It seems that there are two themes in Matthew Mawkes life - his love of movies and his love of people.
When you meet Matthew, he has a natural warmth that makes you want to pour a whiskey and spin yarns by the fire. By day he works at charity DCM in Wellington, an organisation that helps the homeless. Yet nothing gets this Wellingtonian producer going more than films. Since he was a child, he's been obsessed. Now Matthew is making his first feature film with film-making partner Mark Willis - and they're using Kickstarter to fund the project, seeking $40,000 to make the movie in its entirety. The film, Blind Panic, is about a blind woman who befriends a man on house arrest - an opportunity that appeals to both of them until things take a turn for the worst.
Tauranga Days: "I loved going to the Cinema"
Matthew grew up in Tauranga. He freely admits the sports focus of Tauranga was the opposite of his personality. “There’s a bit of an ageing population” he laughs “It was a very small town but it’s grown over the years. Because there was nothing to do, I would watch lots and lots of movies. I was into all the classic movies - The Never-ending Story, Back to the Future, Star Wars.” Matthew loved going to the cinema as well. “I loved going out to the cinema. There was something about going to the movies and the red curtain would sweep back - in a way they don’t do anymore really. But in the one screen cinema in the 80’s in Tauranga, it transported me to another place.”
As a teenager, Matthew realised there was someone behind the camera. He started watching any and all the movies he could get his hands on. “I went through phases. I remember I was into French films for a while, and then this director or that director. At school, Matthew would write essays on Alfred Hitchcock “My interest was in writing. I focused on that. I made a film for my mother’s 40th birthday poking fun at her. But besides that, I wasn’t so involved in the technical side. Then I won a short story writing competition. And then I got into writing screen-writing at some stage.”
After school ended, Matthew went to Australia on a mini-OE. On returning, he went to Avalon Studios to study TV and Film. He describes that even in the year 2000, Avalon Studios was a shell of its former self because most television having moved to Auckland. “It was fun though because we had the whole place to run around in,” Matthew explains. “At the time, The Lord of the Rings was being filmed in Wellington which was very exciting. Wellington was fast becoming Welly-wood.”
At film school, Matthew met the co-writer of his upcoming production, Mark Willis, who he has collaborated with ever since. After the year-long course ended, Matthew made his first short film “And we all fall down”. “It was shot on 16mm film so it looked very nice - but was probably a bit pretentious” Matthew laughs. “But I think your first short film is allowed to be pretentious.”
Helping the Streets of Wellington
As Matthew was preparing his next short film he got a job in the social services sector. “People is another passion of mine alongside film” Matthew explains. “That led to my current day job which is down on Luke’s Lane at DCM (Downtown Community Ministry). It is an organisation working with the homeless in Wellington. And that’s cool - I think if you’re going to have a day job, you should have one you really enjoy that is giving something back. More than anything it’s a privilege to work with the homeless. You’re seeing people who are the most vulnerable Wellingtonians and you are hearing their stories.”
Matthew explains that despite the name, DCM is not a religious organisation. “It was founded by some Wellington churches when they saw some people street begging in the 1970’s in Wellington, way back then. Over the years it evolved, and today they offer REALLY practical assistance to people to help them get back on their feet - bank account, identification cards, food bank, getting them their own place - this is the primary focus.” Matthew admits that although it’s a really demanding day job, it’s really cool.
A low-budget idea: "You just have to commit to it. It’s hard work but very satisfying"
While Matthew doesn’t work full-time in film, he admits he tries to get on a film set ‘fairly regularly’. Recently, he worked on ‘The Great Maiden’s Blush’ by Torchlight Films, a Wellington humanitarian film company. “I’ve always worked on other people’s films,” Matthew says.
