The writer of the acclaimed new Rose Matafeo comedy tells Sam Brooks how her own experiences as an expectant mother inspired the script.
When writer-actress Sophie Henderson first started trying to become pregnant with her husband, director and actor Curtis Vowell, she didn’t expect it to happen so fast. She probably also didn’t expect that a few years after the birth of their daughter Matilda she’d be waiting for the film inspired by that pregnancy to arrive in cinemas. But, of course, that’s what happened.
Henderson says her experience of pregnancy was far from the chilled-out Instagram-influencer ideal. “I freaked out so badly and I was not feeling the right feelings. I was not a good pregnant woman, I had no way of being pregnant. I started thinking that that was it – the end of my dreams. So me and Curtis were like, “What are all the wild things we’ve got to get done before we have a baby?”
Instead of doing those things, the couple wrote a film about it. They didn’t even get to do any of the wild things.
The film, Baby Done, starring Rose Matafeo (from many Rose Matafeo things) and Matthew Lewis (from the wizard franchise) premiered in New Zealand cinemas this week. It’s had rave reviews – including from our own Leonie Hayden and four stars from the Guardian – and has been the talk of local social media. If you’re following any New Zealand actor, comedian or entertainment-adjacent influencer on socials, chances are you’ve seen them post about loving it. That’s because it’s really good.
The film follows Zoe (Matefeo), an arborist who works with her boyfriend Tim (Lewis). Zoe is set on she and Tim not being another baby-obsessed couple, throwing gender reveal parties and dropping their lives for the new addition to their family. But, of course, she ends up finding out she’s pregnant. And she does not deal with it well.
It’s an experience that Henderson knows well. When she found out she was pregnant, she and Vowell were living in Melbourne. “We just got a whiteboard out. That was my way of coping with the pregnancy. Instead of buying stretchy clothes and thinking of names, I didn’t do anything to prepare except write this movie.
“I went into full denial that there would be a baby at the end of this pregnancy.”
One of the most remarkable things about Baby Done, other than Rose Matafeo’s glorious performance, is that Zoe’s edges aren’t sanded down at all. She’s unashamedly ambitious and stubborn; she suffers no bullshit. She’s the kind of character you can imagine making producers nervous, the kind of person you’d either warm to at a party or walk away from immediately.
“I had a lot of notes to make her more likeable, make her more feminine and I refused,” says Henderson “That is not what this is. We love characters because of their flaws, not despite them. Because we’ve got them and are like, ‘that’s me.’”
It’s also frankly, surprising to see a pregnant woman depicted in such a physical role as Zoe, an arborist who dreams of being a world tree-climbing champion. It’s not that pregnant women can’t do physical labour, obviously, but we so rarely see that depicted (Frances McDormand’s legendary Marge Gunderson in Fargo is a notable exception). Even though Baby Done is a film about pregnancy, Henderson writes Zoe in such a way that we know there was a Zoe before the film started, and will be one afterwards.
People like Zoe are the kind of characters Henderson is drawn to writing. Her previous film, Fantail – directed by Vowell, who also directed Baby Done – featured a similarly edgy lead character: a white-presenting Māori woman (played by Henderson herself) stuck between two cultures. While Baby Done couldn’t be more tonally different than the sombre Fantail, the writer’s voice is strong in both.
The film isn’t just close to Henderson because it’s inspired by her own life. She also, of course, made it with her husband. “We worked together before we were together. We have the same taste, so everything can be tested,” she says.
“There’s no politeness. We’ll tell each other something is shit and we’ve gotta go again. I know he loves me, so he doesn’t need to be polite about the work, it’s all about the work.”
That closeness allowed for a fluid relationship on set. Henderson would be there every day, and she likes to think she played an important role as intermediary between director and cast. “I can solve things, or he can blame things on me. If the actors don’t want to do it, he can be like, ‘Sophie says! Sophie says that they need to stand on either side of the incubator. It’s really important it’s done as written! As written!’
“It just becomes all about the film. Because we just care about the film so much. Our whole lives became about the film, and parenting, and nothing else. There are no boundaries.”
There’s one boundary, though: she doesn’t want her kids to see the film. “I was not as wild as the character is. She does some borderline things. I really just pushed the boundaries of what the audience will think is acceptable for a pregnant woman.
“But you definitely watch it with my kids in mind. Like, they’ll know when it’s autobiographical. They’ll go, ‘Wow, Mum and Dad – that’s twisted.’ We did a speech for the media screening and wanted to practise it in front of our kids and then went, “Oh no, we can’t say any of this in front of our kids!’”
Baby Done is in cinemas now.