For Good
Shonah Lindsay, Take 34, February 2004

As soon as I began watching For Good I thought of the film Dead Man Walking from specific scenes through to narrative effects such as flashbacks to the rape and murders. I wondered if you had let Dead Man Walking influence your film or would any filmmaker making such a film have found himself or herself using some of those elements?

I think it was both. There are some ideas or images that are almost archetypal in this type of story. I only saw Dead Man Walking once, seven or eight years ago, but it shadows me because it had such a profound impact on me so there are shadings of it in my work, both in the humanity it shows in dealing with its subject matter and in terms of its style, which is very pared-back and uninflected. Roger Deakin, who shot Dead Man Walking, is a fantastic cinematographer.

Actually, in For Good we use flashbacks very differently from Dead Man Walking, which extensively re-visits the rape and murder, whereas I deliberately avoided such graphic scenes. Other films with similar subject matter that influenced me in various ways were Humanité by Bruno Lamont; Jean and Luc Dardenne's The Son; The Boys by Rowan Woods; Lynch's Blue Velvet; Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing; The Interview by Craig Monahan; and Demme's Silence of the Lambs.

In terms of visual style, because we were shooting on DV, I looked closely at various Dogma films like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration and Lars von Trier's The Idiots. We never went that grungy, however, as I didn't want to compound the emotionally challenging nature of the film by being visually abrasive. I wanted something gritty but lyrical too.

DV has considerably less latitude than film obviously – making the available lighting style typified by the photographic work of Nan Goldin or Michael Winterbottom's film Wonderland difficult. But DOP Duncan Cole and I sought to marry that aesthetic which I love, with the moody, pooled-lighting, high contrast style you'll find in Gordon Willis's cinematography for Alan Pakula's movies Parallax View, Klute and All the President's Men.

In terms of overall mood, I was after something visually intense and dreamlike. This feeling is enhanced by the music. I had been listening a lot to Shayne Carter's newly released Dimmer album, I Think You Are A Star (sic), while writing For Good. It inflected the story in terms of its haunting, surreal quality so I thought Shayne'd be the ideal person to write the music.

We used a bunch of his existing work from Straitjacket Fits and Dimmer then complemented that with an original composition. When he read the script he immediately went off and composed a tune on his guitar, and that was the genesis for the theme you hear at the film's beginning.

Have you done that before, given a script to a composer for a soundtrack?

Miranda (Harcourt) and I did that with Paul Casserly in our stage play Flowers from My Mother's Garden; and with a wonderful Christchurch based musician, Roy Montgomery, for my play True. And For Good will be released on soundtrack as we did with True.

The music and the lyrics in Dead Man Walking provided an inroad into the mindset of the murderer's white trash type character. Did you have a similar idea in mind?

I wanted a haunting, melodic quality to penetrate For Good. The character of Lisa is so obsessed by what had happened when she was young that she over identifies with Tracey (the murder victim). At one point she says, "I am Tracey"; and Grant Wilson, the murderer, also sees her that way. When she appears he says, "I've been expecting you", as though she would come back and confront him for what he'd done. That idea of the double often appears in my work, and it's a very strange and disturbing idea when applied to this type of story. What on earth is this woman doing? Does she really want to walk in the shoes of a young girl who was raped and murdered?

The concept of redemption and forgiveness in Dead Man Walking is in many ways what our whole civilisation is based upon, and its themes are continually about us. Along with the idea of how society deals with the fact that you've still somehow got to be 'civilised' in such situations, which are anger producing and revenge making.

Those ideas of redemption and forgiveness are very important to me because I was brought up with a father who was an Anglican minister, so they were very live in my sort of cultural background. The film is based on work Miranda and I did with prisoners and the families of their victims where we found we were grappling with what is really an impossible sort of situation. I mean we would go into meetings with these people with certain assumptions, but it didn't take long to realise that these simply didn't work. You can't really think your way into a resolution in these situations. We are in touch still with a family whose daughter was abducted, raped and murdered, and they recently wrote to us saying they are grateful for how, in For Good, we let people know that their type of grief doesn't ever actually end, it keeps going on.

So there is no resolution?

That's right, but you go to those types of interviews thinking how can I find a way out of this situation?

Do you mean a way that you can walk out with some understanding?

I mean I would be thinking what is the potential narrative here? A narrative presupposes some closure, some resolution, but you are trying to impose that on something that is always open and wounded.

Yet Dead Man Walking does have that closure, doesn't it?

Yes, and it's a very successful one for those characters where they're saying there is a resolution but it comes out of an ongoing struggle.

I found a logical schism in For Good's narrative where when he's released from prison really wanting to see his son he then barges into Lisa's room with a gun, totally negating his opportunity of seeing his son again in a productive way. In prison he seemed a rational person so I couldn't understand that irrationality when he got out.

You didn't think he was irrational in prison?

No, I didn't. He seemed to me to have anger he'd internalised, not dealt with, but I didn't think he was so irrational as to jeopardise his chances of being useful to his son. At that point I lost a sense of belief in the character.

In many ways he's a character that doesn't make sense. I mean it doesn't make sense to rape and kill a thirteen-year-old girl. And his rationalisations and the way he's dealt with what he's done are I feel really quite spurious. He's a profoundly divided character in that he's trying to make sense of what he's done but he still has this swaggering, sexualised belief that every woman who comes in contact with him wants to sleep with him, and he projects that hugely on Lisa. There's also a tortuous, self-fulfilling logic that shows there's still a lot of danger in his character. From my point of view, he's a character who uses the semblance of logic to cover his tracks.

So is he typical then of people that you met during your prison work, making his type of character plausible?

Definitely. But also when you deal with such raw material you elaborate it in ways that ring true to yourself, and you also want to create someone who is dramatically compelling.

He was very convincing as a physical character.

Tim Balme did a remarkable job. It was exhilarating to watch the way he burrowed into Grant. All the main actors were great, because they're not easy characters to understand. Fleur and Donald Hill, the parents, played by Miranda and Tim Gordon, we can understand more easily. But the characters of Lisa and Grant are very complex, which is why they interested me. I've been both criticised and praised for this, but I really didn't want the audience to walk away and say, "Oh, that's the reason why Lisa did this or that!" – like you just need the magic formula to figure her out. I wanted the fact that she went on that journey to be a justification in itself, rather than there being a simple, reductive explication for it. Rather I want an audience to feel: "Wow, she went on a very strange, intense journey, I'm not quite sure what pushed her initially, but because I'm not quite sure it feels real, I believe in it."

I mean, somebody Lisa knew passingly as a young girl – somebody who was born at the same time and in the same hospital as her – is abducted, raped and murdered. This act and the compulsive media coverage screws up the map of her own sexual identity. And inevitably this leaves her wandering along the strange and dubious track she takes. What we see in Lisa is someone trying to repair the map of her identity by confronting the person who ripped it in the first place.

I found Lisa a shallow, somewhat irritating character when compared to Sister Prejean in Dead Man Walking who's a very mature personality, one that's sophisticated and knows itself. When Sean Penn, the murderer, starts to flirt with her, her reaction is: "Don't you play your little man games with me, look at you you've got death breathing down your neck."

Well, you know, they're different films with very different characters and different ambitions. Sister Helen Prejean is a determined catholic nun in her late 40s trying to give spiritual guidance to a prisoner on death row. Lisa is a 23 year old who is still coming into focus and she's aware of that herself, that up until now she's been drifting, and in that sense betraying Tracey who if she'd been allowed to live may have become somebody by now. But I'm interested in those types of people in transition. I mean, Tracey haunts Lisa, but there is a sense in which Lisa is a ghost herself haunting her own life. Something in her died when Grant killed Tracey and it keeps coming back to spook her.

