The Shit We Live In: We Feel Fine

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At the New Zealand International Film Festival, co-director Adam Luxton talks about the reality of making his new feature film outside of the ‘bubble’.

Ignoring the fact that 2012 has been one of the strongest years on record for homegrown cinema at the New Zealand International Film Festival, why are films of We Feel Fine’s vitality and purpose still so few and far between? In a frank and revealing series of emails I exchanged with Adam Luxton—co-director of the film along with long-time collaborator Jeremy Dumble—the frustrations of filmmaking in a conservative creative climate were brought into sharp relief. Both Luxton and Dumble, however, remain far from discouraged by their experiences to date. Any bitterness they may have had towards the funding and development process has clearly been set aside, if not used to spur themselves on to making new work regardless of the outcome or support. Spared of the false aspirations of many fully funded but mediocre or compromised New Zealand feature films, We Feel Fine wryly positions itself outside of the bubble, and yet its energy and inquisitiveness suggests a film just as keen to invite an audience in, as it is determined to jolt them from their slumber and critique the conventional wisdom of moviemaking in this country.

At once humorous, scathing, and self-deprecating, We Feel Fine is propelled by creative action; the forward-moving attitude of its directors fiercely at odds with the stagnancy of the urbanized characters it portrays. Within its awkward view of the Auckland CBD, there are hipsters who loaf around with ideas but no exertion (including one played by Luxton), a Rwandan taxi driver (Francois Byamana) bereft after the disappearance of his wife, and even a flighty bohemian whose crude stream of consciousness provides one of the film’s more memorable moments (cameoed by an eye-catching Florian Habicht). Linking these discombobulated people together is a budding teenage artist (Moses Alofokhai) whose video project involves both real and figurative shit. Describing the dilemma of these characters as “the shit we live in,” Luxton indicates that it’s something we all end up stuck in. Perhaps that’s the impetus behind his film. “With We Feel Fine, we sort of hit the reset button and worked for ourselves again,” he says, referring to years of industry toil. “And I feel like we’ve made a film with its own voice, whatever its shortcomings are, and I’m glad to stand behind it.” Indeed, the lasting image of the film is not the landscape of unsightly billboards—a metaphor for the banal mainstream it consciously resists—but of 14-year-old Moses randomly distributing cassette tapes of his self-motivated art. Is Moses in fact a stand in for the two directors? Like Luxton and Dumble, he’s certainly got his shit together.

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TIM WONG: In terms of form, there’s an impulse towards the momentary and the immediate in We Feel Fine, and I sensed the film was prepared and shot with a similar urgency. How important was the process of simply making something in relation to the end result?

ADAM LUXTON: The film certainly came together very quickly, and working quickly became a part of its fabric. We have always viewed the long development cycle of New Zealand films with dread, and the resultant scripts as drained of life. We wanted to work against that, and much of it was willfully enforced. I told Jeremy I was coming back to New Zealand for a month, and he said let’s make a film. I laughed. He said “seriously.” And so we took it seriously. But the script developed from a one-page treatment to a shooting script in three months, and the shooting became a productive ‘writing’ period as well. Many scenes were open to improvisation, and more importantly we approached our exterior scenes with an openness to the gifts of the universe. Many unscripted events were woven into the story. So working spontaneously was not just a necessity but also a part of the creative process.

TW: Conversely, the characters (apart from Moses) aren’t moving forward at all, but are held back by a kind of “hesitancy.” Does this depiction of uncertainty have anything in common with what is often portrayed in, say, American independent cinema? Or is it more specifically an Auckland condition, or one derived from both your personal experiences?

AL: I think we make films as a way of trying to understand the world we live in. Certainly, we’ve reflected Auckland as we think of it, and the characters in it are all confronting various modern dilemmas, some banal and some not. The film attempts to mix them together without any hierarchy, as simply the stuff we live in. You could call it the shit we live in. The film is a reflection of this daily shit, both metaphorically and of course literally, and how we all end up stuck in it. In my mind, this kind of story concern owes a debt to early American independent filmmakers like John Cassavetes, and many of his thoughts on process we were mindful of during shooting. Even simple attitudinal things like prioritizing the characters ahead of plot concerns, with the idea that the plot would take care of itself if we got the characters to ring true.

So when a scene was written that ended with Francois (the Rwandan refugee taxi driver) sitting down at the dinner table alone, we didn’t cut but just watched in fascination as he started eating and the scene became totally transformed by this new image of Francois eating alone, chewing loudly, the cutlery clinking on his plate. Francois was just going with it and had found a new beat, something we hadn’t written, but which he felt was the right thing. The scene still ends with a moment of hesitation, but it’s half way through his meal now, and felt so much more pregnant and immersive. It sounds so simple in a way, but on a bigger production, with a more pressured crew around us, we may have just cut the scene without a second thought and moved on. There’s a kind of brutality towards the actors in that mode, which we able to spare them from on occasions in this film.

