Former host of Queer Nation, paperboy, self-described ‘diplomatic spouse’, Shortland Street scriptwriter and now – filmmaker. The amazing Max Currie has done it all, and then some! I was lucky enough to have a chat to him ahead of Rialto Channel’s airing of his beautiful debut feature, Everything We Loved, a tale of life, love and most importantly, family. Was he as fascinating as the emotionally riveting tale? You bet…
How long was Everything We Loved in your creative bank before you started officially working on it as a film?
It’s not until I finished Everything We Loved that I realised how much of my childhood found it’s way into the film. Some of it in a literal sense: like the story book Charlie reads to Tommy in bed (it’s old and frayed because my parents read it to me when I was a kid, thirty years ago). But other stuff is more visceral. The composition of Charlie on the beach with the tide out, with his back turned to us after he gets confronted by his son - I used a memory of my Dad, standing in the garden, looking at the fence after I came home from school and accused him of lying to me about Santa Claus. And then there’s all the magic - I put on magic shows for my poor family, with my brother as my assistant. I’ve always been fascinated by illusion, and the way that magic is kind of a lie that we love, a con-job we applaud for.
Did you always know you had a film in you?
No. Not at all. To the extent that when the idea first came to me, that I could write and direct a film it hit me like a five-tonne epiphany. It took ten years and a lot of unproduced scripts to become a reality.
The truly dramatic revelations in the film are quite staggered, to great effect. Was that the plan from the get-go?
You know that thing where, if someone loses their sight, they start to hear and taste better? I feel like, by holding back some of the key information; it heightens the audience’s senses to the textures, tonne and nuance. Rather than being told what’s happened to this family, you’re feeling it in Charlie and Angela’s faces, in what they don’t say to each other, in the dust and the spiderwebs. It also means your judgement of this couple is always shifting as you find out more - I love that. We judge people so quickly, and in this film, time and time again, we have to keep re-evaluating how we feel about these loving people who may or may not have done something monstrous. We have to keep re-evaluating our own morality.
The film is highly emotive but also quite traditionally filmed, was that deliberate? It felt like it was dialled down in that area to make the characters seem so more raw.
This is a performance-driven film, no doubt about it. There’s a beautiful, ethereal sequence at the midpoint, where time and gravity slow down and bend around this family for a moment - it was a great chance to push the visuals. We had a great review in The Hollywood Reporter that said the actors do the heavy lifting here, and I couldn’t agree more.
The two leads have a really natural chemistry together, did it take a long time to find such a compatible pair?
We were so lucky. Six years after vowing never to act again, our leading man Brett Stewart told his agent he wanted one more crack at it a week before our casting call went out. Brett made me tear up in his audition - he nailed it. Once we had our Charlie it took a while to find his wife, Angela. Sia Trokenheim stood out from the start but… she was over eight months pregnant with her first child! So we had to consider all these unexpected questions - how would she breast feed? How would she cope not being with her baby? Or would she bring Torenzo to set? How would it affect her performance? As it turned out, Sia’s maternal feelings for wee Torenzo bought a riveting new dimension to her craft. Her body was literally aching for baby - she had to run off between takes to express milk! But when her character first meets Tommy in the film, and wrestles with her maternal instincts - man, you can really feel it. She’s incredible.
Ben is an amazing, natural talent. How did you find him? He seems so ‘real’, for want of a better word.
This was the hardest part of the audition process and the biggest risk in making Everything We Loved - the whole production rests on a little set of five-year-old shoulders. In the end I think it came down to extraordinary luck, and our sharp-eyed casting director, Linda McFetridge. Linda was at a hip-hop class with her son and saw a little boy listening very carefully to the instructor and repeating the moves. And that was Ben.
Your debut has garnered no end of praise, does that put enormous pressure on you to repeat history with another feature?
Actually, the success of Everything We Loved kind of does the opposite. If it had tanked and disappeared without trace then I’d be feeling enormous pressure - I don’t know if I could have come back from that. But instead, there’s this sense of strength and possibility and optimism. The odds were staked so hugely against us - tiny budget, new director, New Zealand’s youngest ever actor in a leading role, and unknown cast. But we did it, we exceeded all expectations, and we all want to work together again. There’s so much that seems possible now. I guess the only sense of pressure is choosing my next project wisely - of not squandering the ‘gold pass’!
What are you working on right now?
This week I’m finishing the second draft of a script for Step Dave before jumping on a plane to the Marrakech International Film Festival, where Everything We Loved is in competition for best film. Last year Martin Scorcese was President of the Jury and this year it’s Isabelle Huppert, who I’ve been mad for since her jaw-dropping performance in The Piano Teacher. Further afield I’m developing three films: one’s a thriller about digital voyeurism, the second is a romance about falling in love across a language barrier, and the third is a pyschosexual drama about fathers and sons. I’m also super excited about a TV drama I’m working on about New Zealand’s modern day Bukowski. I know… TV about a poet - I reckon we’re ready for it!
You’ve been a writer for Shortland Street and Step Dave, did you see that as just another ‘day job’, or a chance to practice writing for screen?
What people don’t realise about Shortland Street is that the most talented screenwriters in New Zealand are writing for it. Think about that - it’s the only weekly paying job for a screenwriter in the country. It’s an incredible opportunity to hone your craft if you can make it into the show’s writing pool, but competition for those writing spots is fierce, and the standard is extremely high. To be honest, even after five years, I never really cracked it. And the relentless time-pressure is hard on people. Writing Step Dave is more fun - you get much more time to work on the writing, and the show is a comedy so we have a lot of laughs on the writing team. It’s also fun writing comedy for Sia Trokenheim, my leading lady from Everything We Loved - she has quite the range.
You’ve travelled a reasonable amount – as with any Kiwi, I guess! – do you fancy making films overseas, or are you going to stick close to home for now?
Like a lot of Kiwis, some of my most formative experiences were overseas - I was a diplomatic spouse in NYC for two years, I lived in Berlin for a year on an arts scholarship, and when my first script got optioned by a US production company I used the money to quit my job and move to Los Angeles to waste time writing derivative crap that never got me anywhere! But now, a lot of the stories I want to tell come from these experiences. I’ll go wherever the films take me, but it’s vital I can bring my Kiwi collaborators along for the ride. So in that sense, my work will always be close to home.