With the release of Squeegee Bandit
, JACOB POWELL tracked down cultural enigma SŠndor Lau
, one of New Zealandís unique new cinematic voices to examine his views on cinema and life as a filmmaker in in Aotearoa.
Okay, so Iíve heard bandied about something to the effect that youíre New Zealandís only American, Hungarian, Chinese filmmaker. So letís clear this one up right out front: explain...
New Zealandís only Chinese/Hungarian-American. Iíve said it so many times in front of so many people that if there was another one, we would know by now.
And what brought you to New Zealand?
I came on a Fulbright scholarship to study film, and a one year exchange programme turned into three years of film school and then it turned into my life. Sometimes I think I chose New Zealand, sometimes I think it chose me.
When you were growing up, what was your dream job? How did this morph into you becoming a filmmaker (assuming this wasnít your childhood dream job)?
My dream career when I was a kid was to be a writer. I still write when I can, though havenít quite found the time for that novel just yet. Often documentaries are not credited with a writer unless thereís voiceover narration. But a documentary, especially one thatís well done is a very written exercise. The camera records facts, light waves and sound waves, and you have to take those facts and craft them into truth. The script for a film is like a found poem, and all writing is really like a found poem. Shakespeare didnít invent many of the words he used. But he did put them in a different order than anyone else. You make a film, and you don't write the lines that people say, but you do put them together in a way that tells the best story you can make.
What are the films that have most affected your passion for the cinema?
I remember seeing Trainspotting
in 1996 when I was studying in France, and thinking it was very revolutionary at that time. Who knows how I would react if I saw it today, but I think in many ways, Squeegee Bandit
is a New Zealand version of a similar story. A guy whoís struggling and always just misses out on making his life better. A guy who rejects and is rejected by the society around him but doesnít have the answers to make a new way either.
I saw for the first time in about 1997. What better way to make a film about death, destruction, nuclear holocaust and the end of the world than to make it a comedy. I read something very interesting that Kubrick had originally intended to do it as a straight drama, and late in the game brought in another writer whose idea it was to give the characters their apocalyptic death-and-destruction names like President Merkin Muffley, Lionel Mandrake, and Bat Guano.
How do you primarily view film: entertainment, art, or a mix of both?
I donít think there are many ORs in life. Itís mostly ANDs. A lot of news companies like to give the impression they give both sides of the story, which generally means they have the fair and balanced reporting that reflects the view of the Democrats and the Republicans, the banker and the lawyer, Coke and Pepsi. But there are a million truths out there, and in my films I like to try to tell the ones that have been censored out. So for me film is entertainment and art and technology and recreation and suffering and enlightenment.
How do you, then, see your role as a filmmaker?
I want to tell stories on ideas and people I am passionate about, usually about subjects and using styles and techniques that are censored as much by the accounting department as by the censorís office. I think Iím a practical idealist. I want to tell uncommon stories about extraordinary ordinary people. In film and TV, audiences in general are only interested in seeing what they already know and can easily predict. Of course theyíve been conditioned to that because thatís almost all there is on offer.
I want to tell stories about misfits and outsiders, which are kind of hard to sell, but at the same time, the whole point of making a film is for people to watch it, so I spend increasing amounts of my time thinking about audience and marketing. I donít enjoy it much, but without thinking about no one will see your film.
How did idea for Squeegee Bandit eventuate?
I wanted to make something kind of political but also entertaining and emotionally engaging, and one day Iím driving and this guy washes my window. And I figure out quickly that these guys are not getting paid to wash windows. Some get their money out of peopleís guilt or fear. But the best ones know itís like street theater or performance art and go out to make a connection and entertain people. And I realise itís a great way to tell a story about how people are struggling to get by in New Zealand, which clearly has plenty to go around, and at the same time, itís highly visual and I'm going to find the most amazing characters.
I spent a long time looking for the right person. I beat the streets for about four months talking to people Ė almost like auditions but the people didnít know they were auditioning, and then I went down to the Otara Markets in South Auckland and saw Starfish, and our eyes met across the parking lot. I knew this guy had a million stories because the other window washers would gather around him with their jaws open just listening to the tales of his exploits when they could be a few feet away washing windows and making good money.
To me, the style of Squeegee Bandit seems to slowly shift as the film Rolls. What starts out looking a little like a fast cut, vaguely MTV-style production, subtly becomes a content-driven rendering of its subject. Was this a conscious move? If so, what was your rationale?
The editing style as it develops in the film was almost a reflection of how my relationship with Starfish developed. In the beginning, he was around the other window washers a lot. He was not acting, but he was always performing with a lot of people watching. And he was performing, not so much for me, (though also for me), but for the people he knew would be watching. In the early days, he was always referring to the camera as ďguysĒ, as in ďHey guys, havenít seen you in a while.Ē because he knew he was not just talking to me. I would always look around and ask, ďWhich guys?Ē because it was only ever me for film crew.
But we got to know each other and he let me into other parts of his life where he started to show me other aspects of his personality, especially a lot of vulnerabilities which are essential to any strong character in a film, but which he couldnít show with ten other window washers watching. And which he could only show me after we got to know each other over several months.
I thought of the character in the film like a character from mythology. Every mythological hero has these amazing superpowers, and Starfish literally does. He can go wash a window for 30 seconds and come up with a fifty dollar bill. Can you do that? I canít. Just the fact heís survived with everything heís gone through in his life is superhuman, most people would not have lived through what he's been through. But every hero has his great flaws as well, to be superhuman, you have to be superhuman. What makes mythological heroes so interesting to us is that theyíre not untouchable, but they are like us in so many ways, amplified. The best characters on screen are the ones you donít see as characters, you see a part of your own soul in them and you see a part of yourself up there.
