Film-maker Chelsea Winstanley will take the spotlight at the NZ International Film Festival. She tells Sarah Catherall about the power of strong women, hanging with Hollywood A-listers and why she’s so much more than just Taika Waititi’s wife.

Film-maker Chelsea Winstanley will take the spotlight at the NZ International Film Festival. In a tell-all interview, incuding revealing her own #metoo story, she told Sarah Catherall about the power of strong women, hanging with Hollywood A-listers and why she's so much more than just Taika Waititi's wife.

Winstanley left their daughters in Los Angeles and returned to New Zealand to finish a documentary she's producing about her idol, the pioneering Māori film-maker, Merata Mita.

"I had to make that choice. If I had gone over, I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be writing any short films, I literally wouldn't be following my heart's path. I would be — again — following Taika's journey.

"He said that to me the other day, 'It was so arrogant of me to think that you would even want to follow my life.' It was a really big thing for him to admit and it was so refreshing."

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Throwing her head back, the 42-year-old laughs, full lips framing glistening white teeth. Winstanley laughs a lot in the two hours we spend together at Park Road Post while she takes a break from grading — colour enhancement — work — on Merata.

She also reveals a lot about the dilemmas that women like her face: being married to a successful man can be tough for the wife and mother of his children, especially when she has her own goals and projects on the go. Merata is her "last hoorah" as a producer, before moving into directing and writing films.

Winstanley's hot right now, part of a movement of wahine toa making great films and getting kudos on the local and global stage.

She first worked with Waititi on the award-heavy horror mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. But she doesn't want to hover backstage while he's in the spotlight. She wants to be known for her own projects rather than as "Taika's wife".

She met Waititi in her 20s when she interviewed him for a documentary about Māori artists. They reconnected during the filming of Boy in 2010 and married two years later.

In an email before we meet, she tells me: "I'm just sick of women portrayed as living in the shadow of their partners, that's all. I made one film with him, I was a film-maker before I met him and I continue to do my own stuff."

Despite moving to star-studded Studio City in Los Angeles last May for Waititi's career, she's not interested in Hollywood glamour. Staggeringly down to earth, she is dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and a crimson jumper beneath a black leather jacket. Her small feet are encased in Blundstone boots with fluffy crimson socks poking out the top. Red fluff covers her jeans. Winstanley laughs and wipes it off.

On her right hand she wears two turquoise rings she bought from a pawn shop in Santa Fe when she was there as an adviser for the Sundance Film Festival.

How about a wedding ring? They married in a registry office in New York. Waititi turned to his wife, pulled out a bright marker pen, and drew a stripe on her ring finger, then drew another on his own. Mimicking the registrar, Winstanley puts on an American accent: "She said, 'You all right with that?'"

The newlyweds walked around New York, hand in hand, bonded by ink.

Chelsea with Waititi at stuntwoman Zoe Bell's birthday party, 2017. Photo / Supplied
Chelsea with Waititi at stuntwoman Zoe Bell's birthday party, 2017. Photo / Supplied

Today she wears a simple silver ring rather than a rock. She needed a different kind of rock growing up, though: she's had a tough life, and the path to independent success as an award-winning film-maker was far from smooth.

She was aged about 7 when she was sexually abused. Her abuser was someone she knew. She has talked about this abuse before, but today reveals more intimate details. For years she has been angry; anger pulses through her still, every now and then, seemingly from nowhere. She has had "loads" of therapy. She has had bad relationships, clinging to people for the wrong reasons.

"I've been an angry person for most of my life and that's something I'm working on constantly. Sometimes I'd just snap ... It's hard to imagine when you see me laughing like this, I guess," she reflects.

Will she ever confront her abuser? She nods, dark hair bouncing around her face, streaks of grey catching the sunlight. But she is empathetic. Everyone carries things with them, she says, including that person. For that reason, she wouldn't press charges.

Winstanley's life challenges have informed her stories. After Merata she'll focus on Found You, a short film she is writing. Based on her abuse, it's about a little girl who loses her imaginary friends. On this trip to New Zealand, she is casting for actors.

Winstanley, the recipient of Women in Film and Television's Mana Wahine Award in 2015, is also writing a US-funded short film about an Iranian gay man who fears returning to his homeland because he could be arrested for his sexuality. Called Little King, it's based on the story of an Iranian 23-year-old she met in LA.

It will be produced by her friend and colleague Desray Armstrong, who describes Winstanley as "a wonderful collaborator ... extremely passionate and dedicated, kaupapa-driven, fearless, stubborn, with endless energy. She's also funny and extremely generous."

When Waititi returns from Prague, Winstanley will finish writing two features, a "Poly-Brockovich" — as in Erin — story, based on her old school friend; and a feature she is co-writing with Kiwi actress Simone Kessell, which she hopes will inspire young women.

In contrast, she describes her husband's work as "quirky". It's part of the reason she doesn't want to compare his work to her own.

"He's an incredible film-maker and he's got a wonderful sense of humour. His films hang on his irreverence. Mine are not like that. I couldn't make a film like him. That's not where I'm coming from, and I'm trying to take ownership of that. Going back to what I love, and that truthful documentary stuff, basing my stories on truth. That's where my strength is."

Life in LA is both domestic and glamorous. Winstanley attends glitzy premieres and film festivals alongside Waititi. They've been to Matt Damon's house to visit his family. They hang out with Chris Hemsworth. But Winstanley shrugs her shoulders, saying they're "all really lovely people. We just like our tight mates though. We've got our own whānau over there."

During this two-week trip to New Zealand, their daughters, Matewa, 2, and Te Hinekahu, 6, are being cared for by her son, Maia, 21, and relatives in Studio City. Their LA rental is in a cul-de-sac, with views of hills and trees.

The Waititi-Winstanley tribe shifted to LA last May so they could be a family again. Waititi had previously spent a year on the Gold Coast, filming Thor, while Winstanley chose to stay at their home in Piha. Her husband's absence left a gap, but she didn't want to uproot their daughters from their Māori immersion school and kohanga reo. In LA, the couple speak te reo when they can but are not fluent.

Winstanley also wanted an adventure. "It's a new experience. I wanted to reinvent myself. I love LA so much. It's sunny there and everyone's happy. Everyone is really interested in what you are doing. New Zealand is small, and everyone is fighting for the same pool of money."

The hiccup at the moment is getting a work visa. Waititi has one, and she is in the United States as his wife. However, when Waititi returns from Prague at the end of July, she will hand the kids over and it will be her turn to focus on her upcoming films.

"This is me going, 'I'm going to make my film next. Once you finish filming, you've got the kids and I'm out.' It wasn't him, saying, 'Hey I've got a good idea Chels,'" she says, her laugh carrying over the bubbling pond in the courtyard.

"But for women, we have to, almost, take the charge. There was a lot of resentment building up. I'm not going to lie about that. But I can only deal with that if I deal with that. I can't expect him to come to the party if he doesn't know what's going on for me.

"I have to say how I'm feeling, and create my own pathways. But I don't want him to create those pathways so people say I'm only this because of him."

Holding her reusable water bottle, she shrugs. "No one asks him about his family, or what I'm up to, but I get asked that all the time. I bet no one says to him, 'What was it like working with her on Shadows?'"

Winstanley's life story would make a gripping script. Along with the abuse, her parents split when she was 7. She lived first with her father in Tauranga, later moving to Auckland to be with her mother.

In her teens, she suffered from bulimia. When she was 14, her mother drove her out of Auckland, dropping her at a biodynamic co-operative farm where the manager introduced her at dinner as "Chelsea, the bulimic".

Winstanley got pregnant at 19 and had an abortion. She got pregnant to the same man again a year later and kept the baby, finding herself raising Maia alone, at the age of 21.

In her 20s, while many of her friends did their OEs, Winstanley was a solo mother in Hamilton, then Auckland. She went as far as Sydney with a friend. But that was as far as she ever travelled.

"When Maia was young, we were poor and it was shit most of the time. When I had him at a young age and I found myself on the DPB I found myself so depressed. I was just, like, 'I want to be working, I want to provide'. There's a thing about pride, and being able to earn your own money. Walking into those DPB offices is so demoralising. I've always been independent, and maybe it was that childhood trauma that made me need to fight."

