There’s no doubt about it. Escalator funded horror-comedy Housebound is a remarkable accomplishment. At its SXSW festival debut earlier this year, the film was praised for its freshness of voice, strong performances, carefully handled script, and the perfect dose of NZ’s dry humour.
The July Writer’s Room celebrated the screening of the film at the NZ International Film Festival with a special session. Housebound’s writer, director and editor Gerard Johnstone (The Jaquie Brown Diaries) and producer Luke Sharpe (The Jaquie Brown Diaries) sat down with filmmaker Jackie Van Beek (Go the Dogs) to talk about the challenges of writing and making this debut feature.
The film played to a packed house at the Auckland International Film Festival and Housebound is ‘bound’ to be an audience favourite when it makes nationwide release in September. “This film is funny, scary, emotional … and reveals some truth about the New Zealand character,” said Jackie.
Housebound is indeed an extraordinary achievement. Made with the help of the New Zealand Film Commission’s Escalator funding scheme and capped at $250,000, the process from one-page idea to the screen was not the easiest of journeys for Gerard and Luke.
“We started in mid-2010 when we were shortlisted for Escalator,” said Gerard, “and turned around a first draft of the script in two months. We began filming in late 2011 and finished filming this year. The whole thing took about four years but it wasn’t a continual process. We worked in patches.”
Escalator is essentially a quick turnaround scheme. The associated pressures of working within the parameters are high but it’s hard for a film maker to turn down the opportunity to make a film when there is money on the table.
“There was a lot of pressure,” said Gerard. “The Jaquie Brown Diaries was successful. I thought people were expecting great things and that led me into this inertia where I couldn’t be as productive as I wanted to. Housebound was short listed for Escalator off a one page idea and there’s a big difference between having an idea and turning that idea into a 100 page script in two months. It was really hard. The challenges got on top of me. We started shooting because we had to, or risk losing the money. I naively hoped that we’d start shooting and I’d see how it went.”
Filming in ‘patches’ created multiple difficulties, not the least of which was some of the cast decided to move to Australia before the film was completed and Gerard didn’t like much of what he’d shot and wanted to re-write the script. “I was crestfallen because things just hadn’t gone at all like I’d hoped they would.”
For the first three years of the project Gerard was ‘filled with regret’ and thought it was the ‘stupidest decision’ he’d ever made. “Luke would come over to my place and it’d be 2 o’clock in the afternoon and I’d be in my underwear and socks, just having gotten up. It was a sad state of affairs. I had post-it notes all over the walls and I’d walk him through them, get his reaction, bounce ideas around.”
The two were good friends before venturing into the project – and the fact that they’re still speaking now is a testament to the strength of their relationship. Producers are there to crack the whip and Luke said this put their friendship under stress for about 3.5 years. “We were best mates going into it and we still are. My decision process is always guided by, ‘will it make the film better, yes or no?’ If yes, then we’ll try to make it happen. We want to do the best we can – otherwise, what’s the point?”
However Luke admitted that they were outside their comfort zone from the very start. “A limitation of Escalator is the fast turnaround. We knew we’d need as much time as we could get because we knew there wasn’t an easy template out there for the film we wanted to make.”
His work on Jaquie Brown did not prepare Gerard well for turning his hand to a feature film script and there wasn’t enough time for him to really get his head around it. “With thrillers you have to be one step ahead of the audience, full of surprises. I found that very hard coming off a 22 minute sit com. The pressure when writing a feature – and a mystery on top of that – is so different. I wanted it to be the best thing ever and it was so completely beyond me.”
If the luxury of time had been on his side, Gerard said he would have valued the chance to work with someone who had written thrillers and could guide him along. “I needed a solid thriller narrative and I could add comedy to that. If you haven’t worked with a writer in this genre you’re taking a big gamble. I didn’t know anyone because we don’t have a long history of thrillers in New Zealand. Writing the script was almost an unpaid gig too so the option of engaging a co-writer wasn’t available to me.”
Luke said there was money allocated within the Escalator funding for a script editor, if needed. They did receive some outside help from other script writers but it wasn’t too helpful. “When you collaborate you’re always looking for people who have the same sensibilities as you,” said Luke, “and it was hard for us to take that risk.”
With their timeline blowing out, Gerard and Luke were forced to front up to the NZFC and explain themselves. “We were in the dog box,” said Luke.
“They were angry but not unreasonable,” said Gerard. ” We took just inside 12 months before we started shooting and there was pressure to have it done in two months. If I’d known at the start that I could’ve had that year, I would’ve tracked down some other writers, watched more movies but as it was, I didn’t have the time to do that. There was this panic.” Jackie noted that the NZFC have since shut down Escalator and are bringing in two new programmes, one for features under 1 million and another for lower budget films up to $500,000.
Escalator required each film maker to submit three different one-page ideas. Most applicants had their favourite idea and knocked up two more, hoping selectors would pick the one they most wanted to make.
Gerard felt having to submit three ideas was too much. “I think one is better. The idea for Housebound was their least favourite. The year we applied to Escalator, everyone was making genre films. They sat us down and showed us Desert, an example of a low budget film and I thought, ‘Why didn’t you show us that before we all had our ideas? We could’ve made nice films about relationships but we’re all making zombie films and time traveller movies. How is this going to help us when we’re all trying to make The Terminator?’ And the first time we went down, the 12 teams were put up at the Museum Hotel. It was all glamour and buffet lunches. After we were chosen, we stayed at this rat infested place with drains running overhead …”
Welcome to the real world of low budget film making …
“Accelerated development and low cost was the idea behind Escalator,” said Luke. “I think its heart was in the right place because a number of great films have been made as a result, but sometimes things will work and sometimes they won’t.”
