Researching Gang Girl proved an adventure in itself. I shall never forget the day I fronted up to a notorious gangster’s house hoping for an interview during my fifteen years as a rural doctor in the Gisborne region.
My heartbeat was even louder than my banging on the door. Eventually, a nine-year-old boy gingerly put his head around the doorframe.
‘Is your father at home?’ I asked.
‘I’ll go and ask him,’ the boy answered.
A loud voice boomed in the background. ‘Is it the cops?’
‘No,’ the boy replied. ‘It’s the doctor.’
‘The doctor? We didn’t call the doctor. Nobody’s sick. Are you sure it’s not the cops?’
‘Positive. It’s the same dude that stitched my hand.’ He shot me an evil look. ‘And it bloody hurt.’
The gangster eventually emerged, his bold, full facial tattoo radiating an immediate presence. He told me how he was forced to have the tā moko at a ceremony as a teenager. The tattoo was his gang patch. He described the pain then the bone chisel pierced his flesh. I had my opening scene.
I am overwhelmed at the fantastic response to my post on rebranding Amiri & Aroha as Gang Girl. Aroha’s struggle to escape from the Gang certainly resonates with so many of you.
Gang Girl is a work of fiction, but the story is solidly grounded in real life. Like Beth in Once Were Warriors, Aroha faces brutality and repression day in and day out. But Aroha is a strong woman who refuses to let the Gang crush her spirit.
While Gang Girl is in its final draft, Aroha’s struggle is far from over. I am working on two companion novels, Gang Blood and Young Blood. The birth of her son Arapeta throws Aroha into further conflict with the Gang. But a new breed of gangster is emerging. Sickened by the tyranny of the old guard, the young generation is determined to incite change. Can they take on the leaders and create a more just Gang?
For fans of the film trilogy, I can promise you the novel is heading in a new and thrilling direction. The ending will be radically different. I’m as excited as you are for the next chapter of Aroha’s story.
Back in September 2018, I attended a masterclass in commercial fiction with bestselling Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Since then, I’ve spent every available moment working on a complete rewrite of Amiri & Aroha, which I have now retitled Gang Girl.
I learnt so much at the masterclass. Fiona was quick to point out the immense potential of my dramatic opening scene. On reaching adolescence, Gang kids are given a full facial tattoo in a barbaric ceremony to pledge their allegiance to the mob. Workshopping the first chapter with Fiona proved a revelation. Fiona showed me how to tighten the scene and ramp up the tension. ‘Don’t be afraid to be brutal,’ she told me. ‘Make your readers feel the pain the kids endure when they’re chiselled.’ The result—a gripping opening chapter that Fiona told me was one of the most compelling she’d seen for some time.
The masterclass taught me to be bold. In reworking the story, I have contrasted Aroha’s innocence with the harsh reality of Once Were Warriors. At the heart of Gang Girl, we have a strong woman determined to take charge of her own destiny. The Gang stole her childhood. She won’t let them claim the rest of her life.
At Fiona McIntosh’s inaugural masterclass convention last October, I had the opportunity to pitch to two leading publishers. Both were enthusiastic about the project and I have used their feedback to further refine the manuscript.
I believe Aroha’s story will resonate with a wide readership. I hope to bring you more exciting news soon!
How fantastic to to meet best selling Australian author Michael Robotham at Fiona McIntosh's inauguarl mastercall conveentrtained us with the How fantastic to meet best selling Australian author Michael Robotham at Fiona McIntosh’s inaugural masterclass convention.
In his opening keynote, Michael enthralled us with anecdotes from his extraordinary career. He began as a reporter and sub-editor for national newspapers in the UK. He went on to be a ghostwriter for the likes of Lulu and spice girl Geri Halliwell.
Michael’s career catapulted when the opening chapters of his first novel, The Suspect, sparked an international bidding war at the London Book Fair. The rest is history and made everyone in the audience extremely jealous!
Michael’s talk was as captivating as his books and got the conference, in South Australia’s beautiful Clare Valley, off to a brilliant start.
Today is the 111th birthday of the man who inspired me—and so many outstanding directors—to make movies.
I celebrated the occasion with a private screening of two of his early masterpieces, Great Expectations and a film that was sadly neglected until its rediscovery in the David Lean centenary celebrations, The Passionate Friends.
This iconic poster now adorns my studio!
I managed to track down a hard to find DVD of this Spanish made documentary about David Lean’s dying wish to make a screen adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo. Lean believed it would be his defining work, the pinnacle of his career.
My excitement at getting hold of this DVD was tempered by sadness at how everything conspired to prevent David Lean from realising his dream. Lean’s widow Sandra, along with Steven Spielberg and others involved with the project, tell the heartbreaking story of endless delays and false starts. The most moving account of all came from Georges Corraface, who was set to play Nostromo. The surviving screen tests show how brilliant Corraface would have been in this role.
Those closest to Lean felt the constant frustrations and disappointments hastened his death. Fellow director John Boorman visited David Lean days before Lean’s death. They reminisced about their lives and their films. As John Boorman was leaving, David Lean said: ‘I hope I get better and that I’m able to make Nostromo. You see, I’m just beginning to think I might be getting the hang of filmmaking.’
As his two Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist testify, David Lean was the undisputed master of the literary adaption. Having read the script and heard Lean describe some of the key scenes, I am convinced that Nostromo is the greatest film never made.
I have attended many productions over the years that claim to be a theatrical experience unlike any other. They invariably disappoint. Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is the exception. This extraordinary extravaganza by the insanely talented Long Cloud Youth Theatre at Wellington’s Scruffy Bunny Improv Theatre (cool name!) is a night that will live long in the memory.
From pre-performance interactions with the cast onwards, the audience is sucked into the fantastic world of Doctor Faustus. There are no seats in the auditorium. The action takes place all over the place. You are part of the story—you are in the middle of the story! Some in the audience seem a little perplexed at first. Heads shake. They gyrate to the edges of the space. But the energy is infectious. Light, colour, drama. Everywhere. Your eyes dance. You don’t want to miss a moment. Hypnotic rhymes. Mesmerising lyrics. And Beethoven. A toxic combination.
By the end of the hour-long performance, even the most reserved theatregoers find themselves involved, clapping, dancing, singing alongside the actors with a vitality almost matching that of the young performers.
Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights is contemporary theatre at its best. It’s not for the pseudo-intellectuals who spend their lives expounding the centrality of realism as an aesthetic stance. Rather, it is a group of energetic young performers on a voyage of discovery, a quest to stretch their creative talents to the limit—and beyond. It’s a privilege to share this journey. And an evening I will never forget.
Photo Credit: Philip Merry
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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!
"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.
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!
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!
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.
Shayne Biddle as Hunapo
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!
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.
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.