Timing is a funny thing. Just when you think something isn’t meant to be, it comes back and pops up again. Timing was everything with Gaylene Preston’s latest documentary, sold out at the 2017 New Zealand Film Festival ‘My Year With Helen.’
The idea of including Gaylene Preston as a ‘Resident of Wellington’ was first suggested by Wellington legend/interviewee Margaret Hema in June or July 2016. “You should interview Gaylene!” she said as if she was talking about her best school friends. “The thing is I think she’s in New York, with Helen Clark, making a movie about her at the United Nations…”
Film director and Wellington icon Gaylene Preston is someone that’s been on my wish list for The Residents for a while. The timing meant I caught Gaylene on the sweet cusp of promoting her film ‘My Year With Helen’ at just the right moment. The film, about Helen Clark’s year-long bid for the UN Secretary General role, which earnt a standing ovation at the Sydney film festival, is groundbreaking in its insights into the closed world of the United Nations and promises to make Preston a truly household name.
"The film, about Helen Clark’s year-long bid for the UN Secretary General role, which earnt a standing ovation at the Sydney film festival, is groundbreaking in its insights into the closed world of the United Nations and promises to make Preston a truly household name"
Incredibly, I had, in fact, met Gaylene once through her niece, Marijke, who I used to work with at Olive Cafe during my late teens and early twenties. When I was 20, Marijke kindly invited me to the premiere of her aunts 2010 film, the wonderful family dramatisation ‘Home By Christmas’ (I remember being rather disappointed by Martin Henderson in person - I didn’t think he quite was as hunky as I’d hoped in real life).
So by the time I scamper up to Gaylene’s perfectly proportioned Mount Victoria house to interview her about the film, a year later, it felt both intimidating and natural. Gaylene greets meets me and I am drawn into her kitchen. We sit and talk, as Gaylene runs well over the half an hour allotted to me (much, I expect, to her publicist's dismay). “It was actually two years with Helen” she corrects while fiddling with her coffee machine in her living room/kitchen, on a blustery Wellington winter day. “Two years because of course there was all the editing and post production we did.” What you realise after spending more than a little time with Gaylene is that behind the scenes are just as interesting as the story itself…
WHO IS GAYLENE PRESTON?
Gaylene Preston is a film director ONZM. She has directed such classic Kiwi films as Perfect Strangers and War Stories. She resides in Wellington but frequently travels the world.
HOW DID SHE GET HERE?
Gaylene was born in 1947 in Greymouth, New Zealand. “Under the big mountains facing the sea,” she says, half laughing. “We moved away when I was 10 and I remember how startling it was. Greymouth is the little town on a small coastal strip. The weather is extreme. It’s lamp posts and little colonial buildings. When we moved to Napier it was pastel and lippy-lappy water. We went via Christchurch, where we visited my doctor, Dr Lindsay Burns, who I saw. I used to go to ChristchurchI’d had my eyes fixed because I was born cross eyed - and then I got glasses. I could see and I was in Napier! It was extraordinary.”
"I ask Gaylene what was happening in 1977 Wellington at that time. “Well, I guess we were happening,” she says, sipping coffee"
Gaylene came to live in Wellington in 1977 when she got her first 'proper film job' at Pacific Films in Kilbirnie. I ask Gaylene what was happening in 1977 Wellington at that time. “Well, I guess we were happening,” she says, sipping coffee. “You could stand outside the Embassy and shoot a gun down Courtenay Place on a Sunday and not hit anyone. I’m not exaggerating. There was one coffee shop open on a Sunday - Susies - which is in a famous painting by Rita Angus.” Gaylene had come from 7 years of living in the UK. “I found Wellington very quiet. At the end of a Friday, at Pacific Films, we’d smoke a joint in a van, come around the bays and then - BLAM - there was Wellington. What a beautiful city. And then we’d go to the pub. We were just wastrels really.”
WHAT WAS THE MOST SURPRISING THING ABOUT MAKING A FILM WITH HELEN CLARK?
