Shooting for an impact of reality
Mike Houlahan, Otago Daily Times, August 2-3, 2003

Wellington director Stuart McKenzie's new film, For Good, examines an all too familiar contemporary New Zealand story: the aftermath of the murder of a young girl. Mike Houlahan, of NZPA, reports from Wellington.

It is a scenario every parent dreads, and which some families know only too well: a teenage daughter never returning from a horse ride.

Wellington writer and director Stuart McKenzie was well aware he was playing with dynamite when he began work on For Good, his new film dealing with the imminent parole hearing of a convicted murderer.

However, he and his wife, Miranda Harcourt – who has a starring role in For Good as the murdered girl's mother – had more background knowledge than most.

In the past decades, Harcourt has written and starred in Verbatim and Portraits, Theatre shows constructed from interviews with both murderers and families they had victimised. She collaborated with McKenzie on the film and For Good has an unmistakable ring of authenticity, despite it being a work of fiction.

"We were very conscious of the resonance with other crimes from around the country, and we deliberately wanted to tell a story which had a certain mythological resonance with new Zealand; of young women being abducted off horse," McKenzie says.

"There are a number of crimes that are similar in detail, but they are not this crime. This is a fictional story, but we wanted it to have the impact of reality."

McKenzie says he has spoken to a number of families who will find For Good horrifying lifelike. Confidentiality agreements with everyone he and Harcourt spoke to constrain him from adding too much more.

"Certainly from the work Miranda and I have done, we feel a real responsibility to honour the trust placed in us."

Reality also kept on crashing in during the making of For Good. While McKenzie was drafting the script, Mark Middleton – stepfather of slain teenager Karla Cardno – threatened to kill the man who murdered Karla.

For Good opens with Grant Wilson (Tim Balme) applying for parole, 12 years after raping and killing Tracey Hill... and facing a similar threat from Hill's father (Tim Gordon).

Tracey was 13 when she was abducted while horse riding, then raped and killed by Wilson.

When seeking post-production funding, Stuart McKenzie read an article by journalist Elinore Wellwood about growing up in Hawke's Bay and the impact the death of Kirsa Jensen – who went missing while horse riding and has not been seen since – had on her life. The article remains pinned above the computer in McKenzie's office.

"I was very moved when I read that article, because I felt that vindicated the angle of what drove Lisa forward."

Lisa (Michelle Langstone), a young would-be journalist, rode in show jumping competitions against Tracey. Now 23 and still haunted by Tracey's death, she finds herself drawn to Wilson and finding out his side of the story.

As she stumbles through the wreckage Wilson has left in his wake, Lisa finds herself in Tracey's rural hometown of Reid, in the girl's parents' living room, with a potentially explosive letter in her hand.

There are a number of different emotionally powerful stories contained within For Good, but Lisa is the linchpin who brings them together.

"It seemed important to me that she had some of the quality of Tracey as well, so both her parents and the killer can see something of Tracey in her," McKenzie says.

"She's kind of who Tracey might have been if she hadn't been killed."

Stuart McKenzie feels strongly that the victims of high profile crimes become divorced from their own lives and personalities and integrity. Throughout the film, Lisa and Tracey's personalities blur, with one seemingly becoming the other – a deliberate device to give the unspeaking central figure of the drama of For Good a voice.

The words spoken by Tracey's killer also had to be carefully weighted. After much thought, Tim Balme – perhaps better known for lighter character work – assumed the personality of Grant Wilson, an at times alluring and at times appalling man.

"Tim had the right degree of charisma but also that volatility, the swaggering charm; he had all the qualities we were after," McKenzie says.

"We didn't want to simply demonise that character, so we had to go along with him far enough to try and understand something of his background. He had to be serious, if Lisa's role was going to be credible."

"I'm thrilled with Tim's performance. At times he's believable and sincere, and other times he's creepy and pathological. You never know which side he's going to come down on."

For Good seldom pulls its punches, either in its dialogue – some of Wilson's speeches are painfully direct – or in its onscreen action. For the crucial scene of Tracey's rape and murder, McKenzie's camera is blurred, and arrives and leaves after and before the events; but its presence is all the more powerful for that.

"I didn't want to rub people's noses in it. I didn't want to make a film nobody could watch because it was too full on," McKenzie says.

"We know what violence is, and so I don't believe we need to see it re-enacted in our media for us. I don't think that it serves anything... but we did want to show the reality of a hellish situation."

Perhaps inevitably, For Good leads its characters to the point where they all meet. Its emotionally charged finale is paced perfectly, leaving the audience just long enough to make up their own minds how they would act, before the characters resolve the story themselves.

The aftermath of For Good changes the lives of all the characters forever. Making the movie also changed its director, McKenzie says.

"I found my feelings about the characters changing."

"While it was always important to me to show the complexity and humanity – the reality – of the Grant Wilson character, my allegiance was growing towards the parents of the girl."

"Thinking people are always pushing themselves to do the right thing by criminals; to strive for justice in every situation, and there does come a time when that striving for justice for people who have done something terrible often seems to outweigh the need for justice of people who have suffered something terrible."

"I became increasingly conscious of that dilemma as I made the film... I don't think the movie is going to change the world, but I think it has its heart in the right place."

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