Actor, writer and film-maker Paolo Rotondo didn't have to go far from home to find the idea for his debut feature film, Orphans and Kingdoms, which opens in cinemas this week.

He was living on Waiheke at the time and he and his wife Renee Mark were at the local playground with the kids when he looked up at the "mansions on the hill", the multimillion-dollar architect-designed bolt-holes for Auckland's wealthy.

"Renee and I started talking about the massive disparity between the rich and the poor in this country. Waiheke is a very clear demonstration of that because it's in front of your eyes in one place."

The idea arose of Waiheke as "this island paradise that is a microcosm of New Zealand", he says, and he wrote a film in which three runaway siblings break into a flash bach and are just settling in when the architect owner arrives. A power game ensues full of unexpected twists and turns.


Rotondo, whose screen credits include clinic chief Andrew Solomon in Shortland Street, Thomas, one of three title characters in Hamish Rothwell's 2001 Stickmen and the main man in the 2012 docudrama Cancerman: The Milan Brych Affair, has a couple of short films to his credit and his first feature is a mature and handsome chamber piece that belies its $250,000 budget.

You must be happy with how it's turned out?

I'm stoked, actually. It's had a lot of festival showings and I am really stoked it's getting a release. It was an ultra-low-budget production and it's really punched above its weight.

I'm intrigued by the title.

My little girl's favourite song at the time was Brooke Fraser's Orphans, Kingdoms and we had just had a baby so the idea of responsibility to children was right in the front of our minds. I tried lots of times to contact Brooke to ask her what she thought and no one replied but she's a big star, you know ...

The casting process - getting the three kids - must have been half the film.

Yeah, well, obviously we had no money to put towards casting. I did 90 per cent of it. I roped in Fraser [Brown], the producer, to come and read parts and almost all the casting directors in the country were so supportive, giving me advice and letting me use their studio and their cameras. The real linchpin was Kenae [the swaggering yet vulnerable 13-year-old, who is the principal antagonist] and we auditioned about 60 boys or so.

I see there is another Rotondo who has the music credits.

Yep, he's my cousin.

He's a composer and he studied at the Centro Sperimentale which is the big film school in Rome. He studied with Ennio Morricone [the legendary Italian composer] and teaches alongside him.

I guess he gave you mate's rates.

It's whanau. Italians are like that. I had to prove to the producers that he was the man but luckily he's got the chops.

I wouldn't want to give away what happens, and maybe this is a bit of middle-class Marxism, but the ending feels a bit casual about the fate of the kids.

I'm a bit of a middle-class Marxist myself but I didn't want to make a film that tidily resolved itself and relieved the audience of responsibility. I get asked that a lot. When we do Q&A sessions, a huge debate is generated among the audience about what happens to the kids, and that's what I wanted. The important thing for me is that the experience the kids had on the island changed them in some way.

The film is around 75 minutes. Was that ever problematic to you?

With a low-budget film you basically get everybody going "cut this out", "cut this out", until you condense it to something that is achievable on a $250,000 budget. And that's a really good exercise because it makes me write something that is the essence of the story. And audiences internationally have been loving the length of it.

You have been working on a film based on Strange Resting Places, your play about soldiers from the 28th Maori Battalion in Italy. How's that coming along?

It's a big idea and it's a period film so it needs international producers. And they say, "You gotta make a couple of feature films first", and so I'm still lining up my ducks.

Who: Paolo Rotondo, film-maker

What: Orphans and Kingdoms
When: In cinemas from Thursday