More recent American films are less interesting to us because they generally attempt to tell the same kinds of stories as the studios. There’s the ‘Mumblecore’ people on the East Coast, and we know their stuff, but we’ve always looked more towards the European arthouse I think, and more recently to Asian cinema. During writing, Jeremy was really immersed in Tsai Ming-liang (Rebels of the Neon God was a particular touchstone for us) and Hong Sang-soo. We really wanted to find a visual and narrative style that felt like a combination of our influences, but that was also our own, and in some sense a film really set in a place too. And that place is Auckland, with a bunch of people who are basically stuck in their own shit.

TW: You’ve been living in Berlin for the past three years, and came back to shoot We Feel Fine. Did the time away alter your perspective of Auckland at all, or has the city always been challenged in your eyes? You describe the film’s view of the city as “irreverent,” however to me it verged on something stronger than that… closer to dislike, or at the very least, a critical image.

AL: Well, I’m not particularly positive about the Auckland CBD, and definitely less so since living away in an urban space that is far more conducive to human habitation. (Berlin feels like a space made for living first and commerce second.) But I think our portrayal of it is also a reflection of the characters and the story. We set out to make a film that ducked and weaved from normal narrative habits, and that veers away from overt dramatic catharsis and resolution. What we were more interested in was the moments in between the drama, the little beats of hesitancy and reflection. The negative space. So the kind of landscape we showed was in line with that idea. It’s unscenic. It’s motorway junctions, carparks, alleyways, and billboards. It’s the bits that aren’t meant to be looked at. We were kind of doing that dramatically and visually, while also balancing that idea against trying to make a generally enjoyable film. So while it might be dislike at a deep level, there’s a tongue in cheek attitude that sweetens the pill somewhat.

TW: Speaking of avoiding “development dread,” your film is one of a growing number of local features shot on consumer DSLR cameras. While there are stylistic limitations to the look and execution of this digital camera, it’s also making it possible for creative people—some who may have never considered filmmaking before—to realise adventurous projects at a commercial standard. In the right hands, can this technology continue to help filmmakers circumvent the lack of support for artistic-driven filmmaking in this country?

AL: For us personally, these DSLRs represent the first digital cameras that offer an aesthetic that feels genuinely cinematic. It’s now possible to make films that are visually immersive. Digital films have never let me in—I always feel on the surface, like I do watching television. These are different. The optics are really photographic and used well, can create really atmospheric, emotional images. And they are available at consumer prices. So that’s great, I guess. But I’m also genuinely surprised that there aren’t a lot more films that have cropped up in the last couple of years. I’m not sure why this is and I couldn’t possible speculate. But I certainly hope that low level funding opportunities become available for filmmakers who want to work in this way, because I think that we could see a vigorous and vibrant film culture emerge based on this technology. I’d love to see these kinds of films showing up the more cashed up but creatively conservative projects. But that is up to filmmakers as well as the New Zealand Film Commission.

TW: Indeed, at the end of the day, it’s just another tool; the seeds for a more alternative film culture come from the filmmakers before anything else.

There’s an encouraging affinity between your film and Stephen Kang’s Desert, another recent Auckland-based, DSLR-shot independent feature. For all that is perceived to be lacking in Auckland as an environment for living and creative stimulation, what’s unique about the city is its conspicuous multi-culturalism, and the way different ethnic cultures have naturally concentrated themselves to different parts of the city. How did Francois Byamana and Moses Alofokhai come to be in the film, and did their personal experience of New Zealand inform the scripting and scene devising in any way?

AL: One of the things that compromised us the most not having money was that we had to work really quickly. In an ideal world I think the Francois and Moses characters, and to a lesser extent the other lead cast as well, could have been developed more and the script opened up in pre-production. That wasn’t to be. But the way the film worked meant that the backstory of the characters was always hazy anyway. The film was about floating moments and there is almost no exposition to give context or story background. Our focus was more on getting these little beats working and trusting the audience to plug the gaps. In that respect Francois definitely drew on a lot of personal experiences to frame the emotional state of his character. He came to New Zealand under refugee status from Rwanda 13 years ago and, without us specifically talking about it, I think this became the emotional basis for his character. He was really intuitive and often surprised us with how he had read the subtext of a scene. In most cases we let him go with it, and the same was true for ideas that the other cast brought to a scene as well. As long is it rang true, we were pretty inclusive to anything new that cropped up. The times when we went in and reworked a scene was when it started to feel like a stage.

The idea of multiculturalism is another thing that we swam upstream against too. We didn’t want to fall into a paradigm of simply portraying Frank and Moses as alienated culturally, and to pose any particular social or political dilemma on the audience. Moses was the opposite of that. He’s the only character in the film who really seems to be a master of his environment. And the feeling of disorientation that Frank feels is echoed equally in the Pakeha characters’ story arcs. One of the things that I guess we were portraying about Auckland is that its mutually alienating no matter who you are. It’s like, no matter where you’re from, you still don’t believe the billboards.

