At first, Toa Fraser thought the idea for his new film was a little strange. There he was, looking for a follow-up to the heart-warming, sad, and often hilarious No. 2, and the Kiwi director gets presented with a movie script about a priest who thinks he was a dog in a past life.
A welsh springer spaniel, with lovely floppy ears who goes by the name of Wag, to be exact.
I tell Fraser, on the phone from London, that I liked Dean Spanley, which stars Sam Neill as the eccentric Spanley.
"You sound surprised," laughs Fraser.
"Well, it's pretty weird," I say.
Fraser chuckles again: "I was like you when [producer] Matt Metcalfe pitched it to me and he told me about the fantasy fairytale of the dean, who drinks too much and believes he was a dog - a welsh springer spaniel like the one on the cover - in a former life."
Set in Edwardian England in 1904 the story of Dean Spanley revolves around Henslowe Fisk (played by Jeremy Northam, last seen opposite Neill in The Tudors) and his father Horatio (played by veteran actor Peter O'Toole) who meet Spanley while at a lecture about reincarnation by an Indian Swami.
Following a number of encounters between Henslowe and the dean, young Fisk realises that when his new acquaintance is primed with Imperial Tokay - a rare Hungarian sweet wine - he starts to reveal odd recollections of his past life.
This whimsical, and at times, wacky and witty story is not the film Fraser expected to make after No. 2, his debut feature from 2006 which was based on his 1999 play of the same name and won him a prestigious audience award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Following its success Fraser was offered many potential scripts but he was struggling to find a film "that would actually get made" - not that
Spanley was a dead certainty given its fruity premise. And Fraser jokes that O'Toole, who dislikes taking on big roles anymore, put it best when he said he agreed to do the film immediately since he thought it would never get made.
However, the director soon warmed to the story which is based on a 1936 novella My Talks With Dean Spanley by Lord Dunsany.
He didn't even let the fact he's allergic to dogs stop him from making it.
Luckily, the daydreamy dog sequences, with them running through paddocks and chasing sheep, were all shot in New Zealand so there was plenty of fresh air to ward off his allergy.
And Fraser is also making a habit of working with screen legends. In No. 2 it was American actress Ruby Dee as matriarch Nana Maria, and now it's O'Toole, the 76-year-old, eight- time Oscar nominee and star of Lawrence of Arabia. Not bad for a guy who's only directed two feature films. Plus, Dean Spanley also stars actors like Neill, Northam, and Australian Bryan Brown (who plays the resourceful colonial and Tokay supplier known as Wrather).
So what was it like ordering round these seasoned actors, especially Peter O'Toole?
"You don't order him round," laughs Fraser of Mr O'Toole, as he refers to him, because "I'm a good Pacific Island boy."
He admits the prospect of directing him was intimidating but an "absolute privilege".
"He's the kind of person who, and we use the word mana a lot in New Zealand, but with a character like that, that word is made for him."
While Dean Spanley and No. 2 are seemingly contrary tales there are strong similarities with family ties at the core of both - this time round the focus is a father and son relationship, rather than a large Fijian family. And there are also runaway animals, although in the new movie it's a dog instead of a pig.
"When I read the script it really crept up on me. There's something about it and it's a real delight. The twist is that it's not a story about fantastical elements at all, it's a story about truthful hearts and a father and a son.
"I was surprised that they [the producers] brought it to me but I was flattered that they saw the connection between No. 2 and this. They are obviously worlds and times apart but they are stories about family."
No. 2 was a nod to Fraser's Fijian roots on his father's side, and he sees Dean Spanley as a tribute to his mother, who was born in Britain. He's also intrigued with British history from the early 1900s when new technology was being introduced to the country, and he is influenced by Lloyd Jones' The Book of Fame, about the All Blacks' first tour of the motherland in 1905.
