In a barren office on Ponsonby Rd, Ainsley Gardiner sits at her desk consulting her goddess cards, a DIY tarot she uses occasionally.
"What the hell will I do this year?" she asks, shuffling the deck.
It's an uncharacteristic moment of uncertainty for Gardiner. The prolific film producer is known for her decisiveness. Maybe it's the jetlag. She has just returned from the Berlin International Film Festival, where Boy, the comedy feature she produced and Taika Waititi wrote, starred in and directed, won the top prize in the category for younger viewers. Boy also made a great impression on the grown-ups when it screened at the prestigious American Sundance Festival in January.
Since then, Waititi and his 11-year-old co-star, James Rolleston, have been swamped with praise but their producer is just as deserving. It's Gardiner who has brought Waititi's offbeat directing brilliance to the big screen, with the Oscar-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night, Eagle vs Shark and now Boy, a quintessentially Kiwi comedy that has the potential - a virtual catchphrase in the film - to become as popular as Whale Rider.
This is about the only time you'll see Gardiner behind a desk. She and Waititi used the office to edit the film and now it's no more than a storage space, sparsely decorated with photographs of the East Coast Maori children who star in the film, and a couple of old timetables she sheepishly pulls down.
"I wish it was more attractive," she says, adding that the world of producing isn't terribly lucrative. She'd love for Boy to be financially successful so she could afford an assistant. Now she just has to sit back and wait for the film's New Zealand release, and for international distributors to bite.
Gardiner isn't very good at waiting.
At 36, she has produced three feature films, several shorts, a television series and commercials, and shot her own award-winning short film, Mokopuna. As a descendant of Te Whanau-a-Apanui, Whakatohea, Ngati Awa, and Ngati Pikiao, she sits on Te Paepae Ataata, the Maori arm of the New Zealand Film Commission. She is the host of the Maori TV series, Iti Pouanumu, in which she plays short films and interviews the Kiwis who made them. She is a founding member of the not-for-profit Women in Film and Television. She is a mother to three girls, aged 8, 3 and 2, with her partner of nearly a decade, Tammy Davis, who plays Munter in Outrageous Fortune. The marks on her hands are from painting the deck.
"It's impossible to make it all balance," she shrugs. "I'll relax when I'm dead."
Jetlag aside, she is full of vim about Boy.
Inspired by Two Cars, One Night, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short in 2005, Boy is set on the East Coast in the 80s. It follows a self-sufficient 11-year-old named Boy, left alone to fend for himself and his younger siblings while his grandmother is away. When his pot-smoking dad, Alamein (Waititi) shows up with a gang patch and a "mean-as" car, Boy wants to be just like him - when he's not trying to be like Michael Jackson, that is. Boy is a broader comedy than Two Cars - the stylised short about two kids who bond in the carpark while waiting for their parents to finish at the local tavern - but it packs a similarly poignant punch about the example parents set for their children.
"I'm one of those people who is 50/50 pessimist, optimist," says Gardiner. "Sometimes I go 'wow, the world is so depressing, what's the point?' Other times, everything is amazing and beautiful and the universe provides and I get my goddess cards and my Dalai Lama advice. I think it's having kids. You want to believe in happy endings.
"So I like something that captures the worst and the best. I don't want to ignore the dark stuff in the world but I don't want to forget there's amazing stuff too. I think that's why I'm drawn to things that make me laugh and cry."
New Zealand producer Larry Parr once told Gardiner, then his protege, "All you need in this job is common sense." Gardiner has that and a tireless work ethic. As the logistics manager on a movie set, no job is too big or small. One of the things on her whiteboard to-do list says, "stretch James' shoes". Her co-producer, actor Cliff Curtis, says Gardiner drove people to the set and brought them sandwiches on her days off. She has been known to do Waititi's laundry, everything from grubby socks to undies.
Says Curtis, "She has an astounding capacity and capability, the amount of work she does."
