Kiwi Rural Gothic

An interview with
Sam Pillsbury


The dust-jacket of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's The Scarecrow describes its author as 'an only child, indulged by a doting mother and an elderly aunt, living in the same, large, gloomy house until he died in 1972'. Morrieson lived in Hawera, never leaving the township for more than a few nights, earning a living as a music teacher and playing in a band around local dance halls. Yet, from this unlikely background came four quirky and totally original novels.

Morrieson's works all gathered more attention after their author's death. The Scarecrow is the first to make it on the 35 mm journey to the screen, in a literate adaptation for cinema by Sam Pillsbury that is quite possibly the most assured New Zealand film yet to be made. This director catches perfectly the edgy inconsequentiality of the small town of Klynham, with a plot neatly balanced between a teenage boy's possible fantasies and the grimmest of horrors - all of this set in the mouldering nostalgia of the repressive 'fifties.

Ned Poindexter
(Jonathan Smith)

Sam Pillsbury talked about his new film to me in his Federal Street offices amongst a flurry of related artistic activities:
W.D.: What about the basic data of Scarecrow? When was it made, how much did it cost and (the thing that is always fascinating in local cinema) where was it shot?
S.P.: It was filmed from January to March last year, with post-production running up to October. The budget was about 700,000 dollars: which seems a half-way amount judged by the recent New Zealand films, which used to run in at around 40,000 and now are just over the million mark. The locations were mixed. If you are going to create a film in an actual town you have got to be wary. If you don't do your geography properly you can end up with a completely false idea of what the town looks like. So what we did was create this fictional town, with a map that had, say, Mabel Collinson's house 300 yards off the main street with the Poindexter's house halfway in between. In fact, Mabel Collinson's house was in Grey Lynn, the Poindexter's in Mount Eden, and the main Klynham street was Thames.
W.D.: Why not Hawera?
S. P.: We had considered it, and even took preliminary photographs of the town and hired a house to use for the Poindexter's, but it was financially unfeasible to shoot the entire film away from Auckland.
W.D.: What about the train sequence?
S. P.: This was shot at the Glenbrook Railway. Actually, their bright, freshly painted carriages seemed quite wrong for the Klynham Express or Oporenho Special which, like everything in the town, hadn't seen a paintbrush for years. But, we found some old mouldering cars in a shed which were perfect. They were just right for the interior scenes too as it was important to relate the guard's van to the passenger carriage. One expects to change the script to fit available locations, but here the locations were made to-order.

Sam Pillsbury

W. D.: What was the special appeal of the novel?
S.P.: One of my favourite novels of all time is Huckleberry Finn and when I first read Scarecrow, I felt that this was a New Zealand Huckleberry Finn. I also admire and enjoy Morrieson's style - so witty and infectious - and the tongue-in-cheek Gothic melodrama. And, on a more personal level, I found I could really identify with the character of Ned because there were many things about my childhood which were similar to his. I spent part of my childhood in a small town like Klynham with characters like the Lynch gang, Uncle Athol and Charlie Dabney. It seemed such a fresh and accurate vision of a boy's childhood. I think that's what really turned me on.
W.D.: Talking of the Lynch gang ... they seemed noticeably older then Ned and Les, their arch-rivals.
S.P.: Yes, I found some things had to be exaggerated. Although nominally set in the 'fifties, much of the Klynham aura was that of the 'twenties or 'thirties. This feeling of an isolated backwater is also reflected in the characters - Uncle Athol, Pa and Charlie Dabney are just old 'little boys'. The Lynch boys are well on their way too. Also in my mind was Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills where all the actors played children.

Charlie Dabney
(Jonathan Hardy)

W.D.: You certainly got fine performances from Daniel McLaren and Jonathan Smith as Les and Ned. Were there any special considerations in this area?
S.P.: What you're talking about is 'natural' actors as opposed to 'trained' actors, and some care has to be taken. Before the shooting, Bruce Allpress took them aside; talked to them about technicalities from gaffers to grips, and such things as rules of behaviour on set, conservation of energy, and even not learning your lines too well so you can modify them at the last minute. And I gave them a set of character exercises, to root it in the psyche so that they intuitively understood the characters - to metaphorise and dramatise them. They learnt a lot in the shooting situation too. Both boys were different. Daniel had the ability to verbalise what he was doing on a technical level, whereas Jonathan was more intuitive. And there was the energy thing. Both boys had so much more energy than anyone else in the cast and I kept them up till dawn on some shoots.
W.D.: In early New Zealand films it always seemed to be the acting that let the whole thing down. In Scarecrow the performances are uniformly excellent.
S.P.: I care about acting and the quality of the performances. After making films for twelve years there are few surprises on the technical side: but on the performance side - this is where the work can lie. It surprises me that sometimes actors have said to me they are not used to getting so much direction.
W.D.: How much do actors contribute?
S.P.: I do find that there are some actors who seem to be good no matter what they are in, and I guess the very best become the most valuable actors in the world. I suppose the late Bill Stalker was one. I remember how good he was in Close to Home, and that is hardly the place to polish one's craft. Bruno Lawrence is another fine actor. But no matter how good an actor is, they still need to know what the director is doing with the film. And it's that quality that makes it worth seeing or not. You feel, as an audience, that someone is taking you along a path.
W.D.: A narrative style, in other words?
S.P.: Yes, in that respect, I regard myself as belonging to the narrative school of film-making. In terms of the commercial film we're talking about conventional story-telling. Even the most baffling structured films like 8 1/2 are superbly structured and literate, every flashback serving its purpose in the whole. And Robert Altman who makes such a great show of being chaotic in Nashville has crafted that chaos so carefully. To some extent this is what we have tried to do with Scarecrow, where there are so many characters and so many incidents which seem to be merely trivial - in many ways, the very essence of Morrieson: a jumbled-up painting with a strong narrative thread holding it all together.

