Another exclusive WIFT Q & A: Leanne Pooley

Posted Tuesday 26 Apr 2016

In February 2016 director Leanne Pooley was the recipient of the WIFT Award for "Achievement in Film" for BEYOND THE EDGE. Leanne is one of New Zealand's most accomplished documentary filmmakers having directed over 20 films.

Born in Canada, Leanne immigrated to New Zealand in the mid- 1980's and began working in the New Zealand television industry. In 1992 she moved to England where she made documentaries for Britain's major broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 as well as PBS in America.

Upon her return to New Zealand in 1997, Pooley established the independent production company Spacific Films.

In 2013 Pooley directed the 3D feature film BEYOND THE EDGE for the General Film Corporation. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was a runner-up for the People's Choice Award for Documentary. Leanne received the "Best Director-Documentary" award at the New Zealand Film Awards for this film.

Leanne's previous work includes Shackleton's Captain a feature length dramatised documentary about Frank Worsley.  Worsley was Captain of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, which was crushed by pack-ice off the coast of Antarctica in 1915.

In 2009 Leanne's film Topp Twins - Untouchable Girls won 21 International Awards including "Audience Awards" at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and the Gothenburg International Film Festival among others. It also won "Best Feature" at the NZ Film & TV Awards, and reached nearly $2 million at the New Zealand box office making it the most successful New Zealand documentary of all time.

Leanne's most recent work is the animated documentary feature 25 APRIL. This innovative film uses animation to tell the story of the ill fated World War One Gallipoli campaign. 25 APRIL premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and it has already received rave reviews here prior to its general release this Thursday�.  There are multiple screenings around the country but if you would like to hear Leanne talk about the process she'll be doing a Q&A after the 3.45pm screening at the Bridgeway on Sunday. Bookings a good idea as her Rialto Q&A on ANZAC Day sold out!  Now read on....


WIFT: There has been so much written, said, filmed, discussed about Gallipoli - what was the one thing you wanted to say that drove you to make the film?

Leanne Pooley:

We were exploring the notion of how the shadow of Gallipoli plays a part in NZ.  Why do we still care about it? What makes thousands of young people go to Anzac Cove each year for an event that is separated from them by 100 years? In exploring the stories, we looked for that sense of what was it about the event and that time that is still relevant now.


How did the idea of doing an animation come about?

It was producer Matthew Metcalfe's idea to do it as an animated film.  He approached me and I wouldn't have been interested in making a film - unless it was animated - because it is doing it in a new way.   Using animation gave me the opportunity to explore things. Visual metaphors offer such a massive possibility in the animation landscape. We could tell the story in a new way that was also visually exciting. Even though the events portrayed in the film are essentially a horror -I'm hoping people will find the film visually quite beautiful. Animation gave us the opportunity to bring people back to life and speak out loud rather than use voiceover with black and white photos. So we have the characters as young men and women speaking in their own words that they wrote at the time. There's also an immediacy to the language. We often explore the war as old people looking back and that's with a different perspective. We wanted young people speaking to young people so there are some outreach things planned so it will be available to schools via the internet.


Have you worked in this medium before?

NO - but I'm not daunted - (well I'm always daunted 100% of the time!) but I just enjoy the notion of abject terror and excitement that makes learning about these new things so interesting - because you are making a film in a way you haven't before.  I really enjoyed it.  From a director's point of view, it's a director's smorgasbord. We have scenes where things turn into birds and flowers.  The visual metaphors let you do things. I was inspired by the film Waltz with Bashir which is about Lebanon. I loved the film and I thought it was kind of exciting. It's something I yearned to do. I've been making documentaries for 25 years and it IS exciting to get to do something new � because you have to keep pushing your self.


How do you deal with the tension between telling an adult story but in a medium that is more accessible to a younger audience?

I didn't concentrate too much on that.  Yes it is a tricky sell - to get adults to come across to animation - it's like the graphic novel. There will be some resistance. How we get past that I'm not sure. I didn't concentrate on it - but it has a graphic novel feel. It needs to look grown up - and as far from Shrek as we can be - and I don't want it to look like a game, hence it has a graphic novel feel about it.  I went for a texture and stylistic continuity that is more grown up in its look.


Would you have made the film if it weren't for the WW1 funding that was available? (In other words do you think that without the 100 year commemorations, you would have got funding?)

The centenary anniversary was definitely a catalyst, without question, but I'm grateful to be funded wherever it comes from! I'm always grateful when films are funded. It's good to work in a country where this is possible and film makers explore new ways of telling stories.


Growing up in Canada - what sort of war talk were you exposed to? Was it part of your own family history?


