“Break” RIP

Two years ago, I began shooting an ultra-low-/no-budget feature. Amidst the panic and fear and enthusiasm, I felt like I was doing something tangible. No more making things up and putting them to paper – I had to make a freaking film of it. In rare moments of lucidity, I felt like I was on the threshold of arriving; if I wasn’t careful, I’d catch myself drafting acceptance speeches.

Alas, despite a selective reminiscence, things went to shit after production wrapped. The culmination of a year’s work up to that point, along with the buy-in of many generous, talented, willing people to whom I’d given my word, came to a sudden and crushing halt. Written contracts were finally presented and their content was nothing like I’d agreed to verbally much earlier. Verbal agreements that I’d shaken hands on weren’t being honoured. Belated negotiations began but I got the very distinct impression that I was expected to be so desperate to get the film finished that I would sign anything – including signing away all rights and claim to the film for two dollars.

Two dollars.

Never – ever – start a feature without a written contract. I have learnt my lesson well. Life is too short to kill and dump the bodies of people who would bareface steal from you. (Unless you’re fully and totally committed to go all the way to ensure your continued freedom.) (Note: prepping a feature is excellent preparation.)

The first six months were the hardest. I had to explain to everyone why the project crashed. I tried one door after another to finish post-production, to get it up and limping along, but I failed.

The next six months were just as heartbreaking but in a completely unexpected way: I couldn’t let it go. I was depressed. I was a lot of work to live with.

In the year that followed, it was less and less on my mind, and more and more I realised that, although scriptwriting – especially when I was getting paid for it – was pretty cool as a career, I had been infected by the filmmaking bug.

I wanted to make another film. Just writing one was not enough.

So. Here I am.

Tomorrow we start shooting a short film – funded by Creative New Zealand’s Screen Innovation Production Fund, thank you very much – with the help of as many culprits from that feature as are still talking to me and – horror of horrors – are willing to work with me again.

Time for BREAK to make way. Thanks for the lessons. And the memories.

Time for a new adventure.


Blatant Name Dropping

Earlier in the week I attended Playmarket‘s 2008 Pasifika Playwrights Development Forum. Fellow BREAK survivor and newly appointed Playmarket development coordinator, Jenni Heka, was responsible for my attendance: she’s scary.

In my experience, Pasifika* gatherings have been the last place to have a good time. I’ve felt out of place at them, like I’ve gatecrashed someone’s birthday party. Most have been a combination of boring gabfest, bitch sessions, and/or a mob hysteria where one had to choose sides or get the hell out.

Not so this week. It wasn’t once boring. Instead of “woe is me” rants, we had fire and passion – where outsiders might’ve seen some rabble-rousing radicalism, I saw empowerment by example and vision. And everyone – everyone – was so freaking nice. There was an atmosphere of collegiality, of a common goal of telling Pasifika stories. A feeling of community.

I hadn’t expected to be so inspired: seeing my competition fellow Pasifika creatives making things happen; swapping numbers and email addresses; making contact. Future posts will explore the culture scene thingie (obviously, I’m still sorting it out in my head) but for now I’ll just name drop:

  • Insiders Guide to Happiness lead, Fasitua Amosa (Samoan);
  • Royal Court Theatre head, Ola Animashawun, who provided his dramaturgy services to the forum;
  • Love Handles and Miss South Pacific writer Arnette Arapai (Niue);
  • Actors Equity representative, Teresa Brown;
  • director, screenwriter, fellow guild member, and all-round gentleman, Tony Forster;
  • award-winning playwright and actor Dianna Fuemana (Niue/Samoan);
  • And What Remains writer, Miria George (Rarotongan/Cook Islands);
  • writer, director, producer, comedian and Killa Kokonut, Vela Manusaute (Samoan), who is many things because he simply gets it on;
  • established playwright and currently New Zealand Film Commission development executive, Hone Kouka (Maori);
  • New Zealand acting icon Nathaniel Lees (Samoan);
  • Fulbright scholar and playwright, Victor Rodger (Samoan/Scottish);
  • Phoenix Seve, whose work-in-development In the Name of the Father was given a public reading by professional actors and I was simultaneously electrified and brought to tears – and it’s still in development;
  • BREAK survivor and actor, the irrepressible Bronwyn Turei (Maori);
  • and writer and filmmaker, Louise Tu’u (Samoan), who also showcased some scenes from her work-in development, Providence, which is my must-see for 2008.

