Stubborn Bloody-Mindedness and Making Friends with the Unknown
Filmmaker Gaylene Preston and actress Chelsie Preston Crayford interview each other about filmmaking, acting, and motherhood (and grandmotherhood).
There are three generations of women moving through actress Chelsie Preston-Crayford’s Mt Roskill home when we arrive – grandmother, mother, daughter – and the walls seem to hum with their combined energy. Chelsie carries cups of tea from the kitchen, while her daughter Olive – old enough to walk, still finding all the words she needs – commands the living room, flipping with unanchored delight through a stack of picture books with her grandmother, filmmaker Gaylene Preston.
It’s two weeks before the New Zealand International Film Festival, where Gaylene and Chelsie will be premiering new films: Gaylene will see the world premiere of her new documentary, My Year With Helen – an intimate account of our former PM’s campaign for secretary general at the UN – while Chelsie features in writer and director Jackie van Beek’s The Inland Road, an unconventional and complex love story portrayed with kindness and compassion.
Watery winter light streams through onto the couch, and Gaylene asks our cameraman how they look – because it doesn’t matter what you say, she observes wryly, it’s how you look that people remember – while Chelsie adds with a calm ferocity: although that’s only if you let them. Their conversation is punctuated by the sleeping habits of Olive – who is put to bed just before they start talking, and whose cries seem perfectly timed an hour later when we wrap up.
Chelsie Preston-Crayford: I'm curious about what you learned about the process of selecting the Secretary General [during My Year With Helen]
Gaylene Preston: Well, as you know, I'm not a great researcher and I'm not a journalist. I was a UN virgin, in fact. I knew nothing. And what I found out is that it all happens behind the scenes. There's an old boys network. That's very clear. You can't see it, but you can see the result of it.
I think that every woman who works there has a tremendous amount of respect, but in the end when it comes to the top job – you can't have it.
CPC: If you're a woman.
GP: Yes. There's a gender bias. You can see it in most political situations.
I also realised how terribly egalitarian and used to female leadership we are in New Zealand. You know when Helen was Prime Minister, it wasn't just that she was Prime Minister. There was Dame Sylvia Cartwright as the Governor General. We had Margaret Wilson as the Attorney-General. We had Helen Kelly chairing the Trade Union organisation. We had women across the board. We got used to it, I think.
How did you find it growing up in a country like that – did you notice?
CP: I don't think I noticed. I suppose you don't – like how you don't notice your parents until you're a certain age and then you start to look around, and you think, "Oh! I guess they are a bit like this."
GP: "A bit strange?"
CPC: [laughing] Yeah, a bit weird.
Now that you mention it, yeah. It doesn't feel like how in did in the States – how it was such a big deal that there might be a female president, because there's never been one.
There's still an air of old boys clubs though.
GP: They're everywhere. I've had to think about it a bit. Because you know, as a woman working in our industry, I've realised that everybody rings me when somebody dies or gets sick, but they don't ring me when certain other things happen that are to do with work and industry matters – I have to try and find out.
As a woman working in our industry, I've realised that everybody rings me when somebody dies or gets sick, but they don't ring me when certain other things happen that are to do with work and industry matters.
CP: And it's interesting what that looked like at the start of filming and now – it's the perfect time for this film. That's how I feel. The way the situation has escalated in the two years since you've been making it – it's quite shocking.
GP: It's quite sad, yeah.
CP: I remember you weren't sure if there was going to be a compelling film in it.
CP: So how was that process for you?
GP: They have a media liaison office – MALU. The Media Accreditation Liaison Unit. MALU. Everything in the UN has got weird little names. They’re there to stop the media finding out anything the diplomats don’t want them to know. And of course the media all want to know.
CP: From your documentary, they seem to be able to find out pretty easily.
GP: Yes, they're all on their phones.
CP: They've got some solid leaks –
GP: We didn't have sources [laughs].
CP: So you just followed the media around, and waited for one of them to get a tip-off.
GP: Yeah we did! We'd go: "What’d they say?" And because we weren't media, we knew nothing. We started off knowing nothing. And we kind of ended up knowing nothing.
But because we were there for a year, and because we kept turning up – I would wear my leather jacket with my bling on it, and my hat, and my leather trousers, and sometimes my leopard-skin print trousers, just to be unique, so they'd know I wasn't media. And they sure as hell knew I wasn't a diplomat. So I would turn up, and they would go, "Hey! It's the Kiwi crew!" They quite liked us.
CP: I remember there was a moment where you were going to throw in the towel, though.
GP: Several, yeah.
CP: There was a moment where you seriously weren't sure if it was going to work.
GP: Well I was right, too. Because you know where the point of no return is. After which – we have to make this film. So you would’ve heard me thinking loudly around that point. And it's interesting, because very little that we shot before that is in the film.
CP: Do you think that says something about your commitment?
GP: Yes. And competitiveness. I went and had a talk with the CEO of the Film Commission at that time. And he said: “Oh well, Gaylene. It doesn't matter. We've got a portfolio of documentaries and some of them just aren't going to work. And maybe yours just isn't going to work.”
[pause, says in an outraged voice] Mine's gonna work!
[laughing] What a terrible thing to think!
I mean it's a good thing to think from his point of view. But for me, I've got to make my film work. That's what I do! I'm a filmmaker!
CP: Do you think that's a bit of a driving force for you? I remember you saying that you need to have some rage underneath what you're doing. Do you think there's a bloody mindedness, so things like that sort of fuel you? Because you're like, “Well fuck you, I'm going to do it!”
GP: Yeah, that's right.
CP: Course I can do it.
GP: And I don't know how you learnt to swear like that.
Stubborn bloody-mindedness will get you a long way, if you're a filmmaker. And I think you have to have it. Because otherwise, what's your purpose?
Stubborn bloody-mindedness will get you a long way, if you're a filmmaker. And I think you have to have it. Because otherwise, what's your purpose? You can say rage. You can call it outrage, you can give it a nice name like passion, but in the end –
CP: But I remember you saying: Passion? Passion! I hate that word! People come up to me and say 'Well why do you want to do this?' 'I'm very passionate” Passion!
GP: [laughing] It's true! Before about 1985. Maybe ‘86. Nobody had passion…. and then everybody had it! [laughs] It's kind of like how after a certain point, everything became iconic.
But I think having the purpose to make a work that actually goes into your community and starts a conversation – I mean as a filmmaker, you mightn't be too keen on the conversation that starts. But at least it's a way of getting those rants I have in the kitchen out of the kitchen and into the culture. And that's very satisfying. Which brings me to being an actor, because in a way it's a very different gig, isn't it? Because you're joining in on somebody else's conversation.
CP: And I think that can be a frustrating aspect of it, for me at least.
In a way it's great, because you're let off the hook. It's such a long, hard process to get something made, and as an actor you get to swan in and out and not think about it until someone's done all the hard work. But you also don't get the reward. You don't get the reward of deciding what it is you want to say, and then making something that gives you the opportunity to say it.
You can do that in small ways and I suppose it comes down to your choices – the choice of what you decide to do, the choice of who you decide to work with, and the choices you make when you're doing it.
GP: And as a director, I'm always in awe of that. That choices thing is so courageous to me. I just think what actors do – and I've seen you do it. I don't know how you do it, Chels. The way you go off to an audition, you're constantly having to apply for a job every three days. And take rejection. You're actually much more exposed as an actor.
I don't know how you do it, Chels. The way you go off to an audition, you're constantly having to apply for a job every three days. And take rejection. You're actually much more exposed as an actor.
As a director – I mean, help is available. You get a lot of time, and you can shape everything meticulously. It's not like a busy set where you've arrived at 5 o'clock in the morning and have been sitting there, made-up – far too early, often – and you've put your slippers on and are trying to stay in the zone and suddenly you're on –
CP: Yeah but that's so personal. That's to do with process. For me – now – whatever obstacles there are on a set, whether it's people moving things around in the back of your eyeline while you're doing something, whatever it is that makes it hard – I like that now, because I've figured out a way to use it. Otherwise you wouldn't be able to do your job properly. And that just comes down to how you work, and everyone works differently.
That thing of process was interesting on The Inland Road, because Jackie is an actor, and the feeling on the set and the way that she ran rehearsals – there was an intimacy and a fluidity on that set I haven't experienced on many jobs.
I don't know how intentional it was, but we realised one day how many women there were in key roles, and it did feel really different.
GP: I found that when we were doing Perfect Strangers. All our assistant directors were women, and because women were in lead positions, it felt like 50-50. It wasn't though. And that's another interesting thing.
CP: Yeah you feel like, 'Wow, there are so many women' and then you do a count and you're like [grimaces] it's 30 per cent.
GP: Getting past the 30 per cent – you really have to do positive discrimination to get there. Left to its own devices, it'll settle between 16% to 25% I reckon. I see that in a lot of areas – not just film.
