Q&A with Miranda Harcourt on The Changeover

Posted Wednesday 20 Sep 2017

Miranda Harcourt

Miranda Harcourt has stepped into the unknown with her first feature film as director. The Changeover is a commercial movie aimed at young adults - a first for New Zealand.

Due for release in New Zealand 28 September, the film is an adaptation of a Margaret Mahy novel, and tells the story of troubled teenager Laura Chant (newcomer Erana James) who must 'change over' and become a witch in order to save her little brother Jacko (Benji Purchase) from an evil ancient spirit (Timothy Spall). Set in post-earthquake Christchurch, the film has been on the radar of Harcourt and her co-director, husband Stuart McKenzie, for many years.

Watch 'The Changeover' trailer here

WIFT caught up with Harcourt to talk about bringing The Changeover to life.

What was it about the novel that made you believe it would be successful as a film?

I love that the characters and their relationships are very real, very human; Laura's with Jacko and with mum, with Sorensen and even with Braque. And her relationship with her aspirational family -the Sorensens - is so real too. She lives in the Red zone, he lives in luxury. It's a bit West Side Story in that 'romance across the class divide'. It's also a hero's journey - Laura has to rely mostly on her own skills and courage. And the supernatural element, the mythic, psychological elements all combine to make a great story.

There are two audiences: teenagers, and older women who are aspiring teens. Yes! We've had women who've seen the film say that it takes them back to their teenage years, that they related to that uncertain, broken aspect of being a teen.

Why, and how, did you get Timothy Spall on board?

We needed a star to get funding, and Tim immediately came to mind when we thought of the Braque character. As well as being perfect for the role, he always fully commits to the character, really throws himself into the character. He's not afraid to portray dark or light. As one teen in the test audience wrote, he was "Creepy A S!"

We sent Tim the script, he loved it and said 'let's do lunch'. We flew over from New Zealand and met him at the Ivy in London. I had terrible jet lag and had to keep ducking into the bathroom to nap, setting my phone alarm for five minutes each time, so I could make it through what turned into a three hour lunch.


What was it like working with such a young core cast?

I also coached Sunny (Pawar), who played Saroo in Lion, and applied the same tools I'd created there, to Benji in this film. It is hard with a five-year old; they get tired, they get hungry, they ask, 'why? You have to catch them just 'being' and pull the camera back. Whereas with Erana (pictured above), it was more about getting the camera in close and catching her performance. And we had to build up the bond between Erana and Benji and really portray that love she has for him. My favourite scene showing their relationship is when they hongi in Braque's container, just before Braque stamps Benji's hand. It's a beautiful and natural moment.

What things stood out for you in the making of this film?

The difference the music and sound design makes to a film was a remarkable discovery to me. It utterly transforms the film. We also aimed to have only female vocalists to portray the inner mind of the character, and in a subtle way that backs up Laura's inner journey.

Shooting in Christchurch was a huge challenge. Firstly because it kept changing as the rebuild continued. We were there once a month for a year and it was changing way too fast for us to keep up! It was expensive to shoot there because accommodation and transport were hard to find. The whole crew ended up staying in the Christchurch YMCA together, which was nice; you'd see the gaffer while dressed in your socks as you walked down to the kitchen. It was a really good bonding experience. Another challenge was negotiating to use the Chant's house - we were probably the only people requesting a house be returned to the Red Zone. We had to get approval from John Key to do that and that took a while. Then we had to re-dig the foundations, dig a driveway, create a garden, and make the house look like it had been damaged in the quake.

How did co-directing work for you and your husband?

Stuart and I have been married for 25 years, we work well together, we share views and a voice. We had one dissension the whole time, over a prop. In the end he won and it's in the scene but I'm not going to say what it was! The crew appreciated having one voice on set so that was Stuart's, he's a great actor's director. It's really helpful to have two people talking about what's working and not working.

How are you marketing this film?

We're using Instagram, but mainly by taking The Changeover to New Zealand schools and playing the trailer in assemblies. It's a  great marketing tool because otherwise, how do you reach teenagers? They're not watching TV or reading the papers, but they spend a lot of time at school. And 56% of our audience for this film are women over 40, so we're using Facebook to reach them.

Where do you see the future of women as film and TV directors?

I heard at the Toronto International Film Festival that there was a movement afoot to include childcare on set. That would make a huge difference. These days a lot of girls will grow up seeing their mums working, and they're going to be expecting to do the same. They're experiencing their mothers doing a variety roles and you can't turn back that wave. You can't turn back the hunger for that.