The path to true love isn't always straight - as the true love story about the relationship of two Kiwi film-makers shows.
"I wasn't really attracted to her," says Nikki Si'ulepa. "She looked like your average Grey Lynn mum, with her nails done — that shellac — all dolled up. She looked pretty good but not my type."
Taking a glance at Rachel Aneta Wills, the Grey Lynn mum/slash/film-maker, there's no sign of shellac. Boho maybe, but no dead beetles. " I wasn't really dressed up," she says, "She thinks I was."
The first date between the two Kiwi film-makers was short — under half an hour — as one was convinced they were meant to be together and the other thought she was doing some community service. "She'd been trying to get me to meet to help her with her film idea and I finally said yes," says Si'ulepa, whose credits include Snow In Paradise, Ma, Salat se Rotuma and Aroha. "We start chatting and she says zilch, so I start talking about what she should do with her film and a few minutes in I realise she's not even listening. I wrap it up pretty quickly. I thought I was doing some good."
On leaving, Si'ulepa jokingly but sort of seriously says to Wills to never call her again, which quietly obliterated Wills' heart.
Undeterred, Wills put some sticky tape over the obliterated heart and sent a text. "I get a message," says Si'ulepa. "Do you want to catch a movie and I was like why? I have enough friends! What is it with this woman?"
That woman knew something the other woman didn't.
Listening to them talk in their Auckland production office about the story behind their film, Same But Different: A True New Zealand Love Story, it's not your typical romantic tale of stolen glimpses across a crowded room with mutual hearts beating to the same thundering drum. This is different. Wills, two years into divorce at the time, with two children, wouldn't — doesn't — call herself a lesbian, but she was convinced she was meant to be with Si'ulepa.
Meanwhile, Si'ulepa, who'd been in relationships with women but was more familiar with West Auckland than Grey Lynn, thought Wills "was nuts". She responded to the request to catch a movie by suggesting they do it at NZIFF, (where they both had films showing) "in a couple of months", thinking that would brush her off.
It didn't. From the moment Wills had seen Si'ulepa (across a crowded marae) at the 2015 Wairoa Māori Film Festival, where both their films were also showing, her libido flipped.
"This woman points out the film-maker of Ma [Si'ulepa] and I don't even know what happened — that slow-motion moment when your insides go nuts. I am pretty intuitive and I knew that something was going to be massive between the two of us."
After Wills' short film, Netta Jones, had screened, Si'ulepa approached and asked what it was shot on. Wills looked at Si'ulepa and nothing was in her head! She said she didn't know. "I was done with her as a filmmaker." says Si'ulepa.
But Wills wasn't done. Driving back from the festival she couldn't get Si'ulepa out of her head so invented a reason to meet — to talk about a bogus film idea. In Same But Different, the idea "Rachel" (played by Robyn Paterson) takes to "Nikki" (played by Hannah Martin) is about a zombie… "in retail".
No wonder it didn't grab Si'ulepa's imagination.
Wills pursued Si'ulepa in the face of rejection. She would ask her out and she'd say she was busy. She'd try again, and she'd get the same response. So she'd try again. "It was the opposite of cool," she admits.
"I like cool people" says Si'ulepa. "Which is why this was not attractive!"
It's hard to imagine anyone "knowing" after so many rebuffs, but post divorce, Wills had spent two years going through a lot of personal and spiritual growth and she was ready. "I knew it was going to turn," says Wills. "Something was telling me to keep going. I got the memo early and I needed Nikki to catch up. I had definitely liked people in the past but nothing like this. It was a whole new world — it was relentless."
That relentlessness involved doing a few cray cray things, which Si'ulepa enjoys explaining. "She left her kid outside school for ages. She (accidentally) stole petrol. She nearly ran over an elderly couple crossing the road."
"I was going crazy in the head about Nikki. I became unrecognisable to myself," says Wills.
They had a pseudo second date at Coco's Cantina where Si'ulepa was scouting for a film location. "It wasn't really a date for me. Rachel ordered all these things and didn't eat anything and me, being Samoan, had to finish it. And then she talked about the amazing tea she makes so we go back to her house and she brings back the tea and it's closer to cold than hot. I am like OMG! What is it with her?"
Oh the tangled web of courtship. Confused about Wills' strange behaviour, Si'ulepa consulted her cousin, Fangs — who plays herself in the film. "I was thinking Grey Lynn mums aren't interested in me so I call up Fangs and say 'this Palagi lady keeps trying to contact me.' Fangs says, 'cousin she wants the p' — 'she wants the punani, the pussy!'"
