Gaylene Preston Interview: ‘Home by Christmas’

Home by Christmas, NZ veteran director Gaylene Preston’s (Ruby and RataBread & RosesWar StoriesLovely Rita) film memoir about her father’s World War II experiences, opens across the country on Thursday 27 April. Watch the trailer here. A mix of archive footage, re-enacted interviews and dramatisations, it stars Martin Henderson, Tony Barry and Chelsie Preston-Crayford.

FLICKS.CO.NZ: What was the motivation behind adapting your documentary ‘War Stories’ into a more fiction based film?

GAYLENE PRESTON: It’s not really fictionalised, but it is shot like a dramatic movie from necessity. I interviewed my father over Christmas/New Year 1990/1991. He was really sick with a bad prognosis and finally agreed to let me record his war reminiscences on sound tape. My mother Tui was interviewed by Judith Fyfe for an oral history about a year later. My father passed in 1992, my mother came to live with me and I made War Stories in 1994/95. So I knew my father’s story first, it’s just taken me a while to do his side of the story. Home by Christmas is not fiction based but does rely on a central re-enacted interview invisibly performed by the actor, Tony Barry (Goodbye Pork Pie) with dramatised memory flashbacks of my young parents in the 1940s that I wrote informed by both my parents’ oral histories.

Why have you referred to the work as a film memoir?

It’s a new genre and to me it’s just a movie, but it’s not a dramatised documentary or a docudrama, so it’s a new genre, it gets a stab at a new name. ‘Based on a true story’ seems a bit too blunt for this one and doesn’t allow for the archival aspect. We have had to think about all this rather a lot you know!

How did you find directing your daughter?

Bloody marvelous. She’s a terrific actress and she knew the character rather well having grown up with Tui living with me. And I thought to myself – someone is going to launch that actress and give her a lead in a film, so I’ll get to her first before she gets too expensive.

Was it difficult to get Martin Henderson working in New Zealand again?

No. Martin likes to live in a place that’s a bigger pool where it’s all happening, but he’s a committed kiwi and was very keen on the script and the approach it was taking.

How did you and Alun Bollinger achieve the visual effects you did, particularly in the recreations?

We decided to work on 16mm for 35mm blowup onto a digital neg. This was to achieve full rich colour saturation. I wanted to mess around with focus in those dramatised pieces because I wanted them to feel subliminally like ‘memory.’ Memory is heightened and very selective so in Home by Christmas telegrams explode and jackets dance. We found some very old (and quite expensive for us) split focus lenses. They are hard to use because the operator can’t use a focus puller, but it means you can change focus as the shot is moving. This bends the image ever so slightly. A better result than putting defocus on later in post. The man from Reefton triumphed after some persuasion. Get him to tell you about his invention of the “Bollinger Glass”.  We used that as well as the split focus lenses. It fits on the front of any matte box and creates a non-moveable but very satisfactory focus split for wide angle lenses. It cost $10 for the prototype but if he got a few orders the price could come down.