Gerard felt much of the stress could have been avoided if Escalator had asked for scripts, not ideas. “We ended up making Housebound for $350,000 so we had to find another grand on top of the $250,000 from Escalator. If I’d had the script to start with, I could’ve made the film for $250,000.”
The constraints of Escalator meant that Luke and Gerard went into production with a shooting script they were not happy with, thus initiating the convoluted and difficult process that followed. Keeping the cast and crew engaged and enthusiastic over the years it took to make the film was no easy feat.
” At the start they felt it was ridiculous and chaotic,” said Gerard, “and it got worse as we went on. I eventually realised I needed to take control, have more confidence and be more assertive and they started to spark to that. I showed them clips and they began to love it. Once that started happening, they saw the magic of the movie coming together and there was a real sense of camaraderie.”
However the road was still not easy one and it wasn’t until 2013 that Gerard and Luke felt they had a solid script and a good film coming out of it.
“I remember watching the latest Jane Eyre film,” said Gerard. “It was all about images, so refreshing to watch. I had come from a TV background – radio with pictures, dialogue heavy – but watching this I gained an understanding for how and why the camera moves and things got better when I started injecting that. I’d been trying too hard for comedy and it was awful. The script was telling the actors to go larger. The crew was laughing and when that happens you know it’s awful because they’re laughing when they feel they should. It just doesn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘This movie has no soul.'”
“We threw away a lot,” said Luke. “It was boring. We needed an active protagonist. We were bringing all these things to her but she wasn’t doing anything.”
The feisty protagonist Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) initially faced up to the ‘haunting’ of the house with a ‘f*** off’ attitude but when Gerard had her move with slightly more trepidation, he infused her character and the film with the edge-of-the-seat nervousness it desperately needed to ultimately engage the audience. Imbuing chatterbox Miriam (Kylie’s mother played by the wonderful Rima Te Wiata) with a touch of racism brought an otherwise classically awkward and predictable dinner table scene to life with its subtle reflection of NZ society today.
Gerard said that while a director has to fight for his or her vision the ability to compromise has to be there too. However he was often hampered with decision-making due to the stressfulness of the situation. “In the early days I knew so little about anything. I was so stressed, unable to make a decision, it was all beyond me. But throughout it all, Luke and I were on the same page about most things. His words to me were often ‘hurry up!'”
The two had some hard-won advice for producers and writer/directors working on low budget features.
“Our low budget film was quite contained in terms of location,” said Luke, “and we knew the script needed a lot of work so we could put much of our resources there. Time is always a big one. We were under such pressure to start filming, otherwise we would lose the money. My advice is to always fight to make the best decisions you can on paper and negotiate ways to buy yourself more time. If there is no one waiting at the other end for the product – like a distributor – fight for as much time as you can.”
In spite of it all, both Luke and Gerard are immensely proud of the performances delivered by their actors.
“It just shows what these actors are capable of,” said Gerard. “We had a lot of rehearsals and usually between 7 and 12 takes and managed to get the best performances. I think film makers don’t always allow for multiple takes so that the actors can relax and really get into it.”
During question time, the panel was asked if distribution had been organised beforehand.
“No, not until we finished,” said Luke. “That was mainly because we didn’t know when the film would be completed. We wanted to make the best film we could so decided to take the time to do it right. We submitted a rough cut to SXSW … and when they asked for an updated cut we cancelled Christmas to get it done. We’ll have a distribution plan for our next film and having a track record now will make that process easier.”
When asked how they managed to come up with the extra money needed to complete the film, Luke said they couldn’t go back to the NZFC as that would have set an undesirable precedent for the funder.
“Our ‘in kind’ budget was crazy,” said Gerard. “The only way you can make the film is if everyone takes a massive pay cut. I’d say it’s $350,000 cash but $1.5 million in kind.”
Luke explained that films just can’t happen at such a low budget level unless people work for much less. “We shot in chunks and I told people that if they got a better offer, then take it and we’d cope.”
Gerard says one advantage of low budget is less interference and lowered risk. “The NZFC did keep the pressure on but they were not unreasonable.”
Both Gerard and Luke praised their production team, cast and crew for working within the constraints of low budget. “For example, our production designer never complained about the budget,” said Luke. “She’d go out and raid peoples’ rubbish bins.”
Gerard remembered a moment when he walked around one of the sets that had been constructed for a scene, in awe over what had been created by very talented people with such reduced resources. “I was walking around in it, thinking how great it was and it was a big moment because I thought, ‘this set needs a better story to go around it’ so I went home and rewrote the scene. Our production designers worked tirelessly and were freakishly talented. Much of the filming was done inside and I think the cinematography is amazing. We took alot of time to get it right and I’m so glad we did.”
And for the future? More movies, of course …
Gerard encouraged those who are thinking of making a genre movie to get onto it. “Do it. They track well, there’s a big audience for them. Lots of offers have been coming in since … and I have Peter Jackson’s email now …”
“We have our next film in development with the NZFC now,” said Luke, “and we’re hopeful it will be a far less laboured process.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell