Film director Patrick Gillies tells the story behind a homespun feelgood movie that came together with a jolt or two.
“Our film opens nationwide on September 15,” my partner-in-crime, Angus Benfield, informs me. Rugby World Cup month. “Isn’t that like the ‘Month of Death’ for movies in this country?”
Angus urges me to have some faith. We’ll be offering a cinematic antidote for all those sick of the rugby: a feelgood comedy-drama with no swearing or nudity. I remain unconvinced. Welcome to the harsh reality of micro-budget film-making in New Zealand.
Our story begins 10 years earlier, when Angus, an Australian actor-writer-producer, is working as a youth pastor at a Sydney mega-church.
Disillusioned by what he regards as an over-emphasis on materialism, he begins writing a film satirising the commercialisation of religion and the neglect of society’s outcasts.
Fast forward several years, and Angus has settled in Christchurch with his Kiwi wife, Ruth. Our paths cross, and he flicks me a copy of his screenplay, The Holy Roller, the story of a struggling preacher who transforms a seedy nightclub into a thriving church, attracting unwanted attention from the local crime-lords.
Angus doesn’t give a hoot that I am a dirty heathen. His mission is to make a mainstream movie that will appeal to anyone, regardless of their theosophical beliefs.
In mid-2008, a phone call: we’re in the money. A mainly Christchurch-based business consortium has fronted up with $160,000 – a pot of gold to someone like me who has never made a film for over $45,000.
Filmed mostly in Christchurch’s CBD over the course of 15 days in late January 2009, it was fantastic to see our characters spring to life in the hands of personalities like Mark Hadlow, Simon Barnett and Jason Gunn.
But lack of further funding meant I was faced with editing the movie myself. Post-production dragged on another 18 months while I juggled childcare and a part-time job in retail.
And then, in the small hours of September 4, 2010, the people of Christchurch were jolted from their beds by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake. My wife and I braced ourselves in our bedroom doorway clutching our baby – it felt similar to standing in a rocking dinghy for 50 seconds. The quake destroyed our trust in the very ground on which we stood and shattered our faith in our homes as a protective sanctuary. But, as the city slowly picked up the pieces, it felt like getting a Get Out of Jail Free card. Nobody had died.
Soon came the sight of students actually being tidy, followed by rock concerts featuring some of the country’s hippest musical talent and Ray Columbus. A great big Summer of Civic Love with mandatory hard hats and hi-viz vests. There was progress on the film front, too; The Holy Roller was going to have its international premiere at the John Paul II International Film Festival in Miami. With a $25,000 post-production grant from the New Zealand Film Commission, we cranked up a gear, aiming for a late-February completion date.
It was the afternoon of February 22, 2011. My last session of audio postproduction was scheduled for that evening. I was still in my pyjamas – having done two all-nighters – and was heading for the shower, when the earth jumped violently. Barefoot, I raced across broken glass to shelter my screaming wife and child.
We were traumatised, but safe. Two days later, we fled to Dunedin to take refuge in my father-in-law’s one-bedroom council flat. Victims of the quake included friends and extended family of our crew, as well as CTV staff who facilitated some shooting in their studios. These, and at least a dozen locations were either destroyed or badly damaged, changing the city skyline that features in the film.
When The Holy Roller screened in Christchurch late last month in the New Zealand International Film Festival, the joy of conquering this mountain was tinged with sadness. Fresh off the set of The Hobbit, Mark Hadlow emphasised how proud he was to be part of our film and how proud he was for the sake of the city.
For us, and everyone else in Canterbury at the time, the earthquakes brought into focus our true priorities. Survival basics like food, water, shelter and warmth. But foremost, the health and safety of our loved ones.
The experience made me appreciate some of the sentiments in the film. I used to think “hope” was merely a carrot, a means to anaesthetise us from our own inevitable mortality. Now I realise it’s also a survival instinct, a powerful source of motivation when surrounded by helplessness.
The Holy Roller is an unashamedly uplifting film and a celebration of the noblest of human values: a good ol’ dose of feelgood.