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‘Under the Mountain’ Interview

“Lunch comes and you have to try and stick little bits of food in your mouth and swallow it whole. It’s like being some kind of retarded baby.”

Oliver Driver is talking about the disadvantages of being covered in prosthetic makeup. As Mr Wilberforce, he is the lead villain of Under the Mountain, the big screen adaptation of Maurice Gee’s classic kiwi novel.

Wilberforce and his cronies are alien monsters who are described as being slug-like in the book. But director Jonathan King was keen to make his different.

“We were thinking about films like The Thing and the ’70s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even Alien, and things getting more creepy, icky and tentacally.”

Prosthetic effects wizard Steven Boyle, from Weta Workshop, adds: “When we were getting reference pictures together, we were looking at sea slugs, land slugs, snails, grubs, really bizarre looking trees and, you know, all sorts of things – anything that just looked like it was twisting around itself and looked distorted and gross.”

“It took about four hours,” says Driver. “It was frustrating as hell. It was a very weird sensation because all of your senses go – you can’t talk because you’ve got teeth in and you can’t see because you’ve got contacts in and you can’t hear because your ears are covered in gelatine old man ears, and you can’t really move too much, and so you end up being quite restricted and quite dark for the whole shooting process because you have to just sort of sit still. You’re just sort of there going ‘It’s horrible, it’s horrible’, which is actually quite good for the character because, you know, he’s a dark guy.”

Oliver Driver

Oliver Driver enduring the four-hour make-up application to become Mr Wilberforce.

‘Dark guy’ Mr Wilberforce and his cronies live underneath Auckland’s volcanoes – a striking landscape to all but Aucklanders, who tend to take it for granted.

Co-writer and producer Matthew Grainger agrees. “A lot of people think Aucklanders are just completely insane because they are living around volcanoes. I mean, one volcano is freaky enough for a lot of people outside of New Zealand, let alone, you know, 52 of them or however many there are.”

Adds King, “There are these big green cones sticking up out of the houses and that’s what makes Auckland a really extraordinary kind of landscape. It is kind of a ridiculous place to build your city actually, because they’re not extinct and the volcanic field, in theory, is not extinct.”

Driver grew up in Takapuna and remembers that one of his good friends used to live on the shores of lake Pupuke while the Under the Mountain TV series was on air. The descriptions of landscapes in the book were disturbingly accurate. “I was totally, totally scared,” he says. “I was convinced that there were tunnels that ran through the area, because there is all the North Head stuff and then you’d go to the beach and there are big tunnels there and it was like ‘that’s totally true’.”

Writer Matthew Grainger also felt nostalgic about the story. “It was a big part of my childhood. I was growing up on all those Spielbergian films like Gremlins and The Goonies and Back to the Future, and when the TV Series of Under the Mountainwas on, it kind of had the feel of those films but it was about Kiwis, it was set in our backyard and we’d never seen that before, so it really stuck in my mind.”

King was determined to remain true to the story’s ‘Kiwiness’. “There are no compromises either way in the story telling,” he says. “There are just the tiniest little things – you wouldn’t even notice really, but there’s a couple of times where we have Sam Neill say ‘Rangitoto Island’. Just little things like that.”

Jonathan King talks to Sam Neill

Director Jonathan King talks to Sam Neill on Mt Eden and on a boat.

Filming in Auckland presented its own unique challenges, however. For one, the weather was terrible. “Auckland turned on some particularly appalling type of weather for us during our shoots,” says producer Richard Fletcher. “We ran out of weather cover really pretty fast because it was raining pretty much every day. We had days where it would go from bright sunlight to hail within, you know, five minutes.”

Secondly, they were filming on water. “When you’re filming a boat it takes a lot longer to set things up. Alongside the boat we also had a pontoon with the camera crew on it so it meant you couldn’t suddenly go ‘we don’t have enough film stock; we’ll grab it from the back of the truck’. And we were doing some quite complicated shots because we had a crane on a barge as well.”

One of the most memorable sets is the derelict Wilberforce house, on the edge of Lake Pupuke. Surprisingly, given the availability of computer effects, the shell of the house was actually built for real. Says Grainger, “There’s a reserve on the edge of the lake called Henderson Reserve and that’s where the house was. The funny thing was it was actually pretty much the only place on Lake Pupuke we could have built anything.”

The Wilberforce house and Sam Neill.

The Wilberforce house on Lake Pupuke and Sam Neill as Mr Jones.

“But all the trees and things around the house, that was all brought in,” adds Feltcher. “Literally, tree trunks, dead tree trunks were chopped in half. Steel supports were in the middle of them and then they drilled back together and then stuck up. So that was all manufactured by the art department. They were pretty busy in that respect.”

It was then up to Weta Workshop to put slime everywhere. “There’s so many different types of slime that we use,” says Boyle. “We make some of it, we buy some of it. It just depends on what we need to use it for. But we have slime that we’d put in their hair, a different slime for their face, a different slime for their wardrobe, then a different slime again for the props that they’ve touched. Some of the slime really stringy and stretchy, others glistened more. And so it was just a case of figuring out what would be best for each shot and then finding the right slime.”

Driver recalls one of the more memorable moments on set. “One of the funny moments was the first time I got to shoot with Sam Neil, when our characters are up on the summit of Rangitoto. Jonathan said, ‘Just grab his face, reach out and you grab his face and you extend this energy into him.’ So they kind of went ‘Action’ and I reached out really gently because it’s Sam Neil, you know? ‘No, cut! I want you to really grab his face!’ and I went, ‘Yeah, totally, I’ll do it this time’. And I reach out really gently, kind of touch his face again and Sam Neil ended up kind of grabbing my hand and going, ‘Just grab it! Grab it like this! Just push in!’ And you kind of go, ‘But it’s your face, Mr Neil!’

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Read more and watch the trailer for Under the Mountain.