Exclusive Interview : Vincent Ward


The “River Queen” director on his past, present & future

CLINT MORRIS caught up with New Zealand director, Vincent Ward (“The Navigator”, “Map of the Human Heart”), to talk about his latest accomplishment, “River Queen”.

How long have you been trying to get this thing off the ground?
A long time, in fact. Years ago, I lived in a little Maori village, and I was the only European there. I had no water, No electricity, nothing. That experience basically gave me a bit of a compass. I ultimately came up with a story, set during the colonial wars, of a woman living among the Maori. Now, I also came up with another story, this time about a European man going into Japan – and that ultimately became The Last Samurai – but I ultimately realised that I wanted to make a movie about a woman, so I found someone to direct Last Samurai, and only stayed on as executive producer, whilst I continued to get my movie off the ground. I filmed another movie – What Dreams May Come – in the interim, while still holding onto this idea of a film about a European woman going into a native community during a time of great tension. It never went away. That was what I really wanted to do, so I’ve been holding on that idea for all these years.

How did you decide on your cast?
Stephen Rea, I had always wanted to work with. We had talked in L.A on several occasions, because I use to live there, about working together. Samantha Morton, who I thought has this wonderful raw quality, thought would be fantastic for the lead. Kiefer [Sutherland] I lucked into. I gave him the script, and he liked it, and luckily he had this window available from 24. Temuera Morrison and Cliff Curtis, I’d always had in mind for their parts, and I never even auditioned anyone else.

Back to Kiefer. He’s great – like wine, he gets better with age.
He’s great. I love Kiefer. I would love to work with him again.

Have you seen his latest pic, “The Sentinel”?
I haven’t… is it good?

Haven’t seen it either actually. Must catch up with it.
He’s always up to a certain standard Kiefer, isn’t he?

Always. Now, was “River Queen” a harder sell, than some of your other films?
It was pretty hard…. And we also had a few troubles on it. We had a delay, and so our filming ended up going into the winter – but at the same time, that also gave our film a certain rawness and earthiness, that studio films don’t encompass – but granted, that was the worst winter in 30 years for New Zealand. The local town was demolished with the floods, our actors became sick and we had to start filming for 6 weeks, there was supposedly a curse from a prophet up the river, and then, our lead actor, on his way to work one day, drive his vehicle into someone’s living room. It just went on from there. But for all that, the film has this tough, nuggetty quality. Yeah, it was against the odds, but we succeeded – and audiences have responded accordingly.

New Zealand is a real go-to place at the moment for filmmakers, isn’t it?
We’ve had about five films in a row that have all done very well with the local audience. There just happens to be a little crest there…. a real crest.

It always looks beautiful on film, New Zealand.
Yeah, it’s a great land.

You’ve captured it beautifully in “River Queen” – some of the most stunning photography I’ve ever seen.
Yeah… still, I think the main thing is the people in the film, to try and give the audience an experience.

I’ve gotta say, you seem more interested in doing these smaller films, than the big studio stuff.
Oh….It’s a big film. It’s right in the heartland of the primal core of New Zealand. So no…I think this is an ambitious film. I do. I am attracted to films, I suppose, that are larger than a normal independent film, but still have that wonderful independent film feel to it. You know, ones that don’t have that boring corporate studio thing to them?

Speaking of which, whatever happened to your “Alien 3”?
What happened was… well, when you’re working in the studio system, they have these very powerful words – one’s yes, one’s no, and if you want something to retain it’s voice you have to know when to use the second one of those words. Also, you all have to be on the same page, because working in the studio system, it’s very corporate. One of my producers was on the same page, and one of them wasn’t. I ended up with a story credit for it, but it doesn’t at all resemble what I had in mind.

So, what did you have in mind?
It was sort of a retro film. She [Ripley] was with monks in a strange wooden orbiting vehicle…with a monk commune, in a wooden orbiting satellite, really. They decided to do everything the hard way, because they were monks, but they did have basic technology so they could survive. Then, in a world where people believe in devils – where she doesn’t, comes the alien. I think it would’ve been quite amazing. [you can read the screenplay for Ward’s “Alien 3” here]

Any regrets, Vincent?
No, I never have regrets, because I’m proud of the films I’ve made. I don’t make a lot of films, I do one about every five years, but it’s always one I’m proud of.

What’s your proudest achievement?
I don’t really have a favourite. People like them for different reasons.

You mentioned ‘The Last Samurai’, before. That was great.
Yeah, they did a fantastic job. It turned out well.

What are you working on now?
I’m doing a feature doco-drama, in the Maori community, about a woman who grew up with this prophet who had a community on the side of the mountain in the bush. All these dramatic things happen to them – there’s this big police raid in 1916…. All sorts of stuff happens. It’s very, very dramatic.

With your comments on studio films, I’m interested in what movies you’ve gone to see recently.
I haven’t gone to see much recently, actually. I’m really disappointed in the studio fare. I see some good films, but nothing that I say ‘you know what? This is gonna change my life’. I don’t think there’s interesting stuff coming out of the studios. I think it has become way too corporate. I remember getting scripts for such films, back in 2000 and 2001, and I just couldn’t get excited by any of them. They’d say ‘you don’t even wanna come in for meetings?’ I’d say ‘why? The scripts are crap’. I was talking to Margaret Pomeranz, and she said ‘well, you can see the result of them now – they’re just not very good’.

RIVER QUEEN Commences July 6th across Australia