Do you want to discuss the idea of the double or the submergence of someone that you've mentioned exploring before?

Often in my theatre work the main characters are obsessed by being someone else or with someone else, and that's certainly true of Lisa. We often ask ourselves too: What it would be like if we were someone else, or if something else had happened? For example, in my play True a voiceover artist is obsessed by the fact that his wife once slept with David Bowie on tour and in this way feels like Bowie himself. In another play, Double Beat, a TV reporter's sister dies in a car accident and her organs are donated. The reporter tracks down her recipients and starts to see his sister in the woman who received her heart.

How do you work with your actors? Directors always want to know this, especially when a director gets such good performances from his actors.

We had a painfully small budget to shoot the film, just over $200,000 funded through the FC's low budget film scheme. And I knew if it was to succeed it would be on the basis of very strong ensemble performances, so I put a lot of effort into dialing these up. I'm intensely proud of the actors' achievements: Tim Balme is amazing as is Miranda in getting the realism and heartbreak of that sort of grief on film. And Michelle does a brilliant job keeping her character on that very strange journey. She is precociously talented.

We had two solid weeks of rehearsal and two script workshops, and we shot on digital, which allowed us to keep on going until we had the performances we wanted. I'm very particular; I like to talk about each take with the actors, what we've achieved and what might still be missing. I'm very hands on in that way, not so that it's all words and becomes off-putting, just so it's a tandem effort and they're not left to their own devices. I look for a real intensity without it moving into being too stylised. I wanted them to fit into the orchestration of the film as a whole, which sort of pushes realism to the point where it breaks out of those constraints.

How do you think that happens?

That's always very hard to explain. But I am interested in realism heated to the point it can carry you along like a disturbing dream. In For Good the realism is played off against the supernatural, haunting element of the story.

How did the actors feel about their roles?

I think the intensity and confused depravity of his character was new for Tim. But not for Miranda, as it's based on a solo show we'd written called Portraits in which Miranda played all the roles. It was a really difficult place for Tim to go to, he was incredibly excited by the character but not sure if he wanted to go somewhere that dark. He had a young child and all sorts of things can impact on a decision to go all the way with such a character. But when he made the decision to do it he was fearless. In some ways he withdrew into himself and I suspect it was quite a painful process for him. We would talk about the character and the performance but it was also a private thing for him.

You chose a style which is more than just realism, there's a certain dramatic stylisation such as the effect when he lights his cigarette, isn't there?

It's marrying realism with stylisation, especially perhaps in the editing which I had strong ideas about, but in terms of the actual shoot, what I wanted was something very uninflected. I felt that because of the budget restraints I'd have to approach it in a very restrained way, not be flashy with the camera, and so we adopted certain ways of going about it. So in the prison interviews the camera always drifts about, sliding around, whereas when Lisa gets to Tracey's parents home the camera is completely still because it's a house where things haven't moved on. And when we're dealing with Lisa and her flat mate the camera is always handheld. So there are different textures but they are all quite pared back.

That range of camera techniques does give the viewer a lot to be visually concentrating on so it felt visually rich.

I hope so, and in terms of the colour grading we pushed it hard, so the colours were quite de-saturated in a lot of scenes, like the sickly-green in the prison interview room.

Why did you and Miranda do the prisoners and families of victims' work in the first place? Was that to explore that psychology and know more about these types of characters?

That's a difficult question to answer, and I'm honestly not sure. But I think those types of stories deal with people right at the extremes of their morality, emotions, love and their place in the world. And that it's very easy for a society to neglect those types of stories, not go the full distance with them because they're very uncomfortable to tell.

Yes, because your film reminded me of how rarely we hear from the perpetrators' mouths what actually happened or why they did what they did.

No, we don't. And also media representation often straitjackets people caught up in these types of situations. The perpetrator is invariably demonised and the family often gets demonised too, presented as rednecks. Knowing some of these families I was very anxious that this film shouldn't do that to them. They're not rednecks, they're not calling for harsher sentences in simply a reactive way, they've gone through hell and are trying to come to terms with what is right.

