Director Aaron Falvey tells the story of producing and directing his award-winning 2019 short film Death Round Every Bend, and how he got his first feature film Northspur, shot in November 2019. Aaron shares the initiatives he took to get both projects off the ground, and learning the most valuable lesson any director, writer or ‘creative’ could… it’s producers that make a film happen, and you can become your own!
Justin Eade (Left) and Aaron Falvey (Right) make a strong team.
In early 2019, screenwriter Justin Eade and I had a short film based on the infamous 1866 ‘Maungatapu Murders’, a New Zealand Western story, called Death Round Every Bend. It was a short script of a feature film Justin Eade wrote 25 years ago, so we decided we could wait no longer, and actually didn’t have to. We decided to produce it themselves, with help from several others in their ‘Top of the South Filmmakers Collective’, a collection of like-minded film focused people in the top of the South Island of New Zealand.
Knowing we already had four good actors from the stage play on the subject, we recruited them, along with other local actors to play smaller roles, and set down a date for production. The location for the film was remote as it was on the very track where the robberies and murders took place, so it took quite a bit of pre-planning and a few location scouts. But with the help of local cinematographer Daniel Allen, with his RED camera, we believed we’d get good footage if the light was right. On the morning of the shoot it was overcast and threatening to rain all day which made for perfect lighting and moody, bleak visuals. Thankfully the rain held off until 15 minutes after the shoot concluded, with 22 people and a horse up on a remote hillside all day.
Cameron West as ‘Richard Burgess’ in Death Round Every Bend.
Justin and I then spent two to three months editing the film with Daniel Allen and after going through 8 iterations and adding a score from New York composer Michael Vignola, we were finally happy with it. We entered their local Top of the South Film Festival with the film and won 8 awards on the night, including Best Film, People’s Choice, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
The film has now found international distribution. But quite apart from the artistic endeavors of writing and directing, this film would never have gotten made if we hadn’t hustled, cobbled together $2000 of finance from local sources, sorted catering and logistics, costuming, period guns, packhorses, props, and art department. Thankfully we had help in this from relationships formed in their collective over the years.
You can’t do it all, but with a ‘can do’ attitude, you can get it done if you’re prepared to work and sacrifice. Don’t sit around with a ‘great script’ or a ‘great idea’, those are a dime a dozen. Make it happen by using initiative and contacts…
Peter Coates as ‘Philip Levy’ in "Death Round Every Bend"
Screenwriter Justin Eade and I began writing a script called Northspur in mid-2017, about the aftermath of an EMP attack (Electro-magnetic pulse) in rural New Zealand. The script went through many drafts before becoming optioned by an Australian producer in late 2018 and finding a financier willing to approve a 100K NZD budget. Production was set down for late 2019, with filming to take place in the ‘Top of the South’ region of New Zealand, comprising the provinces of Nelson and Marlborough. This was to be the first home-grown genre feature film made in the region. However, in early 2019 the financier had to withdraw and we parted ways with their Australian producer due to divergent visions for the project. Two major setbacks! Every feature film’s genesis is full of them.
Justin and I adopted the mantra from Field of Dreams, "Build it and they will come", and forged ahead, still keeping to the late 2019 production plan for the film. We approached several other local ‘producers’ (and if they weren’t already, converted them to such), people with time to help and business expertise as well as film experience.
We also added an experienced Executive Producer, American Steve Barr, who knew the business well, having years of experience in the Hollywood studio system. This happened over February and March 2019, with production set down for November. In April, we pitched to local consortiums of wealthy businessmen in both Nelson and Marlborough and to their pleasant surprise, found a lot of interest in investing in film in the region. A large part of this was due to my relationships with investors formed over many years of spearheading filmmaking in the region.
With 180K of finance in place by July of 2019, Justin, the other producers and I began finalizing the script and chasing cast and crew. By scouring talent agencies and also using professional actors we’d worked with before, we were able to get outstanding acting talent committing to our film. Josh McKenzie and veteran Michael Hurst from Auckland, signed on, as did Delaney Tabron, a Kiwi actress working in LA. We were also able to sign hugely experienced Australasian actor Marshall Napier, a veteran of some 100 film and TV productions.
Rounding out the professional cast was Wellington actress Kali Kopae, and child actors Rama Marrow and Nell Fisher. The best of the local Top of the South actors were brought in underneath the professional cast to support them. A similar model was followed with crew… professional crew was brought in from Auckland and Wellington, with the best of local crew supporting them. This seemed to be a winning formula.
With cast and crew being set in place during July, August, and September, the producers performed contortions with both budget and schedule and recruited as many local people who would work for profit participation as possible, to supplement the paid professionals. We had a sales agent in place who believed he could sell this action genre crowd-pleaser in a certain revenue band, which gave our producers some expectation of recouping funds for our investors and repaying those working for free. Locations were set, extras were found, stunt coordinators, generators, pyrotechnic people, armorers, transport, accommodation, and infrastructure were arranged.
