Mike Riddell is the writer of the Kiwi film The Insatiable Moon and his wife, Rosemary, is the director. Mike is an ex-Baptist minister and Rosemary is a judge.
I was meant to speak to both of them but blew it and ended up having a rambling chat with Mike in a coffee bar in Ponsonby, where the film is set.
Unlike most Kiwis Mike doesn't say "yeah" and, more like a Zen-Buddhist than a Baptist minister, he tends towards cheerfulness.
NS: According to Wikipedia...(laughter)...you're a bit of a hippie.
MR: Ja, absolutely. I was part of the movement and sort of ended up following the drug trail all around the world and ended up in prison in Morocco.
NS: Wikipedia just says you travelled in North Africa... [raucous laughter] Is this what possibly led to some sort of spirituality?
MR: It's hard to know that. But I remember walking around the prison yard for a couple of hours a day and thinking about the meaning of life and all that sort of stuff. I was a real acid head, used a lot of LSD. I guess that was all part of the spiritual quest for me...
NS: And the hat?
MR: Partly because if I lift it I'm bald [cheerful laughter], but also partly it's a sort of a mark of identity. I'm just a hat person. For years I've had a huge collection of hats.
NS: How did you and Rosemary meet?
MR: We met in a flat in London in 1973/74 or something like that. We've been together for a long time. We've got three kids. Got married in 1975.
NS: Was she a lawyer then?
MR: No, we did all kinds of things. She started off doing home help stuff with aged people [a waitress brings him a cup of hot chocolate with two marshmallows]...nice stuff...but before she met me she'd been doing some professional acting stuff. She worked for TVNZ. And she kind of went to the UK to extend her acting career, but found it really tough over there. Then we had three children together, so it wasn't until later that she went to university and tried studying and she got really good results, so she tried law, became a lawyer, shifted to Dunedin, and became a partner in a law firm.
NS: Now she's a very talented director.
MR: [laughs] But the creative stuff has followed all the way through.
NS: Are you still based in Dunedin?
MR: No, we had to move to the Waikato. It's very difficult to be a judge in the town where you were in a law firm. We would never have moved from Dunedin otherwise. So we live in Cambridge now, on the outskirts of Hamilton.
NS: What's the title of the film all about?
MR: Well, it's the same as the book. In the book the moon plays a bigger role than it does in the film. It's much more prevalent. It's about the pulling power of the moon, not only with the tides but with human lives, particularly people's mental health and wellbeing.
NS: Hence lunacy.
MR: Ja, exactly. So it's about this moon that's constantly shifting people's lives around.
NS: Were all the moons in the film real?
MR: No, the big full moon was CGI. We spent a couple of nights trying to get it, but we couldn't.
NS: You mentioned that Rawiri [Paratene] insisted on playing the lead role?
MR: He claimed the role, ja. He read the novel while he was filming Whale Rider and wrote me a letter saying it would make a great film and he'd like to write the screenplay. So I said, "Well, I've already started on the screenplay. So he said, "All right, then I'm playing Arthur. No one else is playing Arthur." That was in 2002.
NS: The rest seemed to flow with that same kind of personal involvement.
MR: Ja, relationships have been at the heart of the film. Both the UK producer and I have always had a concern that the making of the film had to be in keeping with the story. It was always important to us.
NS: Just to go back a bit, did you become a Baptist minister after you and Rosemary got back from the UK?
MR: Ja, it was quite convoluted, really. I kind of drifted into Christianity with a bunch of hippie/druggie people. Then I wanted to do more studies. So I ended up going to the Baptist Theological College here in Auckland. But I got to the end of that and still had a lot of questions, so we went to Switzerland for two and a half years, where I did a postgraduate in theology, came back here for eight or nine years and was the minister of the Ponsonby Baptist Church.
NS: Which is where you met this Arthur character?
MR: Ja, that's right.
NS: I still find it quite a jump going from what you call an acid head to a Baptist minister...
MR: Ja, it was really...
NS: You didn't go the Timothy Leary or Allan Watts route.
MR: It could have easily [gone that way]...I've always been interested in all sorts of religious streaks. There was a strong Buddhist phase that I had...I mean, there were all sorts of influences, but as much as anything I think it depends on context and circumstances and where you happen to find yourself. But I was very much a fish out of water in the Baptist church.
NS: I would imagine so. [even more raucous laughter]
MR: The only way I survived was that the Ponsonby church gave me a very liberal hand...
NS: Has Ponsonby always been considered a "progressive" area?
MR: It was a slum, really. Freeman's Bay and Ponsonby were slums.
NS: Oh, when?
MR: Right up to the Sixties. It started off as working cottages...Irish immigrants...It was a bit of a Catholic area. Then it got gradually run down, lots of students, lots of psychiatric patients from Carrington, and then Pacific Islanders came and settled here. So it wasn't until the Eighties that it started changing.
NS: Now those cottages are worth a fortune.
MR: Exactly. In the novel, there's a lot about the changing nature of Ponsonby, its history.
