David Whittet's Blog
Family Physician and Film Maker

Joy in a Leper Colony

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Writing about the real-life events that took place during my time working in India brings back vivid memories. I will never forget the smiles on the children’s faces. They had nothing but their cheerfulness and unrestrained optimism convinced me of the indomitability of the human spirit.
A leper colony plays a pivotal role in The Road to Madhapur. A place of overwhelming sorrow, despair and heartbreak. Yet beyond the suffering, I found hope and joy. Fulfilment and peace. That leprosy mission was among the happiest places I have seen in my life. I hope I can get that exhilaration across in my writing.

The Road to Madhapur

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Sincere thanks to everyone who responded to my previous post with such imaginative suggestions for the title of my new novel.
After much soul-searching, I have finally chosen a name for the project that reflects the thrust of the story. In the early chapters we meet a disaffected New Zealand doctor and an Australian missionary's daughter, both headed for the remote township of Madhapur in the Odisha state of India. Despite wholly different backgrounds and expectations, we sense from the outset that their worlds will collide. Caught up in the turbulent world of Indian politics and a community in crisis, tragedy propels their lives on an inescapable trajectory.
The real-life incidents depicted in The Road to Madhapur had a profound effect on me. With the first draft of the book now in the hands of my early reviewers, I am delighted that they are finding these life-changing events equally touching.

The Good Karma Well

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For the second time in my life, I have been pipped at the post. I recently started work on a new novel about a disillusioned young doctor who goes to work in India. After a Bollywood style romance with a missionary’s daughter ends in tragedy, he dedicates himself to building a well for the impoverished community. While a work of fiction and not autobiographical, the novel draws on my own experiences working in India and the story incorporates many real-life events.
I thought I had struck gold when I came up with the title The Good Karma Well for my book. Until I turned on the television and saw a trailer for a programme called The Good Karma Hospital.
Beaten to it again! Back in the 1980’s, I wrote a screenplay about two brothers, one of whom was autistic. This was to be my magnum opus as a filmmaker. Taking a break from preproduction, a friend urged me to see Rain Man in the cinema. The similarities with my story were heartbreaking. Nobody would believe that developed my script before seeing Rain Man. I put the project on the shelf and found it hard to get enthusiastic about another project for some time.
Although The Good Karma Hospital features a young doctor finding herself in an under-resourced and overworked hospital in India, my story is entirely different in concept and content. I need a new title to distinguish my book from the television series. I have given the project the working title of Namaste while I search for something more striking. The Namaste Well doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Any suggestions for an arresting title will be gratefully received!

The Photo that inspired Hīkoi

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The demonstration against child poverty in Queen Street Auckland on 5 September 2014 is one of the real-life events featured in my screenplay Hīkoi. Almost four years later, the issue remains unresolved and forever in the news. My script, in which a young and idealistic social worker gets badly burned taking risks to save a single mother from two ruthless loan sharks, is as relevant now as when I first wrote it. I am looking for a New Zealand production company to help me bring this heart-wrenching story to the screen.
Photo Credit: Newspix.co.nz/New Zealand Herald.

Fiona McIntosh and The Tea Gardens

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On a recent visit to Melbourne for a medical conference, I had the pleasure of meeting best-selling Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Coincidentally I just finished reading her latest novel The Tea Gardens on my flight across the Tasman.
The Tea Gardens has particular significance for me. Like the novel's heroine, Isla Fenwick, as a young doctor I worked in India in a region of overwhelming need.
Fiona's evocative descriptions brought back that heady mixture of awe and panic as the sights, sounds and smell of India flood the senses. Even more revealing, the novel captures that strange combination of professional competence and emotional naivety that so many medical graduates experience on entering the outside world.
We meet Isla as she faces a personal dilemma on her return from India. In her own words, she recalls her defining rite of passage. Her journey begins in the grey streets of London in 1933 where her widowed father engineers a meeting with an old flame, the aptly named Jovian Manderville. But Isla made a promise to strike back at the tropical disease that took her mother's life.
We live and breathe Isla's journey to Calcutta and share her joy and despair as she sets up a midwifery clinic. Her attempt to save a girl whose pregnancy violates the caste system ends in tragedy and endangers the life of a brilliant but maverick colleague, Professor Saxon Vickery. Facing personal and professional ruin, Isla follows Vickery to the foothills of the Himalayas, where she finds love, forgiveness and guilt in a resolution that questions all that she holds dear.
Thankfully, my time in India was much less dramatic than Dr Fenwick's but proved none the less life-changing.
Fiona regaled a delighted audience at the Altona Library with tales of her trip to India to research The Tea Gardens. Her anecdotes ranged from the ingenious to the outrageous, seducing a member to gain entry to a gentleman's club in Calcutta. Fiona told us that she does not write about anywhere that she has not experienced first hand. It shows in her work. When you finish The Tea Gardens you too have travelled from the grime of Britain to the squalor of Calcutta and the ethereal beauty of the Himalayas.
I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy for Fiona's lifestyle. I'll have to set my next story further afield.

