(l-r) James Rolleston and Dean O’Gorman.
Kiwi director Matt Murphy grew up helping out on shoots with his filmmaker father Geoff.
Geoff made his feature debut with Goodbye Pork Pie in the early 80s. Murphy the younger worked on the film as a teenager before embarking on his own career as a gaffer, an art director and finally a director himself, based out of Sydney but shooting commercials globally.
Murphy has now made his own feature debut – with Pork Pie, a remake of his father’s film in Australian cinemas May 4.
The director began writing the screenplay, his first, five years ago, and describes his early drafts as “a bit too Hollywood”.
“I wrote bigger car chases, more fantastic stunts,” Murphy tells IF. “And then I realized films are about the characters, about people and their journeys. You can have the biggest event ever but if it’s not relatable it means nothing to an audience.”
“I think I took a year and a half to actually understand the form of the screenplay, and probably another year and a half to get it to where I thought it was good.”
Executive producer Tim White introduced Murphy to producer Tom Hern (The Dark Horse), who jumped onboard around eight months prior to production.
“They wanted to get some fresh eyes and a bit of fresh energy behind the project,” says Hern. “I was too young to be majorly affected by the original film. That came out in ’81, before I was born, so when I read Matt’s draft I was really just reading it as its own standalone yarn.”
“There was a strong story there but my approach was about trying to make the script more Matt. I got to know him quite quickly and he’s a bit of a romantic, which is quite different to his old man, [and] different to the original film. I really wanted us to work with that energy.”
Hern and Murphy were buoyed by the strong response to the script, even in regions in which the original film was little known.
“Although the international market wasn’t super familiar with the underlying work, it’s a road movie about three accidental outlaws who travel the length of New Zealand in a yellow mini, and that’s fairly accessible,” says Hern. “It’s a fun adventure and the market responded positively to that, and to the comedy.”
“So we had no problems there. It was a tricky project to finance for other reasons, in that it needed a decent budget, being a road movie and having some of those big action set-pieces. And it was Matt’s first feature film. It was a tricky proposition.”
James Rolleston (Boy) jumped onboard as one of the three leads, with Australian actress Ashleigh Cummings (Hounds of Love) attached as his love interest.
“She got a look at the audition script from her agent early on, and she put a lot of work into her self-test,” recalls Murphy.
“She loved the character and she really wanted to be in it. In the first test she tested with an Australian accent, [and] in the second she had a completely authentic Kiwi accent. I was like, wow, this girl is amazing.”
The hardest role to cast was the lead character, Jon, the lovable loser on a quest to win back his ex-girlfriend.
“We looked far and wide,” says Murphy. “I went through a lot of New Zealand actors and there were a lot of people who put their hands up for it. I looked in Australia. We were looking further afield even to Irish actors.”
Eventually the director found Kiwi actor Dean O’Gorman (The Hobbit). “He nailed the comedy, the drama, and the romance in the couple of scenes that we tested,” says Murphy. “He got the tone of the movie, and he embodied what I knew I needed in that lead character.”
With the leads in place and a budget upwards of five million (plus in-kind support from BMW New Zealand, who supplied four Minis for the film’s numerous car chases), Pork Pie began filming last year.
Hern describes the 39-day shoot as “a logistical nightmare.”
“Any road movie is,” the producer tells IF. “You don’t have any breaks; the circus has to move on to the next town the next day, irrespective of what goes down on your shoot day. Whether it’s bad weather or falling behind in the schedule the show must go on, so it was a high pressure shoot.”
Embarking on the longest shoot of his life, Murphy’s experience on set held him in good stead.
“I’ve shot in countries all around the world, and typically in ads you get a day or two to get the goods,” he says. “You can be stalled very easily by all manner of [things] – the authorities won’t give you permission or an actor’s got problems or a vehicle breaks down. You’ve got to learn how to navigate all those issues and get your shoot done.”
Despite his comfort with the nuts and bolts of production, Murphy found he was exhausted a week and a half in.
“I was like: how the hell am I going to get seven weeks of shoot? But by week two I had my fitness up and I was in the zone, and that carried me through the shoot.”
The director worked closely with DP Crighton Bone, with whom he’d shot several commercials, on making the film’s car chase sequences as visceral as possible.
“You get a road closure and you have a certain amount of time to do it and you need to know where you want to put your cameras,” says Murphy.
“I mapped it out pretty closely to what I wanted. Then I had freedom to add shots. But bare bones I knew what I needed to make that scene work, and I could share that with the crew and everyone could see it on a page. That’s pretty crucial, because with a limited budget and shutting down city streets… they only let you do that for so long, so time is crucial in those situations.”
“I did a lot of preparation, and you want to do that ahead of time so [that] on the day you can be there for the actors, because fundamentally the scene doesn’t work if the actors aren’t happy.”
“We could have spent double the time shooting those action sequences, but we just didn’t have the money,” recalls Hern. “So it was pretty stressful. We certainly rode our contingency close to the wire in terms of budget all the way along, and really pushed at every juncture to try and make the film the best it could be.”
Post was run out of Wellington’s Park Road after filming wrapped in June 2016, with the film completed in December.
Pork Pie opened in New Zealand in early February this year, and cast and crew conducted a roadshow through some of the regions where the film was shot. Hern describes the reception as “gratifying”.
“We took the film to a bunch of places that don’t usually have actors visit their towns, and it was just standing ovations, spontaneous applause, laughter. And that’s who we made the film for – audiences.”