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Asking Why with Gaylene Preston

Asking Why with Gaylene Preston

Graeme Tetley and Gaylene Preston

At the September Writer’s Room champion of homegrown storytelling Gaylene Preston (Bread and Roses, War Stories, Perfect Strangers) spoke to screenwriter Graeme Tetley (Ruby and Rata, Bread and Roses, Out of the Blue) about her work, her thoughts on storytelling, and about what drives her to make films.

Asking why
Gaylene Preston sees all storytelling as political. The choices we make about which stories to tell and how they are told shape the world we live in. From our own biography to the big movies and everything in between our stories define us. That’s why Gaylene thinks, “if I spent all the time I have in my life dedicated to making films and they weren’t about anything much I’d feel really bad about that by now.” Gaylene believes putting stories on screen carries a special responsibility.
She started making films in the seventies and since then the medium has changed and industry growth has been enormous. Gaylene feels very lucky to have been a part of that but also sees the growth of the global industry as a problem. “The bigger what we do becomes, the bigger the responsibility that comes with it becomes. I want the films that I make to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Whenever people tell me they want to be a filmmaker, my next question is ‘why?’”

Gaylene’s first ‘why?’ concerned the power film gave to those who usually had none, a discovery she made with her first film. She was working at an English psychiatric hospital in 1972 where third of the patients at the hospital could not talk. “Therapy was all very well and good if you could talk but if you couldn’t you fell outside the net.” So Gaylene used drama therapy and improvisation with a group of these patients. “It then became clear the people involved in the therapy needed an end result, so I made my first film. It happened totally by accident. I found I liked it. You could take these people who everyone ignored, or worse abused, and as soon as you put them up there [on the screen] they became important and they became ‘a star’.” People suddenly respected them. They gained a public voice.”

Gaylene watched Thatcher’s Britain evolve during a seven year stay in England. She returned to New Zealand at the end of the seventies with an insight into the changes New Zealanders were likely to face. Gaylene made a documentary inspired by the direction she believed new right economics were taking us and the impact that was likely to have on New Zealand’s young people. “In those days New Zealand was a place where you could actually see the future because our geographic isolation rendered us 5-7 years behind Europe. We had a crystal ball and I felt like I could see that the kids here were heading for a brick wall that they had no idea was there. I thought it would be good to make a film about a bunch of seventeen year olds to capture that wonderful moment when they still had the light on but they were hurtling towards unexpected unemployment. So I made Learning Fast (1980).”

Gaylene believes her documentary and drama work alike are driven by having things to say. Ruby and Rata (1990) is a serious comedy about land rights. Even Perfect Strangers (2003), a film not overtly political, “is about the terrible danger of the ‘story’ ruling.” Gaylene emphasized she is not talking about journalism when she speaks about storytelling. She believes the proliferation of news as ‘story’ is dangerous and the power of story is being abused. Gaylene used the example of how 9/11 became related to the Iraq War. “First 9/11 happened and then it was ‘we’ll get Osama Bin Ladden ‘dead or alive’’. When that didn’t happen the news ‘story’ helped the idea jump tracks to become ‘Saddam Hussein ‘dead or alive’ and then they pulled him out of the bunker, ‘we’ve got ’im’. End of story. The need for a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end overruled rationality and that’s ridiculous and dangerous…The audience always wants ‘them’ (whoever they are) to live ‘happily ever after’. [With Perfect Strangers] I wanted to see how far that could be pushed to a dangerous conclusion”.

Graham Tetley remembers a powerful image that he feels contained a great deal of Gaylene and where her films come from. When they wrote together, “we talked ourselves into a central image that governed everything.” While writing Mr. Wrong (1985), Gaylene and Graeme created an image they returned to for the drama based on the life of Sonia Davies, Bread and Roses (1993), an image that has remained strong in Graeme’s mind. “It was of women at the end of the war coming out onto the veranda and looking into the distance and saying, ‘There could be something for me to do, there could be a place out there for me, that’s where I should be’, and then coming down off the veranda.”
Career and Gaylene’s place in New Zealand

Gaylene has an extensive filmography but does not see herself as having a ‘career’ and careerism is something she has little time for. A career is “just an idea. Although I’d quite like a career, every time I’ve decided I have one, everything’s turned to shit!” She describes trying to plot out a career for herself in the film industry and finding it to be, “the road to unhappiness. The idea that one thing leads to another and the films get larger and larger the longer you do it. Getting rid of that notion regarding myself and my work has been done with difficulty. My reason for making films is not to get on a silver rocket and go to Sundance” (although Gaylene’s films have screened there).

Gaylene also sees careerism as dangerous to the bigger picture. “Careerism allows people to do one little thing in the chain without too much thought of the bigger picture. Ultimately, if fear is added to that equation, people can be sent to the gas chamber because others are afraid of losing their jobs and are blind to the ultimate result.”

Gaylene has a love / hate relationship with New Zealand and her place in this country. She is driven to make films here because her sense of outrage is at its most vehement in NZ. “Outrage is a great motivator. A healthy sense of outrage will see you through all the hard times you have to go through to get a story up there on the screen.” And although she has had a few offers from Hollywood they have been for nothing she wants to make. “I didn’t have much of a problem turning down Problem Child 2”, she laughed.

Gaylene thinks her films can be hard to place within the New Zealand canon, partly because her dramas are more metaphorical than is the norm here and partly because they do not often fit into prevailing trends, something she is quite proud of.

The importance of storytelling

For Gaylene, storytelling is not simply political but also inherently human. This truth became clear for her when she left art school and began working in a therapy situation where storytelling was an important part of group therapy. “The psychological story we choose to tell about ourselves personally, culturally and as a group does actually shape us. You can’t find another species on the planet that tells stories.”