The two months of September and October were stressful to say the least, with the producers doing their best in planning for a smooth, though hectic shoot. With a lot of moving parts and action sequences, shooting a feature in 18 days was not going to be easy, but that’s all we could afford. Nevertheless, Justin and I found as director and writer, we were getting the job done as producers, and miraculously, everything was falling into place. It just took a lot of hard work and good advice.
Cast Josh McKenzie (Left) Marshall Napier (Right)
In early November cast and crew arrived in Blenheim, my home town, and the ‘Northspur’ team had three days of prep prior to shooting. This involved location recces for the actors, ongoing art department on our sets, shooting establishing shots in beautiful Marlborough with the Arri Alexa cameras and the professional crew, and acting rehearsals and last-minute script tweaks. It was great having these three days of prep as a ‘get to know you time’ with cast and crew.
Nevertheless, our poor Art Department team, somewhat understaffed, were working overtime to ready our ‘cabin’ set and the ‘cottage’ set for the first days of shooting. Thankfully our Production Designer Roger Wadham, had worked on some big movies before and our local props man proved to be a genius, manufacturing almost anything at a moment’s notice. Our Art Director, Maddy Davidson, from Auckland also proved to be a major asset, working long hours to ensure all details were authentic.
Production was a whirlwind, with a tight schedule filmed mainly in two locations… a house and property in Waihopai Valley, 20 minutes from Blenheim, and a rural property with a cabin built in a field, 5 minutes from Picton. At times it was like holding a tiger by the tail and at times it got a little chaotic, despite the best planning from the producers. But I managed to shoot some wonderful footage and performances, and everyone had a great time on set, cast and crew alike.
Towards the end of the shoot, it was apparent two big action set pieces hadn’t been adequately thought out yet and we were running short of time, so we decided to bump those set pieces to two pickup days over summer and just shoot the principal cast out. In this way the producers and I were able to complete principal photography in 18 days, then shoot with local actors and extras another two days later, and complete the movie. So we had to be adaptable and keep an eye on the schedule, and make adjustments. We took good advice from others, but it was also very much make it up as you go along, and it seemed to work out.
Cast and Crew of "Northspur"
The movie ‘Northspur’ is currently being edited in Auckland and all indications are we have a very good film on our hands, which will be able to be distributed from late 2020.
We have been on an incredible journey, a roller coaster ride at times, with people dropping out and other people coming on… some people underperforming, and others over-performing, stretching everybody to their limits.
What lessons have I learned? It’s no secret, but you need a high degree of perseverance and also flexibility to hang in there for the course of a feature film… it can be four years from inception to running its sales course - and that’s if things go smoothly and you get some finance. So work with people who you can trust, are reliable, good communicators and most importantly, get things done! A meeting is only as good as the action which comes out of it, and talk is very cheap, and very common, in this business. Align yourself with do-ers… and if you can find three or four of those, you’re very lucky.
Also, get a good cast… for a micro-budget movie like ours, we spent a lot on our top-line cast. A lot can be fixed in post, but bad performances can’t be. If you are a local, low budget, do-it-yourself production, spend your money on the cast.
The first step is to have a good piece of material, a good script, then add good producing collaborators to that, a bit of hustle, and a little bit of money, and go out and do it yourself, having one eye on distribution before you start. And don’t fall into the classic trap of ‘robbing Post-production Peter to pay Production Paul’, as our EP put it… too many first time filmmakers have ended up with their movie on a hard drive, spending too much of the budget on production, and not having enough funds to finish it. Always hold a lot back.
But you know what… you can do this. We did, and we’re at the ends of the world…
Aaron Falvey is an award-winning director and producer who was born in Blenheim, New Zealand. He has been passionate about film making since the age of 9 when his friend's parents bought a handy-cam. They started to spend their weekends making short home movies. Ever since then it has inspired Aaron to become a film director.
Aaron has been involved in numerous film productions as either a Director or Producer. He is best known for his work on the films Ascendance (2018) , The Flame (2015) , Alone (2014) and Outer Darkness (2014) . Although Aaron primarily directs films, he is also a very competent producer. Aaron has been developing his first feature film, Northspur (2020) which will be going into production late 2019.
Aaron is the co-founder of Top of the South Film Production Society which was formed in October 2015. The society is a collective group of filmmakers from the Nelson, Tasman, Marlborough and Kaikoura region all with the same goal of forming a critical mass and making great films. His vision is to establish a thriving film industry in the region to create employment opportunities for both cast and crew.
Aaron is also the co-founder and director of the Top of the South Film Festival which encourages and inspires local filmmakers to showcase their short films to the general public.
Aaron is passionate about bringing film productions to Marlborough, New Zealand and successfully pitched to his local council for them to establish a regional film office to promote their beautiful and diverse province.
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