Power to the producer of The Convert

Posted Tuesday 05 Mar 2024

Power to the producer of The Convert

I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with one of Aotearoa's great film and tv producers, Robin Scholes, to talk about the phenomenal finale to her career, The Convert, to be released March 14. In this discussion we touched on the challenges, and inspirations for this film, along with some of the knowledge she gained on the memorable path of her legacy career.

How did The Convert come to be?
It started off as being conceived as a very small, low budget film based on a book called Wulf, which was about two young English sailors who came to New Zealand, sailing on the Elizabeth, which was trading guns for flax with Te Rauparaha. 

I thought, this is something I wanted to do as a low budget film. As we got further down the track, Brad Haami, who's an extraordinary Māori historian, and specialist in the contact between European and Māori during this period, consulted with the ancestors of Te Rauparaha, they said, no way, we don't want to do that. Brad recommended that we completely reimagine the iwi and that he would write an invented imaginary whakapapa. The director we had originally didn't want to do that. So, we amicably parted ways.

There's one thing that Brad said to me that made me realize this could be a big scale film. He said, you know, before Europeans came to New Zealand, Māori didn't have the concept of forgiveness. Oh my, this is a fascinating idea, maybe it's a bigger film and maybe that's something that Lee Tamahori would like to do. So again, long story short, we developed a screenplay. Lee didn't like the screenplay that we developed. Slowly, we developed a screenplay, which Lee was very involved in. At that point in time, it became a very big film. And I had no idea how I was going to raise the money for it.

How did the funding process look?
COVID happened, and the government set up a thing called the Premium Production Fund to fund larger scale films. Eureka, how wonderful! So that's a long-complicated process of applying for that fund and long complicated process of doing everything that was required to set the film up.

Tell us about day in the life of a producer of The Convert.
A day in the life of a producer changes. 

One of the things which was most extraordinarily tedious was to get the resource consent to use a location called Whatipū. It's a DOC area, a scientific reserve, and a park, and it has all these overlays and all these rules that we had to obey. So, in the end, we had something like almost 100 so-called mitigating conditions that we had to meet, including working out how we would, if there were to be a big tide, that our sets might be swept away, and they become a hazard to shipping. Even though we've got this expert in waves who's telling us, it's not going to happen, it's not going to happen. There's never ever been a big tide there, but the council imagined that. So, we had to build these sets on scaffolds with boards that could be taken off, so, if the waves did happen, all the waves would rush through the scaffolds and no boards would go out to sea. And we weren't allowed to walk down the track to Whatipū, so we had to take everything by hand, and helicopter. All of which is like a day in the life of a producer; it varies from day to day.

Did you ever consider doing another location?
Lee chose the location, and as a producer, my job is to serve the director's vision. So, for me there's no question. Lee wants Whatipū, I get Whatipū. And when I set out to do it, everyone said oh, you're crazy. Some terrible part of me goes, let me try. And then we have the satisfaction that comes from jumping through all the hoops and finally getting to the point where we get the tick! And there are times when you go, this is utterly nonsensical. You know what I mean? It's like a nonsensical sort of thing that you're being asked to do, but you just do it because you are a part of the process. You can't get aggressive; you can't challenge it, because it won't change.

What was the most rewarding aspect of the process The Convert for you?
The most rewarding in terms of setting up The Convert was to finally get enough money to properly fund all the tikanga. The way in which we set up the production was that we had Māori who oversaw the Māori elements of the story, and Brad Haami oversaw all the tikanga and the screenplay. And then, because Brad was unavailable during the shoot, Te Kohe Tuhaka came on as the co-producer, and he managed all the depiction of Māori and tikanga.

We had expertise in Māori and expertise in film working side by side with Te Kohe Tuhaka overseeing all of that, which included bringing in experts on everything. The two iwi in the film both have their distinct way of dressing, their distinct moko, their distinct weaponry, and way of fighting. So, it all had to be from the initiating, to the execution, and carefully managed.

Now we were able to put Māori at every level. And that was because of the production fund that came through from COVID.

It sounds like you managed to merge the two cultures together in a way that felt really honouring inside this industry. How did that feel for you at this point in your career?
You know, just satisfying, satisfying that, finally...Brad and I had talked about this a lot. When we did Mahana, we talked about how you can't just have a consultant, you have to have a whole department, they need to be right in there and it has to be multi-tiered.

