Back in 2019, Taratoa Stappard had a short film showing at the Māoriland Film Festival. During the event the NZFC Talent Development team ran a pitch competition. Taratoa won the competition and used the funds to develop his pitch into what would become Taumanu (Reclaim), a 22 min short that just played in Aspen Film’s Shortsfest selections.
Taratoa is currently developing his first feature Mārama, a Māori Gothic thriller, set in Victorian England, 1859. The project was selected for the 2023 Berlinale Co-Production Market and the NZFC supported Taratoa and Sweetshop & Green's Rouzie Hassanova to attend.
NZFC caught up with him to ask him about his filmmaking journey.
Who are you, where are you based and what are you working on at the moment?
Tēnā koutou. Ko Taratoa Stappard tōku ingoa. I was born in Hawera, my father was English, my mother is Māori (Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa me Ngāti Tūwharetoa) and I’ve lived and worked in London, U.K. for most of my life.
I’m a writer-director, currently preparing my first feature, Mārama, a Māori Gothic Revenge Horror set in Victorian England. I wrote my first draft in 2020 as a participant on the nine-month imagineNATIVE Indigenous Screenwriting Intensive, based in Toronto. My story editor on that programme introduced me to Sharlene George, a brilliant producer in Auckland who is of Cook Island Māori descent. In 2021, Sharlene optioned my script for her production company, Sweetshop & Green.
How did you first come across the NZFC?
When a short film of mine was selected for the 2019 Māoriland Film Festival, I knew I had to be there. Māoriland is a unique festival showing beautiful indigenous films from all over the world; and my mother grew up around Ōtaki, so it was an unmissable opportunity for me to reconnect with family and friends after many years away.
Dale Corlett and Jude McLaren from the NZFC Talent Development team ran a pitch competition at Māoriland and I won with an idea that came to me when I was staying with my Aunt out at Ōtaki Beach. I used the competition prize money to develop the idea and two years later I was commissioned by NZ On Air and Te Māngai Pāho to direct my script, Taumanu (Reclaim), with Sharlene George as producer. Our film screened on TVNZ in their anthology of supernatural indigenous stories, Beyond the Veil.
How important is it for you to be able to tell stories from a Māori perspective?
Growing up and living outside Aotearoa meant that I lacked any real or lived experience of my Māoritanga. But I always enjoyed my mother’s accounts of our tūpuna - and I reckon because she is such a powerful figure in my life, her stories of the wāhine toa in our family captivated me the most.
Inspired by these stories, I eventually found the confidence to attempt to tell stories from a Māori perspective. To begin with, I wanted mostly to celebrate and honour those unique women in my family. Then gradually I found myself creating Māori protagonists who share a key characteristic: they’re all somehow detached or displaced from their own culture – like I was. And they are characters who are seeking some kind of balance in their lives – like I am.
As a Māori creative, how valuable is it for the NZFC to have a Rautaki strategy and team?
I first met Te O Kahurangi Waaka at Māoriland in 2019 and she’s been instrumental in nurturing my self-belief as a Māori filmmaker. I’ve worked closely with her and Kathryn Graham on the development of Mārama and it’s been both invaluable and reassuring for me to know that these wāhine Māori have my back. They believe in how I’m using genre to tell my story, they offer me generous, insightful script notes and they ensure I work to get every Māori aspect of my story authentic and tika. On the few occasions they were uncertain about an aspect of my story, they quickly connected me with the right person, with the necessary Māori expertise or experience, to help me progress my script.
Can you tell me about the 2021 Black List New Zealand Project? How were the NZFC involved?
The Black List is an L.A.-based online platform ‘dedicated to empowering screenwriters to maximize their professional potential’. Mārama was one of six scripts by Aotearoa writers chosen for the inaugural collaboration between the NZFC and The Black List which facilitated a series of intensive online workshops and masterclasses with U.S. story consultants, producers and studio/streamer executives. Each of the six writers received one-to-one development feedback from three successful screenwriters in Hollywood. To top it all, each writer received NZ$25K of NZFC Early Development financing to write the next draft of their scripts.
After the Black List NZ Project, Chris Payne, Head of International Relations at NZFC, helped me introduce my work to further U.S. managers and producers, making more connections that will serve me well in the future.
Tell us about any other support you’ve received from the NZFC
Mārama received a second round of Early Development Funding which allowed me to work deeper into my script with focused development guidance from Māori writer-director, Kath Akuhata-Brown. I prepared for a Mārama application to the 2023 Berlinale Co-Production Market, my script was selected as an ‘Official Project’ and I pitched it to potential co-producers and sales agents at the European Film Market held alongside the Berlin International Film Festival. Most recently, Sweetshop & Green have applied for Advanced Development Funding to help us with pre-production costs on Mārama and to begin the casting process.
Last year I received a ‘Final Draft’ Fellowship to attend the Stowe Story Labs Writers Retreat in California, and I applied successfully for a Tautoko Tāngata Māori Talent Development grant that helped fund my travel expenses.
This year Taumanu was selected to screen in competition at the Aspen Shortsfest and I was able to be there thanks to part funding from a NZFC Travel Grant.
What advice can you offer to aspiring filmmakers in Aotearoa?
1/ The world is yours and it wants to hear from you. There’s no need to emulate stories or styles that you think might ‘play’ internationally. Craft stories that could only belong to you, a filmmaker from Aotearoa. The more specific and personal your story is, the more likely it will find an audience and further your career.
2/ Apply for all the filmmaking masterclasses, workshops, bursaries, fellowships and ‘emerging talent’ programmes that you can find (unless they charge you to apply – ditch those ones). Every time you face yet another blank application form, it will become a little easier to complete. You will be constantly refining your growing arsenal of answers, and in that process, you will continue to discover more about who you are and what you want to achieve as a filmmaker. I applied three years in a row before I was accepted onto the 2020 Edinburgh I.F.F. ‘Talent Lab’ and the 2022 Zurich I.F.F. ‘Academy’. Side note: the selectors and ‘gatekeepers’ keep records of previous applications and your first failed application might have been a near-miss – so never give up, just go again.
3/ Make your short, by whatever means necessary. Then submit carefully to festivals. There are only a few festivals that are worth an eye-watering submission fee. Some of the very best festivals are free to submit to; they have quality programmes, packed screenings, and they look after you well.
Aotearoa may be a long way from some of these festivals and talent programmes, but when you’re successful with a submission or an application, you can lobby the NZFC hard for financial support to attend in person.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to directing Mārama, and meanwhile…
I’m writing my next draft of a feature called Emkhatsini (Between), about a wahine Māori in a coma in an Auckland I.C.U., who finds herself mistakenly dispatched to the wrong afterlife. Set in the Kingdom of Eswatini (a.k.a. Swaziland) and Mozambique, I pitch Emkhatsini as a surreal, feel-good film about dying… and surviving.
I’ve been commissioned to make a short film for Monsoon Picture’s upcoming feature anthology of stories centered around Jacinda Ardern. My short, Wahine Diva, is set in Vienna, 2022 and is based on my mother’s personal history as an opera singer. It’s a triumphant celebration of a middle-aged Māori woman’s reclamation of her indigenous voice, mana and freedom.
And I’m at early development stage on a TV series that introduces the origin stories and first adventures of the Māori sisters in Taumanu.
Find out more about Tatatoa on the social links below.
Find out more about Talent Development Funding here.
Find ouf more about Te Rautaki Māori Funding here.