WORKING WITH THE ACTORS
I chose Kiefer Sutherland because he is easily believable as a working class Irish soldier who "has history," has a weathered quality and is an adventurous actor who pulls away from easy cliché.
Kiefer was always an absolute professional - knew his lines, was always on time, made an effort to be kind to each person he dealt with and was willing to go the extra mile. He had to shoot one mid winter (exterior) scene in the buff. It was so cold the ground was covered in frost. Not only did he not complain, but when we asked him if he wanted to do it clothed he actually insisted that we proceed naked in order to safeguard authenticity and stage a visual that would be special!
More than most, Samantha Morton brought her off-screen qualities to the role she was playing - her fears and her vulnerability informed the character of Sarah. Sometimes between takes I was not sure who I was talking to - the character or the actress, as the lines became so blurred. Again it is hard to imagine anyone else playing this character.
She seemed to have an insiders knowledge of living tough.
Curiously Temuera Morrison (Chief Te Kai Po) and Cliff Curtis (Scout Wiremu) are both from the same Maori tribe (Te Arawa), though their styles could not be more different. Each in his own way was suited to the character he was playing.
Cliff worries every nuance and line associated with his part until he has re-invented the character into his own terms. Having played so many parts in American studio films he knows how to find the pithy essence. I cast Cliff because he always brings authenticity to his work, constantly looking for truth.
Tem allows his character to seep into him, yet knows every line months ahead of time, reads everything about his historical counter part and, when it suits him, keeps the part alive by improvising the lines off camera with wild enthusiasm. His charisma is the life blood of Chief Te Kai Po. Off camera he is always good humoured and generous, at times even rallying the extras to participate more fully. For me Tem simply "is." He has the mana of a chief, the humanity of a protector of his people, and you believe people would gratefully follow him to their death.
Anton Lesser, the English actor who plays Major Baine, has an extensive stage background. It is this grounding that makes him so adaptable. He is a quiet and gentle professional quite at odds with the extreme and bullish major he plays in the film. In seconds he transforms himself into Major Baine, making it hard to believe this is the same benign actor you were talking to moments before. On "cut" he will then effortlessly resume the mild and idle conversation you had been having. As buildings burnt around him Anton "acted" feeling safe on a horse while in reality he was terrified of falling off.
Stephen Rea plays Sarah's father, Francis. This character is Irish disenchanted with fighting for the British army who he has served with as an impoverished soldier and medic.
I had met with Stephen many years before in Los Angeles and we have been looking for a film to work on together since then. Highly intelligent, with a characteristic droll Belfast sense of humour he can communicate through the most understated of looks. He is a steadfastly fair and loyal man who frequently plays characters who have conflicts of loyalty.
Rawiri Pene, who plays Sarah's son, is a wry observer to the chaos that is sometimes film making, inhabiting at times a region of cheekiness that is close to the character he played. He is always constructive and professional despite his age and though at times he will give the impression of not listening he absorbs every iota of information and puts his all into the role. Rawiri is very physical and expressive, able to convey with restraint a complex simply with a look. Yet he was also the one child actor auditioned who could lift with most ease the lines straight from the page - for this gift alone I would have cast him.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION: THE SETTING
RIVER QUEEN is set in the rough frontier times of the New Zealand Wars, which stretched from the 1860s to the 1880s. These were times in which the indigenous Maori had experienced contact with white people who arrived in successive waves, mainly from Britain, from the early 1800s, first as explorers, sealers and whalers, then missionaries, traders, miners, then settlers and soldiers in ever-increasing numbers.
In the mid-19th Century, a series of conflicts erupted between the Government, the settlers and the Maori tribes. The cause of strife centered around land and the gradual assertion of British rule over the Maori. A treaty signed in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, was less a guarantee of peace between Maori and colonist than it was a reminder to the young nation that Maori and Pakeha were inextricably linked and had to find ways to accommodate each other's needs.
By the 1860s these conflicts had grown into a full-scale war. Britain used the latest in military technology to try and conquer the Maori. They could never do so. The wars ended not because one side bettered the other, but because the rapid pace of social and economic change, legislation and immigration brought about the end of the traditional Maori way of life.
RIVER QUEEN, located as it is right in the middle of this war, has a rough and ready, wild frontier feel, where it wasn't always easy to determine which side a person was on. Skin colour wasn't a reliable guide in a world where intermarriage was occurring and political alliances were complex and strategic. The film crosses all these boundaries, playing out themes of love and kinship in extreme adversity in a way that is still relevant in today's New Zealand/Aotearoa.
The people in the middle, those at the frontier - Maori and Pakeha - were tough, strong-spirited and battle-scarred, surviving in makeshift settlements, villages or military encampments, always moving, transient and watchful. The design of the sets and the costumes in the movie reflect this lifestyle and vividly convey the sense of a hard life on the edge of the world.
The story of RIVER QUEEN takes place along the banks of a fictional, mist-shrouded, brooding and seemingly endless river of many twists and turns - called Te Awa Nui (the great river). It's a world in which "upriver" has connotations of being lost in the Maori world - once you get in there, you won't come out - and downriver means "British civilisation". These were separate worlds, summed up by the distance between Sarah - who wants her long-lost Boy to come back downriver ("home") with her - and her half-caste son Boy, who feels his "home" is upriver with Te Kai Po's people.
The film was shot on the banks of the Whanganui River and its tributaries, particularly the Manganui o te Ao at Ruatiti, as well as near the Rangitikei, Mangawhero and Patea rivers - all, by the magic of film, made to look as if they are parts of the same river.
THE "LOOK" OF THE FILM: DESIGN
The overall monochromatic, misty "look" and gritty, muddy "feel" of RIVER QUEEN might be taken as inevitable given that the filming started in mid-winter and was completed through spring in the middle of the bush in the North Island of New Zealand. But rather than being just a reflection of what nature provided, the tough, dirty texture and of this film was intentionally created. It was a look driven by the creative vision of director/writer Vincent Ward and executed and embellished by his highly talented creative collaborators, principally production designer Rick Kofoed, costume designer Barbara Darragh and director of photography Alun Bollinger.
Designer Rick Kofoed (Bread & Roses, Eye of the Storm) spent two years before filming started in consultation with Ward over the design style. Ward compiled several large books of design references - photos, paintings and sketches from the period 1860s-1880s - which became the production's "Bible". Kofoed says the Whanganui River photography of the Burton Brothers was particularly useful as reference and he was also inspired by the feeling of paintings by iconic 19th Century artists Goldie and Lindauer.
But he didn't strive for historical accuracy because the film is fictional and because as a creative endeavour it's not necessary to be confined by the rigidity of absolute literal authenticity. He acknowledges the creativity of the decision by the Whanganui iwi to allow his team maximum interpretive freedom when it came to aspects like the carvings in the villages, which were representational of a feeling rather than strict copies of the carvings of the time.
Kofoed says he felt from the beginning that RIVER QUEEN is an important movie "because it's part of us as New Zealanders. We've seen it in pictures, but I don't think it's been defined that well in film, yet.
"The film is a good cross-section of New Zealand at that time and I hope it's refreshing in that it shines a new light on living styles and the shape of the country then. It's so different from anything else in its ruggedness and rawness. The scale of the landscape is so immense that the people look like ants and there's a feeling of struggle, of just holding on, almost slipping away off the edge of the earth. There's nothing glossy about it."
The set design followed a few simple rules. No bright colours, no white objects, no straight lines and no right-angles. This is particularly evident in the hidden Maori village, in which the whare (huts) are close to the river and dug low into the ground, and the carvings are more suggested than fully realised. Kofoed says he wanted this village to look "eerie and as if it's a long way further up the river, in the middle of nowhere. We buried it in the ground to give it a submerged, earthy feel and accelerated the rawness of it by giving it a skeletal misty grey feel, using the height and the ancient look of the beech trees to add to the eerie nature of it."
Another village, Temuera Morrison's character Te Kai Po's pa, surrounded by high pallisades, called for a more sculptural approach. "It needed scale to give the sense of the grand finale, the upcoming 'battle of all battles'. So we made it twice the height that it would have been in reality. It's very spiky. I extended the palisading so it was very needle-like and severe-looking. And there's a high bridge, which elevates Te Kai Po to give the feeling that he had the whole thing under control.
"I think it was good that we started off in winter, because it comes through in the film in a way that would have been very difficult to create artificially. It feels very damp, very cold and very miserable and everyone's got steam on their breath and it's really hard going, especially in the battle scenes, which were shot in June."
Kofoed says he enjoyed working with Ward because of his uncompromising style and clear vision. " He has a designer's eye, which I really benefited from. What he liked is what I liked and it was such a joy to be working with a director in that position. He would always take it to the limit, so that was great, and it meant that I didn't have to compromise very much.
"The hardest thing was to avoid being predictable. In a period film, where you do a lot of research, it's easy to just fall into going 'oh well this is what it typically was like' and just do that. But in a film like this you've got to amp it up and move it along and make it different."
Kofoed was involved with the selection of locations. "I thought it was really important that we went to Pipiriki (the upper reaches of the Whanganui River) because it's just such an unknown piece of landscape. It's just so amazing. It's up there with the Amazon. You feel as is if you're out in the middle of where no human being has been."
The film makers' choice of locations set amongst native beech forest, with its high canopy and fine leaf, allowed natural light to spill through, a quality seen especially well in the battle scenes, where shafts of sunlight illuminate a particularly dramatic scene between Sarah and Doyle, Kiefer Sutherland's character.
Kofoed says, "There was about a 30-degree angle of sunlight at that stage - another advantage of winter is that the low angle gives a better shape on people and on objects - so it was a very nice side light and the light shafts are just amazing. It's almost like a huge studio set up there in the bush."
Director of photography Alun Bollinger (Heavenly Creatures, The Oyster Farmer, Perfect Strangers) who is known as a highly creative, collaborative DP with great empathy for the director's vision, also shot Ward's first feature film, Vigil.
Bollinger says, "Vincent is a very visual director, so he tends to drive the detail. The look of a film starts with the design and costumes. Then it's lighting and how we wrap a frame around it. The art department and wardrobe on this flick are simply stunning, so we just followed their lead. We shot in some beautiful locations and the lighting is mostly natural, not bright. I only lit where it was practical or necessary. Working in the bush in mid-winter was a challenge, as there was not a lot of light. We used plenty of smoke and were very conscious of including the environment, even if it was as out-of-focus background."
WORKING ON WATER
With so much of the filming taking place on or near water, the team of water safety experts played a key role throughout the shoot. Water safety co-ordinator Willy Heatley (Without A Paddle, Whale Rider) says the water temperatures throughout the shoot ranged from 4 to 14 degrees Centigrade.
"It's been an interesting job because it started right in the middle of winter and there was snow falling on our heads while we were in the water and people were really cold, and then towards the end of the shoot we had soldiers in uniforms being too hot."
"The waka paddlers were in the water wading up to their knees, off and on, right through the shoot and they had wetsuits under their costumes, although they couldn't allow their wetsuits to be seen around their feet or ankles."
Like the other extras, the waka paddlers were rugged country men, accustomed to the river environment and conditioned with a staunch warrior ethic. Heatley admired their dedication:
"They were not just paddling the waka, we were having them position them precisely and come really close past camera and do it time and time again. The best waka paddlers in the world aren't familiar with the demands of making a movie, but these guys have done a fantastic job. They've been brilliant to work with, doing take after take of complex, precise manoeuvres."
"Of course, our water safety guys were in the water all the time, in rotating shifts. We wear dry suits. Whenever we've got an actor or a stunt performer in the water, we'll have a safety person swimming in there with them, as well as the safety boats and jetskis."
(Note that a "dry suit" is warmer than a wetsuit, since it allows for the wearing of additional layers of polar fleece.)
The actors' time in the water was strictly limited and they were costumed accordingly in dry suits or wet suits and were immediately put into hot spa tubs on getting out.
Temuera Morrison, despite joking at the opening press conference that he would find a local look-alike to do it, did a ritual scene in which he submerged himself, totally naked, in the river. He says, "I said, well I'll just do it. I'm an actor. I'll get out there and bare my bare everything. Well, I hopped in and I'm standing there stark naked in the middle of the river talking to Samantha Morton keeping an eye on where her eyes were looking. It was the most embarrassing thing in my life. But anyway, I got through it."
In one of the battle scenes Kiefer Sutherland performed naked in the mid-winter mud. Ward says, "Kiefer was always willing to go the extra mile. He shot a scene in the buff when it was so cold the ground was covered in frost. Not only did he never complain, he actually insisted that we proceed in order to safeguard authenticity."
