Spotlight caught up for a kōrero with Uproar and Bellbird writer/director Hamish Bennett about his mahi and pathway into making feature films.
Ko Hamish Bennett tōku ingoa (Te Arawa, Patuharakeke, Kāi Tahu). I'm married to Jody and we have two boys, Tai (11) and Leo (10). I grew up in Northland in a little farming community called Tauraroa. My parents were both teachers at the local school there. I ended up moving into the same profession as them - I've been a school teacher for over 23 years now, and still manage to teach part time in amongst the filmmaking. Teaching is very important to me and I feel like it gives me a pretty lovely balance alongside writing and directing - each career informs the other in different ways.
When did you first become aware of filmmaking?
I've always enjoyed movies and English was my favourite subject at school, but I came to the whole concept of filmmaking as an actual job pretty late. Seeing my uncle (Michael Bennett) making a career out of scriptwriting opened my eyes to it all a bit more, and he was really influential in, I guess, my early writing/filmmaking education.
Did your education involve any filmmaking?
Outside of the support Michael gave me, not really. I did a Bachelor of Arts in English at university in Palmerston Nth, so there was plenty of reading and writing going on, and I did take what I think was the only film related paper on offer. It was called the Art of Film and I got a C+.
What was your first dabble in creating something film related?
Rugby was a relatively big part of my life until I was 27. When I stopped playing I found I had a bit of a spare time outside of school teaching, so thought I'd put my C+ in the Art of Film to good use and have a go at writing for Shortland St. I did a trial script for them, which anyone was able to do, and I guess they saw enough there to give me a go at writing dialogue for a few episodes. I wasn't good at it. The Shortland St team were very patient but I think I lasted five episodes before they politely moved me on. Ultimately it was a really positive thing. I learned that you needed to have more than a passing knowledge of a world to write authentically for it, but it definitely gave me the bug to write more.
Tell me about your journey into filmmaking.
After my Shortland St experience, I wrote a script called The Dump (2011), set and filmed in the dump just down the road from where I grew up, so much closer to a world that I knew. I was lucky enough to receive 10K of funding from the NZFC, through the first year of Fresh Shorts funding. My uncle had introduced me to Orlando Stewart, who ended up starring in and producing the film. It was the start of a really special collaboration for me - we've continued to work closely alongside each other and are really good mates. The Dump was my first time doing anything film related - directing, being on set, everything - and it was a great learning curve. Based off of its success, we were able to take the next step up in funding from the NZFC, and got 30K to make my next short script, Ross & Beth (2014). That had a great response too, and our first feature, Bellbird (2019), essentially took the two ideas from these two shorts and blended them into a full length film!
How hard is it to get a film made in NZ?
Everyone's experience is obviously different, so I can only speak for myself. Personally, I've felt very supported by the NZFC from the start. If you show that you can create something nice, and that there is an audience for the story, and you can bring it together on budget and on time, then you will be supported really well. I'm hugely appreciative for the tautoko.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
The biggest one has been finding the time to write, particularly with a young whānau and during periods when I've been teaching full time. But I don't necessarily see this as a negative thing. If you're really into something, you'll just find ways to squeeze it in. Bellbird was written over a period of about a year and a half, and only in the evenings when the kids had gone to bed. I remember reading something Stephen King said about putting your writing desk in the corner of the room, not the middle of it - your life doesn't revolve around your work, it's the other way round. I like that advice. I'm also constantly appropriating life experiences for my writing, so it'd be counter productive for me to lock myself away for too long!
Bellbird was such a beautiful film - can you tell me a bit about it?
Thank you very much. As mentioned, it grew out of the two short films we made, The Dump and Ross & Beth. Both films had personal connections. The seed for The Dump idea was my friend Rex, who worked at the dump down the road from where I grew up. He took huge pride in his job and would invite everyone down for a celebration at the end of the year and have his version of Christmas in the Park, called Christmas in the Dump. It was on one of these visits that I thought I'd like to make a film featuring someone like Rex - someone who isn't often celebrated, but should be. The seed for Ross & Beth grew out of experiences with our close childhood neighbours, whose names were Ross and Beth, oddly enough. Me and my brothers had a lot to do with them growing up, and I loved spending time with them. They didn't have a lot of nice things to say to each other, but you could see underneath the banter that there was a really deep love and loyalty between the two of them...it was just shown in a slightly different way. Like with Rex, they were just people that I felt should be celebrated. Bellbird, by extension, became in many ways a bit of an ode to people like Ross and Beth and Rex...humble people leading quietly beautiful lives.
What did you learn while making your first feature?
A lot. Every day you're learning something new, and every day you're reflecting on what you could have done better. There's a lot you don't know on your first feature, and being open about that is a good thing. You've got so many talented people around you, it'd be silly not to lean on their skills whenever you can. But I also think that just trying to be a nice person can also see you through some of your deficiencies! Showing gratitude for the efforts of everyone around you, saying good morning at the start of the day and thanking everyone at the end of the day...they're simple gestures but they're so important. Like with teaching, filmmaking essentially just comes back to people and relationships. If you're able to form a strong connection with someone, positive stuff will ideally grow out of that.
What were the highlights?
It was all pretty special. Making a film in the community I grew up in, with the support of friends and whānau, was something I'll always cherish. I also convincingly beat Cohen Holloway in a goal kicking contest which was also very satisfying.
Can you tell me about how Uproar was born?
Uproar began as a coming of age story about a young Pākeha boy growing up in Dunedin in 1981, and it was inspired by my co-director Paul Middleditch's own childhood. The script went through several years of development until Julian Dennison read for another role in the film, and expressed interest in being the lead character. It was around this time that I came on board, firstly to look at the script with the shift to a lead character of Māori descent, but with a view to potentially co-directing if I was able to find a connection to the story. After I'd finished my first rewrite, co-directing felt like the natural next step.
What were the highlights on the project for you?
Once again - heaps of highlights. Working alongside such a talented cast was a privilege. We're very lucky to have young actors in Aotearoa like Julian Dennison, James Rolleston, Erana James...not just because they're great at what they do, but because they're such good, humble people. I can't think of better role models for rangatahi than those three. Working alongside the people of Ōtepoti Dunedin was also amazing. Starting with the mana whenua of Ōtākou me Puketeraki, who supported us on so many levels throughout production, the passion, enthusiasm and generosity of all the people involved in the production was incredible. Telling the Uproar story meant a lot to a lot of people, for many different reasons, and I feel privileged to have played a part in that.
How important is it to tell stories from your own unique perspective and how does that influence your work?
Super important. We've all got unique voices, and I guess it's the one clear thing we have that gives us a point of difference, so I guess you need to play to that. But it also makes sense on a practical level. If you're writing or directing from an honest place, it should generally flow a little more easily than if you were on less familiar ground. My attempts at writing for Shortland St are probably testament to that!
How would you describe your skill set and how it is applied to your craft?
I think being interested in people is something I can always remember having, and I see it as probably the most useful tool to have as a writer; a desire to understand people and give them the depth on the page that we all have in real life. Strangely enough, I think it's also the most useful tool you can have as a teacher. It's obviously helpful to have really great knowledge of the content you're teaching, but if you can't find a way to connect with students, that knowledge isn't particularly useful.
What advice can you offer to aspiring filmmakers in Aotearoa?
From a writing point of view, all the usual stuff is important - read as many scripts as you can, and write heaps. As discussed earlier, identifying what it is that makes your voice distinct, and nurturing that side of your writing, is vital. All the structures of script writing are very important and obviously need to be learned, but they're there to allow you to share your voice with others, not to get in the way of it. And when you get in a position to start making films with others, be appreciative and grateful for the experience - filmmaking is a team sport, not an individual one!