Former TV journalist Amanda Millar has turned Celia Lashlie's final interview into a box-office hit film now in cinemas nationwide.
1 How did you first meet Celia Lashlie?
I did a 20/20 story on her in 2001 after she'd been sacked for giving a public speech about a blond, blue-eyed 5-year-old who was on his way to prison. Her employers thought she'd identified a specific child but she stated that her experience working in prisons had given her insight into what kind of person comes to prison and why. I thought, "Wow, she sounds awesome" so I approached her about an interview. She wouldn't have a bar of it. Her family's privacy was sacrosanct. It took a few weeks to convince her.
2 How do you persuade reluctant interviewees to go on camera?
That's about 90 per cent of the job. The interview itself is only the end bit. I develop a relationship with the person first, without asking for a definite yes or no. It takes multiple meetings over time to develop a level of trust. The Parnell Panther took six years. You keep in contact until someone actually says no. Once they say no you have to respect that, but until then you keep the door open.
3 When did you cross paths with Celia next?
I did a 60 Minutes story about her third book The Power of Mothers. It had a very different tone to her second book He'll Be OK which was a somewhat light-hearted look at middle class anxieties about raising teenage boys. It harnesses her anger and frustration at what she considered at the time to be CYFS' woeful management of at-risk families. The chief executive of CYFS was livid. It generated a tsunami of feedback and I believe was part of a tide that forced the change to Oranga Tamariki.
4 Why did you quit TV journalism to become a freelance film-maker?
The Pike River disaster was a crossroads for me; TV3 had just announced huge cost cuts to 60 Minutes. We arrived in Greymouth to find a satellite dish on every corner and journalists from around the globe working in pop-up tents with editing suites. We didn't even have a laptop or a phone connected to the internet. We'd go to the local service station to look up the White Pages and charge our phones. I realised it was time to do something else. After I quit, the first person I went to see was Celia. I said, "I'm here to help with whatever you want to do".
5 You filmed Celia working at a domestic violence camp for couples. How did you get permission to film the participants?
Celia's friend Gabe Quirke started the camp. One of Celia's many unpaid jobs was to spend one morning a month with the women. They hoped to extend the camp, so the couples agreed to be filmed for a video to take to potential funders. Around that time Celia's health was deteriorating. We all knew something was up. She'd lost her energy, her sense of humour, but she wasn't saying anything. We got back from the summer holidays to the news she had terminal pancreatic cancer. I was devastated.
6 Did you consider Celia a personal friend at that stage?
I did. I loved being around her. She was so funny and charismatic. Her stories were enthralling: you'd laugh and you'd cry. She was the consummate story teller with a real skill for connecting people. She has a level of clarity and straight up pragmatism that resonates with every single one of us. My own relationships with my husband and teenage son improved thanks to her advice.
7 Your film is based around a single interview you did with Celia at home shortly before she died. How did that come about?
She agreed to do the documentary after her cancer diagnosis, believing she had 12 to 18 months to live. She said January was for family so we'd start work in February. That month she was admitted to hospital and was deteriorating rapidly but was able to come home with palliative care. I thought, 'The documentary's not going to happen'. Celia decided to have a party and that morning her daughter Beks rang me and said, "Bring the camera". When I got there, Celia had rallied. This was her opportunity to say what she wanted to say, the way she wanted to say it. I could literally see her fading before my eyes but she managed to say the things that were most important to her. It was her last word for the next generation. She died two days later.
8 Did you think that 90-minute interview was enough to make a film?
Not initially. Making this film has been the most challenging thing I've ever done because it's deeply personal and in the end, I had to do it on my own. At first I was in such shock, I put it to one side and got swept up in updating He'll Be OK and organising the Celia Lashlie Day. I couldn't get funding from TVNZ, TV3 or the Film Commission to make a documentary that Celia would have wanted me to make. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought her voice was bigger than TV. I thought, "Dammit, I'm going to make a feature film."
9 How did you get the funding?
We had a small amount from the Givealittle page that Beks set up after Celia died. Then I went on Radio New Zealand and did an unashamed plug about needing money to get the film made. A guy stuck in traffic in Auckland called Garry Robertson heard me and thought, "I grew up in a violent community and I believe in Celia's work." We talked and he asked, "How much do you need? I'll pay for the lot." It was perfect timing because I'd begun to lose confidence and my way.
10 Was the process of making your first feature film a learning curve?
Yes. Initially I was telling it like I'd told other stories, as a journalist. I sent a rough cut to a few film-maker friends like Pietra Brettkelly who gave robust, constructive advice. They agreed that I needed to tell the story as a friend, not a journalist. Putting myself into the story retrospectively was technically difficult and personally it was the most vulnerable I've felt in my career.
11 How did you feel seeing your film debut at Wellington's Embassy Theatre?
For me, the moment of realisation was when Garry, the funder, flew down to watch a nearly-completed edit. I was beside myself with nerves. When it finished there was this silence and I said in a squeaky voice, "So what do you think?" He swore and then said, "I asked you to make something powerful and by God you've delivered". I saw tears rolling down his cheeks and at that point I burst into tears too. He's no liberal, his politics are the antithesis of Celia's, but he's exactly the type of person who needs to see this film. Celia 'got' men.
12 Celia was the biggest box office success of the New Zealand Film Festival. Where can people see it now?
I've got an independent distributor to help me take the film to as many small towns around New Zealand as we can. If people in places like Kaikohe or Whanganui want it screened in their community, we want to hear from them. We've had at least 50 towns sign up for the outreach programme so far. We need to get Celia to as many people as possible. Everyone who sees this film will find their own message. That's the gift Celia gives.
Celia is in cinemas from Thursday. For more information or to get the film in your town, go to celiafilm.com