What is your advice to other producer and director teams?
I think everyone's different. In my case, I admire Lee, so as a producer of his films, I'm there to serve what he wants. So, it's very clear. Basically, we've got different skills. And so, he can rely on me to do my job. I can rely on him to do his job. With films, there's more at stake because they have the potential to last longer and to become a part of our legacy, our culture.

I think if you're a young person starting out to produce... The first thing I would try to do would be to look at all the work that young emerging directors are doing and choose something, choose someone who has got talent and then try and see what they want to do and develop something with them. But it's tricky to raise money, it's tricky to go from that point to getting something which can be made with production funding.

When you told me the story about the funding, I was surprised because I had the impression that with your background, people would be throwing money at you.  
When you go in to pitch your idea, even though you might have made other ideas that might have been successful, everyone's very suspicious.

You can read a script; you can hear a pitch. You can't see it. It's something that you haven't seen before. It's unproven. Why would you risk money, putting money into something that you can't see, and you can't prove the worth of? It could not work. And so, no matter who is bringing it, people who are funding your projects will have that attitude.

For The Convert, we had Lee Tamahori, Guy Pearce, and some extraordinary Māori actors. But if we hadn't had Lee Tamahori and we hadn't had Guy Pearce, it would have been miles more difficult to fund. You've got to think, the odds are stacked against me because I'm making something that no one has seen, and I've got to convince them that it's going to be okay. So, then you've got to stack your cards. You have to think about stacking the deck.

If you're starting out, the first thing I would do is try and work with more experienced people, learn from them because there's no safety net. Everything that you make is like a giant leap of faith. And people have got to make that giant leap of faith with you. So, it's always good to kind of have someone who is wise counsel on your side.

When I started out I was always knocking on doors, asking people for advice, people who knew more than me. And I was always curious about how people made it work. A lot of people, when they start out, don't feel they can do that. They're a bit shy, they're a bit reticent, or they don't want to reveal how much they don't know. My advice again would be to reach out to people who are really experienced, pitch your ideas to them first, because they will have an idea about what will work and what won't. 

I'm really amazed at the level of respect for wairua and spirit in your filmmaking process, can you talk more about this? I was mentored by an extraordinary man, Don Selwyn. He was one of the pioneers of our industry. When I was starting out in Communicado, in the 80s and 90s, he was on the board of the Film Commission when I was on the board.

When we made Once Were Warriors, he taught me a lot. He would just quietly do stuff. Like for instance, when we got production funding and before we started shooting, he invited leaders from all the Auckland iwi to attend a pōwhiri; he wanted to make them aware, and he talked to them about what we were doing.

Throughout the shoot, for instance, during the rape and after the end of burial, he'd bring someone in to be with the young actor, bringing ceremony into the process so that she would feel safe, taking enormous amount of care. So, I learned from him.  I was as ignorant as anyone before that.

He was brilliant, he taught me the art of challenging. If I was doing something that he believed was wrong, he would totally challenge me. He had an extremely beautiful voice, which he could use to good effect. And you'd tremble in your shoes and think, Yeah, I've got to I’ve got to dig deep inside myself and say why I think this is a good thing to do. And if he challenges it, because I'm going against some protocol or going against tikanga, then I must learn that. And I have to respect it and change how I do things. I'm eternally grateful. Like honestly, I thank him an enormous amount because he laid the foundation. Without him, I wouldn't have felt confident about doing The Convert. 

What did you learn when making this film? 
I learned that the Auckland City Council processes for giving consent for locations has become more and more complicated by contrast with other cities. And that's something that I think you've got to consider if you want to make something happen in Auckland.

Everyone learned a lot more about our history of that period. We all went on this learning ride together, you know, learning about that early historical period, early white settlers and Māori who respected each other, and wanted to learn from each other's culture and didn't want to oppress, like the character Monroe, he wants to understand. There was a moment in time where there was mutual respect and mutual interest in learning from each other's culture.

The most rewarding thing is if the audience like it. It’s not about the film itself, because obviously I've seen it and seen it and seen it, so I can often recall every line of dialogue. There are no surprises, but hopefully the audience will like it. 

The film is about to be released. Are you done?
Yes, I am done. I’m advising and looking forward to just doing my garden and hanging out with friends for a change, instead of everything being about the next project and making it happen.


We wish you all the best settling into this next phase of your life Robin. May the garden treat you well, and hopefully ask no paperwork of you 😉


Nina Reed
Communications Manager at WIFT NZ