Q & A with Robin Scholes

Posted Tuesday 15 Mar 2016

Robin Scholes, Producer of Mahana needs no introduction to WIFT members. She has had a frantic schedule since the film was launched, but found time to answer some burning questions put to her by E-News compiler, Josie McNaught.

WIFT: You've just returned from Berlin - what reception did Mahana receive? (And how are NZ films regarded generally anyway in that forum?)

ROBIN: Berlin was amazing. Firstly I had never been to Berlin and they have an extraordinary respect for film and filmmakers and in comparison to Cannes - which is very much a market with a huge amount of product on offer - in Berlin there is not the same sense of pressure with lots of people trying to sell. And there's a bit more space in comparison to Toronto. From that point of view Berlin was extraordinary - and we were in a great spot.

WIFT: And the reaction to Mahana?

The crowd genuinely loved the film and they stood up and clapped which was amazing, getting a standing ovation. The Film Commission supported us with a publicist - and there were dozens of reviews done about the film and the majority of them were positive. There were two that were a bit negative and they were picked up by the NZ media. Also they may have well been the first two reviews published. My heart always sinks when that happens.  We were in a hugely supportive environment like Berlin where they were genuinely appreciative of the craft and the effort required to achieve a film of that scale, then in NZ by contrast they publish the worst reviews and put you in your place. Subsequently now that people have seen the film [in NZ] it has been great. It's good to feel they genuinely love it. People have even stopped me and Witi in the street and told us how much they love it.

WIFT: You are credited with getting the crowd funded cash together for Mahana. Is this the future for film funding in NZ?

ROBIN: Crowd funding is all about opportunity and timing. Lee had an investor from Belgium who was becoming problematic - so we decided to make the film without him. That meant we had to fill a gap of $2 million, so obviously we decided to re-budget - and that meant we couldn't shoot in Gisborne. Ironically, pretty much a few days after we made that decision [to get alternative funding] Snowball got the licence to do equity crowd funding. Up till then they did normal funding which is a gift without financial return. We met with them and they were interested. It HAS to stack up financially - like putting out a prospectus for investors. The people who are managing it are amazing - and Shaun Edlin helped enormously putting all the documentation together. It was a huge job and it took two weeks just to get the documentation together.  It's not a funding model applicable to every film. Film is a business and you can't go into it just thinking 'I've got a script, Film Commission or NZ on Air support, and crowd funding. With equity crowd funding - you have to have a sales agent, know how to sell it, the returns, and use these figures as a basis for revenue trend. But that's also part of the job of producing.

WIFT: Mahana is a major production - you must have been disappointed when it didn't get funding from the usual suspects? Or did it give you more independence?

That's not quite right - the film was made with enormous support from the Film Commission, Maori TV and NZ on Air combined. But we also got the equity funding which was essentially a cold call (which is nothing new when you are attracting film funding) We got to know the equity funding people well and it was a good investment for next time.  But funding for each film is different - you can't take one funding model and apply it to all projects.

WIFT: Lee Tamahori has spoken very eloquently about what a delight it was to have the "gang" together again  - how did that camaraderie infect the film?

It was different in the sense that it was almost a hundred percent Maori cast so there's an appreciation when you make a Maori story performed by Maori. It is certainly true that everyone appreciates the degree of difficulty with which something like that gets made and the opportunity to play those characters  - you feel part of something. What with Witi's extraordinary book and his family history and whakapapa, and Kaumatua advisers who advise on aspects of the production, it feels different from something that doesn't have that whakapapa . As "Ngati Pakeha" I felt very privileged to be involved.

WIFT: Some of the overseas reviews have basically complained that as it's not Whale Rider - it's not a picture of Maori life that they are interested in - what you do think about those comments? Do films about Maori have to contain some mystical/mythical element?

ROBIN: I think from our point of view it's a story of how the Mahana's are fortunate that the grandfather Tamihana [the family patriarch, played by Temuera Morrison] has kept them together as a family and how they hold onto their rural roots and language. They are a family who stayed and kept their culture as opposed to Maori in the city at that time. They are very lucky in the sense of what they have retained. When Simeon gets his family banished and when he's opposing his mum and leaving on the horse to go back to his grandfather, she says, "It could happen to us - we could be in the city doing pakeha laundry." They are conscious that they are able to stay and keep their language which is a strength. Rather than mysticism as such, there is a sense of people in tune with the environment. As with Whale Rider, they are in tune with environment and history rather than mysticism or God or that sort of thing.

