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From Cannes to Canterbury

Producer Emma Slade, head of Auckland-based Firefly Films, has a busy year ahead with two projects to juggle. Acclaimed screenwriter of Philomena fame, Jeff Pope, is heading out this summer to work on a biopic of Charles Upham, the New Zealand soldier who was the only person to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice during the Second World War; while the second project, a movie adaptation of the Margaret Mahy book, The Changeover, begins filming in Christchurch in just a few months. I caught up with Emma on her return from Cannes where she secured funding for both films.


“I’ve been several times now, and it’s nice, because you begin to feel like part of the community,” says the producer. “I remember the feeling of being at Cannes for the very first time, and it’s like another universe. It seems like everyone is in the middle of this glass ball and you’re on the outside of the glass knocking to get it. It feels like the place is massive, but, over this years, you realise that it’s not quite that big at all and that this person knows that person and everyone is connected. You realise you are part of a family.”


Emma says she’s definitely noticed an increase in the number of Kiwis attending Cannes over the years (“I did hear of one guy from New Zealand who arrived at thought the whole thing was so bizarre he locked himself in his hotel room then went home! He just couldn’t cope with it”) and that if you want to make films that will be seen internationally then making international connections is a must. “Cannes is where finance and creativity meet.”


The work that goes on behind the scenes by producers is immense, yet it’s always the actors and directors who get all the credit. I ask if producers are the unsung heroes of the movie industry.


“I think it’s probably true that most people don’t realise the work we do, but I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself an unsung hero. Maybe it’s a personality thing, but generally speaking producers don’t like the limelight. I enjoy building the platform upon which other people can collaborate to create something amazing. You need a broad set skill set to be producer, it’s a varied role and you’re committed from beginning to end. It’s like having a child.”


What kind of skills do you need?

“It helps to have a business and creative brain – most people usually have one or the other. You must have the ability to spot talent, recognise others’ skills, cope well with stress and frustration and be both a control freak and know when to relinquish control! A fine gut instinct is also helpful.”


The assembled cast and crew for The Changeover is certainly a fascinating and talented homegrown and international mix. Directing the supernatural tale is New Zealand husband and wife team Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt, with Kiwi actresses Lucy Lawless and recent Sundance Film Festival award-winner Melanie Lynskey backed by internet sensation Jamie Curry. Also on board is renowned Brit actor, Timothy Spall.


“It’s all very exciting,” says Emma. “Timothy Spall is such a phenomenal character actor, he’ll make an amazing baddie. Melanie’s talents have obviously just been recognised at Sundance, and Miranda knew her back from her Heavenly Creature days. Same with Lucy Lawless, she has such an interesting audience base across all ages and fields.”


Emma believes Christchurch to be the perfect setting on a metaphorical level as the movie is about a seismic event, with the world quite literally shifting underfoot. Fitting too is that the book’s late author, Margaret Mahy, was born there.


“New Zealand has such a strong, unique and interesting voice,” says Emma. “There is a lot of content out in the world, a lot of noise, so trying to find projects and material that cut through it can be quite difficult. But New Zealand can do that. There’s no doubt that the likes of Peter Jackson, Flight of the Conchords and Lorde have done amazing things for our creative industries internationally. We’re finding our own identity, where we want to be in the world. We are a very special, very unique place and it’s exciting to be part of it all and have the opportunity to be able to present it on a global stage.”


Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces