A conspiracy thriller arising from the mysterious death of Kevin Jones, who thinks he's just buying second-hand computers, until he looks at the data left on the discs
Was Kev murdered, or did he simply get drunk and crash his car? Investigating journalist Mort Whitman will find out if it kills him. Cliff Curtis stars in Spooked, a feature film written and directed by Geoff Murphy.
In his new movie, Spooked, Geoff Murphy takes an intriguing series of events from 1992 New Zealand as his starting point and, making a daring imaginative jump, spins it to where all good 21st century conspiracies lead – Osama Bin Laden and the CIA.
Spooked, a contemporary conspiracy thriller written and directed by Murphy, is produced by Don Reynolds, Merata Mita, Geoff Dixon and Murphy for Silverscreen Films/Ora Digital in association with the New Zealand Film Commission, Capital Pictures and New Zealand On Air. Executive producers are Eric Watson and Mark Hotchin from Capital Pictures. The film is based on material from the book The Paradise Conspiracy by Ian Wishart.
Spooked stars Cliff Curtis, returned home from his Hollywood success (Training Day, Runaway Jury, Whale Rider) and Christopher Hobbs, whose recent work in Australia includes Bad Cop Bad Cop, McLeod’s Daughters and Water Rats and who is well known in New Zealand for his core cast role of Dr Frank Malone in Shortland Street, with John Leigh (Spin Doctors, Shortland Street) and Miriama Smith (Mercy Peak, Power Rangers Dino Thunder). And in a reunion with Murphy from Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu days, Kelly Johnson plays Spook.
Kevin Jones (Hobbs), a second-hand computer dealer, buys a batch of old computers formerly owned by a large merchant bank. Thrown into the deal are 90 outdated floppy discs.
Curious, Kev opens the discs and finds data that he knows shouldn’t be in the wrong hands. Thinking he can make a fast buck, he tries to sell the discs back to the bank. This unleashes a whirlwind of intrigue, corruption and violent harassment that destroys his livelihood, his relationship and possibly his sanity. Early one morning he is found dead in a car crash on Auckland Harbour Bridge, ostensibly a drink/drive casualty. But was there more to it?
Mort Whitman, an investigative journalist played by Cliff Curtis, takes up the story, becoming obsessive about uncovering the truth about Kev’s death. Did the forces – private security, police, SIS, or CIA? - that increasingly plagued Kev’s life, kill him? Or did he simply drink too much and crash the car?
The story is told by Mort. Sometimes he’s talking direct to camera, sometimes interviewing participants - such as Kev’s best mate Jimmy Blick (John Leigh), and his girlfriend, Ruby (Miriama Smith) - and sometimes he’s directly involved himself, as he fights his superiors to get the story broadcast. Murphy’s unique storytelling style reflects the nature of Mort’s investigation as it teases out the events, the possibilities, taking us there, but never fully revealing the mystery at its core.
This sounds like heavy stuff for an entertainment movie, but Murphy keeps it light, lacing the plot with trademark laconic humour and astute characterisations and language that are distinctly kiwi.
The events written about by Ian Wishart in his book “The Paradise Conspiracy”, in which young Auckland computer dealer Paul White died in mysterious circumstances after opening some discs belonging to a merchant bank, provide the starting point for Murphy’s fictional global conspiracy story.
Murphy says New Zealanders are in the international world, whether we like it or not.
“We can pretend the CIA’s not interested in us if we like, but it’s a pretence. We are part of the international community and that’s how it is. That’s the tapestry against which this film is set.”
However, there’s more to Spooked than its biting comment on the global political backdrop, and New Zealand’s place in the corruption:
“You can intellectualise about conspiracy theories and the CIA and the nature of multi-national corporations and all that, but you don’t have a movie unless you can laugh and cry and resonate with the characters. So that’s the game that we’re in: to try and create that amalgam of emotion and meaning. Emotion, of course, being completely meaningless, so it’s a fascinating trick. It’s the best game in town.”
So, there’s also a love story. Kev and the beautiful no-nonsense Ruby. He loves her, in his own way, but she struggles with his increasing paranoia and “the bullshit”, as she describes his dreams of making it big one day. And it’s a story of mateship. Kev’s friendship with Jimmy Blick, a conspiracy theorist of the “they poisoned Norm Kirk” variety, captures the typical kiwi male mates dynamic.
Producer Don Reynolds explains the title SPOOKED has come from the world of post-Cold War spies, known as spooks.
“Post-Cold War, the secret agents no longer work for government agencies and so they’ve set up private security firms to work for various big corporations and wealthy individuals. Basically that’s what the film is about – we are being watched all the time. It’s also about a manipulation of power – the fact that an ordinary person can inadvertently find themselves in an extraordinary situation, much to their detriment.
“We describe Spooked as a conspiracy thriller because the bank conspires to destroy Kevin after he happened to come across their mistake, which is that they had failed to erase the discs. They did everything in their power to make it impossible for him to live a normal life. And the thriller side of it is: ‘What’s going to happen? Who’s going to win?’
“It’s not a comedy but it has a lot of humour. Like Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and Quiet Earth, which all have a strong humour mingled with other emotions, Spooked has humour alongside tragedy. We hope the audience will laugh at times, cry at times, and be shocked at times, but we hope that overall it will be a worthwhile experience for them. It’s entertainment.”
Murphy had been working on the project for about six years, and at one point had German funding, but pulled back from it when it became apparent that the script changes required by the investors would have compromised the story.
Murphy: “The changes and the casting they wanted showed a complete lack of understanding of how it would work. So I said ‘I can make films in Hollywood where they have control of the casting and rewrite the script. That’s not my idea of a New Zealand film’. A New Zealand film is where you make a film about us and it’s totally, uncompromisingly about us. It’s designed to make our people have a bloody good time, have a good laugh, have a good cry and maybe be frightened, anxious or whatever.”
Reynolds ran into Murphy at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. They hadn’t seen each other for about 10 years, but were old friends and colleagues. Reynolds had been an investor in and associate producer of Goodbye Pork Pie and produced Quiet Earth, which Murphy directed.
“I was actually trying to find a director for a film called Predicament and so we started talking about that. After Geoff Dixon and I had formed Silverscreen Films, Geoff Murphy sent us the script for this project, which he particularly wanted to do as a New Zealand-financed film. Because I knew the way Geoff would do it and the type of humour that was there, almost buried in the dialogue, I loved it. So we then all joined forces.”
Producer Merata Mita, who is also partners with Murphy in Ora Digital, which produced Spooked alongside Silverscreen Films, as well as his life partner, says, “When he read Ian Wishart’s book, Geoff was really taken with the elements of conspiracy, mystery and suspense thriller that were in the real story and he wanted to make it into a film. From time to time over the years he and I would work on it, introducing new elements that took it a bit further away from the book and also updated the story.”
Mita says it was also a difficult script to write because it was about a real person who had died, taking into account respect for that person and his family, “trying to stay as close as possible to the truth and not making it too sensational.”
Murphy says all his films have a family relationship to each other, but Spooked is more closely related to his iconic Goodbye Pork Pie than it is to either Utu or Quiet Earth.
“That’s partly because it’s a bit mad. It’s not what it presents itself to be. It will have a similar energy level to Pork Pie, but the essential thing is that Spooked has a heart.
“It’s really hard to compare a New Zealand film to any other sort. The New Zealand audience is very unforgiving of New Zealand films. They demand truth, they hate contrivance and falseness and plot manipulation for its own sake. They accept it completely in foreign films, but when a New Zealand film comes up, they will not buy it. And I really like that because it forces us to make much better films.”
Mita: “The movie is exciting and funny and stylistically very different from anything else Geoff has made in the past. It’s very European in style. It’s not very American. It can’t be very American because it’s too low budget and therefore everything’s approached with a kind of ingenuity and originality. It’s been made with initiative and enterprise and that brings out the best in people and that’s always exciting to work with”.
Murphy has also enjoyed his return to working with New Zealand actors: “There’s something very comfortable about working with your own people. I enjoyed working with American actors and some of them are extremely accomplished, but I just get a kick out of working here.”
Murphy on Cliff Curtis: “He’s a really interesting actor. He’s very thoughtful and very deep and has a fantastic screen presence. He’s got the ability to express a hell of a lot of emotion and complexity apparently with very little mobility of his face. You'd swear he was doing nothing, but you read the whole story in his face. It’s a real gift. And being Māori, he also has a whole cultural side, which means there’s always an overlay and a depth that is different to what a Pakeha would bring.”
Curtis likens Murphy’s approach on this film to jazz: “No one else could make this movie but Geoff. I know I certainly wouldn't be making this movie if Geoff wasn’t doing it. He’s a totally confident story-teller and film maker and he can deconstruct it and start messing with it. He’s just mixing it all up, like playing jazz. The idea of jazz is that you understand the structure and the discipline and from there you just experiment. You start playing and you see what happens if you break the rules. Geoff’s got a great understanding of entertainment.”
There was an unexpected twist in the casting stage of Spooked. Murphy and casting director Ian Mune, his old friend and fellow director who is also an award-winning actor, originally chose Curtis to play Kevin Jones. But Curtis, keen to work with Murphy, but not keen on being Kev the way he was originally written, put himself forward for the role of Mort Whitman, the journalist, instead.
“I was interested in playing the journalist because he’s got the perspective. He’s looking around thinking ‘is this story worth telling?’ He follows it through and discovers that it’s interesting. Then he looks deeper and realises there’s definitely something shady going on. Then Mort comes to the point where he’s in it up to his neck and he’s got to decide. And he says ‘bugger it, I’m going to go the whole hog. I’m going to go as far as it takes to tell the story because it’s about a guy who’s tried to live with some kind of integrity’. And I thought that was a really interesting character,” says Curtis.
Murphy says Chris Hobbs was so unprepossessing and modest that he was almost overlooked in the casting process, but his performance in the lead role as Kevin Jones has vindicated his casting.