As the world becomes “bristling with electronic media”, Gaylene believes the byte-sized “stories” people are increasingly addicted to work against the age-old need to narrate. “I worry we are losing this very important basic human brain-stem thing – we’re not sitting around sharing great big long stories while we eat and drink and laugh together. Cinema is becoming almost the last bastion of long form storytelling communally shared.”

Preston says that taking the time to really listen is an equally important a part of storytelling. Regarding interviewing for documentary, Gaylene feels listening is something one learns with experience and depth comes out of gaps. “It’s not about listening for facts - it’s about listening for emotional connections. When you hear a gap there’s usually an emotional hole that is linked to fresh memory. The person is remembering rather than just recounting and digging around in that space can yield fresh treasures in an interview. I’ve got better at finding the holes. I like the holes.”

Framing documentary

“With drama you start with an empty frame and you fill it,” said Gaylene. “With documentary you start with everything and you chose what to frame.” However, she sees drama and documentary as sharing the same narrative issues. “How do you get started and how in the beginning do you set-up the end? Often if the end doesn’t work it’s because you have the wrong beginning”.

Graeme asked Gaylene to talk about the increasing presence of the filmmaker in documentary, referencing Vincent Ward’s Rain of the Children, Florian Harbicht’s Rubbings of a Live Man and Gaylene’s own The Time of Our Lives.
Gaylene said documentary makers are “loosening up” and she feels she has become more “present” in her documentary work. In 1978 she made All The Way Up There, a documentary following a young disabled man and Graham Dingle up Mt Ruapehu. She and producing partner Warrick Attewell wrote the script first and stuck to it no matter what. “Some of the things that happened up there, people would say, ‘What do we have to do to get into this documentary?’ because we limited the story like crazy.”

With experience, Gaylene has broadened her approach and has been increasingly present. “Even in Learning Fast (1980) I was nearly in the frame. I wouldn’t shut up and I think you can tell that the kids are talking to someone. There’s a special relationship with the camera. Coming out from the edge of the frame seems honest, but you have to have confidence about that. In the end, I emerged by necessity.” In her latest work, The Time of our Lives (2008), Gaylene used a little PD150 to grab extra footage while filming in planes. “I told my cameraman, David Paul, ‘You’ve got to feel ok about me being in the frame so that we can film at the same time’. I didn’t want to limit him but it took until we were half way around the world before he really became comfortable with this because he is really good at avoiding the interviewer. This created a structural problem in the edit: (laughs) I suddenly turn up around Bangkok!”
Graeme felt the “loosening up” was also breaking down the boundaries between drama and documentary, as demonstrated by films like The Queen (Stephen Frears 2006) or and Robert Sarkie’s and Graeme’s own Out of the Blue (2007) based on the Aramoana massacre. Gaylene agreed but voiced concern about the way the ‘breaking down’ is sometimes handled. She went to see The Story of the Weeping Camel (Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni 2003) at the film festival thinking she was going to a drama but was faced with something else when she got there. “It was masquerading as a documentary because it had all of these real people in there but I wasn’t sure whether they were re-enacting the mythology of the weeping camel or if that had really happened so I had a real problem with that film.”

Gaylene believes it is a great time for documentary because it has “exploded back into the cinema”, creating opportunities for character-based documentaries like the ones she has always made. New Zealand does have a strong tradition of television documentary but there has always been a lack of continuity, especially in documentary series making. Gaylene believes we are in a position to jump easily into the cinematic documentary worldwide renaissance, and is proud of the trailblazing cinema release of War Stories our Mothers Never Told Us in 1995. “We out grossed Braindead at the time” she jokes.

Home by Christmas

Gaylene’s latest project, Home by Christmas, is currently shooting. Her father’s story was the first war-story Gaylene put on sound tape. She had just finished making Ruby and Rata and her father was dying. “He didn’t talk about the war in the house but sometimes he’d get a few mates around and they’d play pool and talk about the war in the garage, always joking. He knew I had always really wanted to hear what he did in the war. As a parting gift to a bossy daughter he agreed to tell me his war-story.” Gaylene recorded it on ten double-sided cassette tapes over two weeks in 1990.

It is only now, after the death of her mother, that Gaylene feels able to make the film. She said her father would never have allowed her to film him. After they had made the tapes he went into remission and they had a week together when Ruby and Rata was in the Sydney Festival but he never mentioned the war again, almost as if they had never talked about it. Gaylene has now written a script from the tapes and has asked the actor Tony Barry to recreate her edit of the interview.

At the September Writer’s Room this project was not yet fully funded and Gaylene is not one to skim over the hellish quota of tenacity needed to be an independent filmmaker. “The sheer hard work, total shit and hard knocks you have to take to get a film on screen is huge and it doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it gets harder as you get older. When you are a kid and you fall over and graze your knee and it’s not that bad. Now when I fall over I’m falling over on knees that have been grazed many times before and that can really hurt. I’m talking about the complexity of film financing wherever the money has to come from.”

But both Gaylene and Graeme agreed they are glad to be part of the New Zealand industry and Gaylene finished on a note of optimism. “I must say that the decision I made in 1976 to leave my lovely life in South London and come back to New Zealand as a bit of a fish out of water has ultimately given me a community of amazing artists. We’ve all developed together and we are very blessed to have each other and I love the new people and the young people coming through and I think we’ve got a great filmmaking community. There’s a fantastic heart to it and a need to tell stories that are worth telling that’s still there in our industry. We have not become cynical yet. I hope we treasure that independent spirit because if you don’t treasure it you lose it and it’s like that Joni Mitchell song - you often don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”


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