The Amiri & Aroha Blog
The Official Blog for David Whittet's Novel and Film Trilogy

What does Hunapo have for breakfast?

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"Authors shouldn't write dialogue; they should let their characters speak for themselves."

Giving characters their own distinctive voice is the most profound lesson I have learnt from working with industry professionals. An interesting exercise at a table read of the Hīkoi screenplay was to remove the character headings from the actors' copies of the script and to see if it remains apparent to them when they are speaking.
Fascinating characters are essential for any work of fiction. I believe the success of Amiri & Aroha on the international film festival circuit is due to the audience's involvement with the characters. A competition judge told me he shed tears when the gang thwarted Aroha's childhood friendship with her cousin Hunapo.
Writing the novel has afforded the opportunity to develop these complex characters further. Understanding how they talk and react to adverse situations allows them to speak for themselves, adding tremendous depth to the story.
My old mentor, the late great David Lean, gave me this advice: "You must know what your characters eat for breakfast. It's not that you're going to show them having breakfast, but if you are to portray them accurately, you need to know them in that much detail."
During the shooting of Amiri & Aroha, I can recall some lively discussions between takes on what the protagonists would have for their breakfast. We all agreed that Amiri would be an eggs benedict man. We decided Aroha was more a muesli and toast girl, and there was no doubt that Hunapo would have eggs and lashings of bacon with black pudding, washed down with a swig of yesterday's beer.

Proofing Amiri & Aroha

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Mathew Wikotu as the young Hunapo.

Alongside working on Hikoi, I've spent the last few weeks proofreading Amiri & Aroha. It's been a labour of love on a project that has been such a vital part of my life over the past decade.
The strength of a story depends on the depth of its characters. Correcting and enhancing the manuscript has afforded me a unique opportunity to reflect on the character arcs in the novel.
Amiri & Aroha depicts a woman’s lifelong struggle to escape the misery of her gang roots, a journey defined by greed, corruption and the redeeming nature of love. A diverse cast of characters shape Aroha's rite of passage: her father Tautaru, a loathsome gang leader; her downtrodden mother Ngaio; Kōkā, a mysterious matakite; and Amiri, the hotshot businessman she believes will bring her freedom.
Of all the leading protagonists in Amiri & Aroha, Hunapo is perhaps the most complex, and judging from the response of my early reviewers, he is also one of the most engaging.
Hunapo is Aroha's cousin and her only childhood friend. It's hard to resist the mischievous rascal at the beginning of the story. But life is unkind to Hunapo. Chosen as the puppet leader of the gang and forced into an abortive arranged marriage, he lashes out at those closest to him and betrays Aroha. Seeking solace with alcohol and debauchery, Hunapo degenerates into a drunken lothario but ultimately finds redemption as a latter-day Robin Hood, risking his life to give back the protection money extorted by the gang.
One of the joys of independent filmmaking is the discovery of raw talent. I was fortunate to find two brilliant actors to play Hunapo in the films.
As the young Hunapo, Mathew Wikotu's soulful expression captured the dilemma of a lost kid in a hostile world, his childhood stolen by a bitter family feud.
Shayne Biddle, fresh from his role in the critically acclaimed New Zealand film The Strength of Water, took on the challenge of the adult Hunapo. Shayne's remarkable screen presence further defined this tragically flawed but genuinely appealing hero.
I remain hopeful that following the publication of the novel, we can entice a studio to pick up the story for a fully funded feature film. I would be delighted to have both Mathew and Shayne in the cast.

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Shayne Biddle as Hunapo

Amiri & Aroha - A New Zealand Story

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A couple of years ago, when Amiri's Child won an Award of Excellence at the Accolade Global Film Festival, a Hollywood producer asked to buy the rights for Amiri & Aroha. There was even talk of a mini-series, to be marketed as "the next Sopranos."
In so many ways, the offer was a dream come true. The sum on the table was significant and the deal hard to resist. What's not to like about a fully funded production of the story, with guaranteed distribution and a possible spin-off. So why did I hesitate?
Amiri and Aroha is a quintessential New Zealand story. In selling the rights, I would have lost control. It became apparent that the sorry would become Americanised, the Māori culture at the heart of my story would be replaced by American street gangs. After much soul-searching, I turned the offer down.
With two leading international publishers now interested in Amiri & Aroha, I am convinced that I made the right choice. The project began as a Māori take on Romeo and Juliet, and while the story is universal, it is firmly grounded in New Zealand life. The East Cape and the magnificent Rere Falls are as essential as the characters in the drama. I cannot imagine this story taking place anywhere else.
I only hope that we can find a New Zealand producer who is equally captivated by the story so that we can make the definitive film of Amiri & Aroha.

Amiri & Aroha submitted for publication

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For the past ten years, Amiri and Aroha has been an essential part of my life. I have lived and breathed with my characters; I have been there with them at every step of their journey. I have felt their pain and shared their joys and sorrows.
Following endless revisions and many months of intense book editing, I have at last submitted the manuscript to leading international publishers for consideration.
For a little while at least, the project is out of my hands while I await the editor's decision. It is a strange feeling, having been so close to the story for so long. But I have not had time to dwell on this; with the novel complete, I have at last been able to clear my mind for the next project. It is now over eighteen months since the child poverty debate in the run up to the New Zealand General Election in September 2014 inspired me to make Hīkoi. Throughout the editing of Amiri & Aroha, ideas for Hīkoi have been running through my mind, but I found it impossible to develop them while still immersed in Amiri & Aroha. Refining the vision and working on the screenplay for Hīkoi is now my top priority.
And whatever the publishers' verdict, the Amiri & Aroha saga is far from over. For those many loyal fans who have been waiting patiently, we plan a limited release of the film trilogy to coincide with the publication of the novel and the films will be available to stream or download on Vimeo-on-Demand.
My dream remains a fully financed film of Amiri & Aroha. Local producers are calling out for captivating New Zealand stories. Amiri & Aroha could be just what they are looking for.

