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Monday, 25 March 2019 07:45 pm

Gaylene Preston reflects on her years of filmmaking

Gaylene Preston enjoying a cup of tea in her Wellington home

SLUMPING AROUND: Gaylene Preston takes time out to talk to enjoy a cup of tea in her Wellington home.

Celebrated filmmaker Gaylene Preston is happy to ‘slump around’ but not for long – not having a film to work on would be like a form of death for the artist.

A few months since her latest series Hope and Wire, the story of the Christchurch quakes, screened at the Vancouver Film Festival, she reflects on what film means to her.

“I just feel if I stopped making films I would die. Seriously. I don’t know what I’d do,” she says.

Preston got her start at a psychiatric hospital in England in the 1970’s creating a film that gave the patients a voice.

“When I put those people on a screen and showed the hospital community, somehow those people on a screen became more important. So I thought this is a powerful medium for change.”

Upon returning to New Zealand in 1977 she was one of the women on the ground floor of the New Zealand film industry.

“I sort of lucked in, you know, because it was the beginning of something and usually at the beginning of something you will find plenty of women there.”

A big proponent of female directors, Preston says the film industry is still male dominated.

“When I got behind a camera I thought ‘it’s 8% now but in 30 years what’s it going to be like, it’s going to be amazing’, and actually it is amazing but the percentage hasn’t changed.”

She says women are well represented as producers but to be a director is a different kind of job.

“A producer doesn’t control the frame, the director controls the frame and the frame is the frame, it’s everything.”

To encourage more female directors she gives a prize for the best female director at the 48hour film competition each year.

She thinks part of what holds women back is “we’re such good girls”.

“We go to school and we sit at our desk and we answer all our questions and we like to get a good mark. Meanwhile the boys are pushing one another over in the playground, in the classroom, and skinning one another’s knees and learning how to take the knocks.

“We’re being good girls because that’s school for you. It doesn’t prepare you for the knocks, so the minute you get a no you think you’ve done it wrong. So you go, ‘tell me how to do it right and I’ll pass the exam’. Not how it is.”

She offers some words of advice for the budding female filmmaker.

“If you’re a bit of a woman on a mission and you want to say something really strongly, you don’t even have to know how you want to say it when you start.

“No matter how much talent you’ve got if you’ve got something to say you’ll put your head above the mob and if you put your head above the mob watch out cause they can throw stuff at you,” she says.

Preston always wanted to make a living as an artist and found that the collaborative nature of film suited her best.

“It’s much more social than painting, and I wasn’t a very good painter anyway. I like writing, but writing’s very solitary also. Film suits me because help is available. You just sort of share your troubles with a film as you’re making it.”

Her approach to filmmaking has always been to consciousness raise about things that outrage her.

“I don’t really make a film unless I’ve got something that I strongly need to say, otherwise if I possibly can I just slump around, I’m quite lazy.

“But having said that I wouldn’t like to not have a film to make because that would mean I didn’t feel angry about anything, and that would mean that I somehow switched off from life.”

She says being a New Zealand artist is hard, but the anger it insights is good motivation.

“It’s always quite hard to make a film. People can say ‘oh anyone can make a film now’, well they mean anyone can shoot a film, that’s not making a film. Making a film is much harder than that. There are a lot of movies about the place that are shot but never finished.”

Maintaining relationships is not always easy as a filmmaker she says, and although she has forgiving friends, romantic relationships fell to the wayside.

“If you said to me ‘your child or your films’, I would say my child. If you said ‘your lover or your films’, I would say my films. Hands down, no question”.

“I think that is essentially a big difference between men and women artists. There’s a thing called the artist’s wife, who really puts a huge amount of effort to helping the artist further his work, and supporting it, and bringing up the kids, and making sure the domestic environment works for the artist. If you’re a female artist you’re very lucky if you can find that kind of support.

“You’re kinda doing two mutually exclusive jobs if you’re bringing up a family and doing your work, and add to that a relationship… it’s been a bridge to far for me.”

She believes to make it as an artist you need a sliver of ice in your soul.

“If you don’t have the sliver of ice, when the going gets tough you fold.”

Preston says her proudest career moment came during her most recent production Hope and Wire.

Screened to a mix of cast and crew, their partners and the mayor of Christchurch, before its release, she says she was terrified, knowing how critically people view their own contributions.

As people applauded during the credits, she came out of her hiding spot and was the recipient of a standing ovation like nothing she had ever experienced.

“This was a spontaneous leap to the feet and all these people were standing there clapping, crying, and I was crying, we were all crying,” she says.

The series received good reviews, but opinions were mixed on Twitter.

“If you’re making work that challenges the way people think, the status quo, then you want to have debate.”

However, she understands the apprehension people experienced.

“Lets say god forbid we were in a car crash and somebody next door having read up all about our car crash decides they want to make a film. You’d be worried wouldn’t you? Well that’s like hearing that somebody is wanting to make a film about your earthquake. So multiply that by 500,000, you’d be pretty silly to think you were gonna have a quiet time of it,” she says.

“I’ve learnt that the most important thing is to do the work with integrity, with the best integrity you can muster and if you’re a bit wrong minded, well you did your best.”

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