Alex Casey sits down for a yarn with Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, as their film The Breaker Upperers opens in New Zealand cinemas this week.
Madeleine Sami is hooning a beer and Jackie van Beek is sipping a kombucha, or “bin juice” as Sami prefers to call it. We are a few hours out from the New Zealand premiere of The Breaker Upperers, and I’m a little bit worried. They’ve done a lot of interviews already, and I fear they’ll be bored by me, the very last media interview before they go and get ready for the glitzy premiere. “Back yourself girl,” says Sami, slamming her fist down on the table. “This our pep talk for you, we’re all about women supporting other women,” encourages Van Beek from behind her ice cold glass of bin juice.
I begin to feel less worried as Sami begins bellowing hashtags, starting with #timesup and #metoo and slowly slipping into just saying “hashtag” over and over again. This is what it’s like to have lunch with two of New Zealand’s funniest people. Bigtime creative collaborators who you might remember recently from Three’s Funny Girls, the pair are also the writers, co-directors and stars of The Breaker Upperers. They’re also mothers, longtime friends and whatever the hell else you want to call them. “We learned what we are really called when we went overseas,” says Van Beek. “Multi-hyphenates. If I had a CV, I’d put that on it.”
Opening in cinemas across the country this week, The Breaker Upperers is a hilarious “womance” – a term coined by Sami – following two women, scorned by love, who make a living by tearing relationships apart. “We wanted their friendship to be the focus and their male love interests completely secondary,” says Van Beek. “We don’t want to have to follow convention to be happy and neither should the audience – let’s fuck the system a little.” She gestures around the cafe. “What’s actually happening in reality? Look around, what do people actually look like? What do people actually talk about? What are their real hopes and dreams?”
That desire to tap into the realest of real manifests strongly in the film, from a terse “bra stays on” quip during the throes of passion to the frank chats that women have on a car bonnet after half a large beer. Whether it’s grey pubes, old eggs or female masturbation, The Breaker Upperers is chocka with things we traditionally haven’t seen a lot discussed about in New Zealand pop culture. “In life, we talk about this stuff, so we just thought we’d put it on screen. We talk about masturbating every day, don’t we Mads? I ring you first thing every morning to talk about it.” She pauses and looks at my phone recording on the table. “That’s a joke.”
The pair both adore romantic comedies, some of which were reference points during the writing of The Breaker Upperers and others cautionary tales (strictly no double church weddings were allowed for the finale). Sami loves “Jenn Ann” and Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher, Van Beek is more of an Owen Wilson girl with a surprising soft spot for the 2006 film You, Me and Dupree. One thing they are in total agreement on is the impact of female ensemble film Bridesmaids, which also falls under the newly-minted ‘womance’ umbrella. “I just couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen that movie before. It felt like watching my life, like I knew those women.” Van Beek remembers watching the film in the cinema while her husband was “literally laughing on the floor” and thinking to herself ‘everything has changed’.
That may sound dramatic, but these women know all too well how these watershed films can shift the paradigms in Hollywood. “It was a real moment in cultural history, and the first time that Hollywood realised that funny women could sell a movie,” says Sami, who was once told by an LA executive that “no-one’s really doing female comedy right now.” She returned to Hollywood after the success of Bridesmaids in 2011, and noticed an immediate difference. “Suddenly everyone’s all over you. ‘Women! Women in comedy! What have you got! Where have you been?!’ Women have been here the whole time, we’ve just been the hot sidekicks.”
And then there’s the impact of the #metoo movement, centralising women’s experiences in broader culture. “There’s just so much shit that women have put up with for years. And then, all of a sudden, you finally see the world for what it is,” says Sami. This comes through in The Breaker Upperers, which is by no means a stern piece of #metoo treatise, but features a throwaway line where Sami’s character Mel warns a female dog walker to stay away from a shady spot at night. It’s a casual interaction that every woman will know. “People are just not putting up with stuff anymore, which is great timing for our film because it suddenly feels like what we are writing is suddenly being properly received.”
Their desire to push the boundaries – aka talk about normal stuff that effects to 50% of the population – came gushing forth years ago, during an improvised scene in their mate Taika Waititi’s 2014 film What We Do In The Shadows. Riffing with Van Beek on the idea of a menstruating vampire, Sami remembers the men behind the camera “recoiling in horror” at what was coming out of their mouths. The pair still think it was hilarious. “Taika is a dear friend of ours, of course, but even he was pretty grossed out,” says Van Beek. “We were just jamming about what it would be like to have your period while you were also a vampire and what that might… lead to.”
You might not remember the scene from the film, because it didn’t make it.
Cut to 2018, and Sami and Van Beek are now calling the shots of their own, and have been touted, weirdly, as “the female Taika and Jemaine” by Variety. They’ve also been called “comediennes” in multiple media outlets and our own Seven Sharp came under fire for calling The Breaker Upperers “Taika Waititi’s latest film”. Do they find it frustrating? Not really. “That’s just innate sexism, the fact that people can’t just credit us alone for the film. The reality is that we wrote it and Taika and Jemaine helped us out in small ways,” says Sami. “I think people assume that Taika made the film because it couldn’t have been funny without his help.”
Sami recalls reading a review that noted Taika’s “touch” was all over their film. “That just isn’t true. We wrote it, Taika just came in and did a pass on it.” Van Beek hopes it’s not a problem they’ll have to deal with again. “When we do our second film people will see it as funny and good and they’ll start to think ‘that’s Madeleine and Jackie’s touch all over it’ rather than someone else’s.” Her writing partner is equally zen. “We don’t feel any anger because he’s our mate and we know he’s not trying to claim anything at all.” “And, quite importantly,” adds Van Beek, “he did write a lot of jokes that we cut.”
So now the film is finally out in cinemas, the New Zealand multi-hyphenates are taking calls in their cars from Hollywood between interviews, and I can’t tell if they are joking when they talk about making The Breaker Upperers into the first New Zealand buddy trilogy – if you don’t count Lord of the Rings. “The goal for me is that it’s not an anomaly for there to be a female comedy film in New Zealand,” says Sami. “I hope that there’s a bunch more made because there are so many funny women in New Zealand.” Most of them pop up at some point or another in The Breaker Upperers – with cameos from Angella Dravid, Rose Matafeo and Ana Scotney, to name just a few.
Not only do they want to shake up the faces we see on screen, but there was an effort the change how things run behind the scenes as well. Boasting a crew of 60% women, and marking the debut project for Miss Conception films, The Breaker Upperers also employed job-sharing mothers. “We did things in ways that are not traditionally done. We wanted to show that you can have a baby and make it work,” says Sami. The choice for two women to co-direct also bucks the trend of the sole, genius, male, auteur. “I mentor a lot of young women who say they don’t feel like they have the courage to lead a team,” says Van Beek. “My hope is that in showing them this co-directing model, women might team up with a friend and have a bit more courage.”
It honestly sounds like they’ve carefully considered absolutely every part of The Breaker Upperers universe, so did they ever have any quiet moments of doubt when balancing writing, directing and acting? “No,” says Van Beek. “We’d get tired, we’d get fatigued, but we had this really strong feeling that making this film was just a necessity. We were like ‘fuck it’, we just want to prove to ourselves, and to everyone else, that it’s actually possible.”
“And it is.”
The Breaker Upperers is now open in cinemas nationwide