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Tom Sainsbury in Loop Track (Photo: Milon Tesiram)
Tom Sainsbury in Loop Track (Photo: Milon Tesiram)

Pop CultureOctober 31, 2023

How Tom Sainsbury turned from character comedy to wilderness horror

Tom Sainsbury in Loop Track (Photo: Milon Tesiram)
Tom Sainsbury in Loop Track (Photo: Milon Tesiram)

Tom Sainsbury, the ‘Snapchat Dude’, has made his feature directorial debut with Loop Track. He talks to Thomas Giblin about his change in tone.

Sainsbury joins me on a rare day off from filming. He’s cosied up in a bright green hoodie, and his now bleached hair is several shades lighter than when he presented Loop Track at the Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival. Sainsbury stars (as well as being the writer and director) as the skittish Ian, a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He retreats to an isolated hiking trail, hoping to find peace among the nīkau trees. Before long, Ian encounters a myriad of obnoxious trampers and someone or something else that prowls among the flora. 

Raised on a dairy farm in Matamata, Sainsbury’s only access to cinema as a kid were the two video stores in town. Once a cornerstone of family outings in Aotearoa, the three for $8 and five for $10 deals on VHS tapes were a seminal influence. Sainsbury recalls being drawn towards the horror section throughout his childhood, ogling the grotesque cover art and teasing taglines. His eyes went square, affixed to the television in the living room, watching tape after tape. The store his family went to didn’t have the original Carrie and Halloween, so Sainsbury had to settle for their so-bad-it’s-good sequels – The Rage: Carrie 2 and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. He struggles to remember one particularly delightful and disgusting film, so frantically googles a film with “Worms” in the title. He finds what he was searching for: Squirm, a trash exploitation horror about giant worms who develop a taste for human flesh.

Even before he started school, Sainsbury was always telling himself stories. He says the stories were mostly Star Wars rip-offs with happy endings, but they laid the foundation for an interest in fables that blow you away. In his pre-teens, Sainsbury accompanied his parents to a rendition of Little Shop of Horrors by the Matamata Operatic Society. This seminal moment led him to theatre, which he used as a means to express himself. Sainsbury’s mother is an English teacher, so “she’s attuned to discussing the themes, the character arcs and things like that, which probably rubbed off on me.” He then set about writing a school-set sequel to the play for a homework assignment. At the same time, he began auditioning for roles in school play and with the Matamata Operatic Society. In 2000, he moved to Tāmaki Makaurau to study English literature and Theatre at the University of Auckland. 

Sainsbury remains in Tāmaki Makaurau, living in a rented apartment in Ponsonby. I’d expected his abode to be an eclectic mess of curious oddities, but the off-yellow wall and looming shelf behind Sainsbury is surprisingly barren. He explains that this is his second-to-last day at the address he’s inhabited for the last five years. Sainsbury and his partner are moving house. There’s a tinge of melancholy as he briefly adverts his gaze from Zoom and looks off into the distance: “Loop Track was written here. Isn’t that crazy?” As this chapter of his life ends, Sainsbury reflects on the arduous journey that led him to write, direct and star in his debut feature film.

Alone in the bush (Photo: Milon Tesiram)

The genesis of Loop Track was a single image: “someone on an isolated bush walk seeing a figure in the far distance. They can’t make out exactly what they’re looking at, but the figure’s presence feels malevolent.” Chillbox, Sainbruy’s frequent collaborators, conjured up this eerie conceit, but it was up to the 41-year-old to extrapolate the idea into a script. It helped that he had a frightening experience by the dunes of Piha. “In the distance, I could see someone looking at me through the sand dunes, and I was like, that’s such a sinister image. That got me kind of excited.” It turned out that this ominous figure lurking in the dunes was just a man walking his dog, shattering the panic-inducing scenario he’d built up in his head.

Sainsbury came to work with Chillbox by chance: Gabriel Lunte, creative director of the video production company, reached out to him after seeing the show Stake Out. The team chatted with Sainsbury over coffee, and a blossoming partnership formed. Together, they’ve worked on several projects and have won Aoteroea’s biggest filmmaking competition, 48Hours, in 2016 and 2018. If you’ve seen Sainsbury and Chillbox’s 2019 competition entry, Like Nobody’s Watching, Loop Track makes a lot more sense. And while Sainsbury has been most known for his comedy videos online, his filmography and theatre work suggests a close relationship with the darker elements. Hhis theatre works Then You Die, The Christmas Monologues, Sunday Roast, The Mall and A Simple Procedure are all dark and twisted. The “sad clown” characters he plays often use comedy as a coping mechanism. Without the comedic timing, they’d be as depressing as any classic drama.

It’s been a long journey for Loop Track. It’s taken “years to get the script right and to get the money and to get everything else in order”, Sainsbury says. When all was ready to go in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, which “threw everything into disarray”.  Shot just south of Pukekohe over two years between various lockdowns, the chaos caused by the pandemic was a blessing and a curse; they lost Chris Parker to scheduling conflicts, for one. He was meant to co-star as Nicky, a fellow hiker who insists on defining his manhood by how quickly he can walk from A to B. Losing Parker meant they had a little more time to work on an element of the film that I won’t spoil. What gave Sainsbury the motivation to continue working on Loop Track throughout these turbulent times? It was team dynamic, he says. They could all “rely on each other for the motivation, and there were definitely times when they really kept me buoyant”.

This team includes Aotearoa screen regulars Kate Simmonds, Tawanda Manyimo and Hayden J Weal. The latter stars as a painfully obnoxious wannabe alpha male. With a treasure chest of cringe-inducing lines, Weal is a scene stealer and provides levity when acting alongside Sainsbury, a “pasty sweat-ball of a man.” The horror film rests itself on Sainsbury’s ability to play a new type of screen character, a kind that’s a far cry from the comedic roles he’s most known for. Because of this, Sainsbury has had to measure expectations among his fans. If you go in expecting to see Officer Parker or a film reminiscent of his Snapchat videos, you’re in for a rude awakening. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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