By PETER CALDER
Softly-spoken Brad McGann doesn't seem like the kind of bloke to pick a fight. But he had to stick up for himself to bring his first feature film to the screen.
He also had to learn to surrender and he credits Diana Rowan, the veteran casting director who discovered Keisha Castle-Hughes, with teaching him when to do which.
"She helped me see that film-making was about compromise," says the 40-year-old writer and director of In My Father's Den. "You have to fight the battles you can win and give up on the ones you can't."
Based on the Maurice Gee novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of Paul (Matthew Macfadyen), a world-weary expatriate war photographer who comes home for the funeral of his father. Difficult family relationships become even more strained when he befriends 16-year-old Celia (newcomer Emily Barclay), the daughter of an old girlfriend.
The film, shot in Central Otago by Stuart Dryburgh, is visually ravishing and its plot is as engrossing as it is unpredictable. But, with the help of an excellent ensemble, it is most remarkable for its control of character and mood.
McGann had a battle on his hands to make the film he had in mind. Because the co-production received more than half of its funding from Britain he came under pressure to cast "name" stars: Australian Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under) in the part eventually played - and nailed - by Jodie Rimmer; an American for the key role of Celia.
But McGann, who had been working on the script since 1999, knew this was "a film about relationships and the subtlety of performance.
"There was a cultural idiom that I had to take on board to keep the Kiwiness of it," he says. "Then I counted up and realised that there were four major parts going to be played by non-New Zealanders and I panicked. I knew that nobody is going to go and see a New Zealand film which doesn't look like a New Zealand film. When you are trying to sell authenticity you can't fake it.
"So that became the battle that I fought. And I won."
McGann reports the fact without a trace of triumph, though he could have been forgiven for feeling slightly smug last month when Den picked up a critics' award for best debut at the Toronto Film Festival (the audience award at the same festival started Whale Rider's extraordinary run of accolades): the jury's notes singled out the film's emotional coherence and treatment of character for special mention.
McGann says Den is not so much an adaptation as "a meeting point [between novelist] Maurice Gee and myself". His script makes major departures from the original story because "a book published in 1972 is very different from a film made in 2004".
"The context had to shift. Some of the themes in the book - the 'man alone' thing, the family secrets, the way the past impacts on the present had to be modified for them to work for a modern audience. I wanted to keep the parts that affected me emotionally and discard anything that was there just for plot."
The two most striking differences are that the death the reader learns about on page one is not revealed until more than halfway through the film; and the identity of the killer changes. These may seem like amendments so dramatic that they mock Gee's storytelling but McGann argues forcefully that the change is as much thematic as narrative. Gee's killer was driven by religious fervour but "I didn't want the killing to be blamed on a religious zealot in a world where religious zealots are killing people," says McGann.
"People are pretty reductive in the way they talk about religion. I wanted to create a murder mystery where everyone and no one was culpable. And I also wanted there to be a thread of forgiveness. In the book, the central character of Paul remained hard till the very end. He remained a tough man-alone character until the last sentence but I really wanted to get behind that character and deconstruct that iconic figure of New Zealand literature and break him."
More importantly perhaps, he upends the emotional dynamics of the story, changing the nature of the relationship between Paul and Celia because "the story of a 35-year-old man's interest in a teenage girl was not a story I was much interested in telling".
Whatever success it achieves - and just this week it added a youth jury prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival to its tally of awards - In My Father's Den seems likely to add to our national reputation for making dark and doom-laden stories about tortured people in small towns.
McGann says there is an element of truth to Sam Neill's description of our films as belonging to the "cinema of unease", but points out that our track record in comedy is woeful and wonders whether darker stories are the ones that resonate more with international audiences.
"We live in a very small country so you only need two films to start a trend. But it seems like it's the darker stories that get noticed because of the emotional intensity they generate and because they more easily translate to other cultures."
His film has been compared to Lantana and Secrets and Lies but McGann says his major inspiration was the famed television writer Dennis Potter (for his ability to move through time frames without using conventional flashbacks). He also cites John Cassavetes and the Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieslowski as influences.
"What I was really trying to endorse was that if you are to tell the truth you have to take into account the random nature of life and be honest about the characters you are portraying."
McGann is slightly awestruck by the film's reception so far - one Australian critic described it as one of the best films he'd seen - but insists that it is an ensemble achievement.
"For a lot of the actors it was their first feature film. Even those who had been in films before had never had leading roles. So we were all embarking on our debut in a way. There was a sense that we were tackling something for the first time. And they lifted what was on the page and made it into something special."
TITLE: In My Father's Den
DIRECTOR: Brad McGann (first feature after three short films Possum, Come As You Are and It Never Rains)
KEY CAST: Matthew Macfadyen (Paul Prior), Emily Barclay (Celia Steimer), Colin Moy (Andrew Prior), Miranda Otto (Penny Prior), Jodie Rimmer (Jackie)
SOURCE MATERIAL: Adapted from the novel of the same name by Maurice Gee, published 1972
FILMED: Central Otago and West Auckland (interiors), 2003
ACHIEVEMENTS & AWARDS: Opening night film at Sydney Film Festival; International Critics' Award (FIPRESCI) at Toronto International Film Festival; Mercedes Benz Youth Jury Prize, 52nd San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain
OPENS: New Zealand cinemas Thursday; Australia October 28