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Charlotte Rampling in Juniper (Image: Supplied)
Charlotte Rampling in Juniper (Image: Supplied)

MediaOctober 21, 2021

Charlotte said yes: How we got a French screen icon to star in our NZ film

Charlotte Rampling in Juniper (Image: Supplied)
Charlotte Rampling in Juniper (Image: Supplied)

Charlotte Rampling, acting royalty, is starring in the new local film Juniper. Writer and director Matthew J Saville tells how he travelled to Paris to convince her to take the part.

I can’t afford it, but I just bought a $400 jacket (I never buy expensive clothing). Why? Because I am about to fly to France to meet Academy Award-nominated actor Charlotte Rampling. My thinking process is this: If I buy this jacket, one of the greatest actors of our time will think I am stylish and sophisticated, she will say yes to being in my film and come to New Zealand. It’s the last thing I do before I meet my producer Desray Armstrong at the airport.

We are both nervous. Along with our other producer Angela Littlejohn, we’ve been working on this project for four years and this is the final piece of the puzzle. It’s all very spur of the moment. We haven’t even booked our accommodation in Paris. We have a quick gin at the airport bar and jump on a plane to Paris. The long and the short of it is, no Charlotte – no film. We don’t want anyone else.

The story of Juniper has been with me for a while. Essentially it takes inspiration from my grandmother, Moccy. I never knew her as a child, but she moved from France to live with our family in New Zealand after breaking her leg. She was intelligent, funny, and at times brutal. It would also be fair to say she enjoyed a gin or four. She drank a decanter of gin and mineral water all day, every day. Despite the consumption, she never seemed drunk. Sadly, her broken leg never healed and so, unable to walk, she ruled our house with an electric bell that she would ring to get attention. Moccy had lived a life of adventure and at one point found herself escaping the Spanish Civil War. So, to create the character of Ruth in my film, I married my own grandmother’s experience with that of the legendary war journalist Martha Gellhorn. Both were born in 1908, and both had the shared experience of Spain.

As the plane takes off, it feels a little like destiny. My grandmother travelled from France to New Zealand to spend her last days. Many years later, her grandson is travelling to Paris to ask the legendary Charlotte Rampling to play the reinvented version of her on the silver screen.

Desray and I wake up in Paris. As we walk through the streets, instead of being greeted with wine, coffee and pastries, we are hit with the smell of charcoal-roasted corn and freshly made samosa. We are in La Chapelle, which owes its cultural character to large numbers of ethnic Tamils, people who fled Sri Lanka’s violent civil wars of the 80s and landed in France to make their home here. We find the Metro and make our way to the centre of Paris. I am carrying two bottles of Scapegrace gin. I shamelessly blagged them off the company a few days before leaving. I cold-called them and asked for a few free bottles, telling them of my quest; they coughed up some of their finest, no questions asked – New Zealand is good like that.

Gin in hand, we approach our meeting. Nerves are tight, as we are about to meet acting royalty. We have an hour to wait and decide a drink is in order. It seems appropriate considering the nature of the film we are making. We sip a gin (not Charlotte’s) and ponder the coming meeting. It then occurs to us that we don’t have gift bags for our presents. There is no way Charlotte will entertain a single thought of coming to New Zealand unless we have the perfect gift bags. The clock is ticking, and we are running through Paris, searching for gift bags. One hour and another gin later, we sit in the designated restaurant waiting for Charlotte and her agent. No gift bags. They don’t exist in Paris – who knew? Also, I am not wearing my $400 jacket. It’s the middle of summer in Paris and it’s just too hot.

Writer-director Matthew J Saville and producer Desray Armstrong on their way to Paris (Image: Supplied)

Ten minutes pass, and Charlotte and her agent are late. Perhaps this is all a dream? Then Charlotte and her agent, the amazing Jean Diamond, walk through the door. She is perfect! This is Europe; we drink wine, eat and talk – no talk of business, except for a discussion with Charlotte suggesting I change my name. There is another Matthew Saville in Australia. She’s right; I get fan mail for him all the time.

We then head upstairs to Charlotte’s apartment. Now it’s time to talk business. There is a slight tension. They love the script, but there are a few issues, and then there is New Zealand. It’s a long way away. This is the moment, the bit where I am supposed to be the person who knows things. My mouth opens, and apparently I do seem to know what I am talking about— the mood in the room shifts.

Charlotte and I agree to work on the script together for the next three days. It just works; her thoughts, her ideas are strong. She’s intelligent, funny and a little brutal. It’s perfect.

Two weeks later: I am back at my day job, between writing scripts, hustling for directing work. I work at a call centre selling wine over the phone for what was known as the New Zealand Wine Society. Shiraz, Chardonnay, I could do you a deal – sadly no gin though. In that time, I send back the revised script and we are waiting to see if Charlotte will come. The phone rings. It’s not one of my customers. It’s Desray. She’s had a chat with Charlotte’s agent. I can tell by the tone in her voice it’s good news. Charlotte is coming. We are going to make a movie.

Juniper was filmed in Coatesville, Auckland, and wrapped just before the global pandemic hit in February 2020. The film opens in alert level two cinemas on October 28, with preview screenings this long weekend. It will open in Auckland at a later date.

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