Heatley's team of water experts performs two functions, the most obvious being water safety and the well-being of people in the water, which includes having hot spa tubs and heated tents on hand for cast, stunt performers and crew when they came out.
They are also responsible for making the water action happen for the cameras and getting the camera in the right position, by providing and operating camera boats for on-water shooting. To this end, they had a big catamaran raft which has a specially-constructed platform to hold the 1.5 tonne camera crane. Because it runs with a little jet outboard motor it can operate in very shallow water, which was ideal for the Manganui o te Ao location at Ruatiti, a "bony" river where the rocks make it impossible to run a big jet boat or a standard boat. At other locations, they used jet boats and sometimes they had the camera on a two-kayak rig and sometimes on a jetski.
The biggest challenge for the water safety crew was the location on the Whanganui River 16 kilometres north of the settlement of Pipiriki, which was a 25-minute jet boat journey. For this leg of the shooting, the film company hired eight local jet boats and drivers in which, along with a helicopter, they shuttled crew, actors and equipment into the otherwise inaccessible yet spectacular location seen at the beginning of the film.
STUNTS & SPECIAL EFFECTS
For stunt co-ordinator Augie Davis (Lord of the Rings, Without A Paddle) the biggest challenge was shooting the battle scenes in the bush in Horopito, near Ohakune. The choreography of the battle drew for its inspiration on the famous battle at Te Ngutu O Te Manu in Taranaki where the great guerrilla warrior chief Riwha Titokowaru defeated colonial troops headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas McDonnell.
Davis says that although this was the inspiration, they weren't trying to replicate it exactly, since it needed to fit with the dramatic requirements of the story of Sarah's search for her son. He choreographed the battle scenes with the help of the film's Maori military adviser Charles Mareikura, who also cast the warriors and played a role himself, and colonial military adviser Bruce Cairns. There was also heavy involvement from the films' special effects department, headed by Paul Verrall (Without A Paddle, Last Samurai, The Lost World), which set up the gunshots, bullet hits, bloodbags for wounds and smoke and flash effects, and the armourers with their impressive collection of authentic period guns.
Davis has high praise for the local extras, Maori and Pakeha, who were called upon to play warriors and colonial soldiers.
"It's unrealistic in shooting a battle of this kind to try to pretend that it'll all be stunt people because there's just not enough stunt people around who have the right look, so we had to instruct the local extras and involve them as much as possible. You can't train people in two days for the level of performance Vincent required. The Maori extras just hopped into their costumes (in some cases "no costume") and there they were - they performed the battle scenes as if it was happening for real."
Davis says the authenticity of the extras was evident in the way they handled themselves in action with the guns in the difficult environment.
"Some of these soldiers and warriors have lived in the bush for years and can handle these awkward muzzle-loaded guns, double-barrelled shotguns and Maori weapons. They had to run, crawl and use these weapons in the river, over muddy, rocky terrain and mud-filled trenches. This is a challenge for any keen adventurer, and yet it was their "backyard". If we'd been shooting this anywhere else we would not have found people with those skills."
Vincent Ward also observes that the extras were authentic: "Perhaps the most striking of all was the fact that many of the extras had great-great grandfathers who fought on either side and being an extra in those battles meant so much more to them in that they were in some sense dealing with a part of who they were and where they "belonged" - and in so doing echoed the themes that the film explores - identity and belonging. They looked like their ancestors - Maori and white - and were acting out their battles."
As well as the battle scenes, Davis was instrumental in many of the water scenes, for example the sequence of Sarah's escape down the river, which sometimes called for stunt performers and special stunt choreography.
Davis, who is also a water specialist and former New Zealand kayaking representative, was also involved in the preparation of the waka crews. He says that the experience of working on RIVER QUEEN with the local Maori people caused him to reflect on his own Fijian identity.
"Working on the river with the waka with the Whanganui Maori has been such an experience, an amazing journey. It's not just a matter of training for a few days in how to use the waka - that's the easy part. You have to learn how to be totally natural and at home in the river. We went through the history of the river and the importance of the river and the waka in Whanganui Maori life and culture. It was a real cultural experience for us non-locals."
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