It seems fair to say that Starfish has an unpredictable temper. Did you ever feel afraid that you might be getting on the wrong side of his temper during the filming?
You can see in the film a few scenes where I asked some pointed questions which didnít make him happy. My job is to tell the truth, not make an advertisement. And in the long term, it doesnít do him any favours if the film looks like it glosses over his flaws and just makes him look like a rock star. People can smell the propaganda and never get to the humanity. While he was angry, his anger was never directed at me. Since the film, and since seeing himself in it, heís got it much better under control, and has given up the drugs and drinking which have tremendously improved his life.
How did his general unpredictability effect filming?
Through most of the film, he was moving from place to place, no fixed address, no phone. We had this semi-understanding that we would see each other every Saturday morning at the Otara Markets. But there were times we would lose contact and I would have to just drive around the city talking to people and trying to find him. There were times when we would agree to meet and film and he would just say, ďNah, donít feel like filming today.Ē But when I decided go with him, I decided to take him onboard as he was, and for me it was definitely worth it. You cannot do a film like this with a crew being paid $1000 a day and have the subject decide he doesnít feel like it. As a result, you never get accurate stories about people who live lives like Starfish. But democracy means that everyone should have an equal say and every person is of equal worth.
In the film the struggle for cultural identity plays out strongly as an ongoing theme. How do you view this issue, in New Zealandís context, as someone who did not grow up in NZ?
I have found it a great advantage being from outside New Zealand. I didnít bring any of my own baggage to filming with him, nor did he have any baggage with me. You pick up your stereotypes when youíre young, before your brain is developed enough to see them for what they are. But my stereotype for Maori people before I came to New Zealand was a blank slate, and I canít imagine anyone having a stereotype for a Chinese/Hungarian-American New Zealander. So we could be very frank with each other. I think he felt free to talk race relations with me because in a way Iím not involved. He could say things about his own people that he might not say directly to his own people. And he could say things about Pakeha that he would not say directly to them. Your greatest gift as a documentary maker is just to find someone who tells their truth as they see it.
Iíve used a lot of historical archive in the film, intercut with everything from hip hop video styles to an Errol Morris-style sculpted documentary. My main aim was to illustrate how history affects the present. It would be ridiculous to say that any one personís life is definitely one way or the other because of something that happened over 100 years ago. But it would be more ridiculous to say that thereís a huge group of people that have been affected in a very similar way by history, and that itís just a coincidence that so many of these people are in prisons and mental hospitals and having health problems. Itís not a coincidence that so many of the original landowners of Aotearoa are now the majority shareholder in the homelessness dividend.
You have used a lot of local content hip-hop/R&B for the Squeegee Bandit soundtrack. How did you go about putting together the soundtrack, and what was your rationale for song selections?
With no budget, you have to be creative, and look for other creative people looking for an opportunity. A lot of the hip hop music comes from a small label, 833 Records, who have a lot of exciting artists rising up. And a lot of artists telling stories similar to Starfishís. I am usually so busy making films, I hardly have time to listen to music at all, and Iím not a hip-hop fan by nature, but this music helps tell the story of the film and I knew it was right. I thought all the tracks from Nesian Mystik, Mr. Sicc, Bigg Roccs, Zodiac (whoís in the film) and EPR in some way spoke to the world of the film.
For the guitar score, I wanted something like I saw in the movie Dead Man
. Not a miracle of a film, but I loved the music. Once I found Dave Goodison, we spent three nights in the recording studio. We played the scene of the film in question. I told him what kind of emotion or effect I wanted, and he just whacked it out with a tremendous sense of intuition. The whole filming process was largely improv so we did the score the same way.
Do you have a day job at present to help fund your filmmaking, and if so what is it? Where else do you go for funding for your cinematic projects?
No day job at present (but looking soon). Looking for a patron. Please contact me through squeegeebandit.com
to make a donation. The Screen Innovation Production Fund has been wonderful in supporting my projects, but itís not enough to make a film and pay yourself.
Whatís the next project we can expect to see from SŠndor Lau and when can we expect it?
DVD is out for rental on June 6. Iím in the States right now spending time with my family, especially my grandfather who is 94 and my nephew who is 4 months. Itís a bit early to talk about new projects
Finally, tell us three things an already devoted fan wouldnít know about SŠndor Lau...
Ľ I try not to buy anything unless Iíve written it down and kept it on my list for at least three months (food excluded).
Ľ I had gall stones last year and understand my grandfather a lot better now because I can relate to talking about memory loss and health problems a lot more often.
Ľ Iím writing from Tucson, Arizona, where Iím staying with my parents in an RV (like a big caravan or house truck). My bed is a piece of plywood and a mattress laid across the two front seats, and my computer and monitor are on the dashboard.
At a Glance...
Full Name: SŠndor William Mun Sung Lau
Birthplace: South Bend, Indiana, USA
Back Catalogue: Another Manís Treasure (short documentary, 2002), Behaviours of the Backpacker (TV documentary, 2003)
Favourite directors: I have favourite films more than directors. The same directors often make films I like and films I hate. So... favourites: The Corporation, Dr. Strangelove, Trainspotting, Borat, Double Indemnity, Yellow Earth, Sherman's March, Roger and Me, Cunnamulla, Mirch Masala
SŠndor Lau is a former LumiŤrŤ contributor. Squeegee Bandit is released on DVD on June 6. Behaviours of the Backpacker is available to purchase or rent at arovideo.co.nz. For further insight, see squeegeebandit.com or sandorlau.net.