"My work so far has been haunted by the handing over of something, that handover between generations, and that's something we worked really hard to get into this story. I guess I was surprised that a fantastical story about a guy who drinks too much and thinks he was a dog has these very universal feelings about family. It's absolutely the same story as No. 2 in that sense."
His Pacific Island roots come through most strongly in the film when dealing with reincarnation.
"We don't really bat an eyelid about the idea of some guy who thinks he used to be a dog in a former life. It's not as fantastical to us as it might be to an English audience. We don't really think of reincarnation but you do say, 'Oh, there's your grandmother outside', when a bird arrives on the lawn.
"It's been a huge journey for me to come back to England to tell this story and it came at a time that I was really personally ready for it having worked for years on No. 2. I was drawn back to Britain and it was a happy coincidence that this story came along and we could tell an English story as New Zealanders, and with a Pacific sensibility."
And there's also a shaggy dog element to it too?
"Well yeah, Eddie Murphy could have played the dean," laughs Fraser.
Question of breeding
Dean Spanley is a dog's tale of sorts but not in a Murray Ball, Footrot Flats kind of way.
The Brits enjoyed it. When it opened in Britain in December it got glowing reviews, and while it didn't set the box office alight it has grossed more than NZ$500,000 so far.
The $15 million film is a co-production between New Zealand and Britain but already the question has been asked: how New Zealand is it and should the NZ Film Commission have forked out $3 million for this seemingly very English story set in 1904?
The NZFC's job is "to encourage, participate and assist in the making, promotion, distribution and exhibition of films made in New Zealand by New Zealanders on New Zealand subjects".
The commission's acting chief executive Mladen Ivancic defends the funding of Dean Spanleysaying the project was initiated and driven by New Zealand creatives, with 65 Kiwis employed including key roles of director (Fraser) and lead producer (Matthew Metcalfe); around 25 per cent of the film was shot here; and the score was composed by Don McGlashan and recorded by the NZSO and Auckland choir Musica Sacra. Also, the script was written by Scottish writer Alan Sharp who has been a New Zealand resident for 20 years.
Ivancic also points out that while the film is a majority British production, with an English storyline, it offsets a number of past co-productions, including In My Father's Den and River Queen, which were predominantly New Zealand focused and produced.
When the question was raised about the movie's NZ content by sceptical Herald Business media commentator John Drinnan, producer Metcalf took umbrage: "Dean Spanley is a shining example of what New Zealanders can achieve (and Kiwis had all the best roles) and is something that we should be celebrating not bringing down.
"I am incredibly proud of this movie and of what the New Zealanders who worked on it have achieved," he said.
The New Zealand Film Commission contributed $3-4 million to the $15 million movie and Metcalfe said the amount spent on New Zealand facets of the movie matched New Zealand's share of the budget.
Director Toa Fraser's view on the film's New Zealand status comes from a more artistic point of view, saying it's not the first time New Zealand film makers have chosen to tell stories from overseas.
"Artists have been doing it for years but I guess it hasn't been so common in New Zealand cinema. I feel very much that my work on Dean Spanley grew out of my earlier work in New Zealand theatre and telling New Zealand stories. And I think we've told this story with a real sense of the Pacific story tellers."
As for the all-important target audience, it's not something Fraser thinks about too much. With No. 2 he says he had his family in Mt Roskill in mind and "it's no different with this one".
"I hope my aunties and uncles go see it," he says.
And he tells the story of his cousin Lawrence Swann, who committed suicide last year, and about his feelings when he came back for the funeral.
"It was a huge Pacific funeral in Otara and I really hope Lawrence's family get to see this film, because we were working with very similar emotional material with the sort of stuff that was going down in Otara on that day."
Who: Toa Fraser, director
New film: Dean Spanley, opens February 26.
Starring: Sam Neill (Dean Spanley); Peter O'Toole (Horatio Fisk); Jeremy Northam (Henslowe Fisk); and Bryan Brown (Wrather)
Past films: No. 2 (2006)