Feature interview: Lisa Burd on The Pinkies Are Back

Posted Thursday 18 Mar 2021

Feature interview: Lisa Burd on The Pinkies Are Back

Taranaki-based director/producer Lisa Burd took up dragon boat racing in an attempt to readjust her work life balance; two very busy years later she'd made a documentary. While her attempt to find a work-life balance may have gone out the window, she had created an inspirational film about a very special group of Auckland women on a mission.

Lisa spoke to WIFT about The Pinkies Are Back, which is released in New Zealand cinemas tomorrow (18 March). Click here to watch the trailer

Why was this team such a good story?

In dragon boating, you're in a boat in the middle of the ocean with 22 other people and you all have to paddle as one. You're with people from all walks of life, it's just a great recipe for a story.

I started off filming a team called the Black Dragons which was training to go to the World Championships. I actually ended up getting in to that team myself, which meant it was difficult to do that story. My friend Rhys Duncan helped me start the filming, but people in the team were so time-poor, we weren't really getting to the guts of a story.

One Thursday we all went for a social drink and a voice from a table near us said, 'Hey, you should be filming us!'

It was the Pink Dragons*. They hadn't been competitive for some years and were scared they were going to fold. What made them a good story was that they had a mission: to get more members. There were only seven and they needed 17. So I had a beginning, which was great! The ultimate aim of the film was to see these underdogs come through and win gold, and also to show just how good this sport can be for you. It can change your life.

So we had this special group of seven women who'd been together for 11-12 years, with Annemarie Stevens the staunch and feisty captain... I just felt these were the right ones to follow.

Pink Dragonsstanding in group with oars

The film is sponsored - which is rare! Tell us about how you got a sponsor on board, and how you financed the film?

One of the people in the Pinkies suggested I talk to her broker about sponsorship. This ended up being a really long process for various reasons and we lost some momentum. We had one more chance for a meeting but I was supposed to be going overseas. I didn't go, I went to the meeting and thank goodness I did.

Our sponsor is Partners Life, an insurance company. Their tag line is about getting life right, that's why they were attracted to this story - it's also about getting fit and healthy. They have had complete trust in the project without seeing too much, and they haven't asked for too much back. There was nothing like showing them the film and them being happy with it.

Our Boosted campaign raised $50,000, which was massive, this was seeded by the Breast Cancer Foundation, and we also received finishing funding from the NZ Film Commission

How did you get buy-in from everyone?

Ever since I was a kid I've been overly curious and always asked questions. Over time I've learnt that having patience and letting people unravel their stories in their own way gets you to the heart of their story and it can be quite therapeutic. Firstly to hear people's stories I have to earn their respect and trust, they have to believe that I'm going to tell their story authentically and I need to understand what they are doing. So it's paramount to immerse myself in the world that they are in. So that they forget that the camera is there.

How long were you filming for?

We started filming in October 2018 and finished in March 2020.

It sounds like a massive project - how did you keep control of everything?

It's the biggest, most technically challenging project I've done, and it needed the most corralling of people. We used many different cameras, we used drones, we had radio mics, isolated mics, and lots of Go Pros. Everything had to work on that one shot in that one race - and sometimes things didn't work!

You can imagine there are 22 in a boat, plus all the other people in the team, there's so much corralling of things for the regattas. We were very regimented about the shoots, we checked and triple-checked everything. We didn't just rely on text or emails or call sheets we followed everything up with a phone call to every crew and cast member to make sure they understood what was expected of them the following day. So everybody knew where they stood and so we would start the shoot calmly so that would come through on shoot.

Then there was the mission of trying to edit it - we had over 22 terabytes of footage, so data wrangling was a challenge. Susan Rae, a data analyst, came on board and helped set up the project. She turned into the Associate Producer and really it's been the two of us behind the scenes.

What unexpected themes or stories came out?

I didn't expect the comedy! You've got these 20-odd women who get together and they're like siblings - they're bickering and calling each other out on things.

When I went through the footage I was struck by how larger than life these women are and combined with their comedic outbursts I knew we had a great recipe to tell an inspirational film.

How did Covid affect the film?

There are two major competitions in dragon boating, the regionals and the nationals. The whole film was built on the finale, the race at the nationals. But I started to get a nervous feeling about Covid, and I talked to someone who kind of knew what was going on. I asked about the nationals and they said, I don't know that's going to happen. I was so shocked, I just felt sick. Then I made a decision, we're not going to do the nationals, the end of this film will be the regionals.

Everyone thought I was being over the top but thank goodness I did - the nationals never happened because of Covid.

So we never got to the true race, but that was a good call. I would have had to figure out a different ending. Even the night before the regionals it was touch and go as to whether they would happen. There were the regionals and WOMAD going ahead - everything else had been cancelled.

So we got that shoot,  then I realised had two or three days before everything would be going into lockdown, so all these shoots I had planned I now had to bring forward. I had an exhausted crew! They thought I was rushing. So on a Thursday night in March just before the first level 4 lockdown I got all the Pinkies together at Annabelle Waetford's house, and it was really quite sad, it got quite serious -  I'd got to know all these wonderful people and there's this virus that felt life threatening. We finished shooting the movie then went into lockdown - it was that quick.

What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers?

Being able to pick up a camera is a great start, a great skill for any person is to learn how to shoot. Then you know you can just start filming.  It gave me the ability to start getting stories while I waited for the funding to come through. If you wait for funding you could be missing some golden moments. In this industry there is often downtime when you are in between jobs, that is the time to pick up the camera and research the project you love.

* a team of breast cancer survivors, based in Auckland, who compete in dragon boat regattas.

See our item below to be in to WIN one of five double passes to The Pinkies Are Back, in cinemas now!