Sophie Henderson on Fantail

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The engaging face and voice behind the New Zealand Film Commission’s latest Escalator release chats about the project’s metamorphosis from monologue to feature film.

Fantail is a fascinating and brave film anchored by Sophie Henderson’s Kidman-esque performance. Henderson, also the film’s writer, makes real the Hine-nui-te-po myth that the script borrows from, while her performance brings weight to the narrative’s themes of cultural fluidity. Curtis Vowell’s direction lends a refreshing lightness to a story that both embraces and critiques New Zealand culture, and what that term actually means.

A week prior to the film’s premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival, I sat down with Henderson to discuss the film’s origins and transitioning from writing the film to acting in it.

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SAM BROOKS: So where did the core idea come from?

SOPHIE HENDERSON: Fantail was a monologue that I had to do in my third year at drama school, and I think that first idea came from my love of Maori myths and legends—and my hate of retail. I’ve also got two little brothers—one was being pretty naughty—and that was the drive for the piece.

SB:­ How long have you stuck with it?

SH: A long time. I finished drama school in 2006, so that’s when I first wrote it. It was a ten-minute piece. I then started developing it into a play, because people had told me at drama school, “you’ve got to develop it and it’d make a really nice play.” A ‘really nice play’.

They wanted to meet the other characters and explore the world, and so I started writing this play. I’d done workshops with some actors and had done some readings, and actually applied for some funding to develop it.

SB: That happens a bit.

SH: Around the same time I didn’t get funding for the theatre version, we saw the Escalator applications were due. And Curtis thought it would make an amazing low budget film—that was the path he was on. He was working his way up in the crew world so that he could become a director and suggested, “let’s take this idea for a play and turn it into a film.” So when we applied for Escalator, it wasn’t a film at all.

I handed in a monologue, we had to hand in three ideas, and that was one of them. And we had to hand in a one-page outline, so I was just like “here’s this monologue.”

SB: The film deals with Maori myth quite heavily, but why did you choose that specific myth?

SH: I was interested in what the fantail is in Maori culture. It represents bad luck and if it flies into your house it means a son or a neighbour dies. I guess that was a starting point. I then researched why it was bad luck and learned about the Hine-nui-te-po myth and the part where the fantail ruins everything and means that nobody can live forever.

SB: So how did you link that in?

SH: I created the character from the bird, because he’s small and cheeky.

SB: That’s good, because lots of local films tend to stay away from local myths and culture.

SH: Yeah, it’s kind of controversial.

SB: Why’s that?

SH: It’s to do with my background. I had spent some time growing up in Whangarei in primary school where I was one of a few Pakeha kids, and the curriculum there had some Te Reo, Kapa Haka, singing Maori songs, and making plastic bag poi, and I loved it. I remember thinking that because I was from New Zealand, that it was mine, only to realise later on that it didn’t belong to me.

We had some experiences through drama school where we went on a tonne of marae stays, and [I remember] the feeling of longing to have a culture like that because I’m a Pakeha New Zealander, and I don’t feel like I really have one.

And then you meet these white Maori people who want to be Maori and speak like that—and maybe they are a little bit—but I was really interested to see how Maori you have to be to claim [the culture], or whether it can belong to all New Zealanders. I thought about what would happen if a white girl truly thought that she was Maori and why she would want to believe that.

SB: That struck me as quite true as well. I’m from Papakura, and that’s definitely a thing that you see there, and I think the film really captures the atmosphere of South Auckland culture so well. Was that a specific choice?

SH: I wanted to put her in a place where she was a minority, and I spent some time just walking the streets of South Auckland, just to see how people reacted to me, and it was quite interesting. It made me tougher, walk different, want to try to blend in, put my hoodie up.

I worked at the petrol station where we shot the film just for a weekend, and people thought I was the owner of the shop based on how I looked. And I dressed the part, but it was interesting to feel like you didn’t fit in.

SB: Did you do any other research around the script?

SH: Yes—I also joined the Avondale Kapa Haka group.

SB: That’s lovely. That sounds like a lot of fun.

SH: It was awesome, I joined it for maybe eight weeks and that’s when I was writing as well. I would try out my accent on these real tough-as Maori chicks, and there were girls in that Kapa Haka who were very fair and didn’t look Maori, but were staunch Maori because they were overcompensating and that was fascinating.

