James Napier Robertson and Tom Hern have created one of the most compelling films to come out of New Zealand in years. It’s a rare display of grit and heart that will induce laughter and tears, and yet it’s only their second attempt at film-making. So just who are these young guns and where did they come from? They talk to Lydia Jenkin.

James Napier Robertson and Tom Hern have faces that feel familiar, yet not quite familiar enough to place immediately. If you watched The Tribe or Power Rangers in the early 2000s, then their teenage visages may slowly be recalled when you see their 30-year-old smiles, or you might have seen them in various stints on Go Girls, Underbelly and Harry.

They've certainly done their bit for supporting roles on local television, and even though neither of them got a big break they're certainly thankful those youthful dreams of being great actors brought them together in the first place.

"I think we were 16 and 18 maybe, I can't quite remember," Robertson says. "But we were both very serious about what we were doing. There was quite a big cast but we'd somehow recognised the intensity in each other, and we peeled off and drove around the bay down in Wellington," Robertson says of the memory of their early bonding.

"We were wannabe Robert De Niros," Hern says.


Robinson: "We basically sat there in the car, going through our scripts, facing the ocean through the windscreen, and treating it like Shakespeare.

"That was 12 or 13 years ago. But I think, right from then we were quite committed [to our friendship]".

The pair have an easygoing, humble, yet quietly confident manner, and it's clear their dreams are still high-calibre, even if those dreams are no longer of becoming De Niro.

Producer Tom Hern

As they sit and chat in Robertson's Grey Lynn dining room (Hern lives at Piha, but crashes in town with Robertson when work requires it), they explain how a single conversation over a beer was the turning point that shifted their ambitions from acting to telling their own stories.

Although they both continued to get acting gigs in their early 20s - Robertson even moved to LA to further pursue roles - they were secretly harbouring dreams of doing something else. Robertson was writing scripts, interested in directing his own films and Hern was getting slowly more frustrated with the fact that he had little control over his employment or opportunities.

But it wasn't until they sat in a Venice Beach bar one evening that they realised they could be a team, when Hern declared: "I want to produce a film, and I want you to direct it".

That led them down the path that eventually saw them release their first feature I'm Not Harry Jenson in 2009. A psychological thriller, made on the smell of an oily rag, it absorbed them for four years. It received resoundingly positive reviews and announced them as a creative team to be reckoned with.

"When you go through something like that, your friendship is pretty much forged in steel," Robertson says.

"There are so many things happening, and often quite intense and challenging situations, day after day, and you go through four years of that and come out the other end and you can't really turn that back."

The creation of The Dark Horse has similarly taken over their lives for four years and has not been without its challenges - and some very long nights. But they brush over those as they tell the wonderful tale of how the film came to be; it's very clear their primary concern was always to create something that those who inspired the story could be proud of and cherish - namely the late Genesis Potini, his friends and family, and the members of the Eastern Knights chess club.

It all started when Hern was on his couch, channel surfing, and stumbled across the 2003 Dark Horse documentary, which tells the story of Potini's life.

"I just started watching this story, and 20 minutes later I'm bawling my eyes out on the couch. I was just so affected by this man's story, and I couldn't believe I hadn't heard of him, or seen the documentary before, and neither had anybody else I'd talked to."

Trailer: The Dark Horse

The Dark Horse is a true story based on the life of Genesis Potini, a wildly charismatic, bipolar-suffering former chess champion. It stars Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and opens in New Zealand cinemas on July 31. Also appearing at the International Film Festival.

The pair were looking for a new project after Harry Jenson, so Hern called Robertson, who was in the United States. Robertson took one look at the documentary and booked his ticket home, while Hern made some calls, got hold of the documentary-maker Jim Marbrook and invited him and Potini (who was still alive at the time) to his place.

"We had a meal and chewed the fat basically, and I put it to him about us making this film. And he was just so excited about it, he loved the idea, and that was the start of our relationship with Genesis."

They impressed upon him that they wanted to do his story justice, along with the story of the chess club and the community of Gisborne - and Robertson was fortunately a worthy enough opponent on the chess board that Potini knew they were serious.

"He's the kind of guy who once he's made that decision, he gives his full trust and support, and it was incredible to have him believe in us.

"He gave us the confidence to go forward. Because it's a pretty daunting task up front, to try to tell someone's story."

Indeed, the story of a man who's dealt with difficult mental illness, a family with gang affiliations, poverty, and a lack of resources in his small community was rightly intimidating for the film-makers.

"It would be foolish to pretend otherwise," Robertson says. "The only way I knew how to work through that stuff was to be as honest as I could in dealing with the subject matter and at every step along the way try to make sure I'm never manipulative with it, or doing things just to get a reaction out of an audience, it had to always come from a place of being real."

There are universal human experiences involved and Robertson and Hern found plenty to relate to within the story - that's what makes it so powerful. But they also earned the support and trust of the community and the people involved.

Genesis Potini

"We got to spend a lot of time drinking and playing chess with Gen, and just talking with him and hearing about all sorts of stuff, and we hung out with Noble and Jedi [his fellow chess club leaders], a lot of the real people in the story we were able to spend time with."

They got to know everyone well enough to be invited to attend Potini's tangi when he died in 2011 - an experience that contributed even further to the film's development.

"I remember sitting there and the hall was overflowing. Groups of kids were there to talk about Gen and young adults were sending in video messages from other parts of the world, talking about the difference that he'd made in their lives.

"And I was struck by some of them saying it wasn't even about the chess really, it was about what he taught them about life, through chess. And that immediately was a very strong realisation for us. When we were trying to get the film up, and people would say 'Chess is not cinematic', and we'd be going, 'Well it's not about the chess. You're not dealing with a board and some pieces, it's about the life lessons that he learned and that he taught, and the community."

Of course there are a huge number of things that contribute to the magic of a great film, but one common factor here seems to be the commitment Hern and Robertson had to making an honest film that honours Potini in an unflinching way.

Robertson constantly wrote and re-wrote, they filmed as much as they could on location in Gisborne, they made sure they had a unified vision for style and tone from the beginning and they spent a great deal of time making sure they got the casting right.

They searched high and low through schools for all the kids (many of whom are a revelation, and first-time actors); they put out an ad through Winz that stated "tattoos and criminal records welcome" to find someone for the role of gang kingpin Ariki, which eventually went to extraordinary 46-year-old Auckland busker Wayne Hapi, who will surely have casting directors clamouring for his number; they knew James Rolleston could walk that line between rebellious, angry teen, and a kid who just wants to be loved and they had long discussions with Cliff Curtis, eventually convincing him to come home from Hollywood, put on some hefty weight, become a chess expert, and live as Genesis Potini for the duration of pre-production and shooting.

It's a beautifully nuanced, heartfelt, yet clear-eyed biopic that's likely to become a Kiwi classic, and the pair are very excited to finally be sharing it.

"I can only hope that Gen would be proud of it," Robertson says.

"He'd be chuffed," Hern says. "All these people talking about chess, and Gizzy, and about all these things that he loved, he'd be stoked. I think he'll be celebrating with us."

Who: James Napier Robertson, writer, and Tom Hern, producer.
What: The Dark Horse
When and where: Screening tonight at the Civic Theatre, and nationwide from Thursday, July 31.
See: thedarkhorsefilm.com

- TimeOut