Moata Tamaira grills The Changeover co-director Stuart McKenzie about bringing her favourite book to life.
When I heard that someone was making a movie out of my favourite ever book, The Changeover, it put me in a fragile and rather ambivalent state of mind. On the one hand, it’s about time that someone got around to filming this obvious work of genius. On the other hand, will the resulting film mess with the characters, plot and themes to the point where I can never read the book again without grinding my teeth in frustration?
Luckily, fans of Margaret Mahy’s work have reason to be hopeful. Television adaptations of Mahy’s work have been competent and largely well-received. The Haunting of Barney Palmer, based on her young adult novel The Haunting, was tense, spooky and made me fear Ned Beatty for life. “Kidult” television series’ like Kaitangata Twitch and Maddigan’s Quest were award-winning, female-driven, entertaining family fare. Not to mention Strangers, the late ’80s show which holds the honour of introducing both Joel Tobeck’s preternatural cheekbones, and Martin Henderson’s devastating dimples to the word.
Still, Mahy was directly involved in a number of these productions and none of them were feature films. Five years on from her death, what can we expect from a film version of arguably her most popular novel? How much can you really unpack from two minutes of trailer and how much screwing with the source material may we divine, pray tell?
There’s post-quake Christchurch, for one. I liked your earlier work, Ōtautahi. Back in the ’80s when Mahy wrote the novel and described my hometown, things were a lot less busted-ass and waterlogged. This change is not without baggage. And also poor old Bishopdale aka “Gardendale” gets cast by the wayside. Then there’s the casting, such as the witchy romantic interest Sorensen Carlisle. Actor Nick Galitzine is ridiculously good-looking, not at all like the Sorensen Carlisle of the books.
But there’s also Laura’s hair. Described in the book as “woolly”, movie-Laura’s hair is at most a six on the “Boof Scale” and therefore not of a sufficiently poly-fro standard (in my somewhat woolly-haired opinion).
The trailer also gives us all sorts of settings and plot points that seem plucked from nowhere – scenes set inside shipping containers, random street sprinting, pre-schooler stovetop peril, apparent demonic possession, and teenage bogan bonfires. What’s that all about? I feel like I needed to find out more. This was all the justification I needed to harass one of the directors of this film, Stuart McKenzie.
Stuart, you’re not going to ruin my favourite book of all time with this movie of yours, are you?
Rest assured Moata, we could never ruin Margaret Mahy’s genius book The Changeover! Think of the film as a surplus, a bonus, a vehicle to deliver you back into the sanctity of your own imagination. Or, better maybe, to disrupt that sanctity and let some new light into the temple.
There is, I know, a masochistic pleasure in waiting for the screen adaptation of a favourite book, the seductive fear that your own vision of it will be assaulted. The book is inherently cinematic in that it illuminates the very idea of change. If you try and hold onto your childhood, your fantasies, your pleasures, your resentments, you become moribund and die. If you can face change, you are thrown into life — and there is something infinite about that.
“All things change, nothing is extinguished,” writes Ovid in his Metamorphoses — of which Margaret’s novel is a kind of adaptation.
Anyway, that’s all a long-winded way of saying, “Nah, we’re not gonna ruin the book for you Moata, we’re just initiating a changeover for you. Be brave.”
Okay, well I guess I don’t want to become “moribund and die”. But still, let’s not get sidetracked from the fact that I’ve watched the trailer, Stuart and I know you’ve changed stuff. What’s that about?
I updated the novel to set it in the here and now. When it was first published in 1984, The Changeover was utterly contemporary. That was a great part of its impact and its originality. Margaret calls up the supernatural — the realisation of mystery and wonder — through her strong sense of naturalism.
We wanted to respect the spirit of the book in this way. That is why we set the film in the specific reality of post-earthquake Christchurch.
Interestingly, the book functions like a Tarot pack in which many potentialities and possible futures are evoked. When I read it again after the Christchurch earthquakes, wondering where we should set the film now, the book answered me directly: I was struck by an image I had never noticed before, in which Laura hears rumbling earthquakes as she journeys inside herself to change herself.
Our decision to go ahead and set the adaptation in post-earthquake Christchurch then inspired many of the other changes in the film that the novel itself anticipates and welcomes. The brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and her subsequent transformation.
Are you confident then, that Margaret Mahy isn’t spinning in her grave?
Wherever she is, Margaret will always be moving. That was what she was like. Never sitting on her laurels. Always thinking outside the box. I know from our conversations that Margaret wanted us to find our own Changeover. What was it that drew us to this flame? What spark would we fan in order to set other fires burning?
