Like Christmas, A Song of Good explores the darker territories of New Zealand urban life. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to its director, Gregory King, about production challenges, dysfunctional families, and getting into the Rotterdam Film Festival.

GREGORY KING made a bit of a splash with 2003’s Christmas. Scabrous, sharp and potent, it was one of the better local releases for a long time. The film looked at a rather dysfunctional Kiwi family, critiquing the stasis and alienation of urban life. It was also wickedly funny. It’s taken a while for King’s follow-up, A Song of Good to appear. The film charts a similar terrain in terms of messed-up families, but A Song of Good is more about movement, about redemption, about power and powerlessness. It also received selection into one of the most prestigious Film Festivals in the world – Rotterdam – and winning some plaudits along the way.

However, the film wasn’t easy to make. King admits that “in the end A Song of Good was a much greater challenge in a lot of ways. Even though Christmas had a miniscule budget for a feature, we had much more time and freedom at every stage of production. More time in the location as there was essentially only one, and way more time with the actors creating performance and in the post/editing, vastly more [time].” A Song of Good was close to becoming an international co-production, “but Leanne Saunders the then producer and I weren’t confident that the New Zealand Film Commission would support the project despite the script having much acclaim and significant validation internationally. So rather than take more script development finance and head into a possible future of endless developments with no guarantee that the film would be made, we decided to take it through the digital film scheme Headstrong, which meant Leanne had to step aside after being attached as producer for two years and two trips to Europe.” King says the initial two-million dollar plan had to be made “for the much reduced budget of around three hundred and fifty thousand – a huge difference that had a massive effect on every level as you can imagine. It was a huge challenge to say the least. I am very proud of what we achieved considering the resources of experience, object and time we had at our disposal.” Though King does state that “the refusal to support the project was heartbreaking really and really makes it difficult to go on trying to make films and continue to be ambitious.”

This meant the script had to be cut down – “nearly a third was cut in the end in an effort to have a working script that was possible to realise on the Headstrong budget.” King says that my “whole vision in terms of visual approach and sound treatment which I had formed over three years had to be dropped soon before going into the shoot because we just didn’t have the resources to pull it off”, a process which King found “heart-breaking.” This also meant that he little time for actor preparation. “Instead of rehearsing scenes as such, I decided to just try in the little time we had in prep to create a bond between the core cast and give everyone a strong sense of back-story through talking and improvisation.” King confesses that they had to race through the shoot, with few set-ups and takes, but that “I am very proud of the performances in the film, all of the actors, including the dog.”

The acting in the film is top-notch and included having veteran Ian Mune act without a shirt for basically the whole movie. “Ian was brilliant to work with. I did feel a little embarrassed by the rushed and ill prepared dynamic of the shoot but he was patient and up for it 110 per cent! It really helped that he absolutely was a big fan of Christmas so he trusted.” King offers a lot of praise to the whole cast throughout, but he singles out Gareth Reeves for his work. “He was in every scene, and it wasn’t a walk in the park. It’s also not a simplistic genre line and tone he moves through. We cast through the whole of New Zealand for the lead role and in the end after a rigorous audition process, Gareth was clearly the best option in the white male 20-30 age group. The casting really exposed a dearth of talent in New Zealand in this category of actors who could really go there, go deep and had the range to pull it off.”

“What family doesn’t have a level of dysfunction? Put most families up there on the screen and you will see it. I am interested in looking at reality, at real lives, at the dynamics of how families and relationships function, hurt and support.”

Reeves had the unenviable task of convincing an audience to empathise with a P-addicted rapist. “I wanted to follow the rapist, a type of rapist, to set up a situation where we experience a character struggling and in pain – powerless, who commits an act of projection of that pain onto an innocent person and then tries to change his life to redeem his actions his past. That through the course of the film we come to understand the forces that prevent him, that repress him, that load him in his family, his peer group and the society at large. So we hopefully empathise with Gary.” He says audiences thus far have been receptive. “I think this has been one of the greatest achievements, that audiences on the whole empathise with Gary who is a rapist and especially the fact that most women have responded empathetically and gone on the journey. Of course rape is a horrific damaging act of violence, however, I don’t think as a society if we are to deal with it effectively, we can frame rape in simplistic terms of good and evil. If we are to create a better situation we must look at the big picture, at the society, at the freedoms of women and children, the power structures and how power is facilitated.”

King’s two features seem to include a fascination with dysfunctional families, suggesting a family is a forced amalgamation of competing individuals. “What family doesn’t have a level of dysfunction? Put most families up there on the screen and you will see it. I am interested in looking at reality, at real lives, at the dynamics of how families and relationships function, hurt and support.” King’s uncompromising view and lack of production support has been commented in overseas reviews too. “One line in the review from the Philadelphia International Film Festival made me chuckle and I couldn’t help pondering on the lack of support the film got – ‘it is overall one of the best dramas in the Festival despite probably giving coronaries to the Kiwi Tourist Board.’”

The urban milieu in A Song of Good is particularly alienating, with its impassive streets, dimly lit parks and architectural trash. “I wanted to give a strong sense of an environment that is alienating on many levels – the peer group, the family, the society at large. To create a sense that Gary’s world is not able to really support him in his redemption, his struggle to change, to be a ‘good’ person so to speak. In a non-didactic, indirect, cinematic way, I deliberately aimed to critique a society that is ultimately destructive and alienating. And the evidence is absolutely damning of the way we life, it is just not sustainable and healthy. It is madness.” Compared to the stasis of urban and family life in Christmas, A Song of Good is more about movement. The film “is really a more typical drama in a narrative sense with a protagonist, a hero struggling to achieve a goal against many obstacles, and coming to an awareness of what he must do in the end to redeem his terrible crime against humanity. The perspective is often more subjective and personal in A Song of Good. Whereas Christmas was a collection of moments, accumulating tensions.”

A Song of Good finds King using music too, and particularly the use of Christchurch musician Bachelorette. “I wanted to go in and out of subjective/objective spaces to play around with where the audience is led and to get into Gary’s headspace. In terms of Bachelorette, I was really impressed by her album Isolation Loops when it came out.” He lost the original songs when his original budget disappeared, and found her music to have an “odd mix-up of tone – i.e. heavy drama, comedy etc.”

The film has played in the Rotterdam Film Festival – one of the most prestigious ‘auteur’ festivals in the world. There, King discovered the joys of it being projected well too. “Rotterdam was brilliant, it’s an A-list festival, large and well-funded, but at the same time, intimate and friendly and an exhibition vehicle for genuine arthouse films from around the world. The screenings were great, all the screenings were sold out, large audiences who seemed really engaged and moved by the film and fantastic projection as well.” The film has also played at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the Czech Republic which King says is “the largest and most important Eastern European Festival with guests such as De Niro etc. etc.” The now-Berlin based King (and family) is developing another feature film, Tanes Krystal, with the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam, which he, despite considerable competition, gained selection for his project. He’s also writing several screenplays and developing further projects. It’s clear that despite any frustration he had over the funding and making of A Song of Good, he’s going to continue making films, and pushing his dark conception of New Zealand urban life into further pointed territories.