Photograph by Mike Heydon
Fresh off the festival success of its short film (and a shot at an Oscar), production company Sticky Pictures works the room at Sundance. Denis Welch asks about Robert Redford, raising cash and working with kids and animals
What is it with Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston and running? The short film that first got these two Wellington filmmakers noticed was called Run: a widowed father determined to bring his kids up right has them pounding the pavements till they drop. Then they really seized everyone’s attention with The Six Dollar Fifty Man, in which a boy runs away from school like his pants are on fire.
As for their first feature, it has a troubled teen running away from home before running from the law …
Thank God they don’t want to do the Idealog interview while jogging, is all I can say. We sit down instead in the equipment-strewn Abel Smith St offices of Sticky Pictures, the company Albiston and wife Amy founded in 2000, and he and Sutherland kick back like the old mates they are, feeding off each other’s anecdotes between hits of coffee.
Maybe they’re catching their breath between festivals: not long back from Sundance in Utah, where The Six Dollar Fifty Man scooped the prize for Best International Short Film, they’ll soon be off to Aspen, Colorado, for the annual Shortsfest—success at which would boost their Oscar chances next year no end.
“Festivals are like nothing else in the world in terms of freedom of speech. Everyone’s got their project, their dream, and the support is there for people that are going it alone”
Ah, the glamorous red-carpet world of the festival circuit, rubbing shoulders with Robert Redford and Marty Scorsese? Not really. Not at all, in fact. Most festivals are where a lot of industry work gets done: contacts made, deals discussed, options flagged. At Sundance, for instance, says Sutherland, “We made sure we were working the room for our feature film. It’s about cementing relationships for future projects.”
Festivals are like nothing else in the world in terms of freedom of speech, says Albiston: everyone’s got their project, their dream, they’re all on an equal footing and the support is there for “people that are going it alone and working for themselves”.
Albiston is tall, spare, sandy; Sutherland stocky, dark, hairy. They went to Raumati Beach School on the Kapiti Coast sometime last century but their ways parted until the 1990s, when Sutherland, working at a long-since-gone outfit called Kapiti Television, fixed up a job for film school dropout Albiston, who was working in a timber yard. Together, they learnt more about what you can do with the available technology than any film school could teach.
“There was no money and we had to shoot a four-minute item a day,” says Sutherland. “Shoot it, edit it, everything; the whole shebang.” They were interesting times, to say the least: “We’d be interviewing the mayor and a goat would walk through.” Albiston remembers delivering a Christmas message to viewers from a toilet cubicle.
It would be tempting to say they’ve come a long way since then, and they have, with The Six Dollar Fifty Man picking up awards around the world, but independent filmmaking in New Zealand will always involve hands-on adaptability, heaps of No 8 wire and someone to keep the goats away. Just getting the money together is a circus production in itself. “And we’re looking at a lot of different ways of getting a film made,” says Albiston, “other than going to the Film Commission and holding our hands out and then saying, ‘That’s not enough, that’s not fair.’”
Which isn’t to say the Film Commission hasn’t come to the party: its money was crucial in getting the shorts made, and the proposed feature, Shopping, won’t happen without its backing either. The third draft of the script is currently under consideration (the fifth is usually the one that, if approved, becomes the shooting script that brings in the full budget). But thanks to Albiston and Sutherland’s enterprise—well, all right, pushiness—help is also coming from unexpected quarters.
For instance, thanks to a bit of networking at the last Cannes festival, their flights to Aspen in April are being paid for by 42 Below—which is also hosting a party for them there, complete with a $6.50 cocktail special. And, after one contact led to another for Albiston, Telecom is supplying cellphones and internet access free of charge.
But where do the stories for the films come from? After all, no story, no film. Now we’re talking about (for want of a better word) the creative process. Albiston and Sutherland have been living it for years, scripting draft after draft, and one thing they know for sure: it’s a journey, not a destination. “The creative process isn’t about putting the apostrophes in on the first page,” says Sutherland. “It’s the process.” Or, as Albiston says, “You find your story by writing it.”
They’ve also learnt you don’t need to go to some exotic place in your mind to dream up stories: they’re right here under your nose, in your own life. The idea for Run, for instance, emerged out of a seemingly aimless chat about their childhoods. In the end, it was more Sutherland’s story, whereas The Six Dollar Fifty Man draws deeply on Albiston’s schooldays.
It starts with a boy, Andy, giving himself a charge by gripping an electric fence wire; young Albiston did that, for real. And yes, he ran away from school too; in the film, though, he gets his own back on the boys who caught and pinned him down: Andy swings his schoolbag and knocks one of them to the ground. “I watch that film,” says Albiston, “and every time he swings that bag I’m with him.”
“We’re looking at different ways of getting a film made other than going to the Film Commission and holding our hands out and then saying, ‘That’s not enough, that’s not fair’”
As for Shopping, we’re back to Sutherland’s younger days again (“We’ve kind of had turns whingeing about our pasts, if you like,” he says with a grin). It’s loosely based on his brief teenage experience of working for a thief who, Fagin-like, ran a shoplifting gang of kids. Young Sutherland’s job was ‘pulling head’: distracting shop assistants long enough for stuff to be nicked by his mates. “I think I was doing it more to piss my Dad off than anything,” he says ruefully now, having gone straight ever since.
Another lesson learnt the hard way from arm-wrestling the creative process: cut your losses. Fast. “If there’s an elephant in the room, say so,” says Sutherland. “If it’s shit, call it.”
It also helps to clear the neighbourhood of goats as early as you can. “We’ve learned through the three shorts that we’ve made together,” he says, “that the pre-production and planning relates to quality on screen. Being onto it 12 months ahead really stands us in good stead. We’ve already got casting teams [for Shopping] looking around the country.”
It’s not as if Sticky Pictures (full-time staff: four) doesn’t do other stuff. Commercials, music videos, documentaries, TV series like The Gravy are all part of the business too—Albiston did a great doco on Sir Peter Blake called Blakey. But the feature film project is consuming them more and more. Albiston is giving “99.9 percent” of his time to it now, and Sutherland will be too, once he wraps a doco he has been making on a Mangere theatre troupe called the Black Friars.
So many stories to tell. “We don’t even feel we’ve begun to plumb the depths of our past and our culture,” says Sutherland. And so much confidence. “If you can work with a child for a week, eight hours a day, then you can work with anyone.” He grins again. “We’re going to work with magpies in our next film.”
Sticky Pictures’ greatest hits
The Six Dollar Fifty Man may have collected awards at film festivals the world over, but it isn’t Sticky Pictures’ first brush with success.
Run, a 15-minute film about two Samoan brothers and their overly fearful father, won Special Distinction at Cannes in 2007 and The Magical World of Misery claimed Best New Zealand Arts/Festival Documentary at the 2006 Qantas Awards. Misery (see Idealog #4, page 51, is a streetwear label designer with an international reputation, and she isn’t the first local creative to have been showcased by Sticky Pictures.
16 Sleepless Nights explored the effects of mental illness on two New Zealand artists, and television series The Gravy and The Living Room both celebrated emerging and established New Zealand creatives (as well as scoring a few Qantas and NZ Screen Awards wins between them).
Other Sticky Pictures work includes documentaries War of the Words, about the competitive spelling bee circuit in the US, and Blakey, about legendary Kiwi yachtsman Sir Peter Blake. As well as ads for clients such as the NZ Army and the Fire Service, the company has produced music videos for the likes of Shihad and Little Bushman, and is currently developing a full-length feature film called Shopping.