We have responded both to the naturalism and the deep mythological structure of Margaret’s novel. The Changeover takes the hero’s journey — or in this case, the heroine’s journey — and plays it out in the very specific environment of Christchurch. This specificity helps give the story its universality. Laura Chant is called to adventure. She must leave her home and cross the threshold between the known world and the unknown. She undergoes an initiation and… well, wait until you see the film to find out what happens next.
It is this primal story that we have chosen to focus on in Margaret’s novel. And I think she would have been thrilled with Erana James who is a damaged, loving, luminous and courageous Laura Chant. And with Timothy Spall who brings charisma, evil and humanity to Carmody Braque. “Creepy AF”, is how one of our early responders has described the film. I think Margaret would have liked that.
When I read this book, in the ’80s, I used my best pen (it was a Stabilo) and made a list of songs I thought should be on the soundtrack of the movie that would surely be made one day soon. It had all my favourite New Zealand music on it. So what I want to ask you is… does the soundtrack to your film have any Exponents tracks on it, and if not is it too late to add some?
OMG, you’re like me! I wanted to put all my favourite NZ music in there too! We listened to Yumi Zouma and Chelsea Jade and Lorde and Boycrush and Bokeh and Princess Chelsea and Maya Payne and Annabel Alpers and The Naked and Famous and Madeira and Death and the Maiden and, and, and…
Miranda’s idea was that we should have all female vocalists, the tracks we chose functioning as an interior monologue for Laura. We have a bunch of brilliant NZ artists — Doprah, Kittens of The Internet, Fazerdaze, Bic Runga, Mermaidens — and sensational international acts like Flume, Fever Ray and aYia. The only time we have a male voice is Beast Wars’ Damn the Sky —you’ll see why when you see the film…
We were very moved when we approached Icelandic band aYia about the possibility of using their intense, exhilarating track Ruins. We didn’t have a lot of money at all and we wanted to use the whole five minute track over the end credits (traditionally an expensive piece of real estate). But I wrote to aYia personally and talked about what had drawn us to their music and sent them some key images from the film along with the trailer. They came back and said, sure, they’d love to be part of it.
Their label — legendary Bedroom Community (check them out) — mentioned afterwards that aYia has been approached many times by people wanting to use their music in games, film or TV, but The Changeover really chimed with them, so this was the first time that they’d agreed.
Um, not to put too fine a point on it, Stu, but Christchurch looks a bit shit in this movie.
It was important to us to shoot the film in Christchurch, although it added significantly to the cost given the lack of infrastructure and equipment in town. But of course, we could not have re-created the authentic feel of the city anywhere else. The film looks absolutely unique — both naturalistic and mythic at the same time. Our mantra for the visual aesthetic of the film was “rough poetry”. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud has conjured up striking images of the inner city and also the residential red zones of eastern Christchurch.
I think the film is a very moving, very particular glimpse of the city in transition. Teenage life in this transitional world is an important aspect of the film. The teenagers hang out, waiting for something to happen, doing crazy shit to try and expand their horizons. So yes, Christchurch looks a little bit shit – but Laura’s pursuit of magic transmutes it into gold.
Speaking of Laura… her hair’s not boofy enough!
We will have to discuss that further with wonderful hair and make-up stylist Frankie Kerena. Her philosophy and ours was to keep it natural. Erana James has got great hair and in the film it’s always in a tangle.
It was important to us that Laura Chant should be part-Māori in the film just as she is Margaret’s book. We met Erana (Ngati Whatua Orakei, Waikato Tainui) in 2013 in the teen acting class that Miranda takes at Rata Studios in Wellington. I said to Miranda then, There’s our Laura Chant! She radiated the fierceness and vulnerability and deep spirit that we saw in Laura. While we auditioned extensively all around the country, we kept coming back to Erana.
We always thought that when the book was first published in the ’80s there would have been a Māori teenager somewhere in Christchurch who identified with Laura Chant and saw herself in the film of the book of her interior life. We wanted to hold fast to that girl!
As it turns out, that person may have been you, Moata! Hope you love the film as much as we loved making it.
So there you have it. This movie is me. And probably you. So we’re all just going to have to be very brave and hold our breaths and hopefully, fingers crossed, feel the magic.
The Changeover is in cinemas today
The Spinoff Media is sponsored by MBM, an award-winning strategic media agency specialising in digital, with vast experience across all channels. We deliver smart, tailored media solutions as well as offering a leading data and analytics consultancy. Talk to us about your communications challenges and how MBM can help bring you success through the power of media and technology.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.