I think it is an amazing moment in For Good, and a very rare moment, when he explains why he killed that girl. He killed her because he loved his own child and his wife and he felt that if he let Tracey live then his family would be taken away from him. What a bizarre explanation for his crime. It's for those types of moments that we made the story, and also once you start talking to these people and dealing with their story it's very hard to let it go. It was a bloody nightmare making the film, hard on a low budget and hard making a non-genre film in this country or, for that matter, anywhere in the world because everybody wants genre product.

It's interesting that the people who've had the most problems with the film tend to be white middle-class men like myself, while it tends to be women who really get something out of it. But generally the responses have been incredibly intense and extreme. It's interesting to be in a picture theatre where the people are crying around you, that's quite polarising, and it's getting quite polarised results. As a director that's challenging because essentially you probably just want to be praised!

Do you think men withdraw from the film's emotional intensity?

You sort of start having little theories about it, for instance I think that the male sexuality portrayed in For Good – while not meant to characterise male sexuality per se – still makes it quite disturbing for men to watch, to see a discussion of the type of fantasy that Grant is involved in. But then I've also had very extreme responses from a couple of female viewers, like saying: "There's no way that someone like Lisa would find someone like Grant attractive." But the fact remains that from the research we've done we've seen that that does happen. People do get embroiled in these ways, in these hothouse types of sexuality. And I would not have felt comfortable making a film like this where that dimension wasn't explored along with the other dimensions. To me it would have felt psychologically unrealistic and bowdlerised. I really wanted to let all those dimensions have equal play.

In Dead Man Walking the filmmakers encourage you to think how on earth we can deal with people who've done something like what its character had done, because almost till the film's end he himself is not capable of dealing with the enormity of the rape and murder he's committed and its impact on others. Do you do something similar with your character by the fact that he kills himself at its end?

It's interesting what happens with Grant. Are you aware of the concept of cognitive dissonance, where we can hold a number of different conflicting realities in our head at the same time? It's sort of like what you were saying about the gap in his logic, in my mind that is cognitive dissonance where he does love his son and family, but he's capable of raping and killing a child at the same time. He does want to see his son but then he gets caught up in the momentary sexuality of his relationship with Lisa. And earlier in the film he says he would have topped himself way back if he didn't have a son, and when Lisa at the end tells him that his ex de-facto partner has fostered his son out he lives up to his promise and kills himself. So in a funny sort of way Lisa has pulled the rug on him, and she kills him.

But apart from these being interesting characters and rich subject matter to explore, were you trying to do more than this in the same way that Dead Man Walking explores such issues as the death penalty. For example, I always find it odd that someone's committed a murder and they are given a sentence of say 17 years. I think why 17 years, why not 50 or a 100, a complete life sentence?

They were very much things that I wanted to bring to the surface and to initiate some discussion about. However, we were also very conscious that we didn't want to simply make an issues based film. I felt that would be reductive. But obviously, those ideas inform the film to a huge degree. We wanted to deal with ideas of punishment, redemption and forgiveness. I guess we really wanted to put people into the position of asking themselves – this is a narrative trick as much as a cultural discussion – what would they do if they were in such a situation. Like, if you were the father would you pull the trigger? And while our character of Donald Hill threatens to kill Grant Wilson if his daughter's killer is released on parole, he actually can't really know what he'll do until he's there in the same room with Wilson. I was intrigued by, and loved, the film In The Bedroom, where the father does pull the trigger, and that was incredibly satisfying in a narrative sense, as well as being quite provocative. But with Donald I didn't think it fair to leave him in those reduced circumstances – as if all his grief for his daughter could be flattened out in an act of vengeance.

Grant states at For Good's beginning that New Zealanders would be shocked if they realised there are thousands of people in the country like him. Do you believe that or was that just a justification for his behaviour?

