Storytelling magic - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 216

Photo by Mataara Stokes

Storytelling magic by Alessia Belsito-Riera

Rachel House tells me that she was gently pushed – at times shoved – into speech and drama as a youngster. “I was one of those kids who would sit in the corner while life continued around me and read and read and read,” she says. Unsurprisingly, she took to drama like a duck to water, but always retained her love of literature. “It’s stayed with me, but it’s come out now in a different interpretation, which is being in film as an actor, or, in this case, co-writing and directing,” she continues. That’s right, the acclaimed actress who has graced our screens for years in films like Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Whale Rider, adds the role of director to her impressive resume. Her directorial debut The Mountain hits cinemas on the 28th of March.

What sparked your love of storytelling?

I think it was just being a kid and reading books. I firmly believe that stories can help us all to connect universally, in our culture, within a country, or in a cause or belief. I’m a big fan of the healing nature of stories and storytelling.

What made you take the leap into directing?

I started off directing theatre a long time ago. There’s this misconception that directing theatre won’t give you what you need to direct film and I disagree with that. You get to understand how to break down a story and what elements enhance that story and the world that you’re trying to create. I find a lot of screen directors aren’t given the opportunity to hone that part of the craft, how to work with actors, so I felt in a very good place to direct this. I had directed some television commercials and a Māori language show for Māori Television Channel a long time ago before film school. I think television made me realise that I needed to level up.

How was the experience directing kids?

It was a privilege. It always is. I’ve done a lot of coaching on other films, and I’ve really enjoyed the process. It was kind of an accident initially, the acting coach had pulled out for Boy just before it started shooting, and so I was called in I think because I was in it and had worked with kids before at various institutions – the last one being the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts. The producer and director knew that I was able to work with kids, but it was really like being thrown in the deep end because there were so many kids on Boy. From that I’ve continued working with kids, every time is a privilege, and this was no exception. I also understood the importance of having an acting coach and I had a really brilliant one called Carrie Green who lives in Wellington. She’s often at Circa Theatre or Toi Whakaari. She created a really fun environment for the kids.

How did you get involved in The Mountain?

I was approached by [producers] Carthew [Neal] and Morgan [Waru]. It’s been an interesting decision to be a film director. I’ve been given a few scripts over the last 10 years, and none of them really stuck with me. This one did; I just thought there was so much potential in it. They gave me the script to read and said that I was able to rework it, which I did. I’ve always loved mountains. We see our mountains as ancestors; whenever I’m walking around – particularly in the South Island – and all of those ancestral peaks are surrounding us, there’s something incredibly magic about that. So, the fact that this was all leading to these three kids having an adventure on a mountain was really appealing to me.

There were big changes that occurred. In the original script, Tom [Furniss] hadn’t written who the mountain was, which I found quite confounding, and I didn’t actually understand if we were even in this country. That was an incredible gift, that I was able to talk about our perspective as Māori in terms of how we see our maunga and how imperative it is to name that mountain. From that came the story of Sam. Initially it was three boys and I made one of them Samantha. This story was based on a friend of Tom’s when he was a kid who had cancer, so it was his ode to his friend. It combined really well with Sam wanting to connect with the mountain in order for her to see if she could heal and become stronger rather than conquer the mountain, which was initially in the script. What really added to that was her not knowing her Māori culture. That’s how I rewrote Bronco as well, so that he could give Sam a really strong context.

I was told this story became special for you personally during the scripting process, as it enabled you to connect more with your own Taranaki whakapapa?

As soon as I decided on the mountain being Taranaki, with that came a deeper understanding of my whakapapa. I got to go on that journey and connect with whānau down there, which is very special.

Do you hope that the film will spark viewers to connect more deeply with their roots and engage more intentionally with Māori culture?

Absolutely. What I’d really love is that we all understand that we’re guardians. Particularly now that we’re in a climate crisis, we should see ourselves as guardians looking after Te Taiao and understanding how privileged we are to live in this beautiful country.

There’s also a focus on healing, friendship, and nature, which are all tied together with a magic. What prompted you to imbue the story with magic?

Define magic. I think to Māori, we are constantly getting tohu or signs of directions we should go or paths that we should follow. I am a firm believer that there is magic in nature; it’s all around us if we look. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to imbue it with magic as much as it was to show how wonderful nature can be.

I thought that the ordinary magic of everyday life was so nicely highlighted in the movie.

Beautifully put, I’ll steal that!

Please do! What do you hope viewers feel after leaving the cinema?

Proud to live in this country. I hope they feel inspired to look around.

How are you feeling about the premiere?

I’m feeling really good about the journey we’re about to embark on. We’re really excited about the Taranaki world premiere. I’m already feeling very emotional about taking it home. It was such a labour of love and so much work has been put in by so many people. We had the kids’ hours to contend with, we had to literally climb the mountain. We have a really extraordinary family of people behind us who helped make The Mountain.

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