Robert Sarkies, Out Of The Blue
Some people go through their whole lives searching for what they truly want to do, but those fortunate souls who find their vocation early in life can achieve incredible feats. New Zealander Robert Sarkies made his first film, Snap, Sizzle and Bang, when he was only 10, and by his early twenties his acclaimed shorts Dream Makers (1993), Flames from the Heart (1995) and Signing Off (1996) had played at film festivals around the world. Sarkies made his feature debut with Scarfies (1999), a black comedy about a group of students who discover a stash of marijuana in a seemingly deserted house — and then have to deal with the repercussions. The film was a huge hit in New Zealand and gained cult success internationally, however Sarkies failed to use Scarfies as launchpad for an immediate follow-up. In fact, it was five years later he was approached about writing and directing a film which, quite literally, was very close to home for Sarkies.
Out of the Blue tells the true story of the Aramoana massacre in which, on November 13, 1990, unemployed gun collector David Gray shot and killed 13 people in the sleepy fishing village near Dunedin, Sarkies’ own hometown. Despite Sarkies’ personal connection to the tragedy, Out of the Blue is a film that tells the story of the horrific events without melodrama or emotional manipulation but gains remarkable, haunting power from the unadorned manner in which it places the viewer in the center of the massacre. Despite its straightforward, experiential approach to the narrative, Out of the Blue is still strongly cinematic, its stunning cinematography drawing attention to the beauty inherent in the darkest moments. Sensitively co-written by Sarkies and Graeme Tetley, the film features fine performances by Matthew Sunderland, who brings incredible humanity to his portrayal of David Gray, and 72-year-old debutante Lois Lawn, who plays Helen Dickson, the personification of pure good, with deeply moving sincerity.
Filmmaker spoke to Sarkies about the challenge of telling the story of New Zealand’s darkest day, his love of Tim Burton’s movies and how going without lunch for four years changed his life.
Filmmaker: I believe you lived very near Aramoana in 1990 when the tragic killings took place.
Sarkies: I lived in the town just next door [Dunedin], so was very aware [of what had happened]. I remember thinking at the time, “Gosh, that’s an incredibly awful thing that’s just happened. There’s probably a film in it, but who would ever dare to make it?” I guess 15 years later your attitude towards that can change a little. [laughs] Little did I think I’d be the one.
Filmmaker: Did you approach the people involved in the tragedy and ask for their advice and guidance? Did you feel the need to ask their permission to make the film?
Sarkies: Yeah, very much so. I strongly felt that if people weren’t going to talk to us then we didn’t really have the right to make [the film]. We found another writer [Graeme Tetley] for me to co-write with, and the two of us went down to Aramoana for a week so that people could approach us. It’s a very small community so the strangers in town soon get recognized, and it meant that people could challenge us to our faces if they wanted to. What we were trying to do was go down there, talk to people and see what truths bubbled up to the surface, and once we had those we’d look to place a structure on it.
Filmmaker: And were people responsive to your presence in the town?
Sarkies: It was fantastic because people came to visit us, they showed us their scrapbooks, they chatted to us. A few people challenged us on what we were doing and we were often able to have long and smart conversations with them. The difficulty when you come in as a filmmaker at the end of an event like this is that you’re going into a community that very often has been jaundiced by the press because they’ve had 15 years of the media wanting stories, and part of what we were trying to do was explain to them that actually our role was quite different. We were creating something that we were trying to make artful and truthful and that was able to explore something deeper than can be explored by a 3-minute news item.
Filmmaker: What were the challenges of casting the roles of David Gray and Helen Dickson?
Sarkies: I think the challenge of casting anything in New Zealand is the relatively small talent pool and trying to find people who could give the roles something that felt real and resonated some of the truth of the characters we were depicting. In fact, we were very lucky. Matt Sunderland, who plays David Gray, had been in a few no-budget feature films before so he had a bit of on-set experience. He’d gone through drama school and he had a reputation as an absolutely committed actor. In many ways, I think it’s a role he was born to play, we were just lucky we made the film when he was exactly the right age. So he was easy: as soon as he walked in the door, it was just obvious. The Mrs. Dickson character was equally important and it’s tricky working in that age group (she’s in her seventies) because there aren’t many elderly women actors still acting [laughs], especially in New Zealand, where there isn’t a lot of work for young woman actors, let alone elderly ones. So we did a lot of street casting, basically. We went through all of the drama groups in the country, we had someone scouting down in the Dunedin area, just looking for normal people. In the end, we found Lois Lawn. She helped out in the wardrobe department of a local theatre group in Dunedin and she was encouraged to come along and audition and we just fell in love with her instantly.
Filmmaker: She’s amazing in the film, but you’re saying she had no acting experience at all?
Sarkies: She’d done a little bit of amateur dramatics when she was 18. She was 72 when we shot the film.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot the film near Aramoana?
Sarkies: Yeah, it was in the next bay along, literally over the hill where another similar town existed that was quite well preserved. We had to grunge it up a bit because these places get a little more trendy 15 years on, but there was an area there where we were able to build our house sets and replicate exactly the houses that were burned down. We were really aware of the sensitivity of what we were shooting: we had to be really cautious even about the terminology, so instead of calling out “Shooting!” — which is always a bit dangerous when you’ve got guns on set anyway… — the 1st A.D. would call out “Filming!” We often had to be sensitive because we had people who had been involved in the event come and visit the set, so it was quite intense.
Filmmaker: All the principal characters are incredibly well drawn, and as a result your portrayal of David Gray almost makes him sympathetic.