Hīkoi is more relevant than ever!

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Hīkoi becomes more relevant by the minute. Inspired by the child poverty debate in the run up to the last general election, my screenplay includes several real life events woven into the story: the 2014 minor party leaders debate, the Hīkoi of protest to end child poverty and the presentation of a petition with fifteen thousand signatures to the government.
In the film, a young Māori social worker strives to make a difference, taking risks to help a single mother hounded by loan sharks. He's enraged by empty promises from the politicians during the election campaign, all claiming that they care. Abandoned by his employer, alone and bereft of support, he takes the blame when everything crashes down around him. He drops out after losing his licence, forcing him to join cardboard city with his former clients.
With the extraordinary political developments in New Zealand over the last week, accompanied by some angry rants on social media, I have been working out how my protagonist would react to all of this. What would he be tweeting? Perhaps I need to update the script to include the latest events––or start work on the sequel as the original goes into production!

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.

A "Cathy Come Home" for our times!

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Hīkoi
is a hard-hitting drama that addresses the most critical issues facing New Zealand society today: homelessness, child poverty and burnout in the under-resourced social workers who have to deal with the fallout.
For such an inspirational and relevant project, I hope to get funding from the New Zealand Film Commission and New Zealand on Air. I am currently pitching my screenplay to prospective production partners. An influential producer has enthusiastically described my script as a Cathy Come Home for our times.
It is immensely humbling to have my work compared to Ken Loach's groundbreaking film. Cathy Come Home gave rise to the Shelter movement, founded by a New Zealander, Des Wilson.
I would be delighted if Hīkoi could bring about such positive social change.

Farewell Sundance, Hello New Orleans!

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Farewell Sundance, Hello New Orleans!
Preproduction on Hīkoi is reaching fever pitch. Inspired by the feedback from the Table Read My Screenplay Competition at the Sundance Festival, I have completed an extensive rewrite of the Hīkoi script.
Mentoring by industry professionals has taught me the importance of tightening the action to keep the audience's attention firmly focused on the film's message. With some intense new scenes and razor-sharp dialogue, the latest draft of Hīkoi has a compelling storyline about an idealistic young social worker who loses his girlfriend and licence when he takes risks to save a teenage mother and her baby from a gang of ruthless loan sharks.
I am confident that this thought-provoking story will resonate with cinema goers in New Zealand and beyond.
As the excitement of the Sundance competition begins to fade, anticipation mounts for the upcoming Table Read My Screenplay at the New Orleans Film Festival in October 2017.
American festivals have always supported my work generously. With such a vibrant culture and a dynamic music scene, New Orleans could be the perfect location to launch the Hīkoi music video!

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

Hikoi at Sundance

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As the Hikoi music video nears completion, preproduction for the Hikoi feature film is underway.
I have had excellent feedback from the Table Read My Screenplay competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The prize of a teleconference with a Hollywood screenwriter has afforded the opportunity for me to work one to one with a leading professional on the next draft of the Hikoi script.
As we are in an election year in New Zealand, Hikoi is as topical as ever. Inspired by the multi-party leaders' debate in the run-up to the last General Election, Hikoi is a hard-hitting drama that deals with child poverty, deprivation and burnout among the professionals who attempt to deal with with the issue.
I am looking for a co-producer and hope to pitch for funding from the NZ Film Commission for a very relevant New Zealand story.
It would be great to see Hikoi in production before this year's election!

Postproduction on the Hikoi Music Video

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The Hikoi music video grows stronger with each successive edit. The raw images have a unique dramatic potency, which shines through even in the rough cut; a poignant visual poem that speaks eloquently for the underprivileged in our society.
As postproduction progresses, I have been working on the visual texture of the video, a gritty realism to reflect the hardship of life on the streets.
Feedback from early reviewers in the music industry has been invaluable, and I look forward to bringing you a preview before the video hits the international music festival circuit.