NS: Back to the Christian theme, the film can't exactly be described as Christian. [yet more raucous laughter]
MR: Absolutely. We don't consider it a Christian film, as such, even though it's informed by a lot of Christian themes. We think it's a spiritual film and it appeals to people with a spiritual bent... It's funny, we showed it to a bunch of distributors in the UK and an American said we should edit the film so that it would suit the Bible belt, so we said we want all those Midwest Christians protesting outside the cinema! [laughter] That'll sell tickets for us.
NS: What is the law about mental patients?
MR: The boarding houses are run as a private operation. The manager owns them. But the patients get extra money according to their disability and that's how the manager makes a profit.
NS: But you do still have asylums?
MR: No, there's only respite. there are a few forensic wards if you are criminally insane, and there's compulsory treatment for very serious cases, but they are constantly under review and anytime a patient says "I want to get out," there has to be a hearing. But by and large the model is they've closed asylums down. There's now a model of so-called community care.
NS: The problem with that model is the paedophile in the story...
MR: Absolutely. We wanted to confront that problem head-on. That's the most controversial part of the film. It does kind of bring it out into the open, doesn't it? Instead of hiding it, allowing it to fester...
NS: You guys played with the idea of Margaret being pregnant?
MR: It was entirely intentional that it should remain ambiguous. We wanted it to be one of the things people might talk about afterwards. [We did]. There were all kinds of levels of ambiguity [and delicious contradictions]. Is Arthur insane or is he someone special? The book was a little more pushy about those issues.
NS: At one stage Margaret says there's an incredible gulf between them. She doesn't just mean as far as mental health is concerned. She also means culturally. She's a pakeha, he's a Maori.
MR: I've always been a believer in the local being the universal.
NS: Were you aware of the danger that you're using friends' money?
MR: That's what I thought was most risky; we knew all the people who'd invested. It's a huge responsibility.
NS: I constantly read about films being made here independently, but we never hear about 90% of them afterwards...
MR: I was aware of that all the way through. You try to spell it out for people, but they don't always understand what the risks are.
NS: Had you and Rosemary worked on anything else together?
MR: Ja, I produced her [award-winning] short and we also did a play together.
NS: Is there any reason why the New Zealand Film Commission hasn't put any money into the film?
MR: To be honest, I've never quite understood...All I know is they never resonated with the script early on, and from that point on they felt they needed to defend their point of view, even when we were getting very positive reactions to the script from other quarters, overseas. Ja, in many ways I think they've backed themselves into a corner. I don't think they ever thought there was a feature film in there. The astonishing thing to me is that they have seen the finished product and they still don't like it. They still think it is a film that won't travel...Our central values have always been story and performance. We were forced to shoot on 2K [as opposed to 4K] cameras, but audiences in my experience will forgive an awful lot of they're caught up in the story.
NS: Like that wonderful Oz film, The Castle, which was shot in 11 days.
MR: That's exactly right. Kelly Rogers, the head of Rialto distribution, says he sees it [The Insatiable Moon] as a kind of As It is In Heaven. It just kept on going. It had a life. But I really don't know about the Film Commission. We're still talking to them. What we're trying to say to them is that the more positive reaction we get, the more embarrassing it gets for you. You've got a chance to turn it around and make it positive.
NS: Did they put anything into post-production?
MR: They put $25 000 into post-prod, but that's only because policy says they have to. [laughter]
NS: So what has the reaction to the film been across New Zealand?
MR: Brilliant. We've done Q&A all over the place.
NS: I saw the two of you watched the film with us at the community centre the other night. How many times have you seen it? Aren't you sick of it yet?
MR: I've seen it about 70 or 80 times. I don't know. Rose and I talk about that. We quote it to each other. But we always get drawn into it, which is an encouraging sign. The other thing I enjoy about it is seeing how the audience reacts to it, how different audiences react to different parts.
NS: Where does it go next?
MR: We've got a UK distribution deal. It will release there early January.
NS: And what's next for you?
MR: I'm a kind of writer for hire. Just thrashing out a script for people who need one in a hurry. Then two others for international co-pros. And the guys who played the characters in the boarding house, they're keen to work together again, so we've put an idea up for a TV series.
NS: That's a fantastic idea.
MR: So we'll try to shoot a pilot for that next year.
NS: Can't you just show them the film? Surely it speak for itself?
MR: No. Things are pretty tight.
NS: I couldn't believe that Lee [played by Pete Tuson] was simply acting.
MR: He actually spent some time in South Africa. But he nearly lost the part because he's got a row of sparkling gold teeth, like Oddjob in the Bond movies, so we had to black those out. He's a lovely guy. He often drove all the way from Whangarei for two and a half hours to be on set at 6am.
NS: That's amazing...
MR: Great team of people. And of course Rawiri. He's always on the lookout for people on the margins...when it came to lunchtime he's always the guy at the back of the queue.
NS: I must say his construction of "heaven" in that motel room was very fast.
MR: [laughs loudly] It was, wasn't it! But the script I'm working on now will interest you. It's about the 1981 Springbok tour [that virtually divided New Zealand].
NS: You were one of the protesters there...
MR: Ja, and they want to shoot that by next year.
* Okay, so I'm publishing a day late. But I had paid work this week, and that was a real shock to the system. Things should return to normal going forward. Also, I see that the Rugby World Cup ad has been shortened and no longer features the Springboks. So you can see just how powerful a simple blog can be...