Ned Poindexter and
Constable Ramsbottom
(Philip Holden)

W.D.: Coping with the fantasy level must have been difficult.
S.P.: We didn't stress the violence in the film. It all happens off-camera. Perhaps that could be a failing if the film were considered purely as a commercial product: but I had never intended to stress the violence. That is not what the film is about. The story is told through Ned's eyes and he didn't see any of the violence at all. I didn't want to depart from his perception or what he could have imagined.
W.D.: One impressive thing about Scarecrow is the superb control of the tone of the film.
S.P.: That comes very much of a group effort. The script was done with Michael Heath, who has a marvellously bizarre and nutty sense of humour - perfect for the Morrieson novel. Neil Angwin was a carefully chosen art director - the only overseas crew person. I knew he was exactly the right person when he came along with an idea for the Poindexter kitchen that had the set plastered with a lot of give-away calendars. We didn't use the idea finally, but this showed he had just the right sense of humour and understanding of the tone of the Morrieson novel. And James Bartle, the director of photography, always considered it as a very theatrical film: so it was deliberately lit and staged in a theatrical fashion. And so on and so forth.
W.D.: As a film it certainly works on more than one level.
S. P.: I'm pleased you see it as that. One the questions I was always being asked was whether it was a horror film or a comedy. I could categorise. Of course it is combination of both. But isn't comedy often basically serious? Our best comedians such as John Clark or McPhail and Gadsby are at their best when they are digging at political matters - and what could be more serious than the total asininity of the leaders of this country. When the comics get out of that territory they so often stop being funny.

Les Wilson (Daniel McLaren)

W. D.: Now for a few random questions of a more worldly nature. What's happening about the film's distribution?
S.P.: Barry Everard is doing our distribution here and he is finding he has to organise the generation of an advertising campaign around the picture. Usually the local distributors are working from a handed down overseas track record. They're not used to dealing with a project that they can't see as a success or failure on a sheet of paper. This even affects the overseas product too. That excellent film The Long Good Friday was marketed enthusiastically because of its relative failure across the Tasman. And yet it was a great success in Britain ...
W.D.: What about censorship?
S.P.: I think it's disgraceful and appalling But then I have strong feelings against any prohibitive restrictions on people - I even object to traffic lights. It certainly affected Scarecrow. The censor originally tried to give it a GA with a coarse language rider. Of course we fought that because it's untrue and would alienate some of the New Zealand audience from seeing it. Eventually the Appeal Board threw the rider out: but in the meantime we were prevented from using the poster and trailer campaign we had set up at some expense.
W.D.: What are your feelings about the latterday New Zealand film Renaissance?
S.P.: I have been attracted to and impressed by all of them. I love the wit and the style of Goodbye Pork Pie. (Perhaps I'm biased because I was the first assistant director.) I remember when I went to Sleeping Dogs with my heart in my mouth feeling I was going to be dreadfully embarrassed but I was absolutely delighted and elated right from the start. I could go on like this forever because I am absolutely partisan about New Zealand films.

Group with
Prudence Poindexter
(Tracy Mann) right

W.D.: What about future projects?
S.P.: I'm working on a number of them. The most immediate ones seem to be the Mr. Asia story, and an adaptation of Maurice Gee's In My Father's Den. We're all so privileged to be here in the middle of a totally unique film industry uncluttered by a heritage of models and untainted by the pollution of the older industries?all the money that has buggered the Canadian film industry, for example. I keep working on projects that fascinate me but in which I can't see that anyone outside New Zealand would be even slightly interested. Yet there is the pragmatic necessity, with the amount of money going into cinema, that the end product appeal to more than a potential of three million people. Amazingly, not only do New Zealanders like our films, but people in the rest of the world like them too. My only immediate hope is that I don't have to wait the usual two years that a New Zealand director waits before I put all that I learnt in my first feature into action.