High-octane film on a low budget

In Kiwi movie Fantail, its star and screenwriter Sophie Henderson plays a woman called Tania who has grown up among Maori to the point she doesn’t see herself as Pakeha.

Tania works on the graveyard shift at a petrol station in South Auckland, to save money so she can take her brother Piwakawaka to Surfers Paradise to find their father.

Much of the action of Fantail takes placed in the petrol station, but while inspiration for the story came from several quarters, Henderson says some of it came from her own childhood. “I grew up in Auckland but I spent time [also] growing up in Whangarei. I went to primary school where I was one of the only white kids in my class. I was quite immersed in Maori culture and loved Maori culture. I did kapa haka and spoke a little te reo and knew Maori legends.

“When you are little you go, ‘Well, I know all about this culture, so I must be Maori, too’. So it wasn’t until I was older that I went, ‘Hang on – that’s not mine and what is my culture’ Can I claim Maori culture I strongly identify with it as a New Zealander, but I don’t have the answer to those questions. But I think that’s the questions I was asking in the film.”

Henderson, who has had roles in several television series including playing Cheryl West’s lawyer in the final season of Outrageous Fortune, first developed the idea for Fantail through a short monologue she wrote and performed while studying drama at Unitec in Auckland.

“It was a monologue by Tania, which was kind of a confession to the audience through [speaking via] a security camera.

“From there it was always going to be a play. Industry people had seen it at drama school and my tutors always [said] ‘this is the biggest thing’, so I wrote it as a play first. But the best thing that ever happened to me was that I got turned down for funding for development of the play and at the same time we got turned down for New Zealand Film Commission funding.”

Henderson says in hindsight it was a good thing because it forced her to rethink the story, centre it on a few characters and mostly one location, which then made it possible for it to be shot as a film on a tiny budget. At this point director Curtis Vowell, who had worked in theatre and as an assistant director in television, came in. Henderson, who has written other plays including I Heart Camping, also had to hone her skills in writing for film. “My first draft was like a carbon copy of the play.”

She studied guide books and watched a lot of movies. “It’s telling it in pictures, rather than words.”

To prepare for the role and help with the script, she also had a stint working behind the counter at the petrol station used in the film, although during the day rather than the graveyard shift.

“It was really interesting. People thought that I must have been the owner of the shop because of how I looked – and I did find myself speaking kind of differently and trying to rough up a bit.”

The cast, which includes Jarod Rawiri (as the petrol station’s regional manager Dean), Stephen Lovatt (Tania’s boss Rog), and young newcomer Jahalis Ngamotu as Pi, spent five days and 15 nights shooting the film with a 15-member crew.

Ad Feedback

“It was full on. It was a working petrol station, and we would rock up when it closed at 6pm and then we would do 10 hours. It was so small, and you could imagine 15 crew members all squished into this tiny place. It all got a bit crazy but it was also amazing. We were all working together and we all believed in the story.”

Henderson and Vowell married and Fantail had its first New Zealand screenings at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year.

Henderson’s working on a new film, Manhunt, with Film Commission support. “It’s a comedy about a woman who always falls for the wrong man, so she decides to make her own boyfriend out of household objects.

“It’s quite different.”

– The Dominion Post