Louise Nicholas story brought to the screen

When Wellington film-maker Robert Sarkies auditioned actors for Consent – The Louise Nicholas Story, he didn’t ask them to simply read lines from the script.

“I wanted the truth of the story to resonate with the actors who came in. So in the waiting room, instead of having copies of Woman’s Weekly as they usually do, with Louise’s permission I made up a scrapbook of actual pictures from her life.

“We asked them to look for anything in the pictures [and photographs] that resonated with them. They weren’t pictures of rape. They were pictures of a normal kid growing up in a small town in the 80s.

“When the actors came into the audition room we put them on camera and asked them what resonated in the pictures they had just seen – and the answers were phenomenal. We had everything from just the pictures of the horses . . . to people who told us, on camera, very personal stories of abuse. It was always a reminder to us that it’s not just a story about ‘that woman over there, who [claimed she] was raped by those cops’. For many people throughout New Zealand it’s a story that relates to their own experiences.”

Consent, which airs on television on Sunday, begins with Nicholas’ childhood and early teen years in the Bay of Plenty town of Murupara, where, at age 13, she said she was first raped by a policeman. It then moves, several years later, to the investigation by The Dominion Post reporter Phil Kitchin, which led to the trial of three police officers whom Nicholas alleged raped her when she was a teenager.

It’s not the first time Sarkies has adapted a significant and controversial story from the headlines. In 2006 he made the acclaimed Out of the Blue, based on the Aramoana massacre in which 13 people were killed by gunman David Gray in 1990.

The Dominion Post first reported Nicholas’ story in January 2004 when Sarkies was busy developing Out of the Blue with co-writer Graeme Tetley, and both of them followed the Nicholas story as it unfolded. Even before some of the trials they could see the potential for a film.

Tetley, one of the New Zealand’s leading scriptwriters, died in 2011, but not before he and Sarkies visited Nicholas and her family and interviewed them with the aim of adapting her story.

They also interviewed others involved, including Kitchin.

“For a while there it was just this big cloud of confusion because it just seemed that there’s so many cops involved, so many trials and a 20-year timeframe with all sorts of shifts and turns within that. It was quite a process of just getting a very solid understanding of the basic story before we could even start to sit down and figure out how we might structure the film.”

The final script was written by screenwriter and playwright Fiona Samuel. Sarkies says, as with Tetley, their touchstone in adapting Nicholas’ story was to “reflect the truth”.

“Actually the truth in this case is not something you can ever say is an absolute because there are at least four people who will deny, and have denied publicly and in court, enormous aspects of this story, but we were looking for what felt like the truth to us, what resonated as the truth to us and what felt like a human truth.”

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The former policemen whom Nicholas accused of raping her when she was a teenager – Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton, and then-assistant police commissioner Clint Rickards – were acquitted by a jury.

Sarkies has met Nicholas several times and she was consulted about components of the film. Nicholas’ family photographs, some used in the actors’ audition book, were also important references for the art direction and costumes – which numbered 500 – so that the film’s depiction of Nicholas and New Zealand in the 80s and 90s was accurate and convincing.

Nicholas visited once during the six-week shoot – almost all the scenes in Murupara and Rotorua were recreated in Wellington and the Hutt Valley, including sets at Avalon Studios.

But Sarkies says Consent wasn’t about getting Nicholas’ approval. “I certainly didn’t enter this wanting to be a flag-waver for Louise Nicholas. I suppose I was a little bit like the cautious journalist – going in, interested in the story but also questioning where they seemed to be cracks in the story. And there are little cracks in the story which are constantly used to undermine this woman.”

Sarkies says he was also keenly aware of not only accuracy but the legal issues surrounding how the story could be told in Consent – known for much of its development and shooting as “Project L” before the title was unveiled.

“The nature of the story meant that we had to be very factual, while of course making drama and wanting it to be emotionally involving. But we knew where there were any facts we stick to the letter.

“One of the unique things for me was while Fiona was working on the shooting draft [of the script] this time last year and providing me with scenes from the film, I was making up a massive 1200 page legal documentation of every single fact and line in the film.”

Sarkies has directed television episodes, but Consent is his first television movie. But he says based on the experience of adapting Nicholas’ story he is open to making film for television again.

The scale of Consent – which cost about $2.6 million – is also similar to a small budget Kiwi film released in the cinema. Aside from numerous locations, including 20 houses, the film-makers sourced the original plans of the Rotorua house where Nicholas alleged the rapes took place. A replica of the house was then built at Avalon.

When Sarkies discovered that the Rotorua police station, complete with large wall mural, had been demolished, he improvised by using a Porirua station – and had the mural recreated.

Sarkies says the fact his film has its debut on the small screen may also mean it will have a bigger impact.

“I don’t usually make stuff for TV but it actually excites me that for 105 minutes on Sunday the whole country, or whoever in the country chooses to, will all be experiencing this woman’s story at the same time and feeling similar emotions.

“They’ll be talking about it the next day over the water cooler and maybe getting angry or disagreeing with our take on it. In a way we’re doing what Louise’s been doing for the last 20 years – we’re actually telling her secrets now to an even wider audience.”