Vincent’s Hands

EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, FILM, Interviews,
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Vincent Ward, New Zealand auteur, reflects on a singular career in film, his creative instinct as an artist, and the exciting prospect of returning to directing after a long absence.

I only drink when I’m nervous,” cordial Vincent Ward says, pouring a glass of red at the hectic Sandringham warehouse where he paints and plans films. Widely praised for his striking visual style since being the first New Zealander to break into competition at Cannes with Vigil (1984), Ward is a genuine auteur in a country where ambition and originality is undervalued. Working between New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, he’s directed The NavigatorMap of the Human Heart, and What Dreams May Come. The late Roger Ebert hailed him as a “great filmmaker.”

Following 2007’s Rain of a Children, a moving eulogy for the indelible subject of his early documentary, In Spring One Plants Alone (1980), Ward returned to his visual arts roots, with exhibitions from New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery (Breath: the fleeting intensity of life) to the Shanghai Biennale (Auckland Station: Destinies Lost and Found). When I met the 57-year-old director and artist in Auckland for three discussions over recent months, he was buzzing with nervous energy about the (previously unannounced) possibility of returning to film. The intelligent Wairarapa native talked openly about L.A. and Te Urewera, Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola, his father/being a father, and why he hates being called a lapsed Catholic. Joined by The Lumière Reader’s Tim Wong, I also broached the difficult subject of River Queen—a flawed film we both admire—and the agony and ecstasy of creating art. Photography by James Black.

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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Jim Moriarty described River Queen to me as: “Beautiful, Vincent’s a purist.” Toa Fraser told The Lumière Reader: “I was blown away, and proud of my involvement.”[1] So what can you tell me about it?

VINCENT WARD:  I worked with some wonderful actors on it. Wi Kuki Kaa was great. It was a really great group of actors. Including Samantha [Morton].

AB: Including Samantha? She has trenchant critics.

VW: I think she had a take on it that was very narrow and didn’t allow for the other actors. I don’t really want to talk about her because as a director it’s important that you’re generous with the actors that you work with, and she’s certainly a very talented actress.

AB: You achieved that powerful sense of the river, the mana of the river.

VW: Yeah. I was happy with the battle scenes and I think some of the relationship engagements were good. There were things missing from the film that I would have liked to have shot;—I would have liked it to have been more of an identity drama than a historical drama. In the script there was more of that, and we just didn’t get time to shoot it.

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Filming ‘River Queen’ on the Wanganui river. Source: vincentwardfilms.com.

TIM WONG: Why is creative ambition so undervalued in this country?

VW: Everything that’s been a large film on an independent budget here has not worked out. It always gets shortfalled in terms of the money it can raise, locally. No matter what you raise overseas you can never get the money you need locally. So whether it’s Utu, which didn’t have the resources, or whether it’s The Vintner’s Luck, or whether it’s River Queen. Jane [Campion] seems to pull it off because she keeps her focus very narrow, so I thought what was really clever about The Piano was that you don’t see the shift, it was just focused on a three person drama. But if you try something of scale it’s quite difficult because you’re in a comparatively short schedule for what you’re trying to achieve. So I think that’s the sort of challenge that everyone has, when you’re trying to do a mid-range film in New Zealand, on New Zealand subject matter. You can’t actually raise the dosh you need to pull it off. We raised most of our money overseas.

TW: So you don’t think you’ll ever attempt another film of scale in New Zealand?

VW: I’d have to think very carefully.

AB: What were you particularly pleased with in River Queen?

VW: I was incredibly pleased with the battle scenes. I don’t think there’s been a battle scene like River Queen’s in New Zealand, or in fact in many American or overseas films. I thought the battle scene in The Mission was very clever in terms of the way it handled things dramatically, but this was a much grittier type of battle, very specific to New Zealand, and it’s where all the drama came together. Every dramatic thread came together in that battle, so it was like an intimate drama within an epic battle.

It took a relatively long time to film because you had to follow all these individual threads and relationships, which actually came together in the middle of a battle. Whether it was Te Kai Po and his girlfriend, or whether it was Cliff Curtis’s character and Samantha’s character, or whether it was Kiefer Sutherland’s character and Samantha, or whether it was the Mad Major and his relationship with Te Kai Po. Each one of them had an almost intimate drama pay-off in it.

