Issue date: 
Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Garth Maxwell's Jack Be Nimble has recently been acquired for MoMA’s permanent film collection. NZFC Spotlight couldn't resist finding out more and learning about Garth's fascinating filmmaking journey. 

Jack Be Nimble  - Alexis Arquette and Sarah Smuts-Kennedy (photo Pierre Vinet)
What was your first dabble in creating something film related? 

My school friend Simon Maitland Marler and I made a super-8 film in 1981 when we were 18, helped by an Alternative Cinema Collective workshop, and particularly the input of John Calder, who showed us how to re-shoot super-8 in slow motion, backwards, and freeze frame. Our little effort we called Come With Us, and it was Simon painted blue, and me painted green, moving under a light. We’d been inspired by Theatre Corporate’s production of Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, from the Kafka story. The real value was following through the complete making of a film, exploring ideas, and then getting an experience of editing. Completing projects is essential. Like someone said - there is nothing as useless as an unfinished film. The fantastic thing is, I’m finding that archival works like this are now attracting interest. The American distributor of Jack Be Nimble called Come With Us “Super gothic and hypnotic!”

Tell me about your journey into filmmaking.  

I credit my parents actually for giving me a basic little Kodak camera, and later a proper 35mm camera with real adjustable settings. I really loved taking photos, loved getting film developed, and realised the story-telling potential of sequential images. That, plus I got a little tape deck, what would be considered now a vintage 1970s cassette player, and I started recording stuff. All very basic but these started a process of awareness, in the construction of images and story. At university I joined the Photographic Club and learned darkroom techniques. It all got my mind ticking over in a certain direction. I was lucky to get access to John Rimmer’s electronic music composition class for a while, not a subject I was enrolled in, but nevertheless enthralled by. Likewise Roger Horrock’s Film classes, which I crashed. I majored in English, and was saturating myself in writing styles from all periods, but the best thing was CK Stead’s inaugural Creative Writing Class in my third BA year. Incredible. There I met friends like poet-artist Greg O’Brien, and future digital-culture curator Dr Kathy Cleland. I made the mistake of starting an MA but within two months I knew I was in the wrong place, and quit to go into the cutting room on John Laing’s Other Halves (1983) as a trainee assistant editor. I stayed in post production for maybe 6-7 years, getting experience on over a dozen features, as either the picture editing assistant, or a sound editing assistant, assisting such luminaries as Finola Dwyer and David Coulson. This was the place to be for me, to learn the real magic of filmmaking, at a time when the technology was just about to change - all the work then was with sprocketed film and magnetic tape.

When I left, it was to buy time to reorientate myself toward directing. I knew I didn’t have the patience to be an editor, but I was starting to understand what directing meant - nothing - if you didn’t have the right shots to cut together. I took a job as Art Director on the left-leaning current affairs magazine New Outlook; my experience creating lots of poster designs for University theatre productions was relevant and I knew how to wield a wax gun and a scalpel. All technologies were changing - film editing (and magazine layout) were becoming about managing digital files, about which I continue to be baffled. But while at New Outlook, I bought a 16mm pic-sync and set up a little cutting room so sound sculptor and Last Laugh Recording Studio owner Greg Brice and I could make Tandem, starring Professor Judith Binney as the Fool from the Tarot, which won the Gofta award for short film (1987). That led to love story Beyond Gravity (1988), which led to gothic thriller Jack Be Nimble (1993).

Robert Pollock and Iain Rea starred in Beyond Gravity

Tell me about making your first feature film Jack Be Nimble?

In short it was an angry reaction to three things. One, being the aggressive rejection from my parents when I came out to them at 19 as gay. I was chucked out of the family and became “not my father’s son.” I barely spoke to them for the next decade; they didn’t come to my graduation even though I won a prize for top aggregate marks in my senior year, I mean, I didn’t even go myself, because those things are really for your family, to which I had by then returned the favour, and ditched. Two, was the societal upheaval of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, where I saw the worst of humanity in my own country. And three, was the bruising difficulty of getting Beyond Gravity on TVNZ, past the internal censor. Eventually, I succeeded but I’ll never forget the television executives who told me “Just make the cuts” to hyper-sanitise a very mild comedic gay melodrama. My question was always “Why?” I went public, I got rid of the censor, and the film aired, but the experience hardened me. “Jack” was the result. A vicious satire of the family, with supernatural and horror elements. It was also a project that coincided with the arrival of two interesting young producers, Jonathan Dowling and Kelly Rogers, who were looking for projects, under the wing of Endeavour Tucker (John Barnett and Murray Newey). With the collective goodwill that these four producers had established, their free reign meant an unusual project like Jack could advance. It was shot, and got amazing reviews, but then was met with disaster in the two main territories of the USA (on the eve of release the distributor had a major health crisis, then died) and the UK (a cash crisis for the distributor there meant the cinema with hoardings for the film had a chain across the doors, I know because I was there). It was then widely pirated, and it was thirty years until it was digitised (by the NZFC) and released in the USA with a great new distributor Altered Innocence, and gained the support of the Museum of Modern Art, who acquired it for their permanent film collection, and platformed it in the 2022 “Horror: Messaging the Monstrous” summer tentpole season. The New York Times called Jack Be Nimble “The Find of the Festival.” It has now just been signed to Umbrella, for international rest-of-world distribution.

