It was astounding that Kiwi director Lee Tamahori's 2011 film The Devil's Double did not release here. The film about the real life stand-in for Saddam Hussein's sadistic son Uday had received rapturous reviews in Sundance, especially for Dominic Cooper who portrayed both men. Tamahori, having returned to Auckland to live, had made the €15,000,000 film mostly with Belgian finance and had been happy to escape the rigours of Hollywood.
“LA was over for me because I was being slotted into a kind of studio action genre,” he explained at the time in Sundance. “Not only that, but my last two pictures in Hollywood [Next and XXX 2: The Next Level] didn't work; they were flops. My use-by date in Hollywood was up. I'm back to doing independent films now because I like it and I want to work in New Zealand. I'm very happy to be home and I want to do some films there as well as in the rest of the world.”
Two years later, the energetic 62-year-old, who rose to fame with Once Were Warriors and later directed Pierce Brosnan in his final stint as 007, Die Another Day, is in Cannes to talk up his latest movie Emperor, in the Cannes market. A 16th European century epic, it focuses not only on the uncrowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but also tells the human story of Johanna, a young woman whose father is executed by Charles V and who sets out to avenge his death. Tamahori chatted about the film and other projects (where he has collaborated with several Australians) as we sat by the wondrous Côte d'Azur in a rare moment when it wasn't raining.
I was very upset regarding the fate of The Devil's Double.
Yeah, that was the first movie of mine that ever went straight to DVD. I found it quite amusing but that was Icon for you. I don't blame them; they always waited for the American and the European releases to see what was going to happen. When the Americans released in summer [and the film didn't do well] I think they looked to cut their losses. Can't blame them; it's a business decision but I thought it would at least get a show in one theatre somewhere. It's not a bad film, but they didn't have the courage of their convictions I guess.
Dominic Cooper must have been disappointed because he did such a good job.
Yeah, but he got exposure in America and Europe where it really counted, not so much Australia and New Zealand. It's just a sad thing but that's the nature of the business. I didn't lose any sleep over it.
Are you still living in Auckland or back in the States?
I live in Auckland; I like living in New Zealand, I can still travel the world to make movies. I wanted to come back to Europe to work as I had a good experience last time.
So where is Emperor being filmed?
Germany, maybe the Czech Republic and somewhere in Belgium yet to be determined. We are running across three countries and we should be running across five countries but we can't afford it. It's a 16th century road movie, and I like that because I absolutely detest those movies where people keep wandering around big concrete and stone halls making speeches, and with stuffy costumes on. It's really quite boring and tedious and what we're trying to do is to enliven that kind of story.
Charles V, the so-called Holy Emperor—really a Catholic King of Spain—was a kind of old medieval knight but was 100 years too late for the medieval period. He liked to fight his own battles and liked to put on armour and go out and smash the enemy. I personally liked that about him; the others all sit around at home and let others fight their battle. So he is real man's man and he was a very straight up Catholic fanatic, but we are changing that in the movie because there is nothing to be gained by having a Catholic fanatic at the heart of your story. We are going to make his sister the Catholic fanatic and make her the bad guy so to speak. So I am going to make him a pragmatist, a man trying to maintain a huge rambling empire, probably the largest empire the world has ever seen because it runs through the Americas right through Europe and back to Poland and down to the Mediterranean.
So we are fictionalising it because the real story of Charles V is not very exciting. He's just another one of these giant potentates that happened by accident at birth to be born into a family that ruled over Europe at a particular period in time. From all the research we've done on him you really don't know much at all because he deliberately hid his real character from public view. He was the first spin doctor really. All we have is tedious official stuff about politics, the treaties, what he did here and there—but that's allowed us to create a fictional character which I like and at the heart of that we are placing a fictitious character, a young woman, who is maybe 24 years old.
You throw a woman at him?
When we started the story it was more like that. I'm working with an Australian writer Michael Thomas, who wrote Burke & Wills, Backbeat, The Hunger for Tony Scott and all those other movies [Welcome to Woop Woop, The Night We Called It a Day]. He wrote The Devil's Double and we got on pretty well. When we started doing this story we wanted to have them bonking like rabbits, but really, of course, Charles can get whatever he wants. So we moved away from that story. At the end of the day, he is so physical that after a big stoush like beating the French in 1527 or whatever, he doesn't go off and get laid – he goes off and fights a bull in the bloody local town square because that's his idea of releasing tension. He was that kind of guy.
You are also planning a New Zealand movie, an adaptation of Whale Rider novelist Witi Ihimaera's 1994 book Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.
It's a classic New Zealand film I have wanted to make for a while. John Collee, the Australian who wrote Master and Commander, has written the screenplay for us and he has done a superb job. I told John, “You don't need to be a Maori to write it, you just need to be a good writer”. It's set in the late 1950s, in my father's part of the country on the North Island's east coast. It's full of Maoris and very few white people.
Is it near where Taika Waititi shot Boy?
Yep, that type of environment, exactly. It's essentially a coming of age story like Boy. It's about family structures and dark secrets at the heart of families and I am looking forward to that. The two films could not be more dissimilar.