Lauren Jackson's June Short Films

Spiritual Cinema Circle

I’m Going to Mum’s is a story with heart, set in the complicated world of divorce. When the going gets tough, good parents slip up and their child takes charge. Enter Jacob, an eight-year-old boy who splits his time between two parents at war.

This story was inspired by my own experiences of divorce plus those of my friends and acquaintances. I spoke to several parents sharing care of children and every single time, clothing came up as a day-to-day issue. A central image kept coming to my mind of a boy marching towards me, declaring “I’m going to Mum’s” / “I’m going to Dad’s”. He was stuck in a fresh divorce and looked different each time I saw him, depending on what outfit his parents had dressed him in. Each outfit was worse than the last and I began to wonder... how extreme could this get? What if the kid finally rebelled? What form would that rebellion take? Why should a child strip themselves of one parent, just to please the other? How could this boy assert his right to hold on to all of himself at all times? What if he became a walking metaphor for his mum and dad’s baggage? The idea felt bittersweet — to explore a familiar, slightly painful topic with a light touch.

I’m Going to Mum’s is a story about innocence, division, role reversal, loyalty, and autonomy. It’s about the right to lead a whole life. My aim is to have the audience laughing, but really gunning for this family at the same time. There’s a lot of curiosity about the dynamics of “shared care”. I’m Going to Mum’s owns up to all the difficulties and craziness of living between two homes. But rather than preach or judge, the film offers hope. Yes, adults can react badly when their egos are hurt, but if they put the children first, they can move beyond it.

Casting was relatively straightforward. On advice from Miranda Harcourt (who has expertise in working with children on film), I began with the parents. Miranda advised that a great working relationship with the screen-parents would strengthen the child actor’s performance. I knew from the outset that I wanted Narelle Ahrens and Jarod Rawiri as Gwen and Anthony. Both actors have a sympathetic and sensitive screen presence, which I think helps the audience see the parents as human beings trying their best in a tough situation. I was never interested in “goodies” and “baddies”. Both Narelle and Jarod are parents themselves and were fantastic with Duane Wichman-Evans, who I cast in the lead role of Jarod. Duane already had a wealth of screen experience and shone in the auditions. I found it reassuring that Duane comes from a supportive and loving family, because it meant that the situations I put him in really were just “make believe” for him, no matter how convincing he was in each scene!

The complex rhythm of Jacob’s shared-care arrangement is echoed in the rhythmic repetition of shots and scenes. The beat of Jacob’s feet hitting the footpath feeds into the percussive slap-dance rhythm which jolts to a stop when Jacob talks to us. Then it all starts up again. However the film is not an out and out comedy. Jacob’s rebellion shifts us into a darker style of humour. As the conflict escalates the film changes gear. Poignant moments of reflection and beauty occur amidst the chaos: Anthony (Dad) through the glass door; Gwen (Mum) watching Jacob sleep; Anthony alone in the empty street.

The film was shot around the inner city streets of Arch Hill and Parnell, Auckland. The eclectic, idiosyncratic nature of the houses is a great match for the quickly shifting moods of the film. The film has the temperamental feel of Auckland weather, reflecting the uncertainty of Jacob’s home-life. It is not until the final sprinkler scene that we see a truly bright, sunny day. Jacob is again soaked with water, but this time it’s a cleansing shower, washing away all the baggage. Jacob’s clothes provide pops of colour that match and complement the urban architecture. The feel of each parent’s home is distinctive, to help us appreciate the constant adjustment Jacob makes. At Mum’s we hear birdsong throughout the tastefully renovated family home. Dad’s apartment is a bit of a jumble of dishes and washing, with street sounds rising up through the windows.

In the opening sequence, Jacob approaches the camera over and over again. Each time, we gain new insight into his family life, through the clothes he is wearing and the snippets of information he shares with us. The camera is fairly static to begin with, allowing Jacob to approach us. The shots are fairly wide on Jacob, portraying him as small in his own world. However as the pace picks up and Jacob’s situation becomes more untenable, the camera gains mobility. Jacob is still stuck in his situation, but his mounting frustration energises the camera and he interacts with it directly, pushing it out of his face in the bedroom. More close ups find their way into the film as Jacob focuses his thoughts and takes action. Through protest Jacob forces himself into the centre of his parents’ attention.

