Shirley Horrocks on new doco about the PM’s Chief Science Advisor

Director Shirley Horrocks tells us about Juliet Gerrard: Science in Dark Times, a new doco on the PM’s Chief Science Advisor.

The New Zealand PM’s Chief Science Advisor is the subject of new documentary Juliet Gerrard: Science in Dark Times, playing this year’s Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival. Director Shirley Horrocks tells us more about a documentary started before the arrival of COVID-19, and made all the more eventful by it.

FLICKS: Describe your film in EXACTLY eight words.

A woman tackles the challenges of our time.

How did you meet Dame Juliet Gerrard – and realise you had to make a film about them?

I saw she was such an interesting person, an impressive scientist, yet very down-to-earth with a warm sense of humour. A great role model as a high-achiever with an unusual background who champions the idea that ‘Of course women can have careers as well as having children!’

What did the world of scientific advice to government look like when you first began this project?

The impressive thing about our government is that it listens to scientific advice—and thank god for that, considering the way egotistical leaders in some other countries don’t understand the need to listen to experts!

Was it difficult to earn Dame Gerrard’s approval to be the subject of your documentary?

Yes, it was at first, because she is a person who doesn’t seek the spotlight. But I got her involved by making a series of short science films (the ‘Science &’ series, now available online). She took part in those films, and we got to know each other.

How did your film evolve as the COVID pandemic presented new challenges?

I started the documentary before COVID. Juliet was already the PM’S Chief Science Advisor. And then, wham! There was one crisis after another—the Whakaari White Island eruption, and successive mutations of COVID. Juliet has done a brilliant job of advising the Prime Minister on each emergency. And also on other issues, such as the plastics problem, the marijuana referendum, the threat to our fishing industry, and more.

During production, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?

Finishing a film in time for the Festival while Auckland was in lockdown! That was quite an epic as I had to work remotely with my editor—both of us with our own editing gear but based in different locations.

For you, what was the most memorable part of this whole experience?

When I started the project, I could not imagine how eventful it was going to be, following Juliet through two years of pandemic. But it was such a pleasure to get to know her and to watch the amazing work she and the scientists on her team were doing.

What was the last great film you saw?

I want to give a plug for both Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. One reason I loved those films was the fact that I saw them in a cinema! We are all grateful for the internet these days, but films like that cry out for the experience of a cinema.