Sunday, October 03, 2010

Interviewing the Insatiable Moon’s Mike Riddell

The Insatiable Moon is due into New Zealand cinema’s this week. In celebration, here’s an interview I did with screenwriter and creative inspirer, Mike Riddell. (An edited version appears in this month’s Touchstone Magazine). I’ll post my review of the film on the day of public release, Thursday, October 7. (Film updates here, while for a list of New Zealand venues, see here).

Mike, it’s such a Kiwi film. What were some of the inspirations for the movie? Not only kiwi, but very local in the sense of emerging from the urban village of Ponsonby. I’ve always believed that the details of geography, culture and human life are more universal the more specifically they’re based. The main inspiration for the film was of course the person Arthur, who used to come and visit me and try to persuade me he was the second son of God. But beyond that it was my encounter with the psychiatric community and other down and outs tucked away in boarding houses in the back streets of Ponsonby. As the area became gentrified, there was a delightful culture clash which provided plenty of humour and pathos. I love the black humour of people who’ve suffered and have nothing to lose. Interestingly, given that it is such a kiwi movie, we’re getting a great reception in the UK (where we have a distribution deal) and the US.

Very few New Zealanders are published fiction writers, let alone find their fiction becoming a movie. Tell us about the journey from book to screen? It’s very unusual for an author of a book to be involved in the adaptation of it for the screen. The main reason for that is that novelists are too precious about their material to allow it to be chopped around in the way that’s necessary for the screen. When I was approached by the UK producers to do the screenplay, I jumped at the chance – but knew very little about screenwriting. It’s a specific form of writing, and I had to learn it from scratch. I was lucky that we spent 8 years in development – it gave me a chance to learn the craft, and put some distance between the novel and the script. A lot of subplots in the novel have disappeared, along with some characters. But I think the story is strengthened by being pared back.

It was a long and difficult journey. What kept you going? To be honest it was a combination of stubbornness and belief in the story. There are a lot of people around the world trying to make films, but not many of them get there because of the constant hurdles to be overcome. But as a long time writer, I’ve learned that if you don’t have confidence and belief in your own work, you’ll never survive the process of getting it into the public domain. The core creative team associated with the film always believed that it would be well received by audiences if we could just get it before them. I personally also felt something of a responsibility to tell Arthur’s story. But it has been a difficult journey. There was a week in September of 2009 when it seemed there was no alternative but to fold the project, and that was a very dark time. We faced the possibility of writing off 7 years of work. In the end we decided damn the torpedoes, we were just going to make it with whatever resources we could pull together.

You once talked about the importance of fiction for your own spiritual journey, including the writing of Graham Greene. What do you see the Insatiable Moon offering to the contemporary Kiwi quest? Immersion in stories is the essence of spiritual growth – they have the power to engage and lead us forward at very deep levels. The Insatiable Moon is a story about people on the margins, and the humanity and insight that exist in their midst. To use a Cohen line – “There’s a crack, a crack, in everything; that’s how the light gets in”. Broken people often have an innate spirituality which is fresh and raw in comparison to institutional religion. I think the film is an affirmation of the very real spirit that exists everywhere in human life – and of course a championing of the divine in the most unlikely places. At the same time it’s an examination of conventional notions of normalcy – what actually is ‘mad’ behaviour? At what points does convention become insanity, and madness full of insight?

In hindsight, do you see the inevitable budget constaints helping, or hindering, the film? With that wonderful instrument, the retroscope, it’s clear to all of us that the film has become something much better because of the constraints we were under when producing it. Losing our big name stars (Timothy Spall, James Nesbitt, John Rhys Davies) and our Scots director (Gillies Mackinnon) meant that we made a truly kiwi film. It also meant that no one was involved who didn’t want to be. The commitment of the cast and crew was a wonder to behold, and the veterans in our midst all said it was the best film set they’ve ever worked on. We also adopted the philosophy of ‘Frugal Filmmaking’ espoused by our Director of Photography Tom Burstyn, with beneficial results. That involved using less gear, making the crew light and mobile, and concentrating on story and performance as being at the heart of the film. So in a strange way, the NZFC did us a huge favour by declining funding – not that any of us felt particularly grateful at the time!

Posted by steve at 07:51 PM

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