Savage is a film like no other. It's a story told with such cinematographic skill, social understanding and human insight, that Midweek, when offered the chance to interview Sam Kelly, the film's writer and director, jumped at the opportunity.
Sam is well-known in the industry for his short films, but Savage, a full-length feature, is the culmination of years learning his craft.
Sam studied Film at Victoria University but it was a theoretical study of film in general and no practical application.
"There was no film school in New Zealand at that point and I really wanted to immerse myself in filmmaking. So I made shorts, then did an honours level course as well and made another short there.
"I did some editing for TV, and a bit of acting, as well."
He played a character called Hawk on a show called The Tribe, shot in Wellington, then went back and edited it. He also edited for One News.
"That kept me going while I was writing short films and trying to get funding."
Between 2004 and 2010 Sam applied for funding 17 times and was turned down each time.
"A lot of them were scripts I had developed with other writers ... and on the 18th try I got funding for my short film Lambs. That was the career path that was mapped out for me — you make a low-budget short funded by the Film Commission, you make a higher-budget short funded by the Film Commission, then you make your feature.
"You always remember the people who believe in you and one of them was Juliette Veber who worked at the Film Commission. She saw what I was trying to do with Lambs and believed in it. I got funding in the first round of Fresh Shorts, which was a new programme they released. It was a little bit lower budget but gave you more creative control, which I liked and appreciated.
"I had won a prize - SPADA NZ Young Film-maker of the Year – which gave me film stock, film equipment hire and film processing, a really generous amount … that allowed me to shoot Lambs on 16mm film."
The turning point for Sam was around 2008 when he did a screenwriting course with Ken Duncan at Victoria University.
"That accelerated my writing craft substantially. After that I started writing my first feature, which was about a teenage gang prospect. Lambs was the first 15 pages of that screenplay, in a way. I spent three years writing that film, called The Father and the Prospect."
Sam got development funding for that film but was encouraged to focus on the prospect only.
"I then started writing another film, called The Prospect … I spent three years writing that but failed to get Film Commission funding. My producer, Vicky [Pope], suggested – why don't you try the life of a gang member in three separate chapters? I was unsure at first, but I had spent so long researching that world and I had so many stories that I had a pretty large canvas to work with."
After so long immersed in those worlds, they felt vivid and filled with dramatic potential.
The subject matter gave an edginess and a feeling of unease, which is where Sam wanted to go with his writing.
"If it feels like something I shouldn't be doing, it makes me want to do it more. Partly because what I feel will then lead to a bold approach, or have a heat to it and sustain me creatively. If it's resonating with me thematically in some way, at a deeper level."
Sam was in a "bit of a hole" at the time, for one reason and another, but the combination of a series of unfortunate events led to a new future.
"I used that energy to create, and that actually helped focus me and keep me going. The character of Damage [in Savage] was like I was feeling – lost, wanting connection and wanting to belong, but couldn't."
Damage, as a character, is big, physically powerful and hugely intimidating, and therefore unable to show any vulnerability or who he really was, for fear of being rejected by those who could not see past the mask. Sam says he felt a kinship there during this time.
Sam's research for Savage led him into conversations with people who had been abused by the system, who had suffered horrors that changed their world view. That research must have been painful.
"It was. Just hearing these stories that are so tragic, traumatic, and, in a way, I feel humbled that someone would share that with me. It was incredible that I could sit down with these gang members … and they would open up, and not only tell me how the inside of a gang worked, in terms of values and structure and crime and internal conflict, but also their personal childhood stories."
Savage was filmed using Arriflex Alexa, a high end digital format.
"I wanted a rough texture to the image for Savage; it was important to me that it didn't feel plastic and shiny.
"Part of the reason I chose the cinematographer, James Brown, from Australia, is because he is a wizard at creating those rougher textures digitally. He is part of that new breed of cinematographers who have shot with digital their whole careers, so they really know it as a form and are able to work it. I love James' moody, organic feel."
Sam spent a year looking for the right person for the job.
"He had the right values for the film, the primacy of connection of talent: he wanted to get in there and get into the actors' eyes – that was important for me."
The actor to play Damage was the hardest to cast.
"I wanted, initially, to find him from the community, and we did a massive casting call. We put a call out on Facebook asking for anyone with tattoos, scars, missing teeth, criminal records … we had 8000 replies. My casting director from Lambs, Yvette Reid and I went around the North Island, town by town, and saw 2000 people we'd selected, who were either from that world or felt like they could be."
In the end it was an actor, Jake Ryan, who was cast in the role.
Sam says he has nothing but admiration for all those men who were brave enough to give it a go and show their vulnerability for the camera during those sessions.
"It was such a rewarding process. I love acting and actors, and I mean that broadly. Some of these guys were incredible."
He says they might not have been right for Savage but he's kept their details for future reference.
It sounds like Sam Kelly is not finished.
"There's a lot of untapped talent, not only from that community, but there are also great actors in the New Zealand acting pool who haven't necessarily had much of a chance and don't realise how talented they are. Those people excite me and I want to work with them — they are people I'd like to write roles for.
"I've got several ideas about what I want to work on next: about five or six ideas competing … but I've been so busy with this film and other directing work … I can't wait to get back into writing again."
Sam is optimistic about the future of New Zealand cinema.
"There are so many talented filmmakers around me who have made incredible short films but haven't yet made their first feature film, and I know why! There is some phenomenal talent which makes me excited about the next 10 years."
Despite the high standard he has set with Savage, Sam feels he can do even better.
"I feel my craft is just developing.
"I'm a dreamer and always have been. This career allows me to dream and make those dreams real. It sounds corny, but that's the truth of it."
Midweek has five double passes to Savage to give away.
In an email, tell us the name of the actor who plays Danny (Damage) as an adult in the film.
Emails to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please include your contact details.
Winners are to check with Embassy 3 for screening times. Tickets may also be valid at cinemas in Palmerston North (check first).