So many names that I recognised, whose work I’d seen and adored. And I got to meet them! For real! It was so cool!

I must get out more.

* Note for international readers: in New Zealand, Pasifika means of Pacific Island origin, ie., not Maori. Here in New Zild, the Maori and Pacific Island population are already such a part of the Kiwi culture that to call them ethnic minorities, though statistically correct, would be like describing African Americans as an ethnic minority. We all be Kiwis here.


Point & Click

Prrretty busy this week.

  • After several months of having just eight members and a total of nine posts (four of them by my own hand), the New Zealand Writers Guild forums is getting some traction with sixteen members and forty-two posts as of today. Go ask a question or something.
  • Over at the Beeb‘s Writers Room is a rather informative Q&A with Casualty writer Mark Catley. The Writers Room seems to be a great resource for television writing. (Ooh! It’s got Q&A’s with Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum director Paul Greengrass, and Hu$tle and Life on Mars co-creator Tony Jordan.) (Fedora-tip: WGGB Blog.)
  • And Break cinematographer, Matt Meikle, recently won the 2007 Australian Cinematography Society Gold Award for Cinematography on Hawaikii. Congratulatoriations!

Point and Click


Post-partum Blues

Another deadline met and yet I feel glum.  I think it’s the intensity of throwing everything at it over a short space of time (sometimes due to having skulked around it for so long previously), tossing it off (so to speak), and then collapsing in a steaming, exhausted heap (until the kids come home and ask what’s for Dinner).

It’s not like I haven’t got work to fall back on.  I recently secured a television concept I developed a few years back – I’m looking forward to significantly retooling that.  My iCal keeps reminding me that my 2007 spec script is ready to commence – I’ve been itching to get into that for over a year now. And I’m looking to nail some paid writing work in the next week or so.

Those should keep me out of trouble for the coming second quarter.

And to ensure I meet my quota of having five projects on the boil at any one time, let’s not forget that Break is teeeasing close whilst Mr T‘s 5 (MR T is the beaver to my sloth) is hip-deep in the rough-cut stage.  (I think his shaved head helps with cutting through things like air, water and bullshit.)

You’re right:  projects in post don’t really count ’cause, like, they’re virtually done, right?



The Good and The Bad

I read somewhere – or I’m just extrapolating from my own thought processes – that humans are much more likely to remember the bad things than the good things. For example, if you had just about a perfect day, and just one itty-bitty thing were to go wrong, that day would be remembered more for whatever went wrong than for every good thing before and after it. It’s very easy to roll around in self-pity when things don’t go your way.

Shit happens. But most of the time, with perseverance (and/or stubbornness), talent (self-belief) and good luck and timing (a kick-arse manager), all goes well.

This year has been my most productive to date. I don’t have much to show for it, but I did enough film-related work – and earned enough from it – that I didn’t have to do any full-time temp work.

I co-wrote, directed and produced an HD feature. The experience provided fodder for an unreliable account kindly published by WriteUP.

I produced a short which screened in November.

I helped develop a t.v. series.

I co-wrote a feature for Unkreative which is currently in post-production.

And I’m due to finish a long-overdue feature script for Mr Blyth.

So. Not a bad year, all up.

Here’s to 2007.



Feature Film Virgin

The lovely people at WriteUp have very kindly published another piece of mine. It’s a soft-focussed, selective and utterly unreliable reminiscence of the BREAK production. I present it for your entertainment.

Feature Film Virgin

Inspired by a true story.