First Table Read of the Hikoi Screenplay

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A dark rehearsal room in the shadow of the Auckland City Mission lit up with the first full table read of the Hikoi screenplay. Performing the read through in the authentic locations added poignancy and a gritty realism to the actors' delivery. The atmosphere was electric as Hikoi reached its dramatic climax.
I was overwhelmed by the end of the reading. Input from all the participants has been invaluable, and I am full of inspiration for the next script revision.

The Art of the Music Video

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In many ways, music videos are a filmmaker's dream. It's like going back to the silent era, telling a story in pictures and music. Images are much more powerful without dialogue; it's cinematic art in its purest form. The Hikoi music video certainly promises to be a compelling piece of cinema.
I am taking a short break from editing the video as I head off to Auckland on Thursday for the New Zealand Script Writer Awards. In the meantime, here are a couple more behind the scenes photos from the shoot.
While in Auckland, we will have the first table read of the full Hikoi screenplay. I have made some major revisions to the story following the feedback from the international film festival circuit, and I am looking forward to the reading with actors playing the parts. Exciting times!

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An Eloquent voice for the underprivileged

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The excitement of last weekend's shoot continues as the Hīkoi music video comes together. Nikki's powerful song and the poignancy of our child actors speak eloquently for the underprivileged of our world. Even the unedited footage is spellbinding. I can't wait to bring you a preview!

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On Location with the Hikoi Music Video

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It's a wrap on a fantastic weekend shooting the Hikoi music video. Sincere thanks to everyone who made the shoot such a success, especially Nikki and the Descendents and our outstanding child actresses, who gave up their Saturday to learn what it is like to be homeless and hungry.
Watch out for more photos and behind the scenes footage over the next few days and a sneak preview of the music video!

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Hīkoi in Preproduction

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Hīkoi was inspired by the One News Multi-Party Leaders Debate on 05 September 2014, in the run up to the New Zealand General Election. Almost two years on, I have finally completed the screenplay.
The Leaders Debate focused on child poverty. My story centres on Tipene Tapihana, a young Māori trainee social worker, and his struggle to balance the impossible demands of his work with his own personal and social problems. Tipene is an idealist - he wants to change the world, but faced with burnout, it is the hīkoi that changes him.
I have weaved my story around real life events. The film opens with Tipene's frenzied reaction to the Leaders Debate. Subsequently, we see Tipene taking part in the Hīkoi of Protest against child poverty in Auckland's Queen Street in August 2014. The film culminates with the Hīkoi on the New Zealand Parliament on 20 May 2015, when protesters presented a petition with fifteen thousand signatures to the government, calling for an end to child poverty.
I have received fantastic feedback from screenwriting forums and the international film festival circuit. Professional coverage and table readings have enabled me to hone my script into a hard-hitting drama which deals with contemporary issues facing New Zealand and the world.
We are looking for a production partner for Hīkoi. Ideally, I would like to co-produce with a local production company. I am also hoping to attach some well known Kiwi actors to the project and hopefully we will go into production in 2017!

The Cameras roll on the Hīkoi Music Video in early September!

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After so much time in front of a word processor, I can't wait to get back behind the camera!
With Amiri & Aroha at last in the hands of the publishers and the screenplay for Hīkoi in competition on the international film festival circuit, I have been turning my attention to the Hīkoi music video.
At the heart of the video is Nikki Te Ataarangi Brand's brilliantly evocative song. The video tells the touching story of an unusual friendship between a street musician (played by Nikki) and a homeless family. The music video will also introduce the lead character in the forthcoming Hīkoi feature film.
Music producers have been raving about the test footage we shot last year, with multiple invitations to submit to music festivals worldwide.
The cameras start rolling in Taranaki in early September. Keep watching for more news and a preview!

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.

Hīkoi Music Video to hit the big time in 4K!

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I have been talking to some music producers who are as excited about Nikki Te Ataarangi Brand's song for Hīkoi as I am myself.
The song is powerful and evocative, exactly matching the mood of the film. Last year we shot a thought provoking music video, featuring Nikki playing a street musician, seeing life in the raw through her eyes as she earns a meagre existence as a busker.
When I showed a rough cut of the footage to the music executives, they were so impressed by the impact of the song and the images that they have urged me to develop the project further and reshoot in 4K. It has been tremendous to get such positive feedback from those in the industry, and I appreciate their confidence that we have a potential award winner.
I am now looking forward to returning to Taranaki this Winter for another fantastic shoot with Nikki and The Descendants and our child stars. I am convinced that we will create something exceptional.
Nikki's song speaks eloquently for the underprivileged of our world. I hope my film will prove equally inspiring.