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Writer’s Room Summary – November 2007

Writer’s Room Summary – November 2007

Jonothan Cullinane, Roger Horrocks and John Barnett

The Kiwi ‘David and Goliath’
The final Writer’s Room for 2007 invited South Pacific Pictures CEO John Barnett (Producer, We’re Here To Help, Whale Rider, Beyond Reasonable Doubt) and writer/director Jonothan Cullinane (We’re Here To Help, Piano Lessons, Trifecta) to discuss the trials and tribulations they encountered while making We’re Here To Help, their film based on Dave Henderson’s monumental battle with the New Zealand tax department. MC Roger Horrocks highlighted the importance of this film and the risks Barnett and Cullinane took to make it; “These guys were sticking their necks out, as were the funding bodies. Personally, I think this film will go on to become a classic point of reference in our culture, when people talk about tax or out-of-control bureaucracies!”

Cullinane’s initial inspiration came from watching the Steven Soderbergh film Erin Brokovich (2000), the dramatic account of a legal secretary’s fight against an American energy company. A fascination with such conflicts motivated Cullinane’s search for New Zealand’s own David and Goliath story. He came across a book by Christchurch businessman Dave Henderson, Be Very Afraid, which tells the story of Henderson’s battle with the IRD. Cullinane said the story’s appeal lies in the bold character of Dave Henderson, “… a person willing to put himself at a great deal of risk.” Cullinane and Barnett felt David Henderson’s charismatic character offered an appealing hero; “He’s terribly likeable, making the story easy to play with a lighter touch,” said Cullinane adding that Henderson’s lawyers worked “three years for nothing.” Cullinane set about translating the story to a screenplay because he wanted to direct it, “there aren’t many director projects around. You have to write it if you want to direct it.”

Cullinane described the film’s five year development process as “occasionally heartbreaking”. He knew very little about Henderson during the initial stages of adapting his book, “the only thing I knew about Henderson was his photo (printed on the back of the book); an attractive hero and a hiss-able villain, the IRD”.

The filmmakers were astonished by the injustice in Henderson’s story but still felt humour was the best approach. Cullinane said the comedic tone was integral to keeping things fresh, crediting editor David Coulson (Whale Rider, North Country) with crafting the film’s quick and comedic pace. Barnett referred to Henderson’s purchase of the IRD building, which he renamed ‘Henderson House’, as an example of how humour was a vital ingredient of Henderson’s character. “Henderson has a sense of humour. That’s his way of fighting. He’s not oppressed. He’s not hiding. He’s fighting back. Henderson said, ‘I’ll buy it. In the past four years I’ve been in every office in the building, so I don’t need to see it. I know what it’s like!’”

Cullinane said about two months was spent developing a treatment that was then submitted to the NZ Film Commission for development funds. Funds were granted and the draft took a further nine months to craft.

A benefit to being the writer and director was that Cullinane was able to be flexible with the script and make adjustments continuously through production. A scene set inside the IRD introducing the internal world of the office actually developed from a conversation between the actors as they were blocking it, and expressing confusion over the pronunciation of a foreign word. The ensuing comedic banter between the actors/ ‘tax workers’, was eventually incorporated into the film. “It reminded me of fifty thousand meetings at TVNZ – all the rubbish you have to get through,” said Cullinane.

A read-through workshop not only contributed to script development but auditioned actors as well. “The actors (invited to the read-through) weren’t told that they were actually auditioning,” said Barnett, and both filmmakers described the workshop as a valuable process. Cullinane said a huge cast was needed to play the many faces of the IRD and most actors only appeared in one scene. “There was no antagonist running throughout the whole film,” said Barnett, “it was this slightly amorphous body made up of all these people.” The film was cast with international marketability in mind, both filmmakers explaining that from a foreign perspective all New Zealanders “look the same” so casting people with many different features was important.

Global appeal
Horrocks asked the filmmakers if they were concerned that the movie’s New Zealand story would affect its international appeal. “Not a problem,” replied Barnett who emphasised that the film translates well globally because it avoids “the complexities” of the New Zealand tax system to tell a story everyone can relate to.