It helps that she is naturally maternal. For her methodical, hard-working pragmatic streak, anyone who spends time in Gardiner's company will know she is a soulful person, always on the look-out for the lessons life provides.
Her pragmatism meant she wasn't convinced when Waititi said he wanted to star in Boy. She spent the first two weeks fastidiously handing him notes about what she thought was working and what wasn't until she realised she was over-stepping the mark.
"I'm good at looking at other people's work and identifying what's good and what's not, so I think that's what makes me a good producer," she says. "But without that really close connection and relationship and collaboration with the director, I don't know that I'd be as effective. I don't aspire to produce for anybody else (other than Waititi). I've got three children and it is like having a fourth child. And Taika's so larger-than-life he's like a fifth child!
"But I totally trust Taika's instincts. As much as I wanted to direct him, I couldn't. It was his film and his choice to cast himself."
Working with 12 children, all locals from Waihau Bay and none of them professional actors, was just as challenging. The trick, again, was to let go, to allow the young actors' whanau to help provide for the kids and to allow them to just be kids.
"I've always had this idea that making films should feel like being at school camp or a family reunion where every aspect of being is catered to. Eating well, sleeping well, being with good people."
For someone so obviously good at what she does, it's unnerving to find Gardiner didn't set out to be a producer.
All she knew, as a wide-eyed 8-year-old, was that films set her on fire. Even the bad films. She remembers going to a Wellington video store and renting a grab-bag of adolescent flicks: Porky's, about a group of teens and their quest to lose their virginity, Christiane F, a German film about a heroin-addicted teen prostitute, and, most influential, The Breakfast Club, the teens-on-detention classic.
"It just blew my mind from the very beginning, what a film could contain."
It didn't matter some of the content was puerile or B-grade, what struck Gardiner was the way the movies transported her into another teenager's life, another world.
She decided she wanted to be an actor. Then she decided she didn't have the personality. Her ambition shifted to writing and directing.
Once she was over her awkward teenage years - "I didn't want anyone to look or listen to me" - she took the Avalon film and TV production course. This is where she met Parr, one of New Zealand's best-known creative producers who had worked on (among many others), Sleeping Dogs, Smash Palace and Came A Hot Friday. He convinced Gardiner to channel her level-headedness into producing, which she did during work placement at his production company, Kahukura.
"She was impressive," says Parr. "Not necessarily on paper but in person. I said, 'Here's a book on how to read and evaluate scripts. Here are 40-50 scripts. When you've read the book, assess the scripts.' She did. Even though we didn't always agree on things I knew that when she said I should read something, I should read it. I could absolutely trust her judgment."
Fresh out of work experience, Gardiner went on, independently, to make a short thriller, called The Hole, with director Brian Challis and actor Scott Wills. It was a brave, vulnerable time. With virtually no money, the young producer learned the indispensible art of resourcefulness.
"There's nothing like limitations to bring out your creativity," she says. "There's this incredible energy when it's all down to you."
Eventually she returned to work at Kahukura, where she embarked on many ambitious projects during her seven years there, including the 26-episode sitcom, Love Bites (2002) and the feature film, Kombi Nation (2003).
"She responded to being thrown in the deep end," says Parr. "That was quite challenging for me, because to some extent I gave Ainsley and the creatives a lot of responsibility."
When Kahukura went bust in 2002, leaving four major productions in limbo, Gardiner decided to pack in life as a producer, devastated for her mentor's loss as much as her own.
"How can you work so hard and have nothing to show for it?"
She couldn't imagine working without Parr. She also had a 2-year-old at the time and it was the first time she'd worked with a toddler. But the lure of film-making was too great. Gardiner found herself gravitating towards Waititi, who is also of Te Whanau-a-Apanui descent. They worked on Two Cars, a "miserable experience", if only because it was the first film she'd made since the collapse of Kahukura.
Around that time actor Cliff Curtis was looking to return home from the United States, where he'd established himself in Hollywood. Curtis, who also descends from Ngati Pikiao, had a philosophical, kaupapa Maori approach. He wanted to bring that to New Zealand to tell Maori stories and provide more opportunities for Maori. Gardiner too, was seeking to do something meaningful. In 2004 they set up Whenua Films, a production company with big aspirations for Maori cinema. Their first film was Waititi's World War II short, Tama Tu.
"She was extremely intelligent, very bright and very savvy," says Curtis, on the line from San Francisco where he's shooting the TV series, Trauma. "Creatively, she's got a take on things. That's rare. You can have somebody who can do the spreadsheets and the scheduling and the budgeting but not be comfortable in the creative world but Ainsley had all of those and she was young."
Comedy feature film Eagle vs Shark was next, not your typical Maori story, but one the team knew would have positive ramifications for the Maori film industry at large.
It took three years for Gardiner to realise the dream to make her own film. In 2009 Whenua released the short film, Mokopuna, a personal story about Maori identity, inspired by her daughters, who are all blond and blue-eyed. Gardiner couldn't help but compare her own creative abilities to Waititi's.
"I had a huge crisis of confidence, panic attacks and anxiety," she confesses. "It was excruciating." She'd love to do another one.
Mokopuna screened at several international film festivals and was named Best Short Film at Dreamspeakers in Canada.
Boy is Gardiner, Waititi and Curtis' most significant collaboration. While Gardiner took care of the practical stuff, Curtis looked after the finance and business end. The idea was to make a film in conjunction with Waititi's marae, Maru-O-Hinemaka, in Waihau Bay, which would ultimately share a portion of the film's revenue. It was also to tell a Maori story.
"With Boy my goal was to develop a way of working and shooting that suited people's families," adds Gardiner. "So people were welcome to bring their spouses and children. We had a daycare set up. I had my own kids there, with Tammy and Mum."
Ask Gardiner if anything went wrong on the shoot and she shakes her head. She'd just done a week at a silent Buddhist retreat and was feeling the calm before the storm. Then she remembers her job description was, essentially, chief problem-solver.
The film cast and crew based themselves at the marae, eating and sleeping there in preparation for the eight-week shoot. The only thing that would drive them out would be a tangi, said the marae elders. In the two weeks leading up to shooting, there were thunderstorms, a power cut - and a tangi.
A day after elders blessed a cemetery the crew had built for the set, they rescinded, saying the headstones were facing the wrong way.
Gardiner was unflappable. Determined to follow Maori protocol, she set the crew to work on the cemetery. They lost half a day.
"That's a lot of time on a New Zealand film shoot, you can't make that up. Our production designer just about died because we'd worked so hard on it."
Once the problem was fixed, the crew started the day with a karakia and a flock of swallows circled overhead. Gardiner took it as a positive sign.
"It might sound airy-fairy but I honestly believe if you set things up with the right intentions, everything will go your way. If you go with the flow, nothing is too problematic."
When not behind the scenes of a movie or at home with her children, Gardiner hosts Iti Pounamu, a magazine-style TV show on Maori Television, in which she picks up oodles of tips about making short films.
"As much as I am creative, I'm quite mathematical in my thinking. I love to dissect things. Why are you interested in telling a story about human trafficking? That's a horrible thing - why do you want to tell that story? I think it does break down your own barriers and opens you up to new ideas."
Although it's still early days for Boy, Gardiner is already looking further ahead. As Waititi's right-hand woman, much of her future endeavours rides on his creative output.
"I would like a holiday," she says. "Now would be a good time to relax but I just keep thinking about what to do next."
So what did the goddess cards suggest?
"They said, 'tap into your inner wisdom because you already know the answer'," she laughs. "And I did, too."
Boy opens in cinemas on Thursday.
In a barren office on Ponsonby Rd, Ainsley Gardiner sits at her desk consulting her goddess cards, a DIY tarot she uses occasionally.