TW: There’s an underlying sense of antithesis in your film—the negative space, as you describe it—that I find really refreshing, and it’s obvious you’re both conscious of the bad habits and clichés evident in a lot of New Zealand-made features. And the way that you’ve framed Moses within the narrative has an ironic touch to it, because he’s the only character who doesn’t need to come-of-age, so to speak. Thematically, would it be fair to say that your film has a somewhat cynical view of the way our national culture and identity is typically portrayed on screen?

AL: I think there are two types of cynicism going on here. While we not huge fans of some of the ways in which New Zealand is portrayed on screen, I think we’re more critical of the package that portrayal comes wrapped in. And this comes back to the way in which ‘commercially viable’ stories are only attempted in very safe, dare I say derivative, ways. And it’s in many ways the package, the structure that results in the same clichés being rolled out time and again. The bitter irony being that the films made here are all commercial disasters. So We Feel Fine was us waving our fists madly at this illogical feedback loop, at the three act structure, at typical character development, at normal story arcs and structural markers, and all that crap that is so indispensable to the imagined viability of a commercial product. Plenty of stuff still happens in our film, and there is, I think, still a good deal of engagement and empathy created with the characters without falling back on the same old structural maneuvers. We’ve still attempted to make an entertaining film—a sort of comedy, even. The fact that it’s been cast as an ‘art film’ by the NZIFF in way of endorsement, and by the NZFC as a reason for rejecting our Post Production funding application, says more about where we are at as a screen culture that it does for our film, which is not that radical or difficult.

Then on top of that, there’s definitely some cynicism, not about the portrayal of our culture on screen, but about our culture as it’s actually lived. I think that more and more, the world we live in is made for 13-year-olds: the six o’clock news, the front page of The Herald, the Facebook stream. All the most visible stuff we come across is being whittled down to the most superficial level. Conversely, I think around the margins you can build much more interesting communities than you could before the Internet made us global information consumers, so if you go looking, then you can build a world totally suited to your individual tastes. But in the mainstream, everything is targeted at the lowest common denominator. And that’s why Moses doesn’t need to come of age. He’s perfectly aged for the culture in which he lives. Of course, Moses is more than just a mindless consumer of the world. And with his art project he is, with a shrug of the shoulders, holding a mirror up to this never-ending process of the production and consumption of puerile shit.

TW: Does that cynicism propel you forward as filmmakers? Or is the instinct to work against the grain in the climate you’ve just described trying, even disillusioning at times?

 

Before this feature, you both released a number of shorts under the banner of Blondini Films, as well as the documentary Minginui in 2005, which I still rate as one of the best things ever made in this country. And yet, how do you keep your work vital? Is it a case of completing something, promoting it for a finite amount of time, and then dispassionately moving onto the next project? Or does it matter to you that your films—and other films by likeminded New Zealand filmmakers—have a life beyond their initial time in the spotlight? For instance, what’s the outlook for We Feel Fine now that its New Zealand International Film Festival run has ended?

 

AL: I think being cynical and disillusioned is the natural state for filmmakers on the outer with the funding paradigm of the day. But I feel like we’re past that now to be honest. Minginui was a film that came from quite a pure place, creatively speaking. Summer (Agnew, the co-director) and I had a really simple, cinematic approach that had nothing to do with making a conventional documentary, or legacy building for future films. We were just dealing with the material of the film in a very honest way. On the flipside, I think the Blondini short films were much more caught up with establishing a dialogue with the NZFC, making connections in the mainstream industry, and trying to lay the foundations for a career of some sort—to the extent that the films came out a little muddled. So I became very cynical about that process because I don’t like that films that emerged from it that much, and don’t feel they really reflect the films I really want to make. So with We Feel Fine, we sort of hit the reset button and worked for ourselves again. I can honestly say it’s the first film I actually enjoyed making since Minginui. And I feel like we’ve made a film with its own voice, whatever its shortcomings are, and I’m glad to stand behind it. So that’s cause for optimism.

But what future it has, I’m not sure. Our goal was always to get it into the NZIFF, which we have done now. Finding a market for a film is hard across the board, not just for this one. Big studio films have the multiplexes sewn up, and it’s the same the world over. There’s a lot of talk about the Internet being the new exhibition method for independent film—I guess using a model similar to what Bandcamp offers to musicians. But I’m hoping that we can sneak into an overseas festival or two. We’re festivalgoers, we love watching intelligent films in the cinema with engaged audiences. That’s what got us into this in the first place, so it’s great to be able to contribute to that environment. The Internet can come later.

‘We Feel Fine’ screened at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2012. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times for the remainder of the festival’s tun, 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.