WIFT: I have it on good authority that you capture life in rural NZ in the late 50s 'perfectly' in the film  - how hard was it to achieve this?

ROBIN: Not hard! It's still all there. NZ is blessed with really talented designers and wardrobe and the world of the film. Lee comes from that farming tradition as did his father and grandfather. I did too with my mother and father and uncles' generation - all of that was memories for us, not like a world we don't know.

WIFT: Looking back on your career - what is the essence of a good producer?

Being a good producer is different for each individual - as much as what makes a good person - everyone does it differently. Everyone has their own way of making something happen so I personally feel that I have learnt to be fairly supportive of creative people, especially the director. I am always trying to foresee what they need.  Money is also always a challenge. I work in partnership with the director, working out the priorities to spend money on. Lee is such an extraordinarily accomplished film maker, it's a privilege to work with him. He is very focused and able to plan and shoot very efficiently.

WIFT: And what makes you keep coming back for more?

I need to earn a living! Financially, my husband was sick for 10 years before he died - and that took a wadge of savings. So there is a financial element. That said there are some things I am passionate about, and one of the extraordinary joys of doing a job like this is that you find stories and people associated with the stories and you make those stories happen. Is it addictive? It is a job. I don't feel it's the only thing I can do - but I value the opportunity to do it.

WIFT: What do you have in the pipeline at the moment?

ROBIN: Quite a few things - my main aim is mentoring a young Maori producer Mia-Marama Henry-Tierney, I have a couple of TV things, including one with Witi along with other things, actually quite a few things on the go.

WIFT: In terms of women in the industry - is it possible to have a better gender split in the key roles of director, producer, writer, DOP� or is the nature of film making such that the hours and the dedication required will always challenge women who are juggling career and family?

ROBIN: I don't really know. I entered the industry when there was huge gender bias. I was one of two DOPs in the documentary field and then went into TV where there were two female producers. It feels to me that it was really really hard as a female then. I do feel that we are the pioneers and we fought a really big fight to actually be given respect and I feel that now there may definitely be more of a need for active positive discrimination which helps boost things again. It does feel like the opportunities are there and there is no particular bias against women.  The thing I find really most difficult with people in this industry - is their ability to find out what they want to do and then find the right path to follow to achieve that.

Lots of people have a focus on either directing or writing, which are two quite hard roads to go down.  There are lots of other paths in the industry all of which lead to writing and directing- the starting point is the most difficult thing. In my own work, I've done everything:  researching, writing, directing, producing. It's great to have all of these skills learnt from the bottom up. Lee is the same: he started as a boom operator, then first AD before becoming a Director. It's good to understand the craft as a whole.  I was making my own documentaries, with my own gear before I became professional. Lee has studied film enormously- the craft of film making.

Rather than concentrate on gender, because I don't think there is a bias against women, concentrate on what you want to do and what you want to say and get some life experience and decide what kinds of stories you want to make. Producing is about making things happen and it's not a route I encourage people to go down unless they have clear ideas.

WIFT: I personally loved the film - it was a different beast from the book and that was good - it felt lighter but no less important�and Simeon played by Akuhata Keefe, was a revelation - where did you find such a talented actor??

ROBIN: Akuhata Keefe's father told him to audition. He is a beautiful boy from the coast.  I have a lovely story about Aku from Berlin. We were right behind George Clooney on the red carpet so Aku was watching how George waved at everyone, because he was before us. And when we went onto the stage [after the screening] and everyone was clapping Aku did this beautiful wave, just like George, he had been watching George Clooney very closely! .

WIFT: While we are on the subject of George Clooney� all the women I know who have seen the film cannot get over the male eye candy - they are a good looking bunch in their shearing singlets - did you go looking for good looking actors?

ROBIN: Not deliberately - but there are some beautiful looking men and women actors in the film. When [film] all began years ago  - Don Selwyn was busting his gut to get more Maori on screen, so it's rewarding to see now the depth and breadth of talent in Maori. It's a great testimony to the people who have gone before us.

WIFT: What is the state of NZ film at the moment - with competition from streaming sites and people making 'films' with mobile phones and able to upload them - is it too fragmented?

I actually think there are more opportunities [now] than I have ever experienced for telling NZ stories. It used to be so hard because people didn't rate NZ in terms of film making. Now you can go in [to film] with the knowledge that we have extraordinary film makers in the 'family' - Peter Jackson for example.  Look at the skills he has made possible and obvious to the world. We have a brand to make extraordinary films. International films want to come here for talent in craft and technically too. There has never been a better time to be a film maker.

Mahana is currently screening nationwide