Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

The Rehearsal brings stars together

The Rehearsal brings together many local stars in a coming-of-age movie set in a drama school. Russell Baillie went behind its hall of mirrors.
James Rolleston in The Rehearsal.
James Rolleston in The Rehearsal.

Up the end of the dark hall, and behind the office door on the right, one generation of New Zealand screen acting is butting heads with another.

At first, the camera is on James Rolleston. He plays Stanley, a student actor explaining himself to the head of his drama school.

He looks contrite as he tries to clarify why an earlier class exercise went askew.

Kerry Fox, playing his drama school teacher Hannah, absorbs his explanation without saying much at first, but gives him a stern look through her stern glasses, while peeling a mandarin.

"Acting is hard work, Stanley," she scoffs.

"I know," comes his sheepish reply.

"Don't say 'I know' when you obviously don't know... You have to earn my respect. And you haven't."

Admonished, Stanley gets up to leave.

"I think your classes are amazing," he mutters, closing the door behind him.

The scene is shot in repeated takes at slightly different paces and emotional pitches.

On some, Rolleston muffs a line, sighs and puts his head down for a few seconds to regather his thoughts. Occasionally he gets some gentle advice from director Alison Maclean in his ear.

Behind Fox's Hannah is a packed bookshelf showing volumes with names such as "Tarkovsky" and "Brecht" on their spines.

Another book title stands out - The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It's a nod to the source material of the movie being made at Unitec's Mt Albert campus on this spring day.

The Rehearsal was the Man Booker prize-winner's first novel, published in 2008.

It's a chronology-juggling story of a high school sex scandal and a local drama school's appropriation of it for a stage project told through the eyes of the adolescents involved and powered by Catton's heightened language.

It's a dense, dark coming-of-age tale that may not immediately suggest itself as a movie.

More on how it became one later.

But here we are on day 15 of a 33-day shoot with Rolleston in possibly his most challenging feature role yet.

His Stanley decides he and his classmates should create a play for an end-of-year performance about a scandal that involved his new girlfriend's sister and her tennis coach.

And here we are with Fox, one of New Zealand's most experienced and adventurous screen actors as Hannah, the drama tutor who likes to break her students and put them back together again.

"It's such a great change for me - it's not a mother, no dying child, which is nice," Fox says, laughing about her recent roles.

"She is tricky. She is not someone I would rate very highly but she is good at her job."

No, Hannah doesn't remind Fox of any of her tutors at the New Zealand Drama School/Toi Whakaari. They didn't emotionally torture the students in her day.

"I have done sort of weird courses where the philosophy is that you break people. But I have just stood up and told them that it's shit and it is no way to learn anything."

But the drama school scenes do take her back.

"For those of us who went to drama school, it's bringing up all these horrific memories of the torture, torment and turmoil of being at drama school."

The movie, in a way, finds Fox back where she started too. Some of 1990's An Angel At My Table, in which she portrayed Janet Frame to career-igniting effect, was shot in these buildings.

Those were the days when it was still the psychiatric facility Carrington Hospital.

"They were pretty horrible scenes we filmed here," remembers Angel and The Rehearsal producer Bridget Ikin, sitting in her production office a few doors up from Fox's room.

These days though, the Victorian brick buildings and modern additions house a Performing and Screen Arts school - which has come in handy.

So The Rehearsal is a movie set largely in a drama school, actually filmed in a drama school.

As well, it has a cast of young actors, some with experience, like Rolleston and Alice Englert (the daughter of Angel director Jane Campion). Some less so, like musician Marlon Williams.

They play the students under the tutelage of the seasoned Fox and a faculty that includes Rachel House, who was also Rolleston's acting coach on the film.

And the plot involves actors rehearsing a play based on other characters in the movie.

It would seem The Rehearsal is quite the hall of mirrors.

"It is definitely a line the film walks on," says Maclean during a lunch break after shooting Rolleston and Fox's tete-a-tete.

"That is exciting to me ... just that kind of interplay between reality and illusion and acting in real life, acting in film, acting in the theatre - all those layers are kind of there."

It's also that rare thing. A female-powered big screen project, right from the adaptation of Catton's book by Maclean and novelist (and drama school graduate) Emily Perkins, with Ikin as producer and the involvement of Fox.

Ikin's fellow producer Trevor Haysom says, "It was daunting to join."

Flash-forward to the finished film, which screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival and a couple of things are apparent.

Firstly, this is no straight lift of the book. It's not just that the saxophone teacher has become a tennis coach or Fox's character used to be a man. It's a liberal interpretation that irons out the book's chronology and focuses less on the story of Isolde and her older sister Julia, and more on Stanley at drama school.

"It's so different right?" says Maclean, now back at her home in Brooklyn, New York, where she has been directing episodic television and commercials for many years.

"It's so absolutely different. I personally like it when a book is not an easy book to adapt because that calls for a film to reinvent it.

"Eleanor's book is quite literary. It's very much about language. It is a little bit less interested in story than the film has to be, really."

Co-writer Perkins says she thinks they were faithful to the novel, just not necessarily in the most literal ways.

"The Rehearsal is a very sophisticated, complex book and to put everything from it on screen, you would be looking at something much longer than the kind of cinematic experience I think the material demands," she says.

"We wanted to make something that would be an emotional experience in the film - it's very much a book of ideas - and the film could work on that level as well."

Maclean says Catton, who is now adapting The Luminaries for a television series, understood the changes and "was open to being its own thing".

Another curious thing about The Rehearsal is that this female-powered movie has essentially become Stanley's story.

Maclean: "That was one thing I loved about the book - that it was a very female point of view. But when it came to making the film, there wasn't enough story. There is a lot of repetition in the book. We couldn't do all of that. There is a density in the story anyway. We felt Stanley actually was the character who really changed the most and had choices to make."

Since the film's festival debut Rolleston was involved a serious car crash that left him in intensive care for weeks. He's since been transferred to a rehabilitation facility.

House, his real-life acting coach, says the young star of Boy, The Dead Lands and Dark Horse considered Stanley his most challenging role yet. And that in some ways The Rehearsal was the drama school he never had.

"It was fascinating watching him go through this process."

What: The Rehearsal
Who: Starring James Rolleston, Kerry Fox directed by Alison Maclean from the Eleanor Catton novel
When: Opens in cinemas Thursday.

- NZ Herald

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