Making The Change(over)
Cityscape caught up with co-director and former local lad Stuart McKenzie ahead of the release of his Christchurch-set film adaptation of the Margaret Mahy classic The Changeover – starring UK legend Timothy Spall and New Zealand’s own Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, and newcomer Erana James as protagonist Laura Chant – for a behind-the-scenes chat.
“I’m a Christchurch boy” says co-director Stuart McKenzie, the New Zealand theatre and film industry veteran who co-directed The Changeover alongside his wife, actor and performance coach Miranda Harcourt. It was this home-town background (he even attended university with Margaret Mahy’s daughter!) that was one of the things that drew him to the novel, which he was first introduced to when Harcourt performed an audio adaptation of the book for National Radio shortly after it was published in 1984. Already heavily involved with the city’s Free Theatre company and other theatrical endeavours, McKenzie was grabbed by the possibilities of Mahy’s tale. “With the sort of backgrounds we had, we couldn’t help but instantly think and talk about what a cool film [the book] would make,” he says. “The themes of change and transformation were incredibly cinematic.”
Of course, bringing a great film idea to screen is often a monumentally difficult task. Enquiring after the rights in the early 90s, the pair found them tied up in Hollywood – little surprise given we’re talking about a Carnegie Medal-winning, internationally-acclaimed novel – and even when the rights became available again, pulling the project together was proving a tough nut to crack. Fortunately McKenzie and Harcourt received some help from the best quarter possible – the author herself. “Margaret read some of our early drafts and really liked them,” he recalls. “She really paved the way for us to get the rights.” The project was on.
“I always felt it was important to film in Christchurch,” McKenzie says. “The story itself could be set anywhere – the book was first published in the UK and US – but Christchurch really feels like the spiritual home of the story.” Post-quake Christchurch offers a unique setting for the film which ties into the themes of the story, he adds. “Christchurch has gone through this significant trauma and has to put itself back together … Laura in the story is dealing with huge change and trauma as well. With Christchurch, there are these very wide vistas which are very cinematic – and then you have this slightly surreal quality of parts of the city that work with the supernatural elements in the story as well.”
Part of the film was shot in the residential red zone near New Brighton, with the production specifically moving a house back into the area (which required special permission from the Prime Minister’s office). “It’s quite beautiful there,” says McKenzie, “You have this sense that something significant has happened, and of course nature is crawling back into the area. It has this sort of eerie, fairy tale quality that has that classic setting for the hero’s journey.” He's quick to add that the film is “not a Christchurch travelogue”, but just hearing him talk about the locations gets you excited to see the film’s version of our city.
A good story’s nothing without a great cast to bring it to life of course, and McKenzie and Harcourt were able to pull a fantastic one together. Debut actress Erana James has turned in what sounds like a performance to watch out for as protagonist Laura Chant, while the cast is helmed by high-profile Kiwis Melanie Lynskey and Lucy Lawless, and multi-award-winning English character actor Timothy Spall, who plays the story’s nefarious villain, the immortal Carmody Braque.
“Timothy’s such a cool guy and an amazing actor,” says McKenzie. “So precise, so very clear on what he wants to do. We specifically went after him because we didn’t want a cartoon sort of evil, and Timothy’s revelled in it because he got to play what he called his most evil role ever. He loved Margaret’s novel, and when he got a chance to see a rough cut of the film he’s really just been blown away by the setting and result, so it’s just been fantastic to have him.”
Cast and crew naturally spent a bit of time exploring the city, with New Regent Street’s Shop 8 (itself transforming into The Grey Robin Restaurant in spring) and tapas at Vesuvio popular options, among others. “There’s no shortage of cool places,” McKenzie says. One get-to-know-your-castmates visit had a little bit of extra significance, with Melanie Lynskey taking her on-screen kids to the central city Margaret Mahy Playground for some bonding time.
“It doesn’t make it into the film, but it was nice to have that wee connection. We’re sad Margaret’s not here to see the finished film, but we’d like to think she’d be happy with the results.”
The Changeover opens on 28 September.