I think it is partly justification, but I also think it's a bit like that uncomfortable sense about male sexuality. However, a lot of men wander around with those types of ideas yet don't ever act on them, so it can't really be a justification. If the Grant character hadn't killed Tracey he would have been just a normal dodgy bloke walking around the place, not a particularly good father but still a loving father, a bit of a piece of work yet not that uncommon. So I think he was right when he said that, and it's also what a number of rapists said to us: "You'd be surprised if you knew how many people there are walking around like me. You think I'm a monster, but actually I'm not, I'm just a normal human being."

Did that make you want to go further into their psychology or just to accept what they were presenting, because I mean you can get really forensic about these things, can't you?

You can, but I suspect there are still lot's of different triggers and no one answer. I mean I think this is very different from the type of equation that says if you are abused as a child you are more likely to abuse others as an adult. But we don't set up the Grant Wilson character to be like that.

Tell me about the life For Good's having overseas?

It's been a thrill to have it premiere at Montreal, since then Michelle won Best Actress at St Tropez and it's gone to Kerala and Hawaii and various other places. It has a general release here in February. I'm really proud that though it's been made on the smell of an oily rag it's doing so well.

And what are your future plans for projects?

I'm working on three scripts. I was part of the latest Writers Guild's screenwriter's lab. It was really fantastic with a great, diverse bunch of tutors like Trevor Griffiths who wrote Red with Warren Beatty and Susan Schilliday who wrote Thirty Something. It was wonderful getting all those perspectives for the script William Brandt and I are writing, each very different, but they all seemed to slot in and reinforce each other, which was just fantastic. You don't do any writing while you're there, just reading, listening and talking about your script, and trying not to have your defences up because even the most unlikely comment or suggestion pays dividends if you just allow it to get through.

Last year I asked Stephen Cleary what he thought of the fact so many NZ films are written and directed by the same person? He said that, without being critical of the filmmakers, he saw it as the sign of an immature industry. A more mature one would have enough scripts around for the director not to feel the need to write their own. What do you think of that?

I'm a writer so it feels the natural thing to be doing. Someone else would have directed my script in a very different way, and may have done a fantastic job, but while writing it I felt I knew how to realise it on the limited means we had.

And I have heard that comment before, but I don't think it's a general rule. I just think there are some great writer directors and some great directors who direct scripts written by other people. But I'd love it if people came to me and asked me if I wanted to direct their scripts, if there was a large raft of them to wade through and find ones that push my button. But he's right in that in an industry this size there aren't a lot of good quality scripts around.

So will you work on a low budget again if you have no other choice?

You can only be a director if you direct so I would work on a low budget again, but it's definitely much harder to make a quality film with very little money. I'm very proud of what we made, and I learnt a huge amount in the actual making of it.

Would you have learnt as much if you had more money?

I would have learnt different things. I don't really have complaints about the lack of money because that's something we entered into knowingly. But I'd have ideas on how the FC could streamline the funding process more efficiently. For instance, we knew we had the go ahead only five weeks before we needed to start shooting so in terms of pre-production it was incredibly hard. But we'd spent a lot of time beforehand on locations and that paid off. Also it would have been much easier for us and more productive if we'd been allowed to produce the film ourselves without being obliged to have a relationship with the FC's Kahukura low budget scheme which then went bankrupt during our edit. But at the end of the day, I do think dramas as opposed to horrors, comedies and romances are very hard to fund.

But they also seem to get very long releases in small independent cinemas.

Yes, they do have a strong niche. I love genre films, but when you're talking about cultural impact I tend to believe films like For Good will be watched in ten years time for their complexity in a way that pure genre films may not be.

The other thing about drama films is that they often come along at a time when they can be cathartic, don't they?

That's if people get to see them. We are dealing with this in For Good's marketing on a budget that makes our shooting budget look lavish. Actually, apart from its intense realism, For Good is a psychological thriller which will be something we play up in its marketing.

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