TW: They’re guerilla battle scenes really, aren’t they? They’re a big contrast to the widescreen battle sequences we’re used to, where it’s just people chopping at each other and all the action is fragmented, and it’s just a big wave of violence.

VW: Yes. From the colonial perspective it’s more about the enemy you don’t see. I guess the main thing that I feel about River Queen is that it was in 2004. I’ve done something like eight features. One of the films has been nominated for two Academy Awards, another, one. I’ve just done six art exhibitions the previous year, I’ve put out three books, and everyone focuses on River Queen, which is not a bad film, but it was one little period. So I feel like what happens is it gets this incredible emphasis and I go, “has anyone seen anything else I’ve done?”

AB: I was one of the few local critics to support the film when it came out, because it is an important film about our history. I said at the time one of the strengths was an engaging visceral intensity to those battle scenes, and as you say, all the ideas that were coming together; complex ideas on New Zealand history and national identity. We need to talk about River Queen

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Paintings in storage at Vincent Ward’s Sandringham warehouse. Image by Tim Wong.

TW: That painting over your shoulder reminds me of a sequence in What Dreams My Come. The cliff that Robin Williams leaps from.

VW: Some of the artwork started with What Dreams May Come, and then I took it in another direction.

TW: The sensation of falling is palpable.

VW: Sure, and it’s in all my stuff. Sooner or later, it’s in Vigil. It’s because I grew up on a farm, with cliffs at the back. I used to do a lot of cliff climbing, basically, so I was always conscious of this, and I grew up Catholic, and there was always this thing of descent. For some reason, I often dream about flight, like I just float. So I have lots of images to do with that.

TW: Dreams are generally associated with falling, aren’t they?

VW: Falling or flight. I often think that I can go up in the air and just float around, not majestically in a way, not quite in control, but still kind of cool, like you would in a glider.

TW: I enjoyed your anecdote about the hell sequence in What Dreams May Come with Werner Herzog. He’s buried in the ground amongst all these other heads, and Robin Williams is meant to stand on his face but can’t bring himself to do it, even though Herzog is goading him like a madman. It speaks to me of the push/pull struggle of filmmaking; the director who wants his cast and crew to go beyond the call of duty.

VW: Well, Werner would go 100 miles beyond the call of duty and you’d ask him not to! [laughs] It’s actually quite the opposite. “No, don’t go beyond the call of duty, go less than the call of duty, please Werner, please. We don’t want any injuries. It would be really difficult if you lost an eye. Please don’t lose an eye, it’s not necessary. We have a big visual effects company working with us. If we really want you to lose an eye we could do that.”

TW: What I like about What Dreams May Come is that the images have a tactile, textural quality. And they still have that quality, even in the shadow of 3-D and state of the art CGI. Technology has come so far since your film, and yet the effects can still appear flat and soulless; it’s all generated in the computer without any physical element or definition of space. If you were to make the film with today’s visual effects technology, would it be the same film?

VW: It’s really hard to tell.

TW: It has that tradition of matte painting. I find matte painting really vivid—

VW: Well, I dunno, matte painting’s really flat. Matte painting is made to be invisible.

TW: But it has an unreal quality, which I tend to find more immersive as opposed to a digital backdrop, which is synthetic.

VW: In places we do have really good matte paintings, in the second half of the movie, in Marie’s world.

TW: You’re described as a great image-maker. In both your art and your filmmaking, is the process of image-making purely visual? How important is language in the development and expression of great images?

VW: Oh it’s never purely the image-making, it’s more the other way around. It’s about character mainly, point-of-view. It’s always about an idea, that idea can be expressed in language, sometimes images. It’s normally about what’s going on in someone’s mind, the output of that could be visual or it could be verbal. I find it easier doing it visually.

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Vincent Ward and Werner Herzog (in makeup) on the set of ‘What Dreams May Come’. Inset: a still from the film’s “hell sequence.” Source: vincentwardfilms.com.

AB: How do you know Herzog?

VW: I got to know Wim Wenders and Herzog years ago. Wenders, I still consider a friend of mine. He’s more friendly and easy. And Werner, well of course, he is wonderful filmmaker.[2] One is a modernist, and the other is a romantic of a particular kind. I had a retrospective at the Hof International Film Festival in Germany. I showed In Spring One Plants Alone, and Werner was in the front row, and he says, “uh, needs cutting.” Then a year ago I asked him, “Werner, will you do a quote for my book?” and he said, “Certainly In Spring One Plants Alone, I really like this film.” And I replied, “That’s not what you said when you saw it” [laughs].

