Catherine Gaffaney is a general reporter based in Auckland.

When Hollywood came to town

On the eve of the US premiere of Pete’s Dragon, Catherine Gaffaney finds Tapanui — population 770 — is basking in its sprinkling of Tinseltown.
The film set at Tapanui.
The film set at Tapanui.

Robert Redford says Tapanui taught him that New Zealand is a country with "a smile on its face".

The screen legend is expected at Monday's Los Angeles premiere of Pete's Dragon, which was partly filmed in the sleepy West Otago town last year.

"I would imagine that New Zealand today is the way America was when I was a little kid," Redford said. "Where people bonded together, there was community work and there was joy and there was happiness, and it's a can-do thing."

Tapanui proved it was can-do when the town of just 770 people was transformed into the Midwestern town of "Millhaven" for the shoot.

Graeme Smith, who has lived in Tapanui his whole life, and his wife, Rosalyn, who has lived there for almost 50 years, were among locals who became involved.

"We had a wonderful time playing townsfolk on the main street," Graeme said.

"We'd do things about eight to 10 times. We weren't to look at cameras and just go about things as normal, which meant not staring at the main actors and to try not to do anything unnatural, such as staring in a shop window for a long time."

The retired couple would arrive on set at 6.15am and not leave until about 4pm.

"Everyone in the town embraced the film, and those who weren't interested leased their houses to the movie cast and crew and took a holiday, so it was beneficial for everyone," Graeme said.

"I think if a film was ever to be made here again the town would get behind it, just as they have with this one."

Rosalyn said the scale of the film in the town was amazing, and she was impressed that it was run like a "well-oiled machine".

"It was absolutely wonderful, but a little strange having everything done for you and made for you.

"The food from the catering truck was not the kind of thing you normally get in Tapanui."

The Walt Disney Pictures remake of Pete's Dragon stars Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kiwi actor Karl Urban and Wes Bentley.

It tells the story of orphan Pete and his best friend, a dragon named Elliot.

Thirty one Kiwis feature in the film and 810 were involved in its production. Wellington's five-time Academy Award-winning Weta Digital had 150 staff work on the digital effects that brought Elliot to life.

The film, a children's fantasy, has already won positive reviews - The Guardian described it as "sweet and soulful with a bitter streak".

Actor Robert Redford.
Actor Robert Redford.

It certainly had a sweet impact on Tapanui.

The community was heavily involved in the production: playing extras in the film, assisting with catering, providing accommodation, and organising social events and activities for the cast and crew.

Several businesses increased revenue by 80 to 90 per cent during the month of filming in the town. That included the local pub which sold more bubbly in one night than it normally would in an entire year.

Tapanui's postman, Horace McAuley, was the go-between for locals and production crew.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "There were two thinking streams: them and us, but everyone got along so well.

"The locals bent themselves backwards to help. There's a book full of memories for everyone."

Pete's Dragon director David Lowery said Tapanui was his favourite shooting location.

"I loved going to that little town and the way the town welcomed us," he said.

"They made us almost feel like honorary citizens for the month that we were there.

"New Zealand just has something magical about it, that extra layer of magic that we needed."

The film had its UK premiere last week and the US premiere is on Monday. Private screenings are being held in Tapanui, Rotorua and Wellington next week as a thank you to the communities that were involved.

In Tapanui last week locals queued up to get their hands on tickets to the "give-back" screening. The 400 tickets disappeared so quickly that Disney agreed to put on a second screening.

Bentley, known for American Beauty and Ghost Rider, plays Jack, a lumber mill owner in the movie.

"Sometimes, if you're shooting in LA or New York or places like that, there are a lot of distractions, especially if you're American," he said. "Here, in New Zealand you are getting away from it all. It is unique ... an ideal place to create a film and tell a story."

Pete's Dragon opens in New Zealand on September 15.

Making Pete's Dragon

- Thirty one Kiwis are in the film and 810 Kiwis were members of the crew. It took 74 days to film.

- Weta Digital had 150 staff work on the film. It began initial sketches of Elliot, the dragon, in 2014.

- Twenty million CGI hairs were created for Elliot (20 times more than King Kong).

- It took 50 million hours to render the film.

- Elliot had to be slimmed down so he could fit in New Zealand landscapes, particularly in the forest scenes.

- Several Tapanui businesses increased revenue by 80 to 90 per cent during the month of filming in the town.

- NZ Herald

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