Wellington-based filmmaker Edward Lynden-Bell talks candidly to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about making The Last Great Snail Chase, screening at Auckland’s Academy Cinema until March 28.

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The Last Great Snail Chase is a film about twenty-somethings in Wellington as the apocalypse nears. A magic realist film with some off-beat humour, the film is a multi-narrative tale of a group of inhabitants in one Aro Valley flat. But it’s not a simple tale of contemporary angst, the film throws in a whole bunch of tricks to keep the audience interested – from animation, film scratches, backwards motions, collages and inserts. It’s an intricate melange, which might cloy for some who like their stories told straight, but is nothing short of compelling. The film has a quirky take on contemporary ennui, and despite the film’s flaws – indifferent performances, awkward characters in the script (especially the teenager, although films the world over don’t seem to be able to write teenagers particularly convincingly), scenes which appeared a little rushed – there is too much energy and innovation present in the film for it to be ignored.

Writer-director Edward Lynden-Bell moved over to New Zealand from England in 1999, after falling in love with a girl. The relationship didn’t last, but he wanted to stay in Wellington and pursue his love of film. “I saw Star Wars at the age of eight, and rather being one of those kids who wanted to be Luke Skywalker, I wanted my imagination up on the screen.” Lynden-Bell enrolled in Film School, and completed an MA in script-writing at Victoria University. He says that he found “a significant difference between the attitude towards doing anything here than in Britain. New Zealand has a much more enthusiastic helping environment because they can, whereas in Britain there’s much more of an attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’.”

All of those helped convince him to self-fund a feature. All up, to get the film to a finished DVD product it cost $167,000, though Lynden-Bell confesses this was “the point where we got to a certain stage. I’ve spent more since.” Lynden-Bell says “I came here when I was thirty, and I suddenly went, ‘if I don’t make a feature film now, I’ll be that guy when I’m seventy who said he was going to make feature films but didn’t.’” However the film belies its low-budget origins, as the animation and imagery are top-notch. “I’ve never made a feature before and making features is hard. I read somewhere in Sight and Sound after we’d made the film, someone had described first time filmmakers as making two types of films. Either they’re very tight, very coherent, very well-crafted, genre pieces, know their subject to a tee, or they’re sprawling, messy. When I read that I thought ‘oh god, I know which one I made’”. Lynden-Bell confesses “I’ve always had a problem keeping my ideas curtailed. And it certainly didn’t make it an easy shoot.”

That said, the animation and film itself looks top-notch (even if scenes appeared a bit rushed from the acting perspective). The special effects were co-ordinated by William Moore. “Given we had next to no money, it was probably less than half of what he wished for. His method to go ahead was primarily to go to Massey and to third years and ask if they wanted to work for a pittance, and most of them said ‘yes’.” The film did help in terms of industry experience for the third years though, and Lynden-Bell says “I’m very happy quite a few have gone to work for Weta. I’m very happy that it’s helped them. It was a lot of learning and lots of time pressure and I wouldn’t have wanted to be them.”

Lynden-Bell’s not entirely sure why the film ended up a magic realist one. “I have no idea. It’s just the way it came out. One of the things I can say, years ago when I went to film school, I did a study of Mad Max 1, 2 and 3. George Miller said cinema was ‘like public dreaming’. I guess this film could be taking that a little bit more literally than people would. It just felt the right way to express these ideas. Quite a few have been taken directly from my dreams, it was just the way it came out. I have many, many ideas – some of which are much more normal than this one.” However Lynden-Bell was motivated by not simply making another standard film. Lynden-Bell says the film could have been a “bog standard thriller” and that “this is the best I can hope for. I’d rather the film was uniquely me and crazy in the way I might be than that.” He would rather have the reaction from audiences of “have you seen that fucking weird movie – either good or bad – rather than another thriller that other people just shrug their shoulders about.”

The film is replete with apocalyptic imagery, and discussions over the frustration of the direction of the world. Particularly notable is the film’s opening five minutes, which include flying turtles and tidal waves. “I probably came up with that idea and wrote the first five pages back in ’95 so they’ve been kicking round for quite a long period of time.” The turtles were inspired by some prisoner mural-work Lynden-Bell saw in Australia during his OE back in 1989. “Each of the prisoner put in something and one of the prisoner had put in an endless row of turtles, because each day was the same. That always struck me: days taking forever to pass.” The tidal waves were “a recurring nightmare as a child, which was in fact driving along a motorway not at all dissimilar from the motorway between Wellington and the Hutt Valley. In some versions of a dream we stopped at a café underneath the motorway.” Despite the impending apocalypse, the characters in the film act as if nothing strange was going on. “One of my friends read the script and went ‘why are they planning to go on their OE? The world is ending’. She found the realism of the situation totally unrealistic. But we have ecological destruction and I’m still planning things for five or ten years’ time. We have no perception of these things. If there was a giant wave people would do something.”

A number of New Zealand films recently have dealt with twenty-something angst. Most notably, the so-called Aro School of filmmakers. However Lynden-Bell doubts many would read it as an Aro film (it certainly doesn’t have the austere and minimalist aesthetic of the Aro movement) despite the film being set in the Aro Valley. “I think my skill set is different from theirs. The reason for setting it in Aro Valley is because that’s where I was for the first five years of living in Wellington.” However, his film does look at this transition between childhood and adulthood. “My experience was most people a) are schizophrenic or b) ‘I have to work out how to live in the world’.” However, there is a strong sense of despair and frustration within the characters. “The idea of, for instance Julian’s character, is the idea that one has that naďve quality, that life will come to you with success, that if you’re talented enough you don’t have to do anything. Actually no, you have to make a bit more of an effort.” Lynden-Bell admits the film is autobiographical in the sense that “I think any film in some degree is some reflection of the writer, as creator of it overall. A lot of stuff has been written about how a narrative is all different forms of the psyche talking to themselves .”

The film is multi-narrative too, and there are frequent digressions in the narrative momentum. “Part of the idea was trying to allow lots of different voices, giving them each a day in the sun and let them take control of the film narrative, for instance skateboarders, the museum attendant who gets to be a work of art.”

Lynden-Bell is finding the film’s distinctive qualities make it a difficult film to sell in the market. He did set out to make a “fucking weird film” after all, according to his press release. “I don’t know if I’ll quite put it in these terms anymore. We finished it the end of the year before and I’ve been trying to get people interested in distribution. They haven’t in part because it’s too odd.” Lynden-Bell has encountered “an attitude that films have to fit a very specific mainstream entertainment format” from distributors, a mindset he finds incredibly frustrating. “Film’s a medium. I literally talk to people who cannot perceive you can do something different other than an emotional journey with a turning point at page ten. These things are restrictions you’ve placed on it.” He admits “I’m totally new to this side of the industry. They never really teach you [about distribution] in film school.”

Despite the setbacks (he has also had some considerable injuries and accidents to deal with since) Lynden-Bell is keen to continue writing and making films. He admits some of the flaws within the film, suggesting “a few more re-writes would have done me good” and that he needed more experience dealing with actors. He sums up The Last Great Snail Chase by saying “it certainly has an ability to divide audiences. Some people quite hate it, some people really love it. Like any artist I have mixed feelings about it, I think overall, it’s an interesting film and in the end of the day I think it’s quite charming.” There’s certainly enough in the film which signals some talent, and the distinctiveness and risk-taking present in the finished product suggest that Lynden-Bell and his contributors are well-worth a look.