In Hamilton, where she was studying communications at Waikato University, She was driving home from a te reo class one night when her car smashed into a tree. One leg was crushed and needed a titanium rod inserted into it. It took her six months to walk again.

The accident was a turning point, and she returned to Auckland to be near her mother. She eventually ended up working in television.

"I wanted to tell truthful stories, and documentaries seemed to be a way I could do that."

At university, Winstanley watched Merata Mita's 1980 documentary, Bastion Point: Day 507. The film and the style in which it was made were pivotal. "It was told from the perspective of Māori. Every time I see it now, I still bawl my eyes out."

In her first job, at Kiwa Productions, she directed Tame Iti — The Man Behind the Moko before she fell into producing. Maia went to live with his grandmother in Tauranga for a year so Winstanley could work. One day, Mita turned up.

Winstanley shakes her head, remembering the moment. "I was over by the fax or photocopier, and I turned around, and it was, 'What, there's my idol!'"

Mita asked Winstanley to work with her on a documentary about child abuse, Saving Grace. In her mid-30s by then, Winstanley wanted to learn from Mita. However, Mita suffered a fatal heart attack after a day working together.

"We had seen the rough cut and we were standing on the steps outside and I said, 'Shall we go get a feed or some kai?' and I'll always remember it that Merata said she wanted to go home. I went to get the car."

Winstanley continued work on Saving Grace but regrets producing it without Mita at her side, saying it was not her story to tell.

She formed production company StanStrong with her friend Desray Armstrong and made a number of other documentaries.

Mita's son, Herepi, is the writer and director of Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, to give it its full title. The story is told through his eyes and includes previously unseen footage.

"It's a beautiful film, and it's all told in Merata's voice. It's a beautiful discovery. She was such a trailblazer. She was the first Māori woman to write and direct a feature film and there hasn't been another one since."

Before Merata, Winstanley worked on Waru. Released last year, the film is about abuse. It's a series of chapters, each directed by one of eight Māori women. They are catching up while Winstanley is back in New Zealand. "We call ourselves the Waru Wā's," she laughs.

Ainsley Gardiner is a fellow "Waru Wā" who also worked with Winstanley on Boy.

Winstanley's son Maia, 21, with Matewa, 2, and Te Hinekahu, 6. Photo / Supplied
Winstanley's son Maia, 21, with Matewa, 2, and Te Hinekahu, 6. Photo / Supplied

"Chelsea has important things to say and she does so boldly and with a wicked sense of humour," says Gardiner. "She is a lion for the things that matter and that captures her approach to her film-making."

Winstanley likes the way women work together. Waru is an example of that collective approach. "We don't have to do it the old-school way. Women can be better in numbers. While making Waru, we shared our ideas and our scripts with each other. That's what we, as women, can bring to this male-dominated profession."

Winstanley's chapter in Waru, Kiritapu, shows a woman taking back her own power. It was based on two women in her life: Nana Kiritapu Borell and cousin Kiritapu Allan-Coates, the Labour MP. Her nana was strapped at school for speaking Māori. Her cousin is a Māori gay MP who is married with a baby.

"I wanted my character to have a win and a dig. Those are the films I like, about females who are kicking arse."

She prefers films directed by women like Lena Wertmuller, the "badass" Italian director of Seven Beauties. The other "Waru Wās" inspire her. She is similarly determined to be a role model for her daughters.

In the 125th year since women got the vote, she looks at the pond and says: "I want to show my girls, for them to see that they have pathways, and for me to be my own boss. I want to work on things that make me happy. I want to show them that they can be in charge.

"From my doco background, I love stories based on true experience. I want women to win. I want females to win. I want to feel good when I leave the theatre."

And with a parting quote that pretty much sums up her personal life too, Winstanley says: "I don't want women to be a background extra supporting the man."

If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone, call the confidential crisis helpline on: 0800 227 233 (08002B SAFE).

If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111. You can also visit the police website for information about reporting sexual crime.