“He does a beautiful job because he’s got a lot of vulnerability and he’s very charming. He’s got terrific presence, which comes alive on film in the most amazing way. He has this permanent look of innocence and surprise on his face and I think he sets himself up for bad things to happen to him really beautifully.”
Hobbs was attracted to the character of Kevin and the extent of the emotional journey he goes through.
“Kevin’s just an ordinary who gets put into extraordinary circumstances. He starts off happy-go-lucky and moves to being absolutely paranoid and that’s a great arc to play. At first he doesn’t believe these things are happening to him and then when he does start to believe it, no one believes him and so he’s all on his own going through this whole hideous process. There’s no one to turn to. He’s a gregarious person who’s suddenly put into a position of being a loner and doesn’t cope with it.
“Normally in New Zealand we think if worst comes to worst you can always talk to your mates or call the cops or call an MP or something. But imagine if all those avenues suddenly didn’t work for you, or all your cries for help get turned around on you. In this story Kevin starts to break down as a result of this pressure.”
Working with Murphy was also a big attraction: “The challenge for me to play a character going through a complete emotional breakdown that no one else understands or believes in is immense, so having Geoff Murphy at the helm is fantastic. Working with someone whose sole desire is to make me look great is amazing because it lets me just dive into the character headfirst. I've really enjoyed it.”
John Leigh plays Jimmy Blick, Kev’s best mate, who works downstairs and witnesses Kevin’s disintegration with great concern, and eventually makes a brave, but fatal, decision.
Murphy: “John is a comedian anyway, which gives him a very acute sense of timing, which is extremely useful in this part, although it’s not exactly a comedy role. He’s almost tragic in the sense that he is a failure in his own life, but he is so loyal and so earnest, even in his most crackpot beliefs, that you can’t help liking him.”
The casting of Leigh was perfect for Hobbs: “Johnny Leigh is one of my best mates in real life, so we were able to easily tune into their relationship. Jimmy is terrific. His wife has left and so he and Kev just drink a lot and console each other about life and everything.”
Leigh: “Jimmy gets caught up in Kev’s problems and he’s not fully aware of how dangerous it is to know such secrets. He’s a little autistic, I think. He’s not quite with us, he’s in a world of his own a lot of the time.”
Murphy admits to being a bit nervous about casting Miriama Smith in the role of Ruby Elder, Kev’s girlfriend, because she was almost too beautiful to be real.
“Beauty is often a bit of a mask, and I find American films peopled by these plastic people that I find very hard to believe in. I much prefer the ordinary run of European and British films where people look like real people. In American films they tend to look like cyphers and Miriama almost fits the American mould, she’s so gorgeous-looking. But she’s got a great kiwi accent, which completely saves her, in my opinion. She’s mature as an actress and gives a very good performance as a well-grounded, sensible girl trying to cope with a guy that doesn’t know who he is yet. She is actually very fond of Kev, but he’s very hard work and she struggles, like many Kiwi girls of that age, to form a meaningful bond with someone who’s so immature.”
Smith describes Ruby as a strong-headed woman. “She doesn’t really take no for an answer and doesn’t take any crap from anybody. She’s quite unfazed by things and has quite a hard edge to her. She’s a rock chick.
“Ruby thinks Kevin is a great fun guy to be with. I think if she could really say how she felt about him, she’d quite like to settle down and have kids with him, but to say that would be making herself very vulnerable and Ruby is quite proud. So generally she keeps everything light because she likes to have a good time.”
Even though Ruby loves Kevin, she can’t relate to the crisis he’s going through and she’s not sure if it’s really happening. She loses patience with him and cannot help him.
“At the end of the day, she’s looking for those intimate times they have where she sees Kevin as quite vulnerable and everyone can relate to him. There are other times in the movie where it’s quite hard to relate to him because he’s just all over the place. She can’t be bothered putting her time into someone like that and she gets quite frustrated because she knows what a nice solid person he can be without all this going on.”
For Kelly Johnson, still well known for his lead role in Goodbye Pork Pie, the reunion with Murphy was straightforward. “It’s years since I’d even seen Geoff and then he called and it was like a voice out of the darkness. He explained what the role involved and I said ‘yeah, no trouble’, because it’s got a slightly comic aspect to it as well as the mysterious spy-type guy.
“Geoff’s just the same, he’s got the same sort of energy and the same obsessiveness about making a film and the ideas behind it. He’s a really creative person and his excitement rubs off on everybody.”
In addition to a series of very strong performances by several of New Zealand’s leading actors – Greg Johnson, Peter Elliott, Kevin J Wilson, Geoff Dolan, Murray Keane, Alison Bruce, Paul Barrett and Mark Ferguson, Murphy has cast some of his mates in key cameos. There’s Vincent Ward, Ian Mune, Philip Gordon, Sean Duffy and Murphy himself. He has also taken a slightly lateral approach and used comedians Raybon Kan, Radar and Wade Jackson in straight acting roles.
And there’s a stunning musical performance in the nightclub scenes from Murphy’s friend from Freejack days, renowned saxophonist George Coleman, who was visiting from New York.