What was the best lesson you learned?   

That a film may have a life later on - you need to bank material for that purpose - keep looking after your project for years. A film can be mishandled at every stage, even if your work is solid. I came to understand that I cared, when everyone else had walked away. So, I made sure at 15 years after production, that I got all available cast and crew together at Stebbings and recorded an informal chat-track as we watched the film and that very recording, another 15 years later, at 30 years, became invaluable for the Blu-Ray release in America. It cost me $5000 at the time but I knew this film was special and that it would emerge. Alexis Arquette (Jack) had been an underground talent at the time - I met them in a nightclub called Trade in LA run by Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) - and Alexis was immediately intrigued when I mentioned the film. Later, when their profile as a trans activist saw them hit headlines and gain a richer respect for their past work, Jack’s reputation rose as a result.

Garth Maxwell, self-portrait - Rawene Church, 2023.

How important is local storytelling and why?

We have such a rich tradition of cinema in Aotearoa. We have influenced the world in subtle and interesting ways. Our bicultural heritage is a central part of that. Even though we are going through an ugly moment with the dismantling of protections around diversity and language, particularly, our arts continue to be a rigorous forum for analysing and reflecting these challenges. Also this year I’ve established a kind of entrepreneurial prize at the University of Auckland, the Creative Project Prize, to help platform new voices and new works, to help fund their completion and presentation to the commercial arena, not just for filmmakers but poets, playwrights, video makers, screenplays, novelists.

How important is it to tell stories from your own unique perspective and how does that influence your work?  

If you are originating your own projects, acknowledge your own fascinations and obsessions. Nurture them. What you are into may not be fashionable, or polite, but since when was filmmaking polite? If you’re not exciting yourself with your explorations, then you will lack the enthusiasm to enrapture others. It is a business of seduction.

Are there any Kiwis who have inspired you in the film world? Who and how?  

Stewart Main (gave important early lessons in how to be extreme eg the astonishing Captive State), Cliff Curtis (for his devilish enjoyment of performance opportunities), Marten Rabarts (I met at Cannes in 1994 and he contributed amazing ideas to an early screenplay, demonstrating his exquisite sensitivity, and his political clarity, and the rarest ability to share in a dream), Rena (the Queen, how lucky I was to work with her), Peter Jackson (sheer awesomeness), Peter Wells (playful, cheeky, a brilliant refusenik), Sarah Smuts-Kennedy (emotional generosity, delicate but strong, she’s my otherworldly seer), Danielle Cormack (ultimate pro, best throaty laugh in the business), Dick Reade (maestro of sound design), Grant Major (a visual poet, super original), Donny Duncan (the best friend a director could have, so capable, so practical, such an understated artist), and I don’t know… I’m surrounded by inspiration, from grips to set dressers to wardrobe assistants to props makers, it is an intoxicating industry of collaborators all seeking that perfect, shared moment. And that group is being refreshed constantly…

Sarah Smuts-Kennedy with Bruno Lawrence in Jack Be Nimble (photo Pierre Vinet) 

What are the most important attributes for a director?  

You will confront all problems eventually in the cutting room, so anticipate that and shoot to edit, both on the micro level (coherent screen directions) and macro (coherent scenes, and story structure). Know when to bend, know when to resist. Sometimes it’s worth fighting for (a shot, a way of blocking, a use of time) and other times, do yourself and everyone else a favour and pull your head in. You can’t be a prick ALL the time. Well you can, but does it really pay off? On the other hand, advice is only that. I found a useful technique was to consult myself, when faced with difficult decisions. “So, G, what do you really think? Well actually, I secretly think…” then bring that back to ‘front of house’ and say the unpopular, the unsayable, backed up by your secret private advisor. “You” become “we” - I know, it’s a bit psychotic, but it has got me through some moments when I had to go against what felt like incredible pressures, usually to do with facing down the clock.

What are the most important attributes for a writer?

I think the process of writing is very linked to acting. You’re devising and running emotional beats, and trialing the logic of lines, and taking mental stances, that feel very related to acting postures. One voice opposes another, and you write characters accordingly. Both seek different things, with motives both public and private, in a kind of parry and thrust. I do a lot of printing out (I love my Epson Ecotank like you wouldn’t believe.) I take pages to bed with me and scratch rewrites and deletions on them if I’m restless in the night. But having a sense of “What kind of experience do I want this to be?” is very important too (unsettling satiric romantic epic gothic etc). Defining style (in whatever way you want to apply it - tonal, visual, ‘voice’ high or low, formality of language) before you plunge in, helps you assess what your creative options are. Work out your tools, even list them.