Weirdly, a year out from meeting Si'ulepa, Wills had written a list of the kind of person she wanted to attract into her life. "I was very specific: film-maker (or worked in TV), had to connect with my kids on an amazing level but have no children themselves, be spiritual, be spontaneous and love travel. I even wrote 'would occasionally go away for work' as after two years of being in my own space I didn't want somebody who wanted to be with me all the time." The only thing she hadn't specified was that it would be a woman.
Si'ulepa had also written a list. "The only thing on mine was that I wanted somebody to love me as I am."
Both women were 39 when they met, both were raised by strong wahine, both are film-makers, both have made great films about their grandmothers, and both were single at the time. And true to Wills' list, she'd picked someone who travelled. Si'ulepa was going to Bougainville for two weeks for a shoot and told Wills she probably wouldn't have any cell phone coverage. Yet she did. Then she saw that Wills had accidentally blue thumbed her on messenger — often called the Accidental Facebook Messenger Thumb Of Doom, it showed up when Wills had been stalking Si'ulepa.
It was time for Wills to come clean. "I really hope I can get my head back. Since I met you I have driven the wrong way, left my boy at school, nearly run over an elderly couple, and botched up at work," she confessed.
Nikki was finally getting the memo and so began the flirty messages. For three weeks they wooed each other with words across the South Pacific Ocean. When Si'ulepa returned to New Zealand things were very different. She landed near midnight, dropped off her director, and drove straight to Wills house. In Grey Lynn. "We sat there like little teenagers on her couch for a good hour. I had to go into the bathroom at one point and say to myself, 'come on, we got this'. And then we kissed. And the rest is history."
Si'ulepa was the spontaneous, spiritual, travelling film-maker with no kids. And Wills loved her.
"We love the same things," says Si'ulepa. "Except I never thought I would end up with a European Kiwi, and she never thought she would be with an Islander!"
"I never thought I would be marrying a woman," adds Wills.
"It's the new black," says Si'ulepa. "We found love within ourselves and then we found each other. If that's not an experiment for amazing then I don't know what is. The love of my life came along."
Three years after meeting, after a blindingly amazing proposal from Si'ulepa, involving cameras and rings for both Wills' children, they married in a forest. "We invited all our friends and whanau and they all got on like a house on fire. It felt enchanted and magical," says Si'ulepa. "Everyone said it was the best wedding they'd ever been too," says Wills.
Now, they're finishing each other's paragraphs and listening to them it's easy to see they have something magical but they bristle at the word 'couple'. "We're individuals, we don't complete each other, we were complete before we met," says Si'ulepa. "We've never been in a relationship like this. It's awesome."
Their film, Same But Different, written and directed by Si'ulepa and produced by Wills, is as romantic and quirky as their true story, but it's not always easy for same-sex relationships, even today in 2019. Boy Erased, out this year, is a testament to that. But when they got together they didn't face drama in real life.
"We anticipated it and nothing happened," says Wills. "Nobody was surprised. They were cooler than we were. I drove up north to tell my 89-year-old grandma — she had a brandy and I had a glass of wine — and I said to her 'I'm seeing a woman' and she looked at me and said 'well that makes sense'."
"Nobody got stoned or hung out on a cross," says Si'ulepa. "Quite the anticlimax." Even Wills' children were cool.
Which is why they wanted to make their film — to make a love story showing the awkwardness that happens at the beginning of any relationship, no matter who is falling for whom. Understandably, Wills was not keen on the idea when Si'ulepa suggested a film "about that time you stalked me for all those weeks!"
"I said that's a stupid idea because all my vulnerabilities would be revealed," says Wills. "But Nikki was looking at me and was like, 'yes'!"
Once they started talking and running through scenes and characters they both realised they had to make it. "We knew it was a really good love story and we hadn't seen one like it," says Si'ulepa. "First and foremost we thought we would make a story that was our truth — or Rachel's truth — and make it good."
Same But Different is their story (with the bad cup of tea, Wairoa Māori Film Festival and terribly short first date but not the Bougainville part). The film is being held up as a rainbow movie but they didn't have an agenda. "We set out to normalise love in all different types of vessels," says Si'ulepa. "We're holding space for love. We're not holding up a flag or anything."
"We're not holding anything actually," says Wills.
"Going into this film we wondered if we would get negative comments," says Si'ulepa. "But this is a true story. You can't say we're wrong in that sense. We're inclusive of everyone. For a lot of people who have seen the film we tell them, 'it's just love, man. It's nothing else'," says Si'ulepa. "And two very hot women."
Same but Different is screening at Rialto, New Market, Auckland until June 26;
Waiheke Community Cinema, Waiheke until July 4; The Vic, Devonport, Auckland from 27th June - 25th July; Hollywood3 Cinema, Christchurch 25th July - 8th August.
Other regional cinemas along with dates will be released on @samebutdifferentmovienz FaceBook page.