Until Jacob takes control of the situation, other characters pop into frame unexpectedly, showing Jacob has no agency over his life. Anyone can enter his life at any time and he is used to complying. A car drives through shot, splashing him with mud; Random Kid enters to give him a shove; his parents yank him in and out of frame. This “push-me-pull-me” effect belies the harder truth of the film — Jacob’s parents are blind to the effect they are having on him.

This all changes once Jacob is in the driver’s seat. His peaceful protest is not direct disobedience. Jacob will wear what he’s told, he just won’t remove it. By the end of the film, Jacob is the one popping in and out of shots, a tragicomic bundle surprising people. Jacob is also beginning to frame his own world on his own terms. At the beginning of the final meeting between the parents, we see Gwen and Anthony framed in one of Jacob’s POV balaclava shots. Ironically, the oval eye slit of the balaclava frames his mum and dad much like the romantic iris shot in an old Hollywood film. However Jacob’s strange, labored breathing anchors us in the tension of the situation. Much of the film has been shot from Jacob’s eye level, to help us sense the world from his perspective. I had a great time working with Simon Raby who, on several occasions, made genius use of a Red camera on the ground in a wok!

There is minimal use of music in the film. Drew McMillan’s soundtrack is stripped back and percussive. We worked with musicians to construct and record rhythms from childhood clap games and Pacific Island slap dances. These beats help the film retain a sense of playfulness, even in the heavier moments. There are some key percussive sounds too: the slamming of car doors, the woomph of Jacob hitting the pavement when pushed, the rip of Jacob’s puffer jacket — he is literally torn.
I’m Going to Mum’s has been an exciting first short for me. I’m proud of the excellent team we created and of the end product, which so closely matches those first imaginings of mine. I would attribute this positive outcome to the strong working relationship I enjoy with producers Jeremy Macey and Andrew Cochrane. I certainly look forward to the next project.

Tree is a film about family; tradition versus modern life; and friendship.

The idea for Tree began in my head as the moving image of a young woman leaping into a tree. I didn't know what she was running from but I loved her bravery and strength. At the same a young woman I knew was in huge trouble with her family for falling pregnant as an unmarried teenager. I was hoping for another child myself and so the very event that would have brought me such joy had landed this young woman in disgrace. I was struck by the contrast and the story took shape.

Alisi's night in the tree is a tough negotiation (with darkly humorous moments thrown in), as Alisi challenges her family. We don't know if her brother's love for Alisi will win out against tradition. What is the strongest choice Alisi can make? Family is not something we throw away lightly.

The film plays in multi-cultural urban Auckland, where I grew up. Alisi and her friends are under pressure to live up to traditional family expectations and also excel in modern New Zealand society. Having taught at the Pacific Institute of Performing Arts (PIPA) for ten years, I wanted to create work for the graduates. The PIPA community supported me in workshopping and developing the script, which is a kind of homage to the inspiring friendships I observed there. Gay, straight, transgender, whatever culture – the students support each other at the most crucial times. I have been a recipient of this respect and care and am grateful for the lessons I have taken from my Pasifika friends about friendship and family.

The tree is of course a symbol of life and family. I love seeing physically strong women in action, so Alisi scales the tree several times, leaping in and out of it. In fact the beautiful tree was a logistical nightmare requiring stunt doubles, a crane, safety harnesses and a green screen shoot. But it was worth it. The tree itself is a character in its own right. If it could speak, this film would just be one of hundreds of stories it could tell. Tree is a very old, universal, woman's story set in the cultural and generational divide of urban New Zealand.

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Shorts fir June,2018

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Moving and true to current life and its situations and people... Stephen, totally agree with you on these cellphones. A single Mom with 5 grown children and 14 grands... need I say more... much love and gratitude around you for all you do !!! Thank you...