This one girl—I can’t remember her name, but she had reddish hair and she was the best at Kapa Haka—knew Te Reo, and had Maori tattoos. She had something to prove because she didn’t look it.

They embraced me, they never asked me how old I was, they just assumed that I was much younger and when I told them I was 26 they were surprised. But they really looked after me and taught me poi.

I learned this massive poi sequence that is not even in the film!

SB: Other than the research, what’s the rest of your writing process like?

SH: I’m still learning.

I’ve never written a screenplay before. My background is acting; I’ve done devising as an actor and I’ve written a play, and now I’ve written this film!

I read every screenplay book that I could get my hands on in that year, I went to every Script-to-Screen event, I listened to director’s and writer’s commentaries, and I just gave my script to anybody who would read it. Like, anybody.

I made notes of what everyone was saying, and I would give it to editors and friends who had nothing to do with writing, but I definitely didn’t do it the right way. I just wrote it. I didn’t really plan it. I didn’t do an outline. I had written the script and then I went backwards and wrote an outline and I started again. I think I did about seven drafts.

I got a lot from some of the rehearsals and hearing it out loud. I made big changes just from the actor’s instincts.

SB: What’s it like having the actors speak in your voice, like your dialogue and such?

SH: It’s cool. The first time I heard it, it was overwhelming. It was amazing how they lifted it off the page. I think I really tried not to be a writer on set. I was a little bit in rehearsals, telling them to change words if they didn’t feel right in their mouths, to say whatever they want, but then I definitely made sure that I was an actor on set, that I was present in that scene rather than think about them saying my words. I almost tried to forget that I’d written it.

SB: When you were filming, was it also felt that the writer was on set?

SH: Yeah, because usually the writer is banned from set!

SB: Totally.

SH: I think it’s different because I’m friends with the actors, so it’s not a big deal. I’ve worked with Stephen and worked with Jarod and knew them as mates, so it wasn’t a big deal. And only sometimes I would go talk to Curtis secretly and he might change his direction, but I tried not to do that. I really tried!

I had to really focus on what I was doing as an actor and getting in the zone. There wasn’t heaps of time to think about being a writer on set.

SB: What it’s like rediscovering the character and that voice after so long?

SH: It was cool. Because I’d written it, I was inside her head and always thinking about her decisions, her back-story, her family, and all her attitudes and relationships. A lot of that work had been done for me through the writing process. It had been a long time, and I think somewhere that monologue is videoed, and I’d love to watch it to see how different the character is. I think it was a bit hammier back then.

We tried different levels of the accent to see how far we could push it, and then we brought it right back so that she didn’t really know she was doing it, so it was more subtle and easier to listen to. Or easier to understand for international audiences.

SB: When I saw the film I was shocked, because I know you and that’s not how you talk in real life, so that voice is a real accomplishment.

SH: The clothes really helped. Just dressing in lots of layers. With the bagginess and the shoes, you can’t help but walk different. I wasn’t wearing much makeup or brushing my hair. It all helps.

SB: So how do you fit in working on this with everything else that you do?

SH: Well, I was only working part-time at The Basement last year and the year before, and since the film’s been shot I haven’t had to do too much on it. I did a couple of plays over the time that I was writing the film, and I don’t really know how I did it. It was really busy; I got really tired and had to have naps.

SB: What do you think a local audience would get from the film? And even an international audience?

SH: Well, it’s just screened at something called the Breakthrough Screenings in Melbourne. It’s not that universal, but they all really responded to it, which was great. It was really unexpected. So hopefully we’ll be able to take it to some festivals now that it’s finished.

I’m interested to see what a local audience will think. I once got told that I shouldn’t write Maori characters if I wasn’t in the circle of Maoridom, so I’m not sure what that particular person will think of a white girl who thinks she’s Maori or a Maori guy who doesn’t know that he’s Maori. But I think that it might create some conversation about being a New Zealander, and being white Maori or brown Pakeha, and our place. I hope that it moves people and that people have a little bit of a laugh.

SB: What’s your response to those kinds of criticisms?

SH: I don’t know that I have a response, but I think it’s great to start that conversation. And I don’t even know if I should be writing Maori characters. Is that my place? Who knows?

SB: I think it’s brave to start that dialogue, because our cultural fluidity isn’t spoken about; how quickly and easily people can shift between one culture to another.

SH: I think that’s something. I’m still discovering. I wish I had the answers!

Fantail’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.