Kiwi director Martin Campbell talks CGI, Wellywood and multimillion-dollar budgets

He's possibly New Zealand's most commercial director—responsible for big-name blockbusters like The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye, Casino Royale and Green Lantern. Long relocated to London, Martin Campbell talks to Felicity Monk about Peter Jackson, multimillion-dollar budgets and the Wellywood sign.

He’s possibly New Zealand’s most commercial director—responsible for big-name blockbusters like The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye, Casino Royale and Green Lantern. Long relocated to London, Martin Campbell talks Peter Jackson, multimillion-dollar budgets and the Wellywood sign

Questions by Felicity Monk

Martin Campbell

Directing blockbuster films must involve juggling tons of money and endless meetings with studios and accountants. Is it still a creative process for you?

It is. Developing the script and getting the project to the start line, you always have to deal with the studio and that is a process in itself. They don’t interfere that much. They have their notes and, depending on what studio you are working for and what executives you are dealing with, the notes can either be ridiculous or they can be intelligent and helpful. Fortunately at Warner Bros it’s the latter. Then you have to get the film to the starting line, which is an excruciating process. Inevitably the film costs more or your budget is not in line with their budget, so that becomes a push-and-pull kind of situation. They never finally give you a green light until about two weeks before shooting—a real green light. We call it a flashing green light before that.

It sounds like you have a lot of autonomy over your films.

When you are shooting you have that; then comes the editing process. Now the studio—particularly on high-budget movies—takes a big interest because they want what they call a four-quadrant movie: [accessible to] people of all ages, as opposed to only young males or young females or people over the age of 20.

How do you find your next film?

Most of the time they come through the door. So it’s a process of going through the pile of scripts, finding a subject that you like. Not many films of the pile are green-lit. So you have to assess whether the script has a chance of being made. Often, people will send you a script and want you to attach your name to it, which gives them a certain amount of clout to try and set the thing up and that can be a long process. Whereas if the studio comes to you and says, ‘We want to make this,’ then inevitably the thing gets made. Or you develop something. At the moment I’ve got three or four projects that I’m developing and hopefully one will get made. That’s about the ratio.

You’ve only shot one film, Vertical Limit, in New Zealand. Have you been tempted to bring more of your films to New Zealand?

I haven’t, simply because I left New Zealand at the age of 21. But more importantly, everything is about tax because films cost so much money. For example, we did Green Lantern in Louisiana because they gave us a hell of a good tax rate. In fact, we were going to shoot it in Australia, we scouted Sydney, we scouted Melbourne, and we went so far as to actually rent the studios for a year and then pulled out because the Australian dollar was getting so strong that we weren’t getting any benefits.

How do you find the increasing use of CGI in films? Did you enjoy using it in Green Lantern?

CGI opens up that whole world of comic books—DC Comics and Marvel. You look at Iron Man, you look at Star Wars, you look at The Lord of the Rings, they would never have been able to have done those without CGI. CGI gets overused sometimes, but the truth is that it is an incredible tool for telling fantastic stories that you would never in the past have been able to tell. In my case, Green Lantern was a first. I have obviously done movies with a lot of effects, but they are practical effects: you replace the sky, you move wires, you put in backgrounds. Something like Green Lantern, where a character goes to another planet, you have to create a new world. So there is a lot of green screen, but it’s fine. I didn’t have any problems with it.

Temuera Morrison and Taika Waititi both appear in Green Lantern, New Zealand accents intact. Was that your doing?

I cast them both. Tem, I’d worked with before and I think he’s a really good actor. Taika came up with several others to audition for the part and he was simply the best. Taika has a slight American accent, he slightly neutralises the New Zealand accent. Given that Tem is an alien in the picture, I am perfectly happy to let him play it with his own accent rather than have to change it.

As a director, what makes a good actor?

When they act truthfully. When they come prepared. When they have done their homework. Really it is about finding the truth in the character, making you believe in the character. So often in these things, superhero scripts, it’s not exactly Hamlet. These are comic-strip fantasy figures so what you need are actors who will bring something over and beyond the script.

I imagine comic fans are a particularly discerning audience?

In America, you have rabid comic fans and they have their favourites. If you go to Comic-Con in San Diego, for example, you’ll find 20,000 of them. We went with a trailer and had just released pictures of the suit, which wasn’t fully developed. It was kind of a mistake because the fans start to judge it and rip it apart. The suit looks great now but it was a work in progress.

When you began your career were you planning to be an action film director?

A No, absolutely not. I was directing in television, I had no clue, you know. For whatever reason, I’ve kind of ended up doing these big action things, so if I don’t do Green Lantern 2 then I will probably do some little movie for about $5 million, which I would be very happy to do.

You will have witnessed New Zealand’s film scene blossom from a distance.

A Clearly, Lord of the Rings registered hugely. It put New Zealand on the map. People like Roger Donaldson before that had come here to Los Angeles, so there was a kind of awareness, but to be honest Peter Jackson pushed the whole thing over the cliff. And of course, The Hobbit coming up. Really, you can sum up the New Zealand film industry in two words: Peter Jackson.

Have you heard about the proposal to put a large ‘Wellywood’ sign up in Wellington?

No! I hope they don’t. That’s about as cheesy as you can get.

You’ve said before that you feel you have—happily—slipped under the radar in New Zealand. Is that still the case?

I’ve no interest in being recognised. I just quietly get on with the job. Directing is work; like anything else, it’s a job. It doesn’t put you on a pedestal or make you anything special. The truth is, it is bloody hard work and they pay you for it and you just do the next job. That’s how I see it.

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