And it is important. I've spent 40 years of my life working in a little film industry in this puddle on the edge of the world here, this little wet country – it’d be nicer for me if I had a gang. And often women don't have gangs, because there's not enough of them to form a gang. So you join the other gangs. And the gangs in my case in film are men, who I seriously love. I've been lucky to have a working life where I've worked with some of the most talented, creative men in New Zealand, but when it comes down to it, they're not really my gang. So it's not the same.
CP: I reckon we should talk about making movies and motherhood –
GP: Oh, yeah! How did you find it?
CP: God, the difference in a person pre-child and post-child is massive. And it's interesting for me watching The Inland Road, because there's one scene that we did. In it I'm pregnant with Olive – which Jackie wrote into the story. She gave me the part and I said [whispers] "I'm pregnant. You probably don't want to cast me." and she said "No that's alright, we'll just write it in." Not many people would do that.
GP: It's great.
CP: But there's one scene we did as a pick-up. And when I watch the film, I see two completely different people. I don't know if you notice that. I don't think many people would. But creatively, two completely different people. So I can see how becoming a mother gives you a new level of depth. And it gives you a new level of drive.
God, the difference in a person pre-child and post-child is massive. And it's interesting for me watching The Inland Road, because there's one scene that we did. In it I'm pregnant with Olive.... And when I watch the film, I see two completely different people.
But how was it for you? I know we can talk about what it was like making films with a younger child, but I'm quite curious about what it was like making this film as a mother, because some pretty full-on stuff was going on.
GP: With being a–
CP: With becoming a grandmother.
GP: Well, it was pretty tough. I think everybody goes: "Oh a grandmother, that must be so nice. Oh how lovely.”
But I found it quite hard – because there were health issues after Olive was born, and everyone sort of when zoooooink around this tiny baby, and there were you and Ray, having to become experts in all sorts of health issues.
And when you're a grandparent, you take an immediate step forward. And at the same time, you take a big step back. Because guess what? It's not your baby. It's not up to you to make any decisions. You have to wait to be asked. And I think for anybody who's brought up children - it doesn't get discussed enough, that–
CP: How hard it is to take a back seat.
GP: Yeah and there's no other situation that I can think of where I know that somebody is going to be born into the world that I am going to have an intimate relationship with for the rest of my life. That's different from being pregnant. Maybe you get a better feeling for how it feels like when you're the father.
It was nice to see you pregnant in that film. Because it is different now that you're a mum. I said to a very good international casting agent that you were pregnant. Liz Mullane. And Liz said, “Oh that's great. That's great.”
And I said, “Yes, it is.”
And she said, “Yes, she'll be a much better actress after that. She's already really good.” So Liz just saw it immediately as a work thing.
CP: I think you can feel that. You can feel that. Did you feel that happen in your work? The experience for me is a shifting. There's a massive shifting of priorities. It's a limiting of time to agonise over things, and it's also a deepening as a person.
GP: Yeah I sort of felt like I'd gone from a telephoto lens to wide angle. I had to have a wider sweep across everything. There's more you have to be sure of, in order to do the work.
If I'm going to go and have a script meeting that takes three hours, then we have to make sure that everybody's tickety. Especially the child. You've got to manage your relationships more, I think.
CP: Yeah you have to make peace with the fact that while you're focusing on one thing – while one thing is getting all of your attention – other things are going to turn into chaos a little bit, and then you can turn to them and tidy it up. You accept a certain level of lack of control and chaos.
Yeah you have to make peace with the fact that while you're focusing on one thing... other things are going to turn into chaos a little bit, and then you can turn to them and tidy it up.
GP: I wanted to talk a little bit about Perfect Strangers. Because when we talk about childcare, you immediately think about young children. But actually, when it came to Perfect Strangers, you were 15. Tui [Gaylene's mother] was living with us. She was 85. So you were 15 and Tui was 85 and I – the person who was really managing the welfare of both of you – I went to the South Island, and I couldn't leave the South Island for insurance reasons. So once I went there, I had to stay there. And that meant I was there for three-and-a-half months.
CP: Ohhhh so that's why!
GP: So that was a big one.
CP: You've never told me that insurance thing!
GP: The insurance thing! So if I left the South Island as producer and director of a feature film –
CP: That seems crazy. I wonder if Jackie was able to leave the South Island.
