Nearly two years since its world premiere in Auckland, award-winning NZ film The Dark Horse has made its US theatrical debut amid Oscar buzz.

The powerful tale of bipolar chess champion Genesis Potini, played by Cliff Curtis, premiered in Los Angeles with Kiwis including Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen in attendance, and Oscar-winning director James Cameron playing host.

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 thing about New Zealand filmmakers is they never have much money and it's a small country with only four million people, yet they consistently punch far above their weight class," part-time New Zealand resident Cameron told a packed crowd at The Theatre at Ace Hotel.

"Per capita they produce more world-class filmmakers in New Zealand than I think any other country.


"This film is very New Zealand, but it's also very universal - it's about the pain of being a man and the pain of becoming a man. It's an amazing piece of work by Cliff Curtis."

Curtis' castmates from TV series Fear the Walking Dead were in tow with Lorenzo James Henrie saying he's praying for an Oscar for the Kiwi and "proud to call myself his son ... on TV".

Curtis, 47, was also supported by actress Rena Owen, who described his portrayal of Potini as "the performance of a lifetime and the kind of role any actor would die for," while Morrison recalled getting emotional when he initially came across the script and imagined Curtis in the role.

"It brought a tear to my eye when I handed it to him. I visualised it and said, 'This fella would be able to do something with this.'

"It's a wonderful piece of work by Cliff and a wonderful director too. There's a younger generation coming through and they're talented, fresh and handle the technical side with no problem whatsoever.

"It's another New Zealand film out there and this place loves this kind of film, where it touches you in those places. It gives you the heeby-jeebies."

24 Mar, 2016 10:00am
2 minutes to read

Read more: Why The Dark Horse is getting rave reviews all over again

Morrison may have introduced Curtis to the most significant role of his life, but his guidance over the Rotorua native's career started long before The Dark Horse.

Curtis recalled how it was his "big brother" Morrison, who initially lead him to Hollywood.
"He's the guy who inspired me when I watched him in the movies," Curtis told The Herald.

"He was the first to come to Hollywood and took me under his wing when I started out. We did that movie [Six Days Seven Nights] together with Harrison Ford and he's the guy who helped me get the job.

"I'll always be grateful to Tem for helping give me that step up in Hollywood."

With the film already receiving rave reviews in leading American outlets and entertainment bible Variety tipping Curtis for an Oscar nomination, director James Napier Robertson hopes the hype will encourage audiences into theatres during the film's limited US release.

"The film's been all around the world and this is its last stop, so it's exciting that it's being embraced. The [Oscar] talk is great because one of the biggest challenges for a film that doesn't have a caped crusader is how to do you get people aware of it?

"Things like that make people feel safer that they won't spend the money then be disappointed.

"Hopefully they'll be open to seeing something they might not normally come across."

Introducing the film with Cameron, Robertson paid tribute to Potini (who passed away while Robertson was writing the script) and credited absent producer Tom Hern's "incredible work ethic, talent and deep humanity," for making the movie possible.

The 34-year-old director was also thrilled at the irony of having one of his film idols standing next to him.

James Cameron, James Napier Robertson and Cliff Curtis on stage at The Dark Horse premiere in Los Angeles. Photo/Getty
James Cameron, James Napier Robertson and Cliff Curtis on stage at The Dark Horse premiere in Los Angeles. Photo/Getty

"I've grown up watching your films and being inspired, awed and challenged by them.

"Funnily enough the first film I made had the incredible misfortune to be released theatrically the same day as Avatar.

"A close friend who was heading off to see my film called me that day and said, 'Oh my God, it's the greatest film I've ever seen.' I was like, 'Really?' and they said, 'Avatar - it's amazing!'"

"This is me making that up to you!" responded Cameron.