New Zealand cinema is riding a hot streak at the moment and The Dark Horse is one of the big reasons why. We speak to the film’s director as it lands in Australia.
20 Nov 2014 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:30 AM

At a time when audiences are struggling to make it into cinemas to watch Australian films, our neighbours across the pond are flocking to see local movies and indigenous-themed movies in particular. After Taika Waititi’s Boy became an unprecedented local box office success in 2010, this year, with co-creator and Flight of the Conchords buddy Jemaine Clement, Waititi watched as their vampire schtick in What We Do in the Shadows gelled with audiences, who queued around the block in bloodsucker outfits.
Likewise, James Napier Robertson’s New Zealand Festival opener The Dark Horse would become a local hit before venturing to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands, a riskier pre-colonial Maori martial arts movie, would world premiere. The first movie shot entirely in te reo Maori, The Dead Lands would release at the top of the box office when it released back home as well.
How and why is this happening? Firstly, these are all good original stories, with the vampire talkfest What We Do in the Shadows perhaps being the lesser of the bunch. Though, with all those funnymen in the one movie, it was bound to be a cult hit.
It’s probably no coincidence that the other three movies boast the charismatic presence of James Rolleston, a seemingly regular kid who the camera loves. There’s no doubting that New Zealand is brimming with talent.
Cliff Curtis, who rose to international attention in 2002’s Whale Rider (he has played all manner of Hollywood ethnics ever since), has been a huge driving force behind a lot of the success, as has been the winsome Waititi, who cleverly developed a close alliance with the Sundance Institute in getting his films made.  
In 2004, Curtis, together with producer Ainsley Gardiner, founded the production company Whenua Films to produce Maori-oriented movies, including Waititi’s Eagle vs. Shark and Boy. An eccentric and occasional ratbag, Curtis once made national headlines for driving his four-wheel drive into a house in spectacular fashion, supposedly when he was checking a text. Most recently, he turned up at The Dark Horse TIFF premiere dressed entirely in white and would only talk via his iPad.  
While at the time he was immersing himself in his role as a follower of Christ in Kevin Reynold’s movie, Clavius, set in the aftermath of the Crucifixion, in The Dark Horse Curtis had likewise done the same, gaining 30 kilos and playing chess around the clock to portray bipolar speed chess champ, Genesis Potini, a real-life saint of sorts. By teaching chess to local youth, Potini helped to dissuade them from becoming involved in gangs and crime. He set up a wide-reaching program that endures to this day.
Rolleston plays Mana, the son of Genesis’s bikie gang leader brother and he could go either way.
What is special about this kid, James Rolleston, who actually now is quite the teenager?

JPN: I think James has this amazing combination of boyish warmth and then a quite heavy maturity that’s battling inside him. It’s a fascinating thing to watch on screen. It was important for us that Mana had a sense of innocence that was contrasted by this desire to be like his dad. Growing up in a world that was quite brutal he was trying to push his emotional side down. Then someone like Genesis comes along and brings it out of him again.

Were you stunned by Cliff’s behaviour at the TIFF premiere?

I kind of had an idea because a couple of months back we’d talked about the movie and about the Method approach that I’d gotten him to take in The Dark Horse, of staying in character and putting on all the weight. He wanted to try and do something similarly ridiculous for his new movie so he was talking about the possibility of a vow of silence. What I didn’t realise was, he was shooting the movie right through our Toronto premiere. So when I was checking into my Toronto hotel I looked over and there’s this much thinner guy with a huge grin on his face not saying a word and dressed all in white. He had this biblical glow about him and I realised as I was chatting with him that there were no words coming out of his mouth. He had taken that vow of silence and wanted to get to a more spiritual place.

Did you have to persuade him to go Method to play Genesis?
He wasn’t keen on the idea at first, staying in the character for eight weeks and putting on all this weight. They both sounded impossible to try and maintain. But then he got his head around it and threw himself it at full force. There’s an intensity in Cliff as a person and that’s in his work as well.
What did you learn about Maori culture as a non-Maori New Zealander?

I think there’s such a beautiful spirituality and depth of mythology in Maori culture. I loved the parallels that could be drawn between a lot of these mythical elements and the game of chess, which is a kind of ancient game. I was able to tell a story that was very specific to Genesis but also was universal.

At TIFF The Imitation Game and the Brian Wilson movie, Love and Mercy, featured outsiders, as did your previous debut feature I’m Not Harry Jenson.

That’s right. They’re about people who, from an outside perspective, someone could write them off as just being too extreme or crazy. But there’s actually a brilliance in them.

Were you happy with the reception in Toronto? Now The Dead Lands is doing far better than expected too.

It’s an exciting time in New Zealand now. Anytime a New Zealand film manages to cut through and be seen on an international stage—yeah, I was over the moon with the reception of Dark Horse in Toronto. I remember doing Q&As and people standing up literally in tears when they were asking questions. It was amazing to make a story that’s so specific to New Zealand but actually is so universal, and to see people from all different cultures connecting with it really strongly. I remember I had a lady on the board of the teachers’ union saying how she was looking forward to the film being released in Canada and trying to teach it in schools. She felt it was every bit as relevant for kids there.

Much has been made of the failure of Australian movies to attract audiences here. What is making New Zealanders flock to your movies? Is it about the support from audiences or is it the movies themselves?

I wish I knew. I’m a huge fan of Australian cinema and a lot of my influences have come from Australian films. In New Zealand we’ve definitely struggled to get audiences along. I was in a video store the other day and a lady and her husband were asking which films to see and he pointed out a recent New Zealand film and she just immediately went, “Oh, I don’t watch New Zealand films.” It felt like she would never give them a chance. So there can be a struggle with that in New Zealand as well, but we seem to have managed to have a wonderful year where audiences have had enough of a belief in the New Zealand films to come out and take the risk to go and see them. Then they’ve talked a lot about it to their friends and really helped spread the word. It seems like this cumulative effort of giving our audiences a belief again. When What We Do in The Shadows came out, The Dark Horse trailer was playing in all those cinemas. Then when The Dark Horse came out, The Dead Lands trailer was playing at the screenings.

You’re all so nice to each other!

(Laughs) It’s better to collaborate with each other rather than trying to battle over stupid little things. It’s a big film world out there so we’ve got to team up.

The Dark Horse is in cinemas now. Watch the trailer below: