Film Festival: From one-woman play to feature flick

By Lydia Jenkin

Actress-turned-scriptwriter Sophie Henderson tells Lydia Jenkin about her two years of multitasking to make a distinctly Kiwi film.

Sophie Henderson, Fantail's writer and lead actor, says it was gratifying to be able to write a strong and complex female lead and is keen to try her hand at more.
Sophie Henderson, Fantail's writer and lead actor, says it was gratifying to be able to write a strong and complex female lead and is keen to try her hand at more.

Sophie Henderson smiles as she reels off the answer she's practised for when friends ask about the film that has consumed her life for two years: "It's about a girl who thinks she's Maori, who works in a petrol station trying to save money to go to Surfers with her brother to find their dad."

And "consume" is certainly the right word to describe a situation when you're the lead actor, writer, and wife of the director (Curtis Vowell). Even more so when it's your first feature film, and you're teaching yourself the subtleties of writing a script by reading a lot of screenwriting books.

Henderson, 27, who you might recognise from her role as lawyer Bailey Wilson on Outrageous Fortune, or from the local theatre scene was also lucky to have feedback from her mother, Katie, who has won international awards for her short stories.

The story centres on Henderson's character Tania, the blond, blue-eyed, tough, white girl who likes to think that by speaking "Maori English", people might realise she's just as Maori as her little brother Pi, or Piwakawaka, the fantail of the title.

It's a story about identity, loyalty, vulnerability, and family - a story that Henderson created and performed as a 10-minute, one-woman play in her third year of drama school at Unitec. Henderson and Vowell originally planned to turn it into a full-length play, but when they couldn't get funding they tried the NZ Film Commission's Escalator scheme, which provided $250,000.

"That original play was more like a confession, which sort of works backwards from where the film ends, and I've kind of pulled it out from there."

The surrounding characters include Tania's well-meaning, protective boss Roger (Stephen Lovatt) and regional manager Dean (Jarod Rawiri), who is committed to his assessments and training but loves a dare, and is a little bit sweet on Tania - despite proclaiming she can't be Maori.

Her life at the petrol station eventually swings from being boring and claustrophobic and worrying about Pi, to a swift emotional sucker-punch. But the main theme remains one of identity - an idea that evolved from Henderson's own experiences.

"I've done a lot of retail in my time, a solid eight years, so there's definitely some hate for retail," she says.

"But also it's about my experience going to primary school up north in Whangarei, and being one of the only Pakeha kids. We learned a lot about Maori culture, and kapa haka, and a little bit of te reo. When I was little I thought that I could kind of claim that culture too but when I got older I realised that it didn't belong to me."

She found herself wondering: "What the heck is my culture? Do I even have one?"

They shot the film over 20 days at a Penrose petrol station once the doors were shut at 6pm, working through the night.

"The hardest thing about low-budget film-making is the time pressure. But in a way it's quite freeing as an actor because most of the time you only get a couple of takes, and you have to be really instinctive, and it's quite raw, and you don't get another go. It gives everything an energy."

Then there was the challenge of repeated visits from the police. "They'd come and investigate what was going on, thinking people were breaking into the petrol station. I think that particular station has had a few burglaries."

Henderson had to master a Maori English accent for the film.

"Curtis' sister did her masters on Maori English, so she trained me a little bit, and I joined the Avondale kapa haka group, and asked them: 'Is this is all right? How does this sound?' I tried to mimic them. And Jahalis Ngamotu [who plays Pi] gave me lots of great lingo too. We wanted it to be truthful in that Tania wasn't thinking too much about putting it on, it was just how she grew up."

There was also the interesting dynamic of being directed by her husband. "It was good because we didn't have to ring each other up for a meeting. We were equally obsessed with this film. I don't know what we're going to talk about when it's out actually. But sometimes we'd have screaming matches on the way home from the set, and tears. I'd do it again though." Let's hope she does, as New Zealand could do with more scriptwriters creating stories around interesting female characters.

"I'm really keen to do some more writing. You're much more in control of your career, in a funny way, if you can write a part you want to play. There's a lot of cardboard cut-out wife and girlfriend roles, and not just in New Zealand, but in the world, so it's gratifying to be able to write a strong and complex female lead."

Who: Sophie Henderson
What: Kiwi film Fantail
Where and when: screening at the NZ International Film Festival in Auckland on Sunday, Aug 4, 4pm at SkyCity Theatre; in Wellington at the Paramount on Friday, Aug 9, at 6.15pm

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