So Werner’s kind of Werner. You go out for dinner with him, and he walks in and he doesn’t notice you. Instead he sees a woman in the distance 20 yards away, and see’s nothing else. Sort of like a Marx brothers routine, only it’s not intentionally funny. Werner goes into a room and he has a 5000mm lens, and he’s just focusing somewhere over there [gestures] and he’s putting together all the details like that. There’s five people in a long space, you’ll go “Hey Werner” [gestures Werner looking straight past with tunnel-like vision], there’s some girl the other end of the table, “Werner?” It’s not that he’s ignoring you it’s that he’s got his long, telephoto lens (and super Sennheiser mic) on.

AB: So it’s mainly with women?

VW: I think it’s the way he sees the world. He just goes like that. He’s a masochist, joining all his favourite ‘bits’ together in a view of the world or a narrative. He might join that little bit and that little bit because he finds it exciting. So he puts together those pieces imaginatively in his head. And by doing that he has ownership of his particular view of reality, specific.

AB: Herzog is one of cinema’s characters. How do you find him?

VW: He can be personable, he can be… let’s say not personable [laughs]. He’s Werner.

AB: What’s Terrence Malick like?

VW: Very personable, a very nice guy. I don’t know him super well. He was friendly to me at one period through a producer called Mike Medavoy. We’d go to the same small functions together. He’s moderately urbane, philosophical, very pleasant, thoughtful, super smart, interested, poetic.

AB: Also on L.A., how did you annoy Barbara Streisand?

VW: She wrote to me after Map of the Human Heart because she particularly liked [the film]. I just went to a private screening in her projection room. I thought there were going to be a lot of people there, [but] when I got there and it was just me and her. And I went, “uh-oh.” I managed to make it through the first film. In the second film—I was actually really tired, it had been a very long week—I said, “do you mind if I don’t stay for the second film?” I’ve got very large feet so I managed to tread on her feet on the way out. Let’s just say I was never invited back.

AB: Writing for The Lumière Reader, you enthused about Entourage.

VW: Yeah, that was cool. Everything was familiar in it—

AB: Those guys seemed to be having a—

VW: Well they had opportunities we never had! [laughs] I was sharing a place with a bachelor mate of mine and, you know, we were always hoping. But I had a good life in L.A., I really enjoyed it.

AB: It sounds like there were some opportunities?

VW: Oh yeah, sure. I’m work-driven, anyway. But I had a good time. Overall, even though I had my ups and downs, I can’t complain about any periods of my life. I don’t mind down periods, up periods, you know it’s all part of it.

AB: What’s the best thing about living in L.A.?

VW: Well there’s always the promise that you could do lots of projects. In fact, there was much more promise than reality, because everybody’s floating around on projects, living on promise. You go to the restaurant and every waiter is either an actor or a screenwriter and has a project. You go to the supermarket and there’s always these drop dead gorgeous women (L.A. like Miami is a magnet for the beautiful), inevitably. [They] would kill for ambition, are totally screwed up, narcissistic, destructive—sort of got radiation emanating from them. But they look great. Stay clear, major trouble—there should be a warning road sign [laughs]. There’s all these odd and often positive little connections all over the place. I kept bumping into Steve Martin. He liked my French girlfriend. Everything has its ups and its reverses but I found L.A. stimulating.

TW: Do you watch a lot of current films?

VW: I don’t. I’m mainly focused on outputs.

AB: You’ve developed the habit of watching TV series like The Wire.

VW: That’s right. What do you recommend currently?

AB: Treme, David Simon’s follow-up to The Wire, set entirely in New Orleans, post-Katrina. So again it’s very vivid and hectic, great characters, great dialogue. Intense, dynamic, and colourful.

TW: Mad Men?

VW: It resembles too much of my own life. He has lots of affairs which I don’t have in my life, but you know, marriage breakup, kids… I mean, honestly it’s too depressing, it’s like what’s happened to me.

TW: Have you caught up with Top of the Lake?

VW: Some people really, really like it. I haven’t seen it.

TW: For all its contrivance, I find it a disquieting treatment of recurrent themes in New Zealand film—isolation, the presence of the landscape, the provincial gothic. Would you ever consider a project for the small screen?

VW: I pitched a film to a producer in Australia, an old friend of mine. He said you can’t sell dramas, you can’t raise money for dramas. HBO and series have taken over.

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AB: That was a nice message of support you had from Robin Williams for your Shanghai Biennale Kickstarter?

VW: Robin’s been terrific. I kind of went in to my cave for seven years. Maybe more, ten, eleven, twelve years.  I went into my cave and I came down here and closed all the doors. L.A.’s great but for a bit I needed a break.

AB: The Ureweras are a contrast. Rain of the Children’s ending is moving. You say, voice cracked with tears: “I made this film about you, Puhi, because I wanted to try to understand you, to find who you were. Maybe you can never really know someone and maybe that’s all right. In the making of this film I feel I can now say goodbye.” That bought to mind my discussion with the travel writer Pico Iyer. At his mother Nandini’s 80th birthday party in California, he asked her what she had learnt during her eight decades. She replied, “you can never know another person.” Iyer’s most recent book is on Graham Greene. Your thoughts on the well-known Catholic?

VW: He’s very perceptive writing about moral ambiguity, I guess, or jeopardy or whatever.

AB: You’re a lapsed Catholic yourself?

VW: I hate that term, what does it mean?

AB: Sure. Improve on that lazy journalistic phrase?

VW: Well it’s an old-fashioned term. I’m kind of interested in spiritual endeavors but I find religion is like the law, you know? They attempt to find a set of rules to make things work and stay practical, a kind of generalisation of what should be or could me. Religious practice per se doesn’t mean an awful lot to me.

AB: Vigil has Catholic imagery in it. Is there an enduring loosely Catholic idea in your work?

VW: Well I’m told there are threads in it, but there are threads in all sorts of things. I mean, there’s threads of growing up, of Irish descent, Irish Catholic descent. The Irish, for example, it’s said: “never have a story with a happy ending.” That’s not quite true for me. There are German things that I’m interested in because of that side of my heritage. I don’t know, Catholic threads? Maybe once when I was fresher, more so with Vigil. In a very loose, general sort of way with The Navigator. Certainly not with Map of the Human Heart. I would say not with What Dreams May Come, not with River Queen. Rain of the Children has a sense of redemption to it, but the sense of the spirit world is more Maori than Western. It’s not Catholic.

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Old Niki lies in the street in a scene from ‘Rain of the Children’. Source: vincentwardfilms.com.

AB: That brings me to a reader question via social media: From Rain of the Children, do you believe in spirits?

VW: Yeah, I would say definitely. Well if enough people believe in something, whether it objectively exists is irrelevant. What they believe is palpable. It doesn’t mean that it’s truthful it just means that they create something in a space that has consequences.

AB: So you’re sympathetic to Tuhoe’s view of spirits?

VW: I don’t believe in the same way they do. I believe in the possibility. I’m empathetic to their belief system, and I’ve seen things that were disturbing that I couldn’t particularly explain.

AB: Disturbing, and also inspiring? Say, for example, with Niki?

VW: Yeah, all of that. Wehi. Yep, fear meets awe.

AB: That’s something you’ve experienced over a long period of time. From first going in with In Spring One Plants Alone

VW: Yeah, I was very skeptical when I first went in. I think it comes down to… humans are more complex than the kind of rational paradigm that we’ve been handed down from the 19th Century or early 20th Century. We have receptors and so on. The way people develop, in terms of their physiognomy, is complex and rich. If you live with dogs, for example, you develop some sort of night sight.[3] We’re adaptable and we have a range of things that we could be if those sensors or instincts or whatever you want to call them are activated.

AB: Maori ideas have been important in your career from In Spring One Plants Alone up to Rain of the Children. Still interested?

VW: Well, I really like my mates in Tuhoe and I’m kind of kicking myself because I keep promising them I’ll go down there and couch surf in Ruatahuna and Waimana (maybe go down with my son). They’re earthy, they’re honest (most people most of the time, unlike the L.A. film industry), they’re funny. They definitely as a people have a terrific and often wry sense of humour, that I have come to love.

AB: I worked with some Tuhoe at Te Papa.

VW: On the other hand they would have every reason not to trust pakeha or other iwi given the things that have transpired, so it can come across as edgy sometimes. But really, they’re loyal once. You are familiar and trusted, more than anyone I know. Sometimes if they’ve decided you’re one of them and you were under threat, I believe—and I have seen instances of it—people in that iwi would put their life on the line for you. They’re just really great people—hard working, brave, capable. Once they’ve touched you and you’ve touched them it’s pretty hard to find better than that.

img_vincentward3AB: What’s your creative philosophy?

VW: I’ve got a philosophy of attacking creative challenges; approaching creative challenges by really engaging. Not really a philosophy, more of an instinct: I get my hands dirty in the best way. I go live with iwi rather than simply visit and make a film with them. I don’t approach it through endless years of cerebral analysis. I think about it a lot, I come up with the concept, I get involved by getting into bed with subject, so to speak, by becoming part of things. Four days in an open boat with Inuit in the Arctic, camping on rocks as it’s starting to ice up… you implicitly build trust and friendship that way. You find out who people are and they, you. Then I go away, re-think the concept, feel and weigh of its truth, by analysis, experience and by dipping my hands into it, further still.

AB: It’s an earthy, visceral approach.

VW: Yeah but it’s quite conceptual. It’s not conceptual in that it’s a bunch of rubbish bins in a gallery, but it’s always conceptual. It’s got to have a materiality to it. If it’s art and if it’s film, it’s not totally conceptual because of course you’re talking about people, so you are following the psyche. I live here, it’s a warehouse, it kind of keeps you real. In the winter mornings you get up and it’s so cold it burns your skin. I mean, if you look down there, look at that view with all the pipes and shit. But I don’t mind.

TW: Would it be fair to say that you eschew the intellectual side of art/filmmaking?

VW: Well, it is rigorously conceptual on some level. It always comes back to an enormous amount of analysis. You’ve got analysis, you’ve got the subconscious, you’ve got emotions, you’ve got sexuality, you have got the intellect, the various centres of the body. You’ve got to have all these elements in balance to find a unity. If it’s just purely intellectual it’s dead. It’s without connection with reality. It’s when the rubber never meets the road.

TW: That absolutely comes through in all of your films, and your art as well.

VW: Yeah, if it’s visceral and has no idea then why bother. Or if it’s intellectual but has no emotion, or if it’s emotion but has no intellect. It has to have some kind of wholeness.

TW: One of the perceptions of art cinema, particularly European art cinema, is that it’s become very cold and analytical.

VW: Yeah, but the very best of it, like Michael Haneke’s Amour, that’s not the case at all. I feel it’s important to stay anchored. It can’t be academic posture.

AB: And the idea of human vulnerability?

VW: I travel a lot, and you’re pretty vulnerable when you travel. You’re kind of out of your depth, engaging with local people. you can very easily get quite out of your depth.

AB: How about Japan? An influence on In Spring One Plants Alone?

VW: I like Japanese reductional sensibility. I like it in film, and it’s certainly influenced In Spring One Plants Alone, that Japanese sensibility. And Japanese arts influenced the whole 20th Century, essentially. The whole Japanese mode in the late 19th Century, in France and so on, which influenced the impressionists, influenced Van Gogh.

AB: We were talking about Pina Bausch before. Have you seen Talk to Her?

VW: No.

AB: Oh you’ve gotta see it, you’ve gotta see Talk to Her. There’s some great—

VW: You guys are so much more advanced on filmmaking and what people are doing than I am. You have to think of me in recent years as a caveman recluse.

img_vincentward4TW: “Living in a cave” is part of your singularity as an artist.

VW: Yeah, but it’s always good to get out there. I’m trying to broaden myself. I am now blinking as I emerge again and travelling a lot, re-engaging internationally.

AB: How about Apocalypse Now Redux[4], have you seen that?

VW: Sure, Francis [Ford Coppola] cooked me pasta. When I was in San Francisco I went round to his place at the winery. He said, “I’ll see you for half an hour,” and we spent about four hours together. We got on really well. I pitched him what became The Last Samurai but he didn’t want to know about it.

AB: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is such a memorable documentary.

VW: Coppola gave me two bits of advice. First, always fire on a Wednesday—I don’t fire people you see, generally—so people have time to recover. And the other one was…. well, it was at the time when monitors were only just coming in, so there weren’t widescreen monitors, and so generally there would only be one monitor on set at one time. And he said: “Make sure you have a monitor that’s so small it fits in between your legs”. [laughs] Fits between your knees, so no one else can look at it and tell you what to do. Which I thought was hilarious because it came out of left field.

AB: I see you’ve got the Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming’, by your desk. That’s a favourite?

VW: Not really, just up to a certain point. The phrases in it are great. Yeats I like, my father always used to quote Yeats when I was a boy, sometimes misquote him. He was of Irish descent.

Even though he couldn’t afford to go university, my father was of a vintage that believed in self-education, believed that you need to be able to quote poetry, you need to be well read. So he came from the conservative part of the Wairarapa, born in 1906, but loved Oscar Wilde. He would read me Oscar Wilde books in rural Martinborough. That’s pretty weird when you think about it.

TW: You’ve written a couple of books that deal with the agonies and ecstasies of filmmaking in an eloquent and honest way. Were you compelled to publish your collections purely for the sake of testimony, or was there something else driving you? Is putting your films back into words, so to speak, actually part of the process? Part of the circle of creativity?

VW: Yeah, it’s part of the process. You sort of work out where you’re going, what you’re doing. I’ve done two film books and an art book. So the first book I did was Edge of the Earth. I did that because I had great stories at that time. And while they were still fresh—I had great images and I thought I had some great stories—before I forgot them I wanted to put them into some sort of written form. Before we lost those negatives, basically. Also to pull some of the better images together while it was still fresh. And then The Past Awaits was kind of a summing up before moving on, and again I had some good stories, I thought. And the most recent book [Inhale | Exhale] was trying to get a handle on what I was doing visually, that’s not really a book at all.

AB: You write about ‘My Father’s Hands’ in The Past Awaits; the idea of your father’s hands being “puckarooed.” You said it’s a theme of your work; that you’re trying to capture something of “the earth, and mud, and water, he experienced, the sheer visceral essence.”

VW: His hands were like the landscape of the farm that he worked on, they were like a map of his experience. Not just of things that had been, but things that he wanted to be. With those hands he tried to create a space for us to live in, a lot of it through sheer physical work, although he was quite an intelligent man, and quite poetic. He wrote a lot of poetry. And he had at one stage intended to be a writer, and he was an extremely good storyteller. I’m told he did over thirty eulogies at funerals in our area in the Wairarapa.

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Vincent Ward and Puhi. Source: vincentwardfilms.com.

AB: Rain of the Children can be seen as a eulogy for Puhi?

VW: Yeah, in a way. Dad was really good. He could tell the story of people’s lives, he could really sum them up. He’d research them, but he just had that gift. And he’d remember details. When we’d go around the area he’d always tell stories, “Oh in 1918 these people, they lost three sons in the First World War.” He’d never concentrate on driving on the road, he’d always be looking out the window saying the history of what had happened. Some detail, some human story. “Oh here someone blew his head off.” Fairly dark stories sometimes. How that affected my work? I think it’s self-evident. His interest in people. I just happen to be more visual. “Hi Yvette” [takes phone call from his ex-wife].

AB: That passage about your father is powerful.

VW: There was a later passage also which was interesting. A corollary to that, it talks about my ex Yvette, and the two kids, but also about my father when he died. At his funeral he effectively wrote his own eulogy. A guy who had known him since the war said was that his fences were so tight that a dog couldn’t squeeze through them. This is kind of partial hill country, farming, now some of it very steep with cliffs, and I suddenly looked at this aerial photograph, and in that whole area his fences were absolute straight lines. If you also bear in mind that that had been rough bush terrain when he first came to it, and that two thirds of his body was damaged with burns and he was still getting grafts. At the same time he was using a flamethrower and an axe to break in the land. Going to hospital, getting the grafts, burning this land, which had previously been burned at my great grandfather’s time when there was a huge forest fire in that area, so it had re-growth. The two were related, so the fences were a defence against the entropy of having been in the Middle East for four-and-a-half years, and the sort of chaos of an older guy not thinking he would return. And trying to create a space for people to live in, and putting his energy into these ridiculously taut, super-strength, bullet straight fence lines, and grafting this land as if to heal it in the way that he was trying to heal himself and create this space for his family. He allowed me a space to do what I wanted to do and encouraged me, more so because he wasn’t able to do so many things himself. So when I do things it’s almost as if I’m carrying him in the most positive way.

