Desray Armstrong: why Charlotte Rampling agreed to star in Juniper

Posted Tuesday 12 Oct 2021

Desray Armstrong: why Charlotte Rampling agreed to star in Juniper

Producer Desray Armstrong has been one busy wāhine. Her feature film Coming Home in the Dark was released in August and a second feature Juniper, directed by Matthew Saville and starring Charlotte Rampling, is due for release 28 October, having been delayed from August due to Covid-19 restrictions. We talked to Desray about what made Juniper such a pleasurable film to work on.

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We talked to Desray about what made Juniper such a pleasurable film to work on.
How and why did you come on board?
DA: Matt (Saville) had already written a couple of drafts of the story which was inspired by his own experiences of boarding school and having his grandmother live with his family for the last six months of her life.
He reached out to me in 2015, we were at similar stages of our careers and had crossed paths over the years. I was touched by the humanity and the relationships and the themes the draft promised. Over the course of four years we chatted endlessly on the phone about how we wanted the audience to feel, who the characters were, what they were trying to overcome, and developed the project. During that time various things happened in our lives, and the story just seemed that much more relevant. That relevance drew me in; even though it’s a Pakeha family, there’s so much for everyone to identify with - the feelings of connection and disconnection family members can have with each other.
Did it all go according to plan?
It was a bit of a journey to get there but everything happens for a reason, and usually turns out better in the end.
Once Charlotte signed onto the project, we knew it was going to become a reality. 
The shoot itself was gorgeous, which was in part due to our key location, a house on a farm in Riverhead (West Auckland). There was a continuity about the shoot, we got into a lovely rhythm.  I was thrilled with the process of making it and the biggest success was that we all still loved each other afterwards - we didn’t want to strangle each other! Everyone involved in the production, including our incredible post team, gave so much to the project and that care shows in the finished film.  
How did you persuade Charlotte Rampling, who lives in Paris and is in her 70s, to come to New Zealand?
My producer partner Angela Littlejohn had a relationship with a UK casting director who sent the script to Charlotte’s agent. The agent said, ‘fantastic script, I’ll show it to Charlotte, but she probably won’t come to New Zealand’. And Charlotte loved the script but no, she didn’t want to come to New Zealand.
So Matt and I took a risk and jumped on a plane to Paris and met with Charlotte and her agent, and spent time talking with her about the project and the role of Ruth (the grandmother). I think the thing that got us over the line was the fact that we were prepared to come and meet with her, and establish a personal connection with her. She was able to ask Matt about what he wanted to do with the character, what she could bring to the role, and build the beginnings of a relationship.
Charlotte was able to trust that she wasn’t going to come halfway across the world and it be a disaster. It was a big risk – she was in her 70s and we were a fairly new filmmaking team - but I think our visit gave her confidence that we would look after her. We showed we were committed. Doing that was a great lesson for me, we could have done it online and saved money, but in the Māori world it’s kanohi ki te kanohi, face-to-face, and the importance of that wasn’t lost on me. And we were terrified of doing it!
I think it definitely paid off. She was amazing in every way. She could have been hard work but she was a joy. The leadership and generosity she showed to all the cast and crew was amazing. In between takes she’d stay in character so our focus puller could rehearse the shot, and our stills photographer could take photos between takes.  A true masterclass in acting and the collaborative nature of filmmaking.
Has Covid had any effect on the film?
We were lucky we shot at the beginning of 2020, and wrapped at the end of February. When the first lockdown happened the editor Peter Roberts worked remotely and Matt had an edit suite so they could work on it. Covid definitely slowed things down in post-production. Even now it’s having an effect on festivals, and sales internationally. And the world is flooded with content – it’s already a crowded market so there’s more of a challenge to have our film seen and appreciated.  We didn’t realise how lucky we were until later. With Charlotte being 75 and living in Paris it could have been really stressful for her, so it was good to have the film in the can!
Tell us about the location
DA: Finding the right location was tricky because the brief was very specific to get the right period for the family’s backstory  and it needed to be empty. Our location scout Kayleighsha Wharton understood what the film needed and came up with an awesome place. The house was on a farm and had a family of five living in it, but fortunately they had a two-bedroom cottage also on the property. They moved into that for nine weeks while a film crew took over their house! The family became part of our film whanau and would often come over and have a look.
Tell us about the budget and financing
DA: The film was financed through the NZFC, NZSPG, our distributor Transmission, our sales agent Celsius, post-production investment from Images & Sound, and some private investment. The budget was a relatively humble local budget but big enough to realise the film in a way that was achievable! A lot of it was to do with Charlotte and her international profile.
What was the crew gender ratio like?
DA: We had a lot of women on the crew; 31 of the 58 crew were women. They were predominantly in production, art department, accounts, costume, make up, safety, script, locations. We had a 50-50 lighting crew. There was at least one woman in every department except sound and grip. It was important for me to have people of colour represented as well, seen in our awesome production team and two wāhine Māori producer attachments. We’ve come a long way in supporting our Māori creatives but we still have a long way to go to in developing people with a Māori world view who can support and hold space for our Māori filmmakers. 
Any anecdotes or memories from the experience that you’ve taken away with you?
DA: Charlotte’s character is called Ruth, and my mother’s name was Ruth.  She sadly passed away in 2019, not long before we started pre production. On our first day of shooting, we were at a school and Marton (Csokas who plays Robert, Sam’s dad ) said to me, ‘Did you see that car number plate? It was NO1RUTH’. Matt and I saw that as a beautiful blessing for the shoot.