“As a film maker - you come to live your projects. While I am very much a resident of Wellington, I’m always coming and going. That's part of being a film maker” Gaylene says. “When I approached Helen about making a film about her, I’d been living in Christchurch for about a year or so before. But I've never worked with anyone who just gets on planes like they’re buses. It’s really hard to believe where Helen goes in a week. She’d go to Stockholm one day, give a keynote speech and then the next day she’d go to the Philippines, then she’d go to Istanbul and then Africa and then back to New York. That’s a 5 day week.” I ask how she did it. “Stamina and sheer intellectual power” Gaylene replies of her formidable subject. “I didn’t see Helen forget a name. I never heard her search for a word. She’s on it. She’s a get on with it - put it all out there - a no-mucking-about woman.”
“As a film maker - you come to live your projects. While I am very much a resident of Wellington, I’m always coming and going. That's part of being a film maker”
HOW DID GAYLENE GET HELEN ON BOARD TO MAKE THE DOCUMENTARY?
“You couldn’t get Helen to agree to anything she didn’t want to do. I thought she’d need time to think about it and I wrote a long email of things I needed like access and creative control. And she just said ‘Got it’. I thought that she meant she got the email!” Gaylene laughs, reflecting on how the former New Zealand PM reacted. From there, Gaylene set about her movie preparation, having to travel to New York to live and breathe the documentary.
"I wrote a long email of things I needed like access and creative control. And she just said ‘Got it’"
However, not everything was smooth sailing. Helen wasn’t a fan of wearing a radio microphone, on her lapel, and so Gaylene had to closely follow her, sometimes alone with just a small but powerful little camera into restricted areas. “The reason for not wearing a radio microphone was so that other people didn’t implicate themselves in ways they didn’t mean to” Gaylene explains. As a result, tailing Helen closely to get sound, Gaylene worked around these struggles, working her magic to produce an outstanding result.
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE ABOUT MAKING A FILM ABOUT THE UN?
The biggest challenge was the UN itself. “Sometimes I’d sit in the yellow taxi coming home feeling I wasn’t getting much” Gaylene recalls “I’d think to myself that I was mad for taking it all on! Then finally something miraculous would happen. There’s a reason that you don't see films behind any global power - and that it is it is really hard to capture. Apart from being an honest portrait on Helen, it shines a light on the fact that it is the five top men shaking hands and making the key decisions at the UN. If you need proof of an old boys club, just go and see ‘My Year With Helen’ Yet somehow, I met so may great people working within it who were frustrated with it all, but no one in it for the wrong reasons or doesn’t believe they are there to make a difference.”
HOW IS 'MY YEAR WITH HELEN' DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DOCO'S?
Gaylene notes that there are very few fly-on-the-wall documentaries made like ‘My Year With Helen’ because it is “very difficult” to be in a place where people are suspicious of you. “They are either hidden camera style or right up close and personal with a subject who wants to be filmed all the time.” Instead, Gaylene sees ‘My Year With Helen’ as ‘an ethnographic film’. “It looks at the tribes: the press, the lobbyists, the diplomats, the politicians. You see them all over a year pushing for one issue: a woman as secretary general. Helen is in the middle of it but it is about a bigger picture.”
“It looks at the tribes: the press, the lobbyists, the diplomats, the politicians"
WHAT DOES GAYLENE MAKE OF THE BUZZ AROUND THE FILM?
Gaylene notes that the buzz around ‘My Year With Helen’ has been greatly amplified by the recent buzz around women’s work and its value. “Having seen how excluded a terrifically qualified woman can be in an institution where her work was clearly without question - and she wasn’t the only one - you had to say ‘look, we are getting a perfect portrait of what is a serious glass ceiling.’ Recently, there has been a reexamination about women directors and how we can be side swept. This is part of a global discussion about feminism. “As a 70’s feminist, I had thought that the glass ceiling wasn’t my problem. I now know that not to be true. It is there. It exists.”
“As a 70’s feminist, I had thought that the glass ceiling wasn’t my problem. I now know that not to be true. It is there. It exists.”
Social media has also been key to the buzz of the film too, especially with Helen on board - who has a following on Twitter of 153,000 and Instagram of 14,000. "Helen can send out one tweet and make things go viral. She's incredible on social media and that has certainly helped!" says Gaylene.
WHAT DOES GAYLENE LOVE ABOUT COMING BACK TO WELLINGTON?
“Being in my own home, in my own bed,” Gaylene says. “My community in Mount Victoria - having a game of gin rummy with the neighbours and their kids next door, being able to go to the movies a lot, because there are so many movie cinemas within 5 blocks of this place - and, of course, getting to have a facial with Margaret Hema.”