WW1 was discussed a lot - but we mostly hadn't heard about Gallipoli. Passendale was known though because thousands of Canadians solders were the first to arrive and be slaughtered there.

I only knew about Gallipoli through the Peter Weir film.  It was fascinating showing the film in Toronto - the response was that the audience thought it was wonderful, they were very moved and affected. In the United States - someone said to me afterwards "I just assumed they win." They were shocked that we made a film about losing and they were touched by the humanity of that.


Trawling through those diaries and letters - how did you decide on the main characters for the film?

I had an amazing research team led by Keiran McGee. She and her team went through hundreds of diaries and memories and letters. But they were guided by certain things I needed, specific things, as they sifted through hundreds of diaries.  They read some very sad stories and many of the writers didn't survive the war. It was nearly a year before we began animating.  I was looking for the individuals whose letters were more than just facts. I was looking for diaries that explored the experience of being there because I wanted the interviews to be the words of the chaps themselves - those who had something to say, and who were there at certain times (e.g. Chunuk Bair) I also needed someone who was there at the beginning and there at the end and I needed certain parts of the stories to be told.

I didn't want to give a history lesson, so I didn't want famous people. It was the experience of being there.  I'm so glad that my guys and their diaries described the experience so clearly.

What was it like auditioning actors for the 'roles' - how did they handle the challenge of making their characters come alive through their voices?

We had to have them speaking in the voice of the time, so they had to be young actors.  We did the interviews using motion capture - so when a lip quivers - it really IS happening.  It makes those performances more truthful. I knew right at the beginning that motion capture for the interview part would be best, because you can't add things like quivering lips later as you run the risk of feeling fake if you don't have a performance that is real. The actors absorbed themselves into those characters and brought so much to the table.


What would Walt Disney think???

I have no idea!  But I do know that I don't want audiences to think that I have trivialized the war because we used animation.  We intentionally didn't want it to look real.  We wanted it to look drawn - not look like we were presenting it as real. We wanted to embrace the notion that it's animation. Hopefully an animator like Walt Disney would feel like that!


It's a fantastic medium for a story like Gallipoli which is hard to recreate on film - how about tackling The Treaty or Waitangi or other aspects of NZ's history?

I always look for the story rather than the subject matter - I'm drawn to the story not the topics. I was interested in the story of Gallipoli and I'm interested in stories that connect internationally.

We always ask our interviewees about women in film/tv and the gender split - it's not so noticeable in NZ it seems but what are your thoughts on the future for women in the industry globally especially in producing and directing roles?

I think the numbers speak for themselves - locally and internationally- women are up against it. I haven't found being a women difficult, but being a woman I make films in a certain way. You know there are no women critics at Variety magazine. I do think sometimes that women are up against it because we make films with a women's gaze. I do think it is hard when it comes to how the films are perceived. I feel nervous about complaining, but if you think about the way a woman makes a film is possibly different to the way a man makes a film, it makes sense.

How international is your perspective would you say? (Given that in NZ it's easy to get bogged down in your own projects and become a bit isolated from the bigger film world)

You have to look outside NZ and make a film that has a chance of finding an audience internationally, if  you spend three years on a project, you hope it will go beyond our little island. In that respect I look for stories or themes or subject matter that might have a life internationally. Take the Topp Twins - who would have guessed two yodeling lesbians would have found so much success - and won 21 international awards? It's not that you can't tell a NZ story - but you have to tell it in a way that it will resonate beyond NZ.


What is your advice to women coming in to the industry?

There isn't a yellow brick road.   Just like any other art form, I believe that film making is the same. It is painful and difficult and incredibly hard. One person thinks their creation is genius and another thinks it's a piece of shit. So it can be painful. You really really need to know that you need to do this the way a dancer has to dance and writer has to write. If you are a real film maker you have no choice. I have no choice. Sometimes I wish I could do something else - but I don't have a choice - it's what I do. There' s nothing else I can imagine doing. It's a hard way to make a living and also the most wonderful world. If you know this is what you NEED to do do then just do it.

I was speaking to some students not long after the film festival. I asked them what documentaries they had been to see? None had been to see any!  You need to see films and immerse yourself in film.

It is an artform that requires an extraordinary commitment. You have to know that it's what you want to do more than anything. Don't wait for someone to give you permission.

Always we ask what our interviewees have coming up or on the boil at the moment...


Well the nationwide release of 25 April on Thursday (28 April) is coming up and it is a small release - so if people want to see this film in the cinema - go the first weekend! It is hard to keep films in the cinemas. They are on and then over and gone and they are history so please support the film while it's on release! I'm not sure how long it will last in the cinema.  We need to support each other as film makers just as the taxpayer supports us to make the films - so get out at opening weekend and see the film!