AB: Tino pai.

VW: So my work has that visceralness that comes out of his experiences. And the sort of experiences I grew up with.

AB: You are getting a lot out of having two boys?

VW: Yeah. Most nights I go and romp with the kids, they’re like a couple of wolf cubs. I throw pillows at them.

AB: Some people criticise you for being overly serious and not having a sense of humour. Any humour you particularly enjoy?

VW: I’m not a stoner but I enjoy stoner movies. I enjoy something that makes me laugh because my work’s quite serious. I like Buster Keaton also.

AB: You prefer Keaton to Chaplin?

VW: Yeah. I like The Kid but Chaplin’s too sentimental.

AB: You’re back into film now?

VW: Yeah. What I had intended to do was return to what I’d originally started as and then after a period of time—which I had hoped would be about two years, but worked out to be four—get back to film, and then get back to art, and get back to film, and hopscotch backwards and forwards. It understandably took me longer, but that’s all good. Life’s never as straightforward or as clean as you’d expect.

I had lost my enthusiasm for film. Now I’m thinking, “you know what, film’s really cool” again [laughs]. I’m really just getting excited about it again. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 or 19 continuously, all the time, apart from working on shearing gangs and shit like that when I was a kid, and I really needed a break from it. So I’m fresh again. I have opportunities that I can bring back into fine arts that other artists don’t have because they’re not feature filmmakers. There’s a lot of stuff that’s detritus for a feature film but could be really interesting for a fine arts exhibition.

IMAGES OF VINCENT WARD
© James Black 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

Thanks to Melinda Jackson (and Alice May Connolly) for transcription assistance on this article.
Vincent Ward maintains a visual archive of his films, conceptual work, art, and commercials at vincentwardfilms.com.


[1] Toa Fraser: With River Queen, Vincent brought a really really powerful forty page long treatment to me. My thing was more about getting the action story happening. I was intrigued by the idea of taking that sort of Joseph Conrad, John Ford’s The Searchers, journey up the river or journey into darkness, and flipping it and making it into a story about people who are constantly moving. People talk about going back to your roots. In my family we’ve always been sea based. My grandfather was a seaman and his father was a seaman. That’s the thing that really intrigues me about River Queen, the idea of people who are constantly shifting in terms of identity. The Maori characters were culturally complex. It wasn’t cowboys and Indians… It was a really, really challenging experience working on River Queen. Vincent is a hard task master, a guy with real vision and determination. We are a bit chalk and cheese in terms of our writing practices. Yeah, I have to say I stopped working on River Queen in 2001 and Vincent went off and continued the development with other people. I did a couple of notes occasionally. When I saw it I was blown away and proud of my involvement.

[2] AB: Any films of his that particularly speak to you?

VW: I like Aguirre, probably one of the more successful. And then I think the documentary thing, the decision not to make features, or the decision of the world that Werner shouldn’t make features, whichever it was. But maybe it was a combination of fear of whether he had enough to tell in terms of features and also feeling like he had more control with documentaries, given it was getting harder and harder to make the features. I think it’s great he never gives up. He sticks to what he has in mind.

TW: Both Wenders and Herzog have made films in 3-D. Does 3-D interest you at all?

VW: By the sounds of it, Werner’s film in 3-D was a mistake. Well a low-light situation, with a narrow depth of field, it’s not a great situation to do 3-D in.

TW: Have you seen Pina?

VW: Yeah, I didn’t see it in 3-D but it’s a wonderful film.

[3] You know if you live with dogs, for example—really live with animals that have by nature enhanced night sight/hearing—you can develop some of those heightened senses, like instances of feral children brought up by animals.

[4] AB: Do you have a favourite Coppola film?

VW: The Conversation. I like The Godfather(s) but I love The Conversation.

AB: What do you like particularly about The Conversation?

VW: Well at that time I liked The Conformist and The Conversation and Blow Up. Blow Up and The Conversation were kind of related films. And The Conformist in a different way. I wouldn’t know where to start.

AB: It’s very stark, the imagery. He’s pulling his apartment to bits.

VW: Yeah, and it’s just this investigation of this person’s mind, and the exact acts that he does and the consequences of them. It’s really well made, inventive. Visually, the way it’s filmed, everything counts.


When on assignment in Auckland, The Lumière Reader stays at the five-star Pullman Auckland.