fit through to get that money and not all films fit that one shape. The shape for me on these larger films is: I have an idea, I write it down, go through script assessments, film it over a number of days and that tends to give us one sort of result. I have to get it in one hit and be happy with it. There is far less room to try things. I still take creative risks even in this structure but it is not as playful. A small crew meant we would go in for short periods of time and we could try anything within the limits of resources. We filmed a battle scene with seven crew plus locals halfway up a mountain in the middle of winter, under very strict provisos because we knew we had to get down otherwise we would be snowed in. If it hadn’t worked out, the crew was so small we could go back and shoot again.”
Vincent said it was a “revelation” to him that he could make drama with a small number of people, “… as long as you took big breaks in between shoots. Actually, after a week or so, things would fall apart. It would pour with rain and the costume truck would be boggged in for a day. With so few people your forward planning could fall apart the longer out from pre-prod you were. The crew size was so small I ended up doing some (limited) stunt work myself with a horse that wasn’t broken in properly. Everyone was stretched and had to adapt to a wider range of roles and they seemed to find that exhilarating.”
Probably one of the more memorable moments occurred whilst filming Waihoroi Shortland in Rain. In the scene, based on actual events, the young man Niki is lying beaten and naked in a deserted street. Niki had few friends but possessed an extraordinary rapport with animals. “There was a white horse that no one could tame but it always came up to Niki,” said Vincent. “Everything I do comes from character and in this scene I wanted to capture how the young man was feeling at that time, lying in the street, alone and vulnerable. In the scene, the horse was to approach the man and that sounded fine but the horse wasn’t quite broken in. We had thin fishing line attached to the horse’s bridle that would lead him to the actor but it was all a bit risky. As it turned out, the actor and the horse did what was expected of them and it was all done in one take. That stallion … he was more than just a horse. Filming that scene was one of the more extraordinary events in my life.”
Map of the Human Heart (1993) “… was no less adventurous, and was made at a time when studios, especially the small studios like Polygram, tried to break new ground. Of course I was taking myself way out of my comfort zone and breaking new ground for myself. It was adventurous, both creatively and physcially.” He spoke of a close call while doing stunt camerawork at the top of the Albert Hall when he lost his balance and swung like a pendulum. “I could have hurt myself – but the footage was great.”
A clip from this film showed two stunt doubles making love on top of a barrage balloon, a scene during the filming of which he received ironic comments from actress Anne Parriauld, who was concerned that the stunt couple may be getting too cold and resolved that Vincent should go up there himself. She laughed when she realized he probably would.
Dan commented that such a scene was a big risk creatively as it is such an extreme image to look at, and asked if such visual images are balanced with story truth.
“That scene doesn’t come out of nowhere,” said Vincent. “It is a rendezvous that actually happened, a true story from the war. The visual concept of a film is what drives it narratively and those building blocks have to be really strong otherwise no one will go with you. Of course in a clip you don’t show all this lead up.”
Vincent said when he first read the script of the novel for his film What Dreams May Come (1998) he found it very powerful and authentic. The novelist had interviewed people who had clinically died and come back to life. Certain threads had emerged from those interviews, inspiring the book.
“The producer was trying to get the script of Dreams made for 20 years. The screenwriter wrote two drafts and I didn’t know how to make the film. One day I was looking at some paintings on the wall and I had a thought. This is a story of a man who dies, goes to the afterlife and I wondered, how do you visualise the afterlife? I didn’t have the answers and they weren’t in the script so I thought, let’s make his wife an artist, a painter and restorer of art. His memories of her are so strong that he recreates a subjective afterlife in the form of the paintings she was restoring or those that she painted showing aspects of their life together. That meant we could have a wealth of paintings in his afterlife and this was a way they could connect. As she painted one painting in real life it would appear in his afterlife and she would know she was communicating with him. This allowed a very strong visual connection to develop - a powerful connective tissue between the two people.”
Finding the technology to support the vision proved a difficult and lengthy process. “The safest option came from Industrial Light and Magic but they weren’t willing to put much money into it and find adventurous solutions. Eventually I found someone who was brilliant. At the end of each day I would go to work with the visual effects houses, then work with the motion painting house. It was a continuous process that lasted about eighteen months, working seven day weeks”
It was a risky undertaking. “Many times the executives said, ‘Get rid of this painting idea! It could be expensive and we don’t know if it will work’ but they had trust I could pull it off and the film won an Academy Award (Best Visual Effects) and was nominated for another (Best Production design). This gave it visual core which underlay the emotional core brought to it by the actors.”
The motion painting technique was innovative and extraordinary, borrowing from missile tracking technologies. “We scanned individual paint strokes and attached them to particles … the visual effects guys worked out how to track vectors of light movement and colour and attach the scanned paint strokes to it. The technique has been used in many films since then at a more prosaic level to do with simply tracking objects (not in paint!). We also used laser and radar to scan three dimensional objects, to make a 3-D model of where we had filmed so we could then combine the two. We really were learning as we went along.”
Conversation about What Dreams May Come prompted Vincent to talk about his training as a painter and a recent return to the art. “I have a show coming up over Christmas 2011-12 and must complete 36 new works. I promised myself I would go back to painting and am making use of some of the things we explored in Dreams. Motion painting in the film was never recognised as an ‘art form’ so this is something we’re exploring for the exhibition in the form of still image collages.”
Occasionally Vincent has been accused of going to extremes and taking far too many risks with his film making. Though he is always meticulously careful with his crew and cast and would rather risk himself than others. “I am a safety addict but I do go to extremes for very short bursts – yes, going up rivers (three days) – yes, filming outside in the rain or inside when it’s sunny – yes. But my strategy is to do the extreme stuff for four or five days of a shoot only and use it in the finished film so it has most impact. By and large I do everything in a contained and accessible way and if there is more demanding stuff to shoot I do it over a very tiny period of time. For example, when filming The Navigator, we spent two days on top of a mountain and the remaining 55 days around Auckland, mainly in a quarry within sight of the airport or in warehouses.”
He explained that everyone brings their roots to a film. “Mine come from a farm. I had a much older father and my mother came from Germany so many of my films are to do with cultural interactions and how people get on – or not. They have a kind of earthiness to them. Where you come from affects the films you make and the way you make them.”
Reading an excerpt from his book about his father’s hands offered a personal glimpse into the inspiration behind Ward’s film Vigil. “I drew my father’s hands. They were hands that seemed to carry his dreams. After the war, my father became a farmer. The land was so rough it had served as a training ground for soldiers. My father’s hands reminded me of the land he had worked so hard to clear.”
The desire to always look outside the square, to take on creatively adventurous projects, drives Vincent today so there is a result that is not just the same as everything else. “But first it has to be a story that moves and compels me. With the tightness of finance we face here most of us work preparing films without a safety net. If the film does not happen we beggar ourselves and there seems no way around that. Though for me, operating without a safety net means I push myself to do adventurous work that I hope will create a sense of awe – if it moves me this way I hope it will move others. Most days I wake up and I am actually frightened for two hours and I am not that easily frightened. I’m frightened because I wonder how I’m going to get through the next two years. But then I figure I will find a way.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell
Vincent Ward’s book, The Past Awaits, is now available:
“Magnificent … I don’t know if ever a book of pictures and stories moved me so much like Vincent Ward’s The Past Awaits. It will go into my suitcase for that lonesome island” – WIM WENDERS