Image above: Guy Pearce in The Convert
Robin Scholes is one of New Zealand’s most experienced and respected screen producers. Her credits range from feature films: Once Were Warriors, Mahana, Mr Pip to television content: Magic Kiwis, Black Sands, The New Legends of Monkey and documentaries such as Colin McCahon: I Am.
Robin’s latest film is The Convert, directed by Lee Tamahori and starring Guy Pearce about a preacher with a violent past who arrives at a British settlement in 1830s New Zealand and finds himself caught in the middle of a bloody war between Māori tribes.
Spotlight got the opportunity to talk to Robin about how she and her team got The Convert funded:
How did you become involved in The Convert?
The project started 11 years prior to the film being greenlit for production when I optioned the novel Wulf, a story based on the diaries of two young English sailors on a ship that was trading flax for muskets. I brought Brad Haami on board and after looking at the limitations of the historical record associated with the novel, Haami suggested devising a fictitious narrative and characters to shape a story not bound by history, but still held within the cultural context.
Te Ao Māori and Tikanga Māori are clearly key to the project – how did you approach The Convert as an authentic cultural partnership?
I guess my answer is, I know of no other way of working. Māori should be involved as creative partners if Māori characters are being portrayed. With Once Were Warriors, Don Selwyn guided us; with Mahana, Brad Haami and Ngamaru Raerino; with The Convert, Brad Haami, Ngamaru Raerino, Te Kohe Tuhaka, Pita Turei and overarching all of them is Lee Tamahori because he has to find a way to make tikanga serve his vision.
How is the NZFC involved in The Convert?
The NZFC both through its usual production investment and its involvement in NZSPG and PPF is closely involved in the development and release of The Convert.
(NZFC Note - Earlier in its life, the project was supported by the NZFC’s Early Development Fund, Co-Production Development Fund [now known as the International Co-Development Fund] and Advanced Development Fund. While screenwriter, Shane Danielsen was in New Zealand in July 2018 developing the project, he also ran a session for NZ screenwriters.)
Funding the project was a challenge that was overcome thanks to what I call “an extremely fortunate accident” in the form of a post-COVID funding scheme initiated by the New Zealand Government. The New Zealand screen industry had been hard hit by COVID and needed bigger projects to revitalise itself. The Government decided that they would put up a Premium Production Fund which was specifically for large scale projects. Without that fund, The Convert could not have been made.
In late 2015, I approached Troy Lum, whose company distributed Lee Tamahori’s Mahana in Australia and New Zealand, with the suggestion that the project could become a New Zealand-Australia official co-production with Troy and Andrew Mason’s production company Brouhaha Entertainment.
As partners each of us had unique skills to bring to the table. On the NZ side, I have many years’ experience as an on-the-ground producer and Te Kohe brings a knowledge of tikanga. On the Australian side, Troy brings his knowledge of the international market and international financing partners, and Andrew Mason brings a wealth of post-production expertise with a particular interest in VFX.
It was quickly clear that the co-production would operate best if the prep and all filming were carried out in New Zealand - the glory of NZ locations, the availability of superb Mãori cast, and of course, the huge craft talent pool were all factors - and for post to be based in Sydney, Australia, with the great Australian talents in VFX, sound, finishing and music all being vital factors.
How did you approach introducing the project to the market and setting up the financing?
Most people in the screen industry have relationships that span decades. I met Troy Lum 25 years ago. He later bought distribution rights for Mahana in Australia and New Zealand. He’s very respectful of the filmmakers choices. When Lee was attached to The Convert I approached him first and he was interested. Troy also had a longstanding relationship with David Garrett and Mister Smith so he introduced them and another financier to the film.
Image above: Lee Tamahori
What advice would you give to filmmakers who want to put together an official co-production?
I would say it has to begin with what the film itself and the creative team want. With The Convert we could not have had better partners. We each bought different but complementary skills to the film and everyone was there to support and serve Lee.
Putting together the finance and team for a film like The Convert involves an enormous amount of strategic planning, meticulous attention to the detail of multiple contracts and a willingness to overcome every barrier that is placed in your way.
Can you tell me about the release of The Convert?
The Convert will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2023 and the intention is for sales and release dates in various territories including New Zealand and Australia to follow on from this.