The idea for Blind Panic arose on his friend and co-writer Mark’s balcony one day when they decided they needed to come up with a film they could shoot on a very low budget. “I had always wanted to shoot a movie about a blind woman and Mark had always wanted to shoot a film about a man on home detention. We combined our ideas and then built a story around it. It was really fun because while we were writing the script we were constantly writing ourselves into a corner and having to write ourselves out of it again. This is like what happens to our protagonist, Madeline - she find’s herself in a seemingly impossible predicament and has to find a way to get out of it.” Matthew particularly enjoyed co-writing alongside Mark. “It makes the movie better and better. We wrote the script over several years, over weekends and evenings. You just have to commit to it. It’s hard work but very satisfying. We would sometimes even rent a house and go and write for a whole weekend.”
So how after writing - what was the first obstacle to making the film? “The only barrier is self-doubt” says Matthew. “It’s true. No-one will stop you making your movie. Nowadays everyone has a camera on their cell phone. We live in the digital age. There is nothing to stop us except for self-doubt. Mark and I had to work through that and when the script was in a good stage we took action.”
A special NZFC grant: "I'm very proud"
Mark and Matthew heard about a scholarship being funded by the New Zealand Film Commission called ‘Premier Pathways’. “It’s a fund to help people make their first feature film. It is a new initiative as of last year. I found out about it and had to prepare everything - budget, proposal, everything - in just a week. We were lucky enough to get selected which I’m very proud of.”
After being selected, Matthew leapt into producer mode, sourcing actors, crew, locations and setting about making a trailer with the $10,000 funding that he and Mark received from the fund. The result is the trailer for ‘Blind Panic’ below.
“We shot last winter - and the film is supposed to be set in the middle of a heat wave. It was a bit of a challenge to get the look right while everyone was freezing.”
Kickstarting Blind Panic: "The only barrier is self-doubt"
So where are they at now? “I’m overworked, stressed out, excited - and the major next step is funding,” Matthew says. “We’ve gone with Kickstarter. Our film has an international appeal. Our film is very visual as well. Sixty percent of all Kickstarter projects get ‘green-lit’ which is awesome as well. Kickstarter builds an audience for our film. Hopefully, we can get our entire cash budget of $40,000.”
"It will be a well-developed thriller with characters you care about"
Does Matthew think he can make it? He’s optimistic. “It seems like so little in some ways - because we will easily burn through that money - but also so much because everyone has to give a little to make the amount and if we don’t make it we get none” he says. “But if 800 people gave the average amount of $50, we would be at $40,000.” Matthew and Mark have tried to make sure that their rewards involve people in the film, from being able to watch the film for $50 to being able to come to the premier for $250. Matthew’s favourite reward on offer are a series of paintings by an artist called Debra Turnbull - inspired by the TV series ‘Night Gallery’ and ‘Blind Panic’ who Matthew had worked with before on a previous short film.
The all or nothing structure of Kickstarter is a good motivator Matthew admits. “We’ve never done a Kickstarter campaign before so we are trying everything to get people excited,” he says. “If you love New Zealand movies, Blind Panic is going to knock your socks off. It will be a well-developed thriller with characters you care about. There also needs to be more New Zealand film content made! There is definitely a market for it - we’re going from strength to strength”
And who are the actors? Leading the cast are Errol Shand and Jodie Hillock. Errol “is becoming quite well know - so we have to use him quickly before he becomes too expensive for us”. Errol has recently been in a Brazilian film getting Oscar talk and was also in Underbelly and Shortland Street. Jodie started out as a child actor in a film Willow as a double. She extensively researched being blind to play the lead, Madeline.
So what makes Matthew keep working, driving him towards the dream of making a film? "I have no Plan B at all. There's nothing else I would rather do than make a movie and get it in front of an audience. If this doesn't work out I'll probably end up in the gutter or something" he laughs. "Seriously, though - it is never too late for your passion. I think of my grandfather, Arthur Dagley. He was a signwriter for most of his life and went to World War Two. At forty, he started a second career as an artist and lived off his art for the rest of his life. He was included in a retrospective of Tauranga artists recently. There's always time!"