Books aren't written, they're rewritten!

Amiri & Aroha Book Cover copy

“Books aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it.” - Michael Crichton.

Although I am far beyond the seventh rewrite of Amiri & Aroha, Michael Crichton's perceptive words seem particularly appropriate. After seemingly endless years of work, the novel is almost ready for publication.
The experience has made me think about the difference between editing books and films. The filmmaker has an arsenal of tools at their disposal: the inflexion of the actor, the juxtaposition of contrasting images, and perhaps most evocative of all, the musical score. The writer has only the power of the written word to create atmosphere and tell their story.
Editing the novel of Amiri & Aroha has been profoundly different from cutting the film. Today's audiences demand fast moving drama, often forcing filmmakers to shorten and compress their work to deliver an ever more intense experience. In many ways, writing the book has been the opposite. My early reviewers consistently challenged me to provide more detail and background, to fill in the gaps in the story that were inherent in the film, which is, of its nature, and episodic medium.
There are similarities in technique. Where the filmmaker cuts rapidly to increase tension, the writer uses short, staccato sentences to achieve the same effect.
The novel will provide the definitive rendition of the Amiri & Aroha saga. At 500 pages and 180,000 words, the book is a genuine epic, but at its core remains a heartrending and gripping drama. It is my dream that a New Zealand production company will pick up the story, and we will see the definitive film version of Amiri & Aroha!

Interview in the New Zealand Rural GP Network News

NGRGPN Network News Cover

Movies and medicine have been my life. Friends and journalists often ask me which is the closest to my heart. I invariably answer that I am equally passionate about both cinema and general practice. The common thread is an abiding interest in people’s stories. I discussed this in this in an interview with Rob Olsen in the current issue of the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network News.

Read the interview in the current issue of the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network News

Tekapo Promotional Shoot

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As the Amiri & Aroha novel approaches publication, I have been engaged in some promotional shoots at significant real life locations which feature in the story.
The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo must surely be the most beautiful church in New Zealand, and it plays a significant role in the developing drama.
Look out for some more pictures from our road trip to outstanding Amiri & Aroha locations.

Revisions and rewrites

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Amiri & Aroha is truly a project that refuses to end. My recent post was premature. With a major rewrite complete and book editing underway, I thought I was putting the finishing touches on the novel.
On reflection, there are still critical areas that could be improved. The three opening chapters have proved particularly challenging as they differ significantly from the films and cover a considerable amount of new material that we were unable to shoot in the original pilot film.
The most rewarding aspect is that with each successive revision, the book becomes stronger and closer to being ready for publication. I am again indebted to my mentor, Joyce Cocchi for her advice and suggestions on making these crucial first chapters as compelling as possible.
With the prospect of a new and fully funded film series ahead, I feel confident that Amiri & Aroha will be keeping me occupied for a long time into the future!

An Adventure that stubbornly refuses to end

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Tonight I have put the finishing touches to the Amiri & Aroha novel and it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on a project that has taken over my life for the past decade. When I first developed the concept for a one-off independent short film, little did I think I would still be working on it over ten years later, let alone continuing to find new and exciting plot twists!
The success of the original film on the international film festival circuit, which started with a win at the Best Shorts competition, began an amazing journey that stubbornly refuses to come to an end. With so much added depth and complexity, the novel has enough intrigue for another trilogy at the very least!
I again wish to acknowledge the contribution of everyone who has shared this journey with me. I am eternally grateful to the cast and crew of the film trilogy, whose faith in the project helped to turn my dreams into reality.
I extend my most sincere thanks to my mentors, Joyce Cocchi, Warren Philp and Nicky Sinclair, who have read and reread the novel through countless drafts and rewrites and provided me with expert feedback. I am especially thankful to Joyce who has been an unfailing source of advice and inspiration.

An extraordinary journey draws to a conclusion

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Another stage of an extraordinary journey is almost at an end. After months of intensive work, writing and re-writing, the novel of Amiri & Aroha is virtually complete. It is almost time to hand the project over to a book editor as the road to publication begins!
Thank you again to everyone who has supported me throughout this amazing voyage of discovery. Your enthusiasm has been a tremendous inspiration. I would like to add a special word of thanks to everyone who has been in touch asking about the DVD release. It is immensely satisfying to all of us who worked on the films that so many of you want to get hold of your own copies of the trilogy. Regretfully, I have to ask you to be patient just a little longer. Negotiations are continuing with potential distribution partners and they have requested that we delay the DVD/Blu-ray release until after distribution is secured. We promise you it will be worth the wait! Watch out for a major release to coincide with publication of the novel!
In the meantime, why not check out the cool new photo galleries on this site? There are loads of new and hitherto unpublished behind the scenes pictures.
With my work on the novel nearly finished, I am heading back to the cutting room to work on the book trailer. Some of the images accompanying my recent posts show a selection of the graphics I have produced specially for the trailer, with a definite literary feel and will draw the story out of the page. A trailer is a specialised short film and at its best, a work of art in its own right.
It’s great to be in the editing suite again, creating movies. Keep watching this blog for an awesome trailer in the very near future!