TIFF 2013 Interview: Toa Fraser On Returning To Toronto, How Bob Dylan Influenced His Ballet Film GISELLE And Why He Values Stillness

New Zealand auteur Toa Fraser attended the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008 with his whimsical comedy-drama Dean Spanley and returned this year with Giselle, an acclaimed filmed ballet starring world-renowned dancers Qi Huan and Gillian Murphy. Made in collaboration with the Royal New Zealand Ballet company and featuring a score by the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, the film departs occasionally from the traditional stage settings into real-world vignettes in New York and Shanghai. I spoke to him about returning to the great North American film festival.

Twitch: What makes Toronto a special festival?

Toa Fraser: It's big and blingin' and very glamorous and at the same time it has real heart and is a real local, intimate festival. For me, personally, it has been very satisfying to come back here five years after we had a Gala Screening for Dean Spanley. As I rode in from the airport this time, I realise I barely remember that festival. It was such a whirlwind and a party and kind of marked the end, for me, of a particular way of doing festivals, a way that had its roots in the heady days of my times as young playwright in Edinburgh at the Fringe in '99 and 2000. So this time I enjoyed doing it a bit more gently, finding the good coffee (Dark Horse, Sam James) and dancing between the frenetic and the still.

That reminds me of what you once said, "increasingly I see my work as a dance between accepted oppositions." Do other Toa Fraser dances include light-dark, movement-stillness?

Yes. I mean TIFF is a good example. I've found over the years in theatre and film that I need to dance between these things in order to be creative. I need to spend some quiet time drinking coffee and reading and writing in order to go on-stage and be open and engaging talking about the movies. The only other person in my hotel gym at 10pm on Saturday of the opening weekend was an Oscar-winning actor, in there finding some quiet, I guess. He was setting the pace, too.

GISELLE is a dance film. Tell me a personal story about dancing.

I was friends when I was a teenager with this guy Jeff Tofa, from Glen Innes [in Auckland]. I loved Jeff. He was huge, like Jonah-huge, but he had an amazing levity, too. He used to do the best MC Hammer "Hammertime" floorshows, and the running man and all of those. He made me laugh heaps. Years later at our mate Mark's wedding, Jeff, although he had put on a lot of weight, brought the place down with his dance solo. I was the MC. I gave him the whole chilly bin of chocolate milks I was giving out as prizes. Last November, when I was holed up in a hotel nutting out my approach to Giselle, and watching rehearsal footage of Gillian and Qi, Jeff went out on a boat, fishing, with seven other big guys in a boat that was too small. He drowned. The movie of Giselle will always be connected to him.

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You've written and directed stage plays and films, and DEAN SPANLEY was a novel adaptation. Now you've made a ballet film. What did you learn making GISELLE?

That a pas-de-deux and a duet are the same thing; Gillian Murphy taught me that on-stage in the middle of our Q&A at the TIFF premiere. That there is good coffee in New York, at Happy Bones NYC, and Bluebird Café. That shooting guerilla-style in New York and Shanghai isn't that scary. And that dancers have incredible control of their eyes and eyelids and can hold stares for ages.

Tell me about a favourite scene in GISELLE.

When we had almost finished the film, we showed it to a few people, and they loved it, but we all felt like something was missing: a scene or set of scenes of Gillian Murphy's and Qi Huan's characters together, in the "real world". We had already shot the stuff of her alone in NYC and him in Shanghai. But I wanted to see them together in nature. 

The original idea was to shoot on Waiheke Island [in New Zealand] but Gillian was performing with the American Ballet Theatre in New York, so we had to meet her there. I knew the story of Rip van Winkle from when I was a kid. And I had been listening to Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album a lot, and knew he had kind of holed up in the Catskills in 1967. So we - DP Leon Narbey, 1st AD Hamish Gough and I - drove up there one day to scout locations and found this beautiful meadow on the road that evening on the way back to our hotel. Qi and Gillian joined us the next day and we improvised a set of shots in the meadow. 

I have to say Gillian was really leading us that day. She had a great energy, and looked amazing, with her braided hair by New York makeup artist Natalie Young, and she was wearing this great Ingrid Starnes dress. I said to her at the start of the day that she reminds me of working with Sam Neill - that they both make 'offers' in the same way, kind of gently and quietly and if I'm not careful I miss them - and that I would make a real effort to hear her offers in the Catskills. And she made some great ones that day.
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Before Toronto, GISELLE premiered in New Zealand. What was that like?

My Dad was born in Fiji and grew up in Auckland in a hard-living, wharfie-type big Pacific Island family. As a teenager with aspirations to something different, he used to sneak out of the house to go and do things like watching ballet. When I was quite some way in to making Giselle, I told him what I was doing, and he told me the first ballet he ever saw was a film of Giselle, by the Bolshoi Ballet, starring Galina Ulanova, at 1956, at The Civic. So it was very special to me that we had our World Premiere there almost 60 years later. 

Did you see any impressive local work at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival?

I was very happy for my friends Curtis Vowell and Sophie Henderson, who premiered their film Fantail. I thought it was lovely, and most of all, a real showcase for good actors and craft. And I have a tremendous respect for Sophie for writing herself such a beautiful vehicle, after starting her career as an actor. When I said this to her she said she was sick of being asked to play objectified women.

You're a long-term Auckland resident. NZ poet James K. Baxter wrote that famous poem dissing Auckland: "Oh Auckland, you great asshole." I disagree. Do you have a favourite poem about the city?

Not an Auckland poem, but at the University of Auckland Roger Horrocks and Murray Edmond introduced me to Frank O'Hara, and his poems like "The Day the Lady Died" encouraged me to write about Auckland with a kind of urban vernacular that was very specific to the place.

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Around the Internet:
  • Also, GREAT interview, Alex. I really love how you had him tell you stories. That's such a fabulous way of getting personal ...

  • People will be pleased when they learn what Toa's doing next ...

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