Lore and Order: Stuart McKenzie on Writing For Good
Dominic Sheehan, Write Up, Autumn 2004

The stage show Portraits (co-written with Miranda Harcourt) is the basis of For Good. What made you decide to turn it into a film?

There's a bunch of connected reasons. We had become deeply involved in the story and it wouldn't let us go. Knowing people devastated by this type of crime, we were determined to find a larger audience for their powerful emotion and drama.

While it's often easy to turn away from stories that can disturb us intimately, they can also potentially change us. And to me that is something positive and compelling. I think of the films that really move me – for example, Kieslowski's Blue, The Dream Life Of Angels by Eric Zonka, The Son by the Dardenne brothers, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Todd Field's In the Bedroom, Rowan Wood's The Boys or Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking – once you've seen them, I think you have a deeper ring when you're knocked.

It struck us too that a stage play is a good place to start for a film. They're both dramatic forms and share the need to actively engage and sway an audience within a set time. So the move from stage to screen already seems persuasive. As a playwright and a screenwriter your instincts are already in sync, you're tuned to recognising when an audience is hooked and when it's flagging.

We also felt that this story could be intensely cinematic while realised on a very small budget. The fierce emotions, the dynamic contrast between enclosed and open spaces, the vivid details of actual locations, the competing textures of video, surveillance camera and film – and also the lyrical images of Lisa travelling and feeling that she is floating and increasingly possessed by the dead girl and the man who killed her.

You did an immense amount of research for this project – how much exactly?

In the late 80s an intruder had sexually assaulted Miranda in her Auckland home. This experience was a significant motivation for Miranda's prison work: firstly Verbatim – which she co-devised and wrote with William Brandt - and then Portraits, which we wrote together, also under the aegis of the Community Theatre Trust which we had established to develop and produce this type of work. On one of the national prison tours of VERBATIM, Miranda and I conducted a large number of interviews about sexual violence with inmates all around the country. We also talked to families of perpetrators, as well as families of victims.

Miranda's attacker was never apprehended, but later the police told her they'd put him away for another attack. So she was constantly haunted by the possibility of confronting him in prison during these interviews.

Out of our research emerged the story of a crime that is all too common in New Zealand: the abduction and murder of a young woman in a rural setting.

The central character of Lisa, the would-be journalist who seeks out the various people connected with the murder of 13 year old Tracey Hill, in some way reflects our own - but specifically Miranda's - experience researching the material. In one case in particular, we had talked to a rapist-murderer and also to the parents of the girl he had killed. We had been told things by the murderer that the parents could only surmise from forensic reports. They talked to us about the agony of not knowing what had happened to their daughter. Clearly this put us in a conflicted position. So we offered them the opportunity to read what we were writing that answered some of their questions - but eventually they made the decision to burn it without reading it. From this experience came the letter in the film that Grant Wilson gives to Lisa in prison and asks her to deliver to Tracey's parents.

One thing that is significant for us about doing this type of research is the responsibility we continue to feel towards these people. It's a responsibility you can never finally satisfy, of course, because your characters themselves and the story itself – the film in its own right – exact a concurrent responsibility. But we continue to have close contact with the parents of "Tracey". They haven't seen the film and probably won't, but they wrote to us recently and said that they were glad that audiences could experience through the film "some of what we have been through", adding "it is still not over for us, and it never will be."

When is something like this over? How can it end? I was brought up in a liberal Christian family. My father is an Anglican minister. So these questions of sin, forgiveness, redemption and stuff are very live for me. As a post-graduate student of contemporary religion I did a lot of research into confession in early Christianity. And the way confession has shaped our "sexuality" – as something needing to be confessed and as something purporting to hold the very "truth" about us.

The monks in their cells in the 4th and 5th centuries trying to root out, expose and so cure themselves of bodily desire reminded me of inmates in their cells, collaborating in their restoration by capturing desire in a fine net of language. And like the monks who invented an increasingly subtle technical language to aid their self-analysis – and yet were constantly in doubt as to whether their discourse was leading them towards God or the Devil – many of the inmates we interviewed were fluent in a certain legal-cum-therapeutic confessional language which might just as easily be taken to excite their desires as revoke them.

This volatile ambiguity very much shapes the character of Grant Wilson in For Good, driving the film into the territory of psychological thriller – Does he feel remorse? Has he changed? Could he do it again? Is it over?

For Good reaches a high state of tension by raising the stakes on these questions.

You also included the actors in the development of the story. Why?

Actors tend to be very intuitive and smart about character and character motivation as well as story, theme and plot. This is their business, after all. I felt that if we work shopped the script with actors we would be able to go deeper into the script and I could see directly what was working and what wasn't, where the intensities were and what was falling flat.

Miranda and I have always work shopped theatre projects we've been developing, so it made sense to us to do the same for film. After an extensive audition process, we were able to convince the Film Commission to invest some money into a script workshop with Colin McColl as dramaturge and the actors we wanted for the final film. (Producer Neil Pardington and I through our company MAP Films had already financed a couple of previous workshops ourselves). As far as I'm aware the NZFC hadn't put money into workshops as a matter of course, but it seems an accepted practice now. I was certainly able to make significant changes to the film on the basis of seeing it up on its feet in this way.