Sarkies: We were fascinated by the psychology of not only how someone could do this but also how they might be feeling once they’ve done it. We saw photographs of the bedroom where he slept that night, after he’d done most of the shooting, and I was just fascinated by a detail in the photograph of this ashtray filled with cigarette ash. So very clearly, this man who had shot 13 people, including children, had slept alone in this child’s bedroom, empty except for him, smoking cigarettes all night. You can’t help but wonder what must have been going through that man’s head. I think it’s very easy to look at people who do things like this and demonize them, however the people who perpetrate those monstrous acts are actually still human beings. We wanted to find the human being in the David Gray character, at least at times. You put an audience in a very weird and uncomfortable place where you help them empathize with a person who’s done terrible things, but I don’t think we cross the line.
Filmmaker: A major theme of the film seems to be people’s inability to comprehend and respond to the magnitude of such events.
Sarkies: I always thought that this event represented something of a loss of innocence for New Zealand at the time. The whole tone of the place was incredibly innocent, it’s just the sort of ordinary fishing village where old people go and retire. The fact is we’re so used in the media to seeing these sorts of events where people go mad with guns that we sort of say, “Oh, when that happens everyone would run screaming and it would be just like the movies.” But the reality is that if it happens in a faraway place like this, in a little sleepy fishing village, you wouldn’t believe that it was happening in your village and you would just react. A lot of the people involved thought it was firecrackers that were going off because in a big open space that’s what a gun sounds like. I think all the film does is reflect the reality of what it was actually like for the people who were involved, and we did that very intentionally because I didn’t see any point in overdramatizing that. To me it was more interesting that people came towards the fire and the gunshots than fled them.
Filmmaker: It seems as if you were trying to capture what went on in a purely experiential manner.
Sarkies: You said the word yourself, “experiential,” which was my key ethos in making it. The only way that a film could be different from anything else that had been done about this event — and documentaries had been made about it, books had been written, and there were newspaper articles ad nauseam — was to actually place you in the situation. That’s what films do best, and we figured the thing to do here was to place the audience in the middle of that village that night, in the dark. I wanted the whole thing to feel ultimately really claustrophobic, like for 100 minutes we’re trapped in this village while this gunman is on the loose.
Filmmaker: There seems to almost be a provocativeness in the way you linger on the beauty of the village and country around it and the burning village while such horrific things are taking place?
Sarkies: Actually the contrast inherent in the event struck me from day one. The fact is these horrendous things did happen in this most gorgeous of places, which seems so incongruous. I remember driving along the motorway in Dunedin on that day, being well aware of what was happening just 20 minutes away, and looking at the sky and realizing, “Wow, this is just the most stunning, stunning day that we’ve had” in this Southern town that, believe me, doesn’t have many stunning days in the year.
Filmmaker: What has been the reaction to the film in New Zealand?
Sarkies: Before it came out there was a lot of media about it, [and] I think a lot of people expected it to be some sort of splatterfest, probably not respectfully done and not a very good movie. Once the movie was released, the attitudes of the people in New Zealand completely changed when people actually saw that it was a good film. It moved them. The critical response was pretty amazing, and the response of the New Zealand public was also pretty amazing. It did extremely well when it was released in October last year, and now it’s the tenth most successful domestic release of a New Zealand film ever, which for a film about such a dark event — that’s clearly not a date movie or a feelgood movie — is pretty impressive. It would have been hard if New Zealanders had hated it, because really we made it for New Zealanders.
Filmmaker: Can you pinpoint the moment you became interested in cinema?
Sarkies: Well, I grew up in the 1970s, so I can’t say that my cinematic influences were particularly exciting, they were pretty mainstream. I think one of my earliest cinematic experiences was the original Poseidon Adventure, when I was about ten, which was so full-on I thought it was amazing. I grew up on a diet of Spielberg films — E.T. would have been my favorite movie for quite a while, until I was about 20! [laughs] That gradually shifted as I got a bit older and went to university and started to appreciate foreign films a lot more.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you had directed?
Sarkies: I love a lot of Tim Burton’s work, especially the slightly earlier, fantastical, imaginative work. I’d love to make a great children’s film one day — I was very saddened when he made Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I couldn’t. [laughs] But he’s Tim Burton and I’m who? It’s always inspiring to see a film you wish you could have done yourself because it really reminds you that this business that we work in still has magic to it, even when you’re one of the wannabe magicians.
Filmmaker: What’s the smartest decision you ever made?
Sarkies: To save up my 50 cents a day lunch money when I was 10 years old to be able to afford a movie camera. I guess if I hadn’t saved my lunch money rather than eating it then I wouldn’t have had a camera that enabled me to start making films.
Filmmaker: So you just went hungry for all that time?
Sarkies: Yeah, I went hungry. I was a real thin child, [laughs] and I used to eat quite a lot of cereal when I got home. Literally for four years, my parents didn’t realize that I didn’t spend any of my lunch money on lunch. I had 50 cents lunch money every day (which doesn’t sound like a lot now) and the camera that I wanted to buy was worth $300. Once I combined birthday money and Christmas money and lunch money, I could afford to buy a camera every year and a half. [laughs] I couldn’t afford to buy the film, but my dad was pretty with that, he said, “You buy the camera, I’ll buy the film.” He just didn’t realize I was starving myself to buy the camera.
Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
Sarkies: Follow your instincts, because it’s all you’ve got. If you follow your own instincts, your own sensibilities, you’ll create original work that reflects who you are.