Vincent Ward embracing the struggle

By Peter Calder

Only when the tape recorder is off - and he leans forward, to check that none of the buttons is depressed - will Vincent Ward discuss Samantha Morton. He pronounces the name, slowly and deliberately, "Samarntha" and, when he's on the record, he has nothing but good things to say about her: "I think she is an extraordinary actress." Or later: "She owns the part. No one else could have done it."

He even says that if he were to do it all again "I would take her again because she is so good that I will forgive talent anything".

Just what he must forgive, the director is not saying - not for publication, at any rate. He is, he says, "a team player" - he squeezes the phrase hard, as though screwing up the words to hurl at someone who doesn't know the meaning of them. But he doesn't throw them.

Others do. "They fired the wrong person," Irish star Stephen Rea told the Listener last year, speaking of an actress who was "just operating on ego".

"Impossible," someone else intimately involved in the production told me - again off the record. "Brilliant but absolutely bloody impossible."

The River Queen shoot was dogged by the kind of misfortune that nightmares are made of. Some were logistical and some were plainly interpersonal. The combination of the two culminated in Ward's being sacked at the insistence of the production guarantors.

He was absent from about a third of the shoot, but returned for post-production - editing, soundtrack and other technical matters.

It's plain that Morton, the actress Oscar-nominated in 2004 for In America, was not the cause of all the trouble. But it's hard not to conclude that, without the problems she did cause, directly or indirectly, it would have been a manageably bumpy ride.

For a start, she accepted another role (opposite Johnny Depp in The Libertine) at the last minute, forcing an autumn shoot to be postponed until winter. The result: a larger crew was needed to deal with the treacherous conditions. Costs ballooned.

In autumn, perhaps Morton would not have contracted the flu that took her out of action and shut down the production for six weeks. (The only other one of the 130 on the shoot who got sick, Ward says meaningfully, was off for two days). And when she was there, she reportedly clashed openly with Ward, arrived on set late, refused to accept the sometimes spartan working conditions and acted like a star.

Meanwhile, a budget pared to the bone made for a shooting schedule that Ward says was already the tightest he's ever faced. There were floods. Cliff Curtis "took out somebody's lounge room" in his 4WD. There was no margin for error and the errors piled up thick and fast. "We definitely had some bad luck," says Ward mildly. "I thought it was going to close the film."

It shouldn't have been like this. Set on the Whanganui in the 1860s, River Queen is about a white woman torn between two cultures when her half-Maori son is kidnapped by his late father's iwi. It is, in a sense, the film that Ward has been dreaming, struggling, fighting to make his whole life.

It was also meant to be the triumphant return of an artist more honoured abroad than at home. Born in Greytown in 1956, Ward has made his name, if not his fortune, with a handful of dense and strikingly original films whose visual grandeur recalls masters like Tarkovsky and Kurosawa. Arguably our finest - and certainly our most critically acclaimed - film-maker, he was the first New Zealand director invited into competition at Cannes (Vigil, 1984). Extraordinarily, his next film, The Navigator in 1988, was similarly honoured.

In the years since, though, he has been a self-confessed cultural exile, based in Sydney but wandering the world, despondent at how hard it was to make movies at home. He was hired to write the script for the third of the Alien films, but his storyline, which involved space-travelling monks and killed off the star, Sigourney Weaver, in the first reel, didn't capture the studio's imagination and he was fired.

In between some small acting gigs and directing some big-budget US commercials, he completed two features, the ravishing, risky and visionary Map of the Human Heart and the sentimental metaphysical love story What Dreams May Come. But all that while he was working on a story about a stranger in a strange land.

That story was what became The Last Samurai, the Hollywood action epic shot in Taranaki in which Tom Cruise played a burnt-out American soldier in Japan. Ward worked on it over several years - his name remains on the credits as one of 13 producers - but, he says, he became more interested in the woman character and the studio he was dealing with wanted a film starring a man. Ward moved on but the idea stayed with him.