The actors in various ways brought a huge amount to the story. For example, Tim Balme brought real integrity to the role of Grant Wilson who is a rapist and murderer, but also the father of a young child, like Tim is himself. Similarly, Michelle Langstone's own experiences helped me refine the supernatural element that threads through the story and the way Lisa feels herself to be, in some way, Tracey.

There's an interesting link between Lisa (the main character) and Tracey (the girl whose murder forms the basis of the movie) – they were both born on the same day in the same hospital. Is this based on real life?

No, it simply dramatises my interest in doubles, which appear in a lot of my work (Snap, True, Voiceover, Double Beat, Flowers From My Mother's Garden). There's the life we lead and the life we might have led. And I think that as a writer too you are always trying to walk in someone else's shoes. So, maybe that's where this theme comes from.

In the film, the rape and murder of 13-year-old Tracey intimately damages Lisa's own sense of identity and, specifically, sexual identity. Rehearsed over and over in the media, the abduction, rape and murder figures in Lisa's mind as a defining sexual experience. She over-identifies with Tracey and becomes obsessed by Grant Wilson, her killer. She says to Wilson that she is Tracey. And he in turn says to her when she steps into his cell, "I've been expecting you", as if she is indeed Tracey whom he now has to answer to. The fact that Lisa was born in the same hospital at the same time as Tracey only heightens her feelings of being linked to her.

Michelle Langstone told me that when she was at Intermediate a girl was attacked after school in a nearby alley Michelle herself would use. Michelle was on road patrol that day and so was half an hour late walking home. Ever since, she's been haunted by how, if she'd been on time walking through the alley, she might have disrupted the attack – or been attacked herself. In this accidental way, she felt both responsible for the girl and a sort of double.

I guess in the back of my mind I was also inspired by Kieslowski's strange and beautiful Double Life Of Veronique and David Lynch's brilliant Blue Velvet, which also puts a subtle twinning into play.

Is the rest of the movie grounded in research or did you use that as a jumping off point to tell your story?

I wanted to make a movie that felt absolutely real emotionally and that would be psychologically complex and exciting and burrow into your synapses. I wanted to push beyond the way these stories and characters are dealt with in the general media, often as lurid melodramas in which characters are invariably portrayed reductively: the criminal demonised and the victim's family portrayed as rednecks baying for harsher sentences. And I wanted Lisa to particularise the horror and compassion and confusion we feel as complicit onlookers to these events.

My heart was very much with the parents in the story and I wanted to do justice to their grief and their journey. But the research we did was very much a jumping off point; especially as it was important to me that it didn't become a movie-of-the-week issue film, but had dramatic complexity.

However, while I was working on the script and when the film went into production, I was constantly reminded of how close to reality our story was. For instance, early in the script development process I had Tracey's father vow to kill Grant Wilson if he was released on parole. And then Karla Cardno's stepfather Mark Middleton came out in the media threatening to kill Paul Daly if he was released.

Likewise, on the day we were showing the finished cut of For Good to the NZFC Board to apply for post-production funding, there was an article in the Sunday Star Times by a journalist called Elinore Wellwood who was a schoolgirl in Napier at the time Kirsa Jensen was abducted from her horse. Elinore, like Lisa in For Good, was horse mad and she was haunted by Kirsa's death. She says, "Anyone who was a teenager when Kirsa was murdered remembers the shackles that tightened around her."

And then, of course, during the New Zealand film festivals tour, we pulled the film from Masterton because of the recent murder of Coral-Ellen Burrows by her stepfather Steven Williams – who by some disturbing twist of fate had been an extra in a pub scene we shot at the Tin Hut in Featherston.

The national media got hold of this and made an issue out of it: was it too close to the bone? All you can really say is that For Good is the type of story you wish one day wouldn't be relevant. Of course, it is also the stuff of myths and fairytales – children going missing. Think of Hansel and Gretel or Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel or Persephone and Ceres. I think the story felt personal for me because I have an 18-year-old daughter whom for a long time I thought I'd lost. I did an MA in creative writing at Victoria University and Bill Manhire would always say, "Write what you know and what you don't know."

This is your first feature – you've previously concentrated on shorts and stage. How did you find working with features?

I felt that this is what I'm meant to be doing. This is what I have been working towards and it felt good to have got this far. The fact is you can prepare yourself in all sorts of useful ways to direct a feature, but making it is the thing. I love working with actors and I love working with creative people to raise the temperature visually and aurally. I'm proud of For Good, not least because of the greater abilities it has given me to make my next film.

You've got plans for other features?

Yes, both as a director, writer and producer. I'm writing a couple of screenplays at the moment, one of which I want to direct sooner rather than later. But I am also always looking to find a script from another writer that I could direct. So, you know, I've got my eyes out too, feelers.

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