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The Changeover is an adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s award-winning young adult novel of the same name. Released in 2017, The Changeover tells the story of Laura Chant (Erana James), a teenager living in Christchurch with her solo mum Kate (Melanie Lynskey) and her younger brother Jacko (Benji Purchase). When her brother is marked by evil spirit (played by Timothy Spall) Laura must discover her own supernatural abilities to save him. It’s a fabulous adaptation filled with impressive performances. Co-directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie kindly took a moment to chat about their well-travelled film.


RC: Thanks so much for taking the time to have a chat, and congratulations on a wonderful adaptation. I believe you are in Cannes at the moment? How exciting! What are you up to and how is it going?

We are in Cannes for a screening of The Changeover as part of a program known as Cannes Cinéphile. This was established by the city of Cannes to honour its citizens and their love of film. They loved The Changeover! We are also here in Cannes because our daughter Thomasin stars in Leave No Trace by independent US director Debra Granik. The film is playing in Directors Fortnight. We feel very lucky to be part of 2 films in this iconic festival!

RC: Making a film is a journey that starts way earlier than before the camera rolls, and long after the first premiere. What were some of the highlights and challenges of this particular journey?

There were so many highlights! It was wonderful for Miranda and I to make this film together. We were extremely lucky to work with such a brilliant creative team, making cinematic magic in a story about magic with newcomer Erana James and legend Timothy Spall.

RC: You have been collaborating for years – how’s co-directing? Did you take on specific roles on set?

Yes, we have even collaborated on making 3 children, for which we did have specific roles! On the film we had a kind of mental telepathy going on and knew what each other was thinking and wanted to achieve. I tended to do the talking on set, channeling Miranda’s voice in my head. So, I guess actually she was the one talking!

RC: You gathered an amazing cast for The Changeover – how did you manage to secure the talents of Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless, and what was it like directing them?  

Tim read the screenplay and felt that playing Carmody Braque would be a great challenge. He has described Braque as the most evil character he has ever played, but he was also driven to find some humanity in him too. We made a tone reel with Erana in it to give Tim a feeling for what we wanted the film to feel like. He loved it and thought Erana was incredible and this convinced him to travel half way round the world to work with a bunch of people he’d never met before. He is a maestro — and of course it was a great privilege also to work with the extraordinary Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless!


RC: Of course you also had the fortune of having Dame Kate Harcourt, and your daughter Thomasin McKenzie involved – was it lovely to have them on set or another day at the office? 

Haha, it was never just another day at the office! It was great to have them both on set. And Kate brought such gravitas to the role of the ancient witch Winter Carlisle. She is 90 years old — and you just can’t fake that. Thomasin is 17 — and you can’t fake that either!

RC: Miranda, you’re internationally renowned for your performance coaching, what kind of techniques did you use on set to help Erana James and Benji Purchase get comfortable with their roles and being on set?

The film relies on a strong connection between the characters and that relies on a strong connection between the actors. We did some exercises that are really effective to get people working together in harmony — like doing a hongi from Maori culture. I think our favourite connection tool was getting Nicholas and Erana to do a Tandem Bunge Jump at AJ Hackett Bungy in Queenstown. They were pretty damn connected after that!

RC: Stuart, the film is based on Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel – is it easier to write an adaptation or an original work?

Do you know what, I think it might be easier to write an original story! But we were so fortunate to secure the rights to Margaret’s wonderful book which moved us with its strong female character of Laura and the deep themes of love, identity, sacrifice and empowerment. Before she died, Margaret read a draft of the screenplay and loved it. She was excited that we had found our own way into the story. She knew that like Laura, we needed to changeover as well.


RC: I loved the atmosphere and tone of the film and thought locating the film in Christchurch was an inspired idea. What kind of discussions did you have before filming about how you wanted to tell this story?

I updated the novel to set it in the here and now. When it was first published in 1984, The Changeover was utterly contemporary. That was a great part of its impact and its originality. Margaret calls up the supernatural — the realisation of mystery and wonder — through her strong sense of naturalism.

We wanted to respect the spirit of the book in this way. That is why we set the film in the specific reality of post-earthquake Christchurch.

Interestingly, the book functions like a Tarot pack in which many potentialities and possible futures are evoked. When I read it again after the Christchurch earthquakes, wondering where we should set the film now, the book answered me directly: I was struck by an image I had never noticed before, in which Laura hears rumbling earthquakes as she journeys inside herself to change herself.

Our decision to go ahead and set the adaptation in post-earthquake Christchurch then inspired many of the other changes in the film that the novel itself anticipates and welcomes.

The brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and her subsequent transformation.

RC: and now for that pesky final question – what next?

Well we have been on quite an adventure with The Changeover playing at a number of cool Festivals including Cannes and Rome — and next on the list, Sydney. So we have done lots of travel. Now that our daughter Thomasin is working internationally we are doing some travel with her as she is still just young. Luckily, it is possible to write while travelling, so Stuart is working on our next film, an adaptation of the NZ novel by Lloyd Jones Here At The End Of The World We Learn To Dance. And the acting coaching I do all over the world is easy to do anywhere, anytime. I just need a phone and an internet connection! We are both looking forward to making our next film together!

The Changeover screens on Saturday 19th May, 8.30pm on Rialto Channel. 

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Francesca Rudkin

Francesca Rudkin

Over the last 20 years Francesca Rudkin has been working in the media as a film and music reviewer (NZ Herald, Breakfast TV), a television presenter and producer, and voice over artist. Francesca is Rialto Channel's resident vlogger, allowing her to indulge in her love of world cinema. Her next challenge is to convince her young children that being a “Cinephile” is a legitimate profession.

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