|A locally-made feature film set in backcountry New Zealand in the 1960s will tell the tale of a forbidden relationship between two men, something its makers hope will help us celebrate the brave from our past, and how far the nation has come.
Kieran Foster plays central character, Billy West of Eden is the creation of a multi-talented arts couple: Vanessa Riddell wrote the film, also acts in it, and is a producer - while her husband Alastair, who also happens to be a gifted musician, is the director. The Auckland pair runs Little Red Hen Pictures, which already has the movies Broken Hallelujah and The Last Stop under its belt.
Vanessa Riddell says the idea for West of Eden first began brewing when she decided she wanted to set a film in the 1960s, a time of change around the world – but more than 20 years before Homosexual Law Reform even happened here.
“Really still in New Zealand it was a long time before the change happened. So it’s always interesting when you’re looking at a particular time capsule, and you think looking at all the news that that’s what it must have been like for everyone. But really it wasn’t,” she tells GayNZ.com.
“In popular culture, among youth, there may have been a shift going on. But for the majority it still wasn’t accepted. That is a big part of the problem in the story.”
Writer, actor and producer Vanessa Riddell Riddell says it’s amazing to look back at this time now, as gay relations being illegal just seems ridiculous.
“But I felt the film needed to be made because often when we look back on history we tend to forget the people who actually fought for a cause and how hard it was for them at the time. Because it’s actually very easy when you’re looking back on it - it looks so simple because it’s an accepted thing.
“I really felt it was important that this story was told, for New Zealand, because I don’t think we’ve really got a lot of films here in New Zealand that have been made about a homosexual relationship. Certainly not in the 1960s.”
The story starts in the city, and the main character Billy then goes to a rural situation. Riddell says that’s to show gay people may have been under the radar, but we were obviously everywhere.
“They were probably more up front in the city about things. But the reaction from people was still very similar in it was one of being accepted, until they found that out about you, then you were not.”
Billy is someone who is easy to get on with, but Riddell says when people find out what his sexual preference is, “all the doors start to shut and it’s completely different”.
Laughing, she freely concedes that when she writes she takes inspiration from people around her. Friends will often say ‘hmm, I recognise something here!’ When it comes to a central idea in West of Eden, she doesn’t want to give it away, but there is something she was once told which really stuck with her. “When you see the film I think you’ll see what part that is. It moved me, shocked me and moved me at the same time, and I incorporated it into the story.”
It’s hard not to wonder if West of Eden will be looked upon as something akin to a New Zealand Brokeback Mountain. Riddell laughs and says people probably will think that – however she’s never actually seen that film.
“It’s a film I would like to see. I just haven’t seen it. I didn’t go into this film with that in my mind, but it’s like any film, if you were to write anything like a love story, they have always been written before.”
But West of Eden is a New Zealand story. Billy is Maori and gay, a combination Riddell says she really wanted, along with his city roots, to show people have many more layers than their sexuality. Vintage car owners were kind enough to allow them to be used on set From the screen shots and trailers that have been released, it’s clear it will be visually stunning. It was filmed mainly at Awhitu Peninsula on the remote end of Auckland’s Manukau Harbour.
“It was quite a trek every time we went out there, but I think it was really worth it,” Riddell says.
“We were very fortunate that we had somebody who had a house that was perfect. Not only on the outside but also inside. And there were very accommodating and very generous … and the beautiful countryside around it creates the atmosphere.”
Like most New Zealand arts projects, West of Eden has been helped by the generosity of many, including those who were happy for their vintage cars to be used on set.
Costumes were also a major part of making it all authentic. Riddell and her hardworking assistant Hilary Keen scoured op shops and theatre costume departments for weeks to find outfits, especially for a large wedding scene in the film.
They ended up with a whole room full of clothing, including endless hats, gloves, shoes and props.
“We were very picky about the fact it had to look right. Alastair the director is a stickler for detail and has a great eye for anything that just doesn’t quite work!”
Riddell didn’t find it hard to wear the hats of writer and actor, but says being a producer too is when things get a little trickier.
“As an actor it’s about allowing trust and openness. As a producer I am looking at the clock, thinking ‘we are going over time’ and ‘have we got this, have we got that’.”
The writer’s hat, she leaves behind completely once she hands the script over to the director/her husband.
“One of the great things about doing multiple tasks on a film set is that you do actually appreciate everything that each person contributes,” she says.
When it comes to the cast, she is animatedly full of praise. Kieran Foster plays the key character Billy. He has done a lot of theatre but this is his big screen debut. “I was searching for the lead for quite some time. In fact it held up filming because I couldn’t find the right person. I was getting pretty desperate actually and started asking around.”
One of her former tutors recommended Foster, who was in one of his classes. He auditioned and it was a moment of deep excited inhalation – they’d found their Billy. “He has a warmth and just a general appeal to people. And he looks great on screen too, but in a real way.” Luke Thompson plays Tom
Luke Thompson plays the other male lead, Tom, and is the perfect fit they were looking for. He has a few film credits up his sleeve including 3 Mile Limit and The Kick – where he portrayed All Black Jimmy Cowan.
Long-time actor Peter Ford plays Riddell’s on-screen husband. He was auditioning for another role when they threw him the West of Eden script to read from, and he was the one. Dean Carruthers is the film’s cinematographer, while Pete Hansen, Sarah James, Michael Probine, Alistair Browning and Liam Fennell play some of the other important roles – while Riddell’s daughter Brighde also has a part, making it even more of a family affair. She also does all the actors’ make up!
The film is due out in 2016. Riddell hopes the gay community sees it as a celebration of our past and how far we have come. “[Gay people] are just people living in the world they live in now, and that’s how it should be. That we are not differentiating people by their sexual preference. I should not even come into anything at all. It’s just personal.”
For everyone else, she hopes it shows how we have grown as a society. “That we can accommodate and be welcoming with everyone, and not slotting people into little boxes all the time. That’s what we hope.”
Riddell says West of Eden is also about remembering that to make real social change, there are people who have to put themselves out there and at risk. “We need to appreciate that.”
GayNZ.com will have full details once the release date is announced – we can’t wait!
Jacqui Stanford - 29th September 2015