A Kiwi film-maker's debut tells the story of a young cancer sufferer determined to go out with a bang, writes Lydia Jenkin
Kirstin Marcon is about to release her debut feature The Most Fun You Can Have Dying, but she doesn't really consider herself a fulltime director. For starters, she is also a mum, and though she went to film school and made several acclaimed short films, she has spent little time working in the film industry.
But then she discovered the novel Seraphim Blues by New Zealand author Steven Gannaway and knew she wanted to turn it into a film.
"I just loved the book, and loved the character," she smiles.
" It's that nihilistic youth thing [that appealed to me], because I never got to do that. I really behaved like a good girl. Which I don't regret at all. But what the main character Michael does is that he just throws himself away into the world. He doesn't have any boundaries. Michael doesn't give a shit if people misunderstand him. He just is who he is. And I just found that so attractive, and really responded to it."
The film, which manages to be grand in scope and style despite a minimal budget, tells the story of 20-something Michael (played by Kiwi actor Matt Whelan, see story facing page) who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, opts to steal the money which has been fundraised for his treatment and take off to Europe. He sets out to stamp himself out in a blaze of drugs, alcohol and mayhem, but ends up encountering mysterious French drifter Sylvie (played by rising French actress Roxanne Mesquida).
The pair immediately spark, and end up swirling around a wintery Europe, as they investigate the boundaries of the human soul. It may sound like heavy subject matter, but though it's certainly not a comedy, Marcon was more interested in the liberation and adventure which Michael experiences, rather than the issues surrounding terminal illness.
"This is a film about a person, not a film about a person with cancer. That's the catalyst, but it's not the point. He doesn't want people to feel sorry for him or make excuses for him, including the audience."
Perhaps surprisingly, this isn't a film which sets out to make the audience cry. There is no manipulation of their sympathies, no justifications, just a bold portrayal of characters who are inspiring, fascinating and frustrating in turn.
"Michael basically decides 'f*** the world', and that's a tough decision, and there will definitely be some audience members who can't forgive him for that. But he's really just like a lot of young guys who go through that period of being extremely selfish and disrespectful ... He's a pretty realistic 20-something male so I won't apologise for him."
Much of the film's appeal hinges on the portrayal of Michael, so the search for the right actor was an intensive one. Around 150 young actors from around New Zealand and Australia were auditioned, but Marcon says Whelan (known for his roles in Go Girls and My Wedding And Other Secrets) stood out early on. And when it came to writing and casting the character of Sylvie it was important to her to create a woman who could have an equal presence to Michael, as well as being a strong influence on him.
"I've always made short films about sort of femme fatale characters, quite complicated, dark women, so I decided to really delve into that with Sylvie. Sylvie is like the female version of Michael - she doesn't speak often, she doesn't apologise, she doesn't explain. And she's clearly got her own issues. What I wanted to avoid with her was the manic pixie dream girl kind of trope in American cinema, where there's a woman who teaches the hero how to be a better person and is really quirky. Sylvie is the antithesis of that, she's like a planet of her own, and she's got gravity."
Marcon knew she wanted French actress Mesquida to play the part, having seen her in Rubber and Kaboom, and was delighted when she agreed.
"The script was beautifully written, the best I've read in a very long time" Mesquida explains. "Its tone and sense of humour are quite unusual. Even though the film is about a very serious subject, the characters are extremely alive.
"They want to fulfil each moment of their lives."
Shooting in freezing conditions with a limited budget proved to be one of the biggest challenges for the team.
In order to keep things lean they did a number of "guerilla shoots" with a stripped down crew, and minimal set up.
"We'd hide on trains and put sentries at the end of carriages and wait until no official people were around to shoot a scene.
"It was like a road trip, and we did all sort of bond over it. You don't know what country you're in and you're in a different hotel every night for what felt like weeks, and you're often cold and hungry, and half the time when you're travelling you're also shooting," Marcon says.
