Making a film about not making a film became ‘an exercise in how to lose friends and influence people

Two actors walked into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, and at least some of it was. But there was more to it.

The actors were Mark Clare and Willy de Wit and the bar was Freida's, a street-corner watering hole in the West Lynn shops which - by design, not carelessness - still sports the signage of its previous life as an organic butchery.

They were there to rehearse a film. And make a film. At the same time. Confused? So was I. And I wasn't the only one.

The man already in the bar when the actors walk in is Peter Tait. If the name doesn't ring a bell, the face in the photo will. He was the creature Theresa Healey pulled out of the plughole in Alison Maclean's brilliant short horror film Kitchen Sink 25 years ago (if you haven't seen it, you should watch it online immediately) and he's been around the traps almost ever since.


Even when he wasn't, he was making movies. While living up the Oruru Valley, inland from Taipa in the Far North, he made a 75-minute digital video movie called Back River Road in which all but one of the cast were local residents (including Ray Woolf as a hilariously inept undercover cop). He wrote a 22-minute short called Bogans about three unemployed mates trying to get cast in The Lord of the Rings.

Back to the bar. Clare, de Wit and half a dozen other actors sit down to read a film script Tait has written. Full of intrigue and dodgy French accents, it's about a hunt for ambergris, the waxy secretion of whales' digestive systems that has long been prized by perfume-makers. As they read, the actors argue about how crap the script is. As actors do.

The script reading is filmed. The result is called Not Set in Stone, which rather understates the unfinished nature of the film and the film within the film. And last Sunday night, a couple of dozen of the people involved in the making of it gathered at Freida's to watch it.

Tait's introduction referred to his long history of writing scripts that don't excite the interest of producers - he calls them "producer-type people": "When I talk to them, it's like I'm talking underwater," he says.

To be fair to the producer-type people, they may have a point. Tait, a man whose conversational style is best described as free-form, does not always come up with hard-headed practical ideas: the ambergris film opens with the death of a whale which sounds like it would cost about $5 million to shoot.

But perhaps the turnout for the making and the screening is a sign of the solidarity the participants feel for one of their own. "We were just doing a favour for a mate," a couple of the actors tell me.

Tait's introduction continues: "I have all these ideas and they get turned down by the Film Commission and all these bodies who don't want to give me grants. So I thought, I'll just make it. I got a few friends here like Grant Lahood [director of noted short films Lemming Aid and Snail's Pace] who said, 'I dunno; maybe I'll operate one camera. But what you're doing is a bit tricky'.

"And then [Oscar-winning art director] Grant Major said 'Okay, that seems like an interesting idea' and he came on board."


"That's two Grants right there," calls a women from the audience. "Yeah," deadpans Tait, "You've got to take Grants wherever you can get them."

Tait called the making of the film "an exercise in how to lose friends and influence people".

But in many ways it's a demonstration of what might be called community film-making.

It is a story of the community created by the bar, where the owner plays impromptu jazz on a piano in the corner and where Tait is reminded of "some out-of-the-way place in Spain or Italy".

But it's also a celebration of a community of actors and film-makers. When bridge players get together, they play bridge; stamp collectors show each other their stamps. What else would actors and film-makers do but make a movie? Or a movie about making (or not making) a movie?

Not Set in Stone will not be coming to a cinema near you. If it sees the light of day online, I'll let you know.