This summer we look back at some of the best stories of the year. This one was first published in December.
A week before Jackie van Beek found out she had been named one of TimeOut's Entertainers of the Year, she received a rejection letter for a writing grant she'd applied for. At the end of a year of whirlwind success for herself and fellow recipient Madeleine Sami, it was a potent reminder of life as a creative in New Zealand.
"I do love that about the industry," says van Beek. "It's so important for me that people, especially young women, stick with it, because one day you can be reading your rejection letter – and it's the second rejection letter I've had for that project – and then the next week it's like, 'We're giving you Entertainers of the Year'."
The film-making duo have had a colossal year. Van Beek made a third season of Funny Girls and directed both Golden Boy, for Three's Comedy Pilot Week, and two episodes of Wellington Paranormal. (Golden Boy was given the green light by NZoA and Three last week, to screen in 2019). Sami meanwhile took on hosting duties for The Great Kiwi Bake Off and filmed TVNZ's upcoming drama The Bad Seed. The duo both also worked on next year's comedy series Educators – but before all of that was, of course, The Breaker Upperers.
The film, which they co-wrote, co-directed and starred in, debuted to rave reviews in March at SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas ("Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami are ready for stardom," declared Variety). After months of hunkering down in the editing suite, the SXSW premiere was surreal, says Van Beek: "I remember that day, and we looked out the window and we saw those queues of people, and we were like – 'holy shit'."
Life's been hectic since then – The Breaker Upperers subsequently smashed it at the New Zealand box office and was later bought by Netflix – but for a long time, things moved very slowly. The first seed of the film began five years ago, when they decided to write a story with a female friendship as the core relationship. After years of drafts and development, they finally went into production last year. "[Development is] quite a slow, arduous process, but as soon as you get green-lit to go into production, it's so fast and it's over so suddenly," says van Beek. "It's like 'Whoa - what happened?'"
The film – about two dysfunctional friends who run an agency to break couples apart – was refreshing for its unapologetic depiction of two women who don't quite have their shit together. "This film is a love letter to those stages in your life where you just don't know what the f*** you're going to do, but what gets you through those times is your mates that are on the same journey," says Sami.
"Jackie and I forged our friendship when we were both going through this epic, personal time," she says. (After meeting as teenagers at an improv workshop, the pair later became friends working on Silo Theatre's Bad Jelly the Witch in 2005). "It's weird because if you looked at it on paper, that could look like the most tragic time in our life, but actually there was so much joy in it."
The pair made sure The Breaker Upperers avoided fantastical Hollywood character arcs – such as the expectation they should suddenly have their lives together by the end of the film.
"It was really important to us that we still had the same personalities in the beginning of the film and the end of the film," says van Beek. "That (our characters) did both learn lessons through the film, but that it wasn't like a personality transplant, and suddenly we were these really healthy, well-adjusted, balanced, potentially Christian women.
"We even did one draft where we wrote that, and then in the very end scene of the screenplay, we let the audience know that was a complete fabrication and a lie because we were actually selling drugs."
Today has been a day of reflection for van Beek and Sami. On the way to this interview, the duo stopped by Garnet Station, a quaint, queer-friendly cafe in Westmere, where most of The Breaker Upperers was written. "I had a real trippy moment where I was like, 'The last time we were here at this cafe, I wasn't sure if our film was going to be made at all'," says Sami.
Van Beek and Sami remember one particular day at the cafe when neither of them could move. They both had back injuries; van Beek's came from when she was playing floor manager Ngaire Watkins in Silo's Hudson and Halls ("I was doing a massive show-off spin-around with my microphone, and it was amazing, but my back has been degenerating since then"), while Sami put hers out when she was living in London, trying to be a "conscientious apartment dweller" by ripping up her Ikea boxes. "We both turned up one day to do a session on The Breaker Upperers and we were struggling to get out of our seats," she says.
In October, van Beek, who jokes she is "the smarter one", stayed home for back-related reasons while Sami flew a full 24 hours to represent The Breaker Upperers at the London Film Festival – for just two nights. "Which I'll never do again, because I got the flu, I got a swollen face, full-body hives, and it was my body saying, 'don't f***ing do that'," she says.
This year sounds like it verged on madness for the duo, particularly when one remembers van Beek has three children and Sami a newborn baby. That's not to mention the financial strain that comes with making a film in New Zealand.
"I remember at the time when we had The Breaker Upperers all over the back of the buses in Auckland, and we were on billboards and stuff, and a lot of people were saying to me, 'Oh man, Jacks, you're killing it! You must be like, so rich,'" says Van Beek.
"We're very lucky because we sold to Netflix US, and we're very lucky that we are getting paid for that – our back-end deals are coming through. But at the time we were on the buses, none of that money had started coming through, so people were saying I should be buying them drinks – I'm like, 'I don't have any money! What are you talking about?'"
"It's always the way in New Zealand – people think if you're on TV, that you're rich," says Sami. "Most of the time in New Zealand if you make a movie, it puts you in debt."
Both stars have hustled – van Beek used to deliver pizzas, once got her taxi driver's licence ("I was going to start up Jacks' Cabs") and was a biscuit taste-tester as a student. "Then they wanted me to test tampons and I said no." Sami began her acting career dressed as a "cheap knockoff" of Xena; "I was 'Xerox Warrior Princess' for the opening of the Sky Tower. I just took people up and down the lift."
But this year has changed things. They have US agents now, who are pitching them to take on scripts as a comedy directing duo. And while their personal opportunities have broadened, with the possibility of expanding into Hollywood, the pair are more excited by the attention being paid to New Zealand comedy at large.
"I know there's a whole other generation of great comics in New Zealand, and people will keep bringing great New Zealand comedy to the world," says Sami. "I remember when I first started out in this industry, people would be like, 'do you think maybe you need to like, chill out your accent a bit?'
"It's exciting for there to be the female voice and the female gaze on everything – we can re-envision a bunch of old ideas, because we have a different point of view, and I think audiences are really finding that exciting. And more than just being women, people find the New Zealand point of view really exciting right now. I'm excited by what everyone's going to do."
There are myriad opportunities on the horizon for this star pair. But for now, there's one priority on their mind - to relax.
"Madeleine was saying today, 'It would be so nice if we could just hang out together again when we're not working – remember those days?'" says van Beek. "Both of us were like, 'Nah, I don't remember.'"