Although set in Christchurch, the film was shot in Auckland. The huge cast was a challenge. “There were so many actors and not a lot of rehearsal time,” Cullinane said, mentioning the time restriction of their 24 day shooting period but acknowledging that fast working crews alleviated the pressure. “NZ crews have changed since the arrival of Xena and Hercules – they’re now really fast. There’s no nonsense – they get in there and get the job done.”

Hard realities
Barnett explained that a New Zealand cinema release can be an arduous and costly challenge. A substantial pre-sale of We’re Here to Help was made to an Australian Television network. Barnett said a filmmaker cannot expect to cover the cost of a domestic release in New Zealand, adding “… when it plays on TV overseas, we get cheques straight away.” Barnett discussed the film’s $2.4 million budget. “$1.9 million from NZFC, NZ on Air gave $250,000 and the rest was from pre-sales.” When asked if DVD sales would recoup the costs, Barnett replied, “No. It’s hard to cover costs. In my view, if you don’t do $1.5 million at box office, you won’t cover your distribution and release costs. It’s tough.” Barnett has been disappointed with the viewer response but was heartened by Horrocks’ belief that We’re Here to Help is an important and courageous film and will have a long term life in New Zealand.

Rights to Be Very Afraid
“It cost $10 for the rights (to Henderson’s book),” said Cullinane, adding their negotiation with Henderson was a smooth process. Henderson also offered to invest in the film but was declined by Barnett. “For him, it’s all about the cause,” said Barnett. “Money’s not the issue.” Henderson did not participate in the making of the film but did attend the final shooting day. Cullinane said Henderson was apprehensive when presented with a completed cut of the film. “He liked it,” Cullinane recalled, “but did say, ‘Geez, the guy in the movie got off a lot more lightly than I did!’”.

We’re Here to Help captures one man’s futile endeavor through a bureaucratic system described by Barnett as, “the endless vortex of people – the chain that eventually crushes people”, adding that Henderson’s book is, sadly, dedicated to a person who committed suicide, unable to survive the bureaucratic pressure.

Some reviewers criticized the film’s depiction of IRD characters as ‘Gestapo-like.’ Barnett dismissed these views saying that most of the material was derived from Henderson’s transcripts and both he and Cullinane felt empathy towards the IRD workers. “They’re like everybody else. They’re people doing a job,” Barnett said, emphasising the film’s attempt to show the characters as ‘real people’. Cullinane highlighted this outlook with a fond recollection (recorded in Henderson’s transcripts) of an official IRD meeting that turned into a sentimental exchange of stories about mothers, prompting one worker to rip off his jacket to reveal a vest his mother had knitted him.

Horrocks commented on the strong tradition of factual fiction film in New Zealand, referring to Barnett’s 1980 film Beyond Reasonable Doubt that described the wrongful imprisonment of Arthur Alan Thomas. Barnett recalled the varied views towards the film at the time and the number of critical responses received by the newspapers that focused on the reality rather than the fiction. “These stories are good to tell in any society. Sometimes there are people who don’t want them told; they don’t want to open up the wound again.” Barnett persevered with We’re Here to Help, undeterred by controversy. “The tax department didn’t want it made,” he said, adding that the project did receive support from the New Zealand Film Commission and NZ On Air, two government funding bodies. “They were great. Nobody said you shouldn’t make it. That’s the strength of a democratic society.” But Barnett did express some concern. “I do think there will be repercussions. It sounds paranoid, but Dave (Henderson) is being audited again.”

Barnett asked the audience for a show of hands from those who had attended recent cinema releases of the last four New Zealand films. The numbers were disappointingly low. He appealed for writers and filmmakers to support NZ film. “If you’re in the business and you want to write NZ films, go and see the films. If you guys don’t go to see them, then why would anyone else?”

About Script to Screen
Script to Screen ( is an independent, industry wide initiative, established to develop the culture of screenwriting in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Script to Screen’s programme of talks and workshops provide opportunities for both established and emerging screenwriters to meet, share knowledge, and develop their craft.

The Writer’s Room is made possible with support from the New Zealand Film Commission, Creative Communities NZ Auckland City and Stella Artois.


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