Catherine Fitzgerald Q&A on Bellbird

Posted Wednesday 30 Oct 2019

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After a successful run at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Bellbird is due for release in New Zealand on 7 November, 2019. Produced by Catherine Fitzgerald and Orlando Stewart, and written and directed by Auckland schoolteacher Hamish Bennett, Bellbird tells the story of dairy farmer Ross (Marshall Napier) and his adult son Bruce (Cohen Holloway) who are both struggling to come to terms with the death of their wife and mother Beth (Annie Whittle). It was shot in 26 days spread in blocks over summer, autumn and winter to capture Northland's seasonal changes. Cast and crew were billeted with members of the local Maungakaramea community, who also filled in as extras. Rachel House also stars. We spoke with Catherine Fitzgerald (pictured above) about making the film. A long-time WIFT member and past WIFT president (2009-2011) Catherine founded Blueskin Films in 2002, and went on to produce the Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night, Rain of the Children and the Samoan-language tale The Orator, which won two awards at the 2011 Venice Film Festival.

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How did you get involved in Bellbird?
I volunteered my assistance to Orlando and Hamish after the short Ross and Beth which I thought showed a distinctive nuanced voice and promised huge talent then accompanied them to various marketing and script workshops. I really got day to day involved at production financing stage to support Orlando and Hamish in their first feature drama. Orlando and I worked really well together, complementing each other at every stage to ensure Hamish brought the best film he could to the screen. When you have to work other jobs to be able to produce a low budget feature, it is really great to be able to tag team, picking up the lead when the other is occupied elsewhere. Orlando is a talented director in his own right and a very creative producer.

What were the challenges of producing this film, and how did you overcome them?
The challenges are also the strengths of the film. For example, we shot in three blocks over almost four seasons on a working Northland dairy farm. That required a lateral thinking strategy around shooting style, the choice of camera, selecting a team who were so utterly committed that they would camp in the local school. We were welcomed into the community who supported us in a myriad of ways that money couldn't buy. At the same time their contributions subsidised the production massively.  The result is an authenticity, and a whanau feel which made the shoot a real pleasure. We were also blessed with a wonderful ensemble cast, Marshall Napier, Annie Whittle, Rachel House and Cohen Holloway alongside newcomers Kahu Retimana and Stephen Tamarapa and locals all supporting one another with huge generosity and good humour.

What did you most enjoy about working on Bellbird?
I always love the post-production phase of a film, when through the cut, and then with the work of composer, sound designer, VFX and colorist the team craft a film that brings the vison of the film to life on screen. I find this almost the most creative part of filmmaking.

What was the ratio of women involved in the crew?
I didn't count this before but the shooting crew was exactly half and half if you just count all the people who worked on the crew over the three blocks. Obviously, that is only a rough way of looking at it, (say if a woman did the first two blocks ie 80% of the shoot, and a man the third, they are each counted once) and even if you add in development and post production it remains pretty much 50:50 too.

What could attract more women into crewing/production roles in the film industry?
The usual things: great projects that shape and reflect our people and our culture, a safe working environment, opportunities to step into more senior roles, with good conditions and fair rates of pay.

As always, Catherine has a lot on! This includes Tony Sutorius' Helen Kelly which premiered in the 2019 Film Festivals and which will be released in February 2020. Meanwhile James Ashcroft's Coming Home in the Dark which she is producing with Mike Minogue and Desray Armstrong is in the edit room, as is Gillian Ashurst's short film The Meek, which Catherine is producing with Nadia Maxwell and Anna Canton and which complements a feature they have in development. She is also executive producing Paul Murphy's Low Down Dirty Criminals which is nearing delivery, and is also finding screening opportunities for a short film That Which Is To Come Is Just A Promise (co-produced with partners in Italy and the Netherlands) which premiered in Directors' Fortnight in Cannes 2019.