During the fifteen years I worked as a rural doctor at Te Karaka in the Gisborne Region of New Zealand, I spent many happy weekends with my family picnicking at the nearby Rere Falls. My children loved to venture behind the cascading curtain of water and glide down the giant rockslide on a boogie board.
As I watched my children play, my mind began to wander. What if someone wanted to exploit the unique, magical properties of the water at Rere? Turn the iconic waterfalls into a water bottling factory? What if the Gang got involved?
Gang Girl was born.
It’s hard to believe ten years have passed since the cameras first rolled on Amiri & Aroha. A decade on and rebranded as Gang Girl, this iconic New Zealand story refuses to go away.
Back in 2010, the project didn’t have the most auspicious start. We’d assembled an ensemble cast of up and coming talent from various casting agencies, all of whom agreed to work for the experience instead of payment. We were about to start shooting when an industrial dispute regarding actors’ working conditions on The Hobbit hit the headlines. Under pressure from their agents, one by one the lead members of our cast dropped out.
Local radio station Turanga FM saved the day running on casting calls, and we discovered the extraordinary depth of acting talent in Gisborne. Walter ‘The Wiz’ Walsh became our casting director and the rest, as they say, is history.
To celebrate ten years of this remarkable journey, here are a collection of production stills. For our loyal fans, watch out for a book trailer made up of footage from the film trilogy and the release of a special director’s cut of the films to coincide with the launch of Gang Girl.
I had hoped my new film project Hīkoi would go into production this year. The issues of child poverty and homelessness are as relevant today as they were when I first wrote the screenplay in 2014. It would have been particularly appropriate to shoot the film in New Zealand’s election year.
Following positive reviews at the Emerging Writers and the Table Read My Screenplay festivals, I began negotiations with leading New Zealand production companies to bring the story to the screen. Regrettably, the Covid-19 pandemic has thwarted those plans and put the project on hold. Many overseas production companies regard New Zealand as the safest place in the world to make a film. With the industry getting back on its feet, I am renewing my efforts to find a production partner for Hīkoi.
Inspired by the hīkoi against child poverty in Auckland in 2014, this hard-hitting drama sees a burnt-out social worker taking risks to help a single mother escape from loan sharks. Hīkoi will remain as relevant as ever in a post Covid world.
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!