Can you tell me about your collaborations with other film talented people and how you work together?  

I’ve always enjoyed collaborations, in many forms. Rex Pilgrim and I co-wrote three features, two of which got made. Peter Wells also was someone who I could work with in an intuitive way. We co-directed a 35 minute film together called Naughty Little Peeptoe (2000), rarely seen, which will be in the NZIFF this year, which felt like a very personal film, and we adopted that idea, of private work, as our point of entry into an emotionally complex project, which gave us the freedom to be wildly experimental. This film is the second of mine acquired this year by MoMA.

Co-writing is an interesting one. It suits some people but others, not so much. When it works, it really works, and the secret is, I think, to dance around each other’s ideas and inputs, still with your own personal path and destination in mind, but accepting the blows and the nudges from your cowriter (I mean ideas, line-by-line developments, not physical blows!) as you proceed, which makes it a creative zigzag, less predictable and more dazzling. But for that to work you need to be in the same room and to agree that either of you can seize the keyboard at any moment. That requires trust. Actually it requires parking your ego. Some writers just can’t do that. It makes them angry, lol.

Perhaps the most significant collaboration I’ve had is with Michele Fantl, producer at MF Films. Michele has a far-sighted sense of what it means to develop projects, built on the foundation of being such a thoughtful and artistic business-woman, with a fierce sense of social justice. We’ve done many projects together, including Sundance-selected When Love Comes In 1998 (Rena Owen, Nancy Brunning, Sophia Hawthorne, Simon Prast, Dean O’Gorman), and Rude Awakenings (12 hr satiric drama for TVNZ in 2007) with Danielle Cormack, Patrick Wilson, Rose McIver, Carl Bland, Marise Wipani, Hannah Tasker-Poland. Our collaboration continues…

Lucy Sheehan in Beyond Gravity.

What advice can you offer to aspiring filmmakers in Aotearoa?  

One idea that has always given me a kind of freedom, is this - you should (could, might) have three levels of projects on the burner at all times. These relate to scale and budget: big, middle, and low. So you could be developing a big project to pitch (and why not!) - but the likelihood of that going ahead will rely on the kind of success (and contacts) you have prior, but if you are lucky, when asked “what is your next project?” you then will have something big enough for some financiers. Big, to me, is anything over say 5 mill. (Some companies, like Summit, only deal in budgets of say US$10-30 mill as it guarantees them sufficient star power). But concurrently you should be developing mid-range and low or ultra-low budget projects as well. Mid-range could be say $1-3 mill. Low under 1 mill. Ultra low? Under $10 or $20 k. If filmmaking is what is important to you, then the budget is less important than the idea.

Obviously the issue of “making a living” comes into play, but I split my career in two - do television for money, do film for me. I know that created, for a good while, an uncertainty about what I actually was, and depending on your perspective I was either “just” someone doing tv, or I was a “gay director” making ghetto projects. It all kind of resolved in the long run. (PS if over 30 percent of young Americans identify as LGBTQ+, that ain’t no ghetto).

On that note, having a “trade” is a great idea - for me, directing commercial television was a real lifeline. Working on both sides of the Tasman was very exhilarating, and lucrative. And it wasn’t as dry as it sounds, I gave them everything, brought my best ideas, and harvested so many memorable experiences with some of the best actors in the world. But whether you are working in the lighting dept, or directing tv commercials (total respect, but not a field I could ever crack), you are supporting yourself and learning while developing your own projects. If you can, stay attached to the industry, rather than work elsewhere, would be my suggestion.

What are your aspirations for the future? 

I’m focused on writing a sequel to Jack be Nimble, tentatively titled Creatures of the Wind, from the song Wild is the Wind. I have had two amazing writing retreats in Rawene at The Church (perfect place to work, look online) and I will return there in July. Getting away from the phone and my beloved friends has been the key to the real advances that I made while working out this story. It’s a tricky one, linking to a project from 30 years ago, while bringing thematic and stylistic signatures from that first film, knowing that two of the three leads are no longer with us, well that has taken time. But I believe I’ve found my groove. And I’m committed to working again with the electrifying Sarah Smuts-Kennedy.

Do you have a particular film, filmmakers, quote, actor that inspires you and if so why?  

My inspirations are usually directors, who I study to see what their career choices have been. How they react against a film and turn in another direction (I like that kind of mobility). I admit a preference for art-film directors such as the great Jean Luc Godard, but all sorts - Visconti - Warwick Thornton - Nicholas Roeg - Jane Campion (Sweetie is my all time fave of Jane’s) - George Cukor - Mike Nichols - Hitchcock, naturally - Barry Barclay (Ngati is such a touchstone) - Sophia Coppola….

A quote I adore -

“The only safe thing is to take a chance” - Mike Nichols.



Last updated: 
Thursday, 18 April 2024