GP: I don't know, but it wasn't possible for me to. And that meant, like, who was looking after who? With a 15-year-old and an 85-year-old. Who was looking after who? That was the hard thing for me. How to be your mum, and how to be a good daughter during Perfect Strangers. And that was a really hard choice, because Tui was getting sicker and sicker, and I’d been managing her medical care with her. But she was hitting a point where that was becoming very difficult. And so – as you were getting older, she was getting sicker.
CP: And I was getting naughtier.
GP: Well ,I don't think you were actually!
CP: [laughing] I was!
GP: [laughing] You think you know, but you don't, do you? As a mother.
But I had to make a decision, and I thought, right: For those 8-10 weeks while we were shooting, the film has to come first. And Chelsie comes a very close second. Which means I can't be a good daughter. I can't do the three. I can do two. I can't do three. And during that time, things went really quite bad for Tui. That was really hard.
CP: And that's about all the roles you live in, as a woman. And as a man as well. But I feel like we occupy – I feel like I occupy – a number of different roles in life now. And what you're talking about is really fascinating because I think as soon as you become a mother, there's guilt there. There's always something you can feel guilty about. And to make the choice to make something that takes as much time and energy as a film – you have to make the choice to prioritise it.
As soon as you become a mother, there's guilt there. There's always something you can feel guilty about. And to make the choice to make something that takes as much time and energy as a film – you have to make the choice to prioritise it.
CP: And did you find – when you were consciously making that choice – did you find you were able to let go of some of the guilt? Because you had consciously made that decision?
GP: I was very guilty about Tui.
CP: Even though you decided to make that choice – to put Tui on hold?
GP: I think I felt more guilty with Ruby and Rata. You were two-and-a-half when we started. So we started with a very well adjusted two-and-a-half year old. And your father was writing the music, so off we went to Auckland, and I thought: Oh well it'll be nice, you'll be plugged into your cuzzies down the road, he's just writing the music. That's no big deal. He'll be able to do most of the childcare.
Whereas in fact that wasn't how he felt about the gig at all, and he was very focused. I mean the music for Ruby and Rata is brilliant. So we ended up going back to Welly to do the edit with quite a demanding three-year-old, who'd been a bit pushed around. I felt guilty about that. But guilt–
CP: It's a very destructive emotion.
GP: Shame's worse. Guilt's always just about a thing that happened. But shame can really kick in.
CP: I suppose they get confused for each other, don't they.
CP: As someone close to you, the times that I worry – and I don't worry about you often – but the times that I really worry is when you're between jobs.
GP: Yeah everybody talks about the work. But it's what you do with yourself when you're not working.
I'm happy when my feet touch the floor in the morning, and my favourite project has been funded, because I know that I can fund these great people I work with – who really solve a lot of my problems, creatively speaking – and I'm going to get a tiny amount too, which means I haven't just got an idea, I've got a job.
And I've always needed to have a job because I haven't got any other means of support. So part of this thing you feel about me not having a project is to do with me not having a job! Not having any money. You must feel the same.
CP: I think over the years, I've built quite a thick skin in that respect. Because if I ride the highs and lows of that, life is exhausting. You're at the mercy of other people's decisions, and jobs are really short, most of the time. They're a few weeks, or a few months if you're lucky. So there's heaps of downtime. I used to really struggle with that, but now I've come to see it as a massive perk of the job because – somehow – I manage to make a living.
It's hard, because if your sense of self is wrapped up in that, and your sense of validity, it becomes hard because you think: nobody wants me, what am I going to do? But you have to make friends with the unknown. Otherwise it's tough.
You have to make friends with the unknown. Otherwise it's tough.
GP: That's why I think actors are really courageous.
CP: And a lot of the time, really insecure. [laughs]
GP: It's a very insecure profession.
CP: There's no security. You have to create it for yourself.
GP: See, you could say that my life as a filmmaker is really insecure too, but it isn't. Not in the same way. I can sit in my room and knit a film.
CP: And you decide! Between jobs, you're not going: Is the phone going to ring, what's happening out there? You're going: Okay. What do I want to commit to next?
GP: Yes but that's because the phone doesn't ring. I learned very early that the phone doesn't ring.
CP: But it also doesn't seem to be your bliss. I've seen you work on other people's projects.
GP: It's not my bliss.
CP: There's a discomfort there. I think being able to call the shots and create the world is what you like.
GP: Chelsie, it's a blast. If you can get away with it, there's not much better. It's a brilliant thing to make a film. I thank my lucky stars that I'm able to do it.
My Year With Helen
in selected cinemas now