Despite the difficult conditions, the cast have fond memories of their escapades. "Even though I've never been colder than when we shot in Berlin, in the middle of a snowstorm, working with Kirstin and Matt was so fun that I don't even remember the hard time," Mesquida says.
A key factor in complementing the beautiful cinematography (the film was shot in 35mm), and guiding the audience through a film in which dialogue is often sparse, was the music, and Marcon knew early on that she wanted Wellington musician Grayson Gilmour (known for his beautiful solo albums and as a member of So So Modern) to compose the soundtrack.
"There's quite a wide palette of sounds and ideas to go with the expansive emotional trajectory," Gilmour explains.
He admits he initially thought the film would be darker and more melancholic in tone, moods that much of his music has invoked in the past.
"I thought, 'Oh maybe this will be really easy'. I'll just sit down and drop all the minor chords I have in my book of secrets. But Kirstin really wanted to steer away from that and make it more of a film about life and living.
"The music had to ride that wave with the film, and capture the youthful carelessness and energy. And then at the other end of the spectrum it had to have the guts ripped out to be really sparse and soft."
Though the end may be a forgone conclusion, Marcon hopes audiences will feel some sort of spark of life in witnessing Michael's tumultuous, spirited journey.
"People shouldn't be put off by the subject matter, because it's not that kind of film. I remember Trainspotting came out when I was about 18, and I fell in love with it, and I'm not trying to compare this film to Trainspotting, but I hope it might have a similar sort of exhilarating effect on people."
Matt Whelan on Becoming Michael
Kiwi actor Matt Whelan, perhaps best known as Brad from Go Girls, talks about the filming of The Most Fun You Can Have Dying.
What was it about the story and your character, Michael, that attracted you to the role?
It's a love story at heart, a coming-of-age adventure, a rock 'n' roll bucket list full of unexpected turns and a whole lot of crazy ups and downs. I got so excited when I read the script for the first time, I couldn't put it down. I was really drawn to the sense of reckless adventure and the excitement of escape. I love that not everything Michael does is agreeable. He lives in a grey area and makes some bad choices but it's his flaws that appealed to me the most. It creates a more complex and believable character; one that may split the audience with the decisions he makes but hopefully charm them into taking the adventure with him, no matter if they agree or not.
Tell us more about Michael.
Michael is a young guy from Hamilton, intelligent and full of life. He likes nothing more than going out with his mates, getting drunk, scoring girls and partying all night. He's smart, he's stubborn, he's reckless, loving and exciting. I think my favourite quality is that he rarely dwells on the negative side of things. He's determined to take some control back of his life that is fading before his eyes and he is determined to live life to the fullest and have the most fun he can have dying.
How did you deal with the physical degradation of Michael's body as the film progresses? Did you have to spend a lot of time in makeup?
It's tough watching someone go through this transformation but I wanted it to appear as real as possible. I was told not to lose weight but I couldn't help losing a little. However, the bulk of what you see is done with makeup. [Makeup supervisor] Deb Watson was really involved in the evolution of the disease. It is such an important visual in the film. She was determined to make this disease another character. We felt it could help drive the story forward and surprise us, make us angry, make us cry and even make us laugh.
Were there any particular scenes or moments that you loved shooting? Or any that you found difficult?
Waking up at 5am and shooting a scene on the beach in Monaco as the sun came up was magic. As was filming on the top of the Arc de Triomphe, and in the fog of Venice. Another one of my favourite scenes was in the nightclub. We shot it down K Rd in Auckland. We had crew all around us drenching us with water bottles as we danced like crazy. I just let loose, it was so much fun. I had a sore neck for days afterwards.
Do you think young New Zealanders will relate to Michael's experiences and lifestyle?
Absolutely. I think they will certainly relate to his sense of adventure and invincibility. I also think people will recognise the fun and crazy part in themselves that is ready to party and live life to the fullest.
Who: Kirstin Marcon, Kiwi director
What: The Most Fun You Can Have Dying
When and where: In cinemas from Thursday April 26