Inside film-maker Athina Tsoulis' sun-streaked Ponsonby, Auckland, home, a giant poster advertising her new film Jinx Sister sheaths the dining-room table, waiting to be framed and hung on her office wall.
Staring out behind dark shades from said poster is the film's protagonist Laura (played by Sara Wiseman, of Mercy Peak fame): a hostile, often-drunk thirty-something who returns in trademark scanty attire from a self-destructive decade in Los Angeles to set eyes on big sister Mairie.
Both sisters are still struggling to cope with the childhood loss of their parents: while Laura pushes away anyone who threatens to get close to her, heavily-pregnant Mairie simply wants to wrap herself up in the bosom of her family.
Although it starts slowly, this "psychodrama" gradually draws you in. Applauded at the 2008 NZ International Film Festival, Jinx Sister garnered three nominations (best film with budget under $1 million, best actress and best supporting actress) at the 2008 Qantas Film and Television Awards, and opened in cinemas nationwide last week.
It's all been a long time coming for writer-director Tsoulis. Although she started work on the Jinx Sister script in 1994 (under working title Home is Where the Heart Is), she shelved it until now because of lack of funding.
"I just love everything about film-making except fund-raising!" laughs the "Greek-Australian Kiwi", whose wry sense of humour has served her well during the unending fund-hunting that's been the bane of her professional life.
While Tsoulis has directed the occasional TV programme and made numerous training videos, film is her main love. In the 1990s her short films included perennial-film-festival favourite The Invisible Hand (1992) and "next-to-no-budget" feature film I'll Make You Happy (1998), a comedy set among K Rd's prostitute dens that drew widespread acclaim.
While film buffs eagerly awaited her next offering, several projects fell through, including planned film Wedding a la Grecque. Though shortlisted for a Montana Sunday Theatre TV slot, it didn't make final selection; then the New Zealand Film Commission, which had funded it to third-draft feature stage, suddenly withdrew support. Although Tsoulis could sniff commercial success when the script was one of six selected from 187 for the inaugural NZ Screenwriters' Laboratory, the unexpected release of 2002 hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding dealt the too-similar script a death blow, flushing 25 drafts down the drain. Tsoulis' frustration snowballed when she withdrew from directing horror Safety In Numbers because of post-9/11 casting-and-funding issues.
Fed-up and "jaundiced", Tsoulis pressed pause on film-making to take up a Unitec film-lecturer position in 2004.
"Teaching actually reignited my passion for the medium and I thought 'I've got to make another film'."
Rather than wading through the time-sapping red tape of will-they-or-won't-they funding applications, she decided just "to just get out there" and make Jinx Sister as a low-budget project.
Working for a cost-covering sum, key cast and crew (who'll get a percentage of any profits) took to the streets of South Auckland with past-and-present Unitec students for a 22-day shoot.
Shooting on digital rather than film helped cut upfront costs and added to the film's fly-on-the-wall style.
Working weekends, evenings and during Unitec holidays, Tsoulis poured her energy and $75,000 of the modest $120,000 final tally into the project, without getting into debt.
With lingering wonder, Tsoulis describes how numerous industry players pitched in with free or subsidised facilities, equipment, time and talents; for instance actors Sara Wiseman and Will Wallace applied for and contributed a $20,000 grant. "All that support felt quite incredible."
Her vision for the grief-filled but ultimately uplifting film was partly inspired by her friend's childhood loss of both parents, and partly by her own biggest fear as a child: that her parents would die. Seeing the final product after so many years of work was a special moment. "It actually moved me. I thought 'yes, we've managed to do it' and it has touched other people. It's not a glossy American Hollywood number but it has its own beauty; it looks real."
So how did this little Greek girl become a Downunder film-maker? Born in a little Greek village in the Peloponnese, Tsoulis was 18 months old when she moved with her family to Adelaide. After working in Australia and the UK as a high-school history and geography teacher, she moved to Auckland in 1982 with baby daughters Kristina and Alexa after her husband, Professor Barry Reay, accepted a position as an University of Auckland lecturer.
Disillusioned with teaching, avid moviegoer Tsoulis decided it was time for a career she was passionate about. After film-making and scriptwriting courses in Auckland and London in the late 1980s, she started thinking about how to transpose her scripts to the big screen.
Then in 1995, breast cancer blindsided her. Catching it early she underwent radiation therapy - but when diagnosed with cancer again in 2005, she opted for a mastectomy. "The first time you go through it you think your body's let you down. I was quite angry because I've always been very careful with my diet, I don't drink very much, I don't smoke." But the cancer was a timely reminder that life is short. "It made me stop and think: 'Do I really want to make films? And the answer was yes'."
As well as continuing her roles on writers and directors' boards and as chair of charity Save the Family, Tsoulis plans to keep juggling teaching and film-making.
She has three film projects on the go: a Samoan romantic comedy, a big-budget epic drama, and her "wedding film that I've taken the wedding out of", now titled Thalia and Her Family.
While she's seeking funding for these films, "if it looks like it'll take five years I might just go ahead and do it," she says.
"I don't like waiting. What spurs me on is that no one knows what's going to happen tomorrow. I just want to get on and do things, and if anything happens to me, at least I'll know I was following my dream."
* Jinx Sister is in cinemas now.