This is what I get for being impatient. After a couple of paid gigs – both in development hell – I wanted a credit. I was going to be one of those self-starters.

I sounded out FRUSTRATED DIRECTOR, a fellow film school graduate, on my wildly ambitious idea: I would outline a feature-length story for a bunch of actors to workshop, he and the actors would hit the streets guerrilla-styles, and BAM! an indie feature. He loved it. (I could see it now: “Written by Impatient Screenwriter”; I had to talk Frustrated Director down from a “A film by” credit to “Directed by” though – whose insane idea was this to begin with, bub? Best to thrash these things out as early as possible.)

Frustrated Director had the connections. The production company he worked for was suffocating his creativity but it had all the equipment and facilities that we would need. He also knew a couple of young ‘n’ hungry actors who were looking for just this kind of project.

I drafted a twenty-page treatment that had all the clichŽs I abhorred. I didn’t have the luxury of time. I discovered a newfound admiration for those B- to Z-movie screenwriters: that love-triangle between the protagonist, antagonist and the damsel – ‘s there for a reason, bud. Frustrated Director read it, adored it, but suggested that some ‘indicative dialogue’ be included so that the actors could really get into their characters.
I drafted a fifty-page scriptment. It hurt. A lot. A twenty-page prose treatment is fine when you’re just trying to sell your story. But with a script you have to show and tell everything. A scriptment was the best I could do with the time available. And I got some ‘indicative dialogue’ in there.
I decided that this scriptment would be as much as I would write, script-wise. It was time for the actors’ input. We were going to work fast and loose.


The first read-through of the scriptment was an eye-opener. Interpretations of what I’d knowingly written as cardboard cut-outs gave me a new appreciation for the acting craft. Dialogue that had zinged in the acoustics of my cave fell to the floor with a croak despite the best thespian efforts. I had to be careful with how I answered questions on character and motivation. Answers like “because I felt like it” or “it was three in the morning when I wrote that” or “because that was the best excuse I could dredge up to lead into the set-piece” did not suffice, regardless of the good will in the room.

I walked away from that read-through – and subsequent ones – with a sense of satisfaction and achievement: no longer was I struggling alone with characters and action; I was now part of a team. I wasn’t defending my script’s shortcomings, real and perceived – everyone’s goal was to make it a better creature. Despite my earlier resolve to just add notes to the scriptment and work fast and loose, I ended up writing a full script, revising it a few times along the way.

Frustrated Director introduced me to ENTHUSED PRODUCER. Enthused Producer agreed to provide equipment, crew and cash for unavoidable expenses; the project had stepped up from being a no-budget film to an ultra-low budget film. No one would be paid; everyone would be fed and watered, and would be in for a slice of any action the film made.

He also fired Frustrated Director. “It’s a tradition in New Zealand,” he persuaded me, “the Film Commish love writer-directors.” My protests of an attachment to my cave (and wife, children and pets) were overridden with what would become a refrain in the Writer/Director-Producer relationship: “You want to make this film, don’t you?”


We already had our leads: MALE LEAD and FEMALE LEAD. They’d really helped flesh out the script; in return, I was going to make them stars.
Now I had to surround them with supporting actors. A trawl through the script elicited twenty speaking roles. Oh. My. Gawd. Maybe I should’ve read at least one of those books on no-budget filmmaking. (A moment of weakness at the local library found me flicking through such a book: it recommended a maximum of six speaking parts and three locations; I had ten locations.)

I was urged to properly audition actors for the supporting roles: it’s professional; it’s courteous; and they’re on their best behaviour.
The auditions were another learning experience. Actors competing for the same role found different yet equally compelling facets in their character. A great audition in the room didn’t always translate to a great performance on tape.

I advised all successful and unsuccessful auditioners of our decision and soon discovered why they say, “Don’t call us – we’ll call you.” An actor who’d accepted a supporting role written specifically for a woman had to pull out. I’d burned some bridges on breaking the news to her competitors. A two-o’clock-in-the-morning epiphany: the character could just be as effective as a male; the details of the character’s relationships to others would change… but not dangerously so.