"I knew that there were stories even stronger in my own country that I personally am more connected to so I went searching for stories about independent women in the 19th century."

With the research help of his sister, Ingrid, he tracked down several, all of which inform the story of River Queen. One concerned Caroline "Queenie" Perrett, kidnapped at the age of 8 by local Maori after her farmer father cleared a burial ground in Taranaki to make way for a railway. Discovered by a relative 55 years later, having married and had five children, she did not wish to return to Pakeha society.

Another story was about English nurse Ann Evans - known as "Doctor Annie" - a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimea, who treated the tohunga and master warrior Titokowaru for pneumonia. Like Morton's Sarah, who heads upriver to the hideout of Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), she was transported blindfolded to her patient and she kept her visit secret for many years.

But for all its historical reach, the film is a project full of personal echoes for Ward. He sees it not as a costume drama but as a story about identity about "the experience of trying to fit into a community where you don't necessarily know all the rules".

His parents, an Irishman and a German-Jewish refugee who arrived here after the war, knew what it was to be outsiders. Ward, too, recalls the feelings he had while making his first film, In Spring One Plants Alone. He lived for two years in an isolated community in the Ureweras to make the striking and potent 45-minute documentary about an 82-year-old Maori woman and her paranoid schizophrenic son.

"I was the only Pakeha there and mostly Maori was spoken. I always wondered if I could transfer my experience into a feature film, the experience of someone who goes into a community thinking they will learn about the community but in fact learning as much about themselves.

"My story doesn't tell Queenie's story or Doctor Annie's story directly but they were the lodestones for a story about a woman who went into another community and is changed by the experience. That's a real New Zealand story because New Zealand has been formed not by Maori and Pakeha so much as by the people in between Maori and Pakeha trying to find a way of co-existing. That's what makes it such an interesting society [more] than, say, Australia, where the Aborigines were dominated and it was much more unequal.

"I'm interested in that internalised cultural debate. That's why I didn't want to continue with what became The Last Samurai because it was all spelt out and I think what makes something interesting is the paradox that you can never really understand it, you grapple with it."

It has to be said that if River Queen grapples with that question as intensely as Ward plainly has, it does so pretty clumsily. At the height of the troubles, producer Don Reynolds may have been engaging in wishful thinking when he said it was Ward's best work. The director himself told industry magazine OnFilm that it's "quite a good film" but even he acknowledges that "it's a bit rough at the beginning because we weren't able to get everything we wanted".

But he disputes that the film is worse than it would have been if he had not been dumped.

"I don't think it was significantly different because I shot a lot of extra material myself.

"Anything I was not keen on or felt that there were holes - obviously with this sort of budget you are not able to do everything you want - but I was able to shape it to what I wanted to get it to."

Not for nothing has Ward - a driven and passionate artist - established a reputation for a perfectionism that borders on the obsessive. He rejects the idea that he unconsciously creates hellish shoots by choosing locations (a remote valley for Vigil, above the Arctic Circle for Map of the Human Heart) on the edge of the earth.

"That's rubbish," he says, "half well, a third well, a fifth, anyway, of What Dreams May Come was shot in an urban environment. I'm interested in people and relationships.

"I do like stories of journeys and that may be something to do with my parents. And a lot of the time they are elemental stories. The primal stories of this country are stories of people where the elements dominated.

"My father came back from the war with his body three-quarters burned and took on a farm that no one would buy because it was all bush. He went out and cleared it by hand, with an axe. He and Mum had boxes for chairs and he had no overcoat until he had his second child.

"Those are the stories I grew up on and they have affected me. I am not as comfortable telling stories about wealthy people or people who have had it easy. I identify more with people who have had a sense of struggle."

For all that, his next project - a contemporary ghost story called Dead Man's Curve - will be set in the city, an Australian city far from the brooding beauty of the Whanganui.

"After River Queen," he says with a sigh, "I don't think I'll be in a hurry to do River Queen II."

* River Queen premieres on Tuesday in Wanganui and opens in cinemas on Thursday.

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