Okay. So I was now a multi-hyphenate. I knew one thing absolutely: I would need all the help I could find to get this show on the road.
A core crew was assembled: GRIZZLED DP; HOT DOG ART DIRECTORS (they were a package deal); and MONOSYLLABIC PRODUCTION MANAGER. Monosyllabic Production Manager was the nexus of all communication. It soon became apparent that her availability via first her phone, then her email access, became what could best be described as ‘intermittent’.

We had two weeks of preprod and a few meetings. I found myself answering questions and considering alternatives that wouldn’t have entered my cave-based writing in millennia. I was more than happy to delegate. I insisted on clear lines of communication, demarcations of responsibilities, and that everyone understood. The buck stopped with me. I could see how a director could become the centre of their universe.


The camera’s rolling, audio’s set and there’s a small crowd of people watching a lone actor in an urban landscape. “Action!” I called. Right before my eyes a small moment from the script came to life. It wasn’t until afterward that I realised that almost a year of development had led to that moment. This was why I wanted in on this industry.

The production schedule was a tight, intense fifteen-day shoot spread over five weeks. When Monosyllabic Production Manager was unable to either do properly detailed call-sheets or be on set as a first assistant director (1AD), I considered buying shares in Grecian2000. I called in a favour and we got ourselves ALWAYS ANXIOUS 1AD. Even though I grew to fear and loathe him in the heat of shooting, a good 1AD is the engine that ensures that Things Get Done. It wasn’t until Always Anxious 1AD had to leave for a prior commitment and we cycled through RELUCTANT 1AD and SURLY 1AD that I began to truly appreciate his work. Take my word for it, a good 1AD is worth killing for.

Most everyone else had day-jobs so I was the only one who knew the project inside and out. There was some pre-production outstanding that was sorted out sometimes only hours before call-time. Enthused Producer was nowhere to be seen on set. I began to feel the true weight and cost of having the buck stop with me. Everyone looked to me on what to do now and what to do next. As I took on preparing call-sheets and finishing off preprod, I realised I had become, by circumstance, a writer/director/producer.

Our Female Lead became unavailable part-way through the shoot: I experienced first-hand those scheduling conflicts they mention in the showbiz news. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place: she’d been involved since the heady script-development days. It was either reschedule an already fragile production schedule around this one person, or recast. I recast.

In the end, we shot twenty-three days over ten weeks. The small army of twenty dreamers that had greeted me on my first day of shooting had shrunk to a hard-core crew of six within the first week. That crew and I – ‘my crew’ – had finished a journey together, filled with heroic deeds and apocryphal tales, where legends were forged in blood and towing fees. No more was this ‘my film’ but ‘our film’ – those stubborn sumbitches had earned it.


We had footage in the can. Time for BLUNT EDITOR to work her editing magic. By the end of the first day’s editing, I knew my place: I was now an Informed Observer. I had to bite my tongue and hide my expressions of pain/horror/embarrassment as the footage was viewed with accompanying disappointed sighs, disapproving tongue-clicks and/or sad shakes of the head. Suggestions had to be carefully worded to avoid curt reminders of footage that was unusable, unavailable or unshot. I missed the deference of the set.

As the film slowly took shape, at times it felt like Blunt Editor was taking the story away from me. But she wasn’t: she was rewriting it. No – she wasn’t doing that either. She was fashioning a whole new creature that I had written and then shot. A sleeker creature. A creature that looked and sounded and felt… like a real goddamned movie.

Our movie.



Tinker-tinker-tinkering at dfmamea.com:

–  the Scripts page was getting a bit long so some navigation links have been added for features, television and shorts;

–   synopses are now available for the Break and Amateur scripts;

–   and a wee bonus for ye: Kimbo, a faux-treatment written at short notice as a prop in some reality programme prank; a ludicrous piece of writing but nevertheless my paean to the heydays of Messrs. Stallone and Schwarzenegger.