Like many moviegoers of my generation in the United States, I was first captivated by the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Yet it wasn’t until I saw Niki Caro’s masterful “Whale Rider” upon its release two decades ago that I became fascinated by the diverse cultures that resided in there, and the women who fought to have their voices be heard. Just as Caro’s film centers on an 11-year-old girl (played by Oscar-nominee Keisha Castle-Hughes) who seeks to prove she is the born leader of her Maori tribe, Gaysorn Thavat’s riveting debut feature, “The Justice of Bunny King,” follows a titular heroine whose crusade is no less just and whose spirit is every bit as indomitable.
Essie Davis, the brilliantly chameleon-esque star of such unmissable titles as Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” and Justin Kurzel’s “Nitram,” delivers Oscar-caliber work as Bunny, a woman whose efforts to protect her daughter have resulted in her being cruelly separated from her offspring. When she discovers that her withdrawn niece, Tonyah (played by the ever-sublime Thomasin McKenzie), is being abused boy her stepfather, she takes the law into her own hands in ways that are thrilling, heartbreaking and at times, utterly euphoric to behold.
Cinema Femme recently had the privilege of speaking with Thavat via Zoom about creating the ideal onset environment for her actors, how Sidney Lumet’s 1975 classic, “Dog Day Afternoon,” served as a key inspiration for her film and the vital role currently being played her Screen Women’s Action Group.
What formative aspects of your experience in the camera department on “Whale Rider” have you carried with you as a director?
I started as a camera assistant, so for that film, I did some focus pulling as well as operated the camera on the visual effects. Being an assistant cameraperson was a great way for me to learn by osmosis. You’d be standing there on set, watching the director at work—some were lovely and fantastic while others were not so great. By actually being beside the camera all the time and watching actors and directors working, you can actually pick up quite a bit of skills. You learn how to construct a scene, which was a really interesting and vital part of my filmmaking career because I couldn’t learn all of that from reading books. It’s such a practical discipline, really, so gaining practical experience on many sets, including “Whale Rider,” was fantastic for me in that regard.
What specific elements in Sophie Henderson’s original script did you and Essie go about recovering prior to shooting?
I think it was Bunny’s joy. It’s one of those films that sits in a terrain of social justice where it can easily slide into melancholia and hopelessness, and we needed to bring back some of the love and the hope. Scripts always go through this process of deciding what you take out and what you put in, and this one had been through a particularly brutal pass where a lot of the heart and the joy had been pulled out of it. Essie and I did quite a lot of work to bring that back in because we were also in the process of building the character up and finding who she was in terms of her inner life, her spirit and her motivation. Bringing those elements back in was important and when I watch the film now, I’m really pleased that we did that. One of the things about Bunny that resonates so strongly with the audience and that people fall in love with is her warmth, her joy and her hopefulness that keeps her persevering in the face of such enormous odds.
During my recent interview with Essie Davis, we discussed the double standard implied by labeling this film “far-fetched” when it is no more outlandish than the male-dominated “Dog Day Afternoon.”
The thing is that Bunny is such a realistic character. It’s interesting because a few people have said to me that the sequence involving the hostage situation wouldn’t have happened in real life, and that is totally what happens here in New Zealand. The police squads do come out and they will shoot to kill. Al Pacino’s character in “Dog Day Afternoon” was actually a big inspiration for Bunny. In both cases, you are watching a desperate person unraveling, so yes, it is a double standard. Why can’t a female character be like that?
Essie did such an amazing job bringing her to life and leading the audience with their hearts. It was important for both of us to keep our hooks in the audience’s hearts so that whatever questionable things Bunny did, we were always pulling the audience with us. That was such a crucial part of crafting the story and building the character in terms of keeping our audience with us along the way. So often there is a commentary about people not being accepting of unlikable female characters. Why does she have to be likable? Why does she have to make all these decisions or have behaviors that make her likable? That’s not real.
How do you create the sort of atmosphere on a set that allows for moments such as Bunny’s wrenching phone call with her daughter, which is as powerful as Pacino’s dual monologues in “Dog Day Afternoon”?
It’s really just about getting the right ingredients together. We had great actors, and I had to create the environment where they could just go for it, and they did. It’s important that I don’t interfere too much. I set the scene, give them the space to work it out and then I let them fly. When you have such phenomenal actors, the worst thing you can do is micro direct them. We sort of shot in a way where we gave ourselves this freedom. It wasn’t like we had big structured scenes where we laid a rail and did formal camera coverage. We were really responsive and so we had our camera move with the actors, as opposed to have the actors worry about hitting their marks or standing in their light. It created an environment that allowed the actors to be really alive and immediate. I just told the actors where the action would happen, and then gave them the space they needed to respond to one another in an organic way. Also, on a practical level, being able to shoot in a fast mode was helpful because we didn’t have a lot of money.
The crucial third character in the film’s final act is Trish, the unflappable Government Family Services caseworker played marvelously by Tanea Heke.
Tanea is amazing. You can see her on Netflix in last year’s New Zealand film, “Cousins,” directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith. Trish was always a pivotal character because, in some ways, she’s the audience. She’s the character who may start off judging Bunny when she first encounters her, but then after spending time with her and sitting with her in that hostage situation, she comes to see who she really is and what the system is that this woman is struggling under. She turns around and becomes an advocate and a protector of Bunny, so she really had to be a rock in the midst of all this turmoil, and Tanea, as a person, is actually like that as well. She has a lot of respect within our local filmmaking community, and she has a lovely warmth. In terms of the character, she just had to provide that rock for the other characters to circulate around, but also hold the audience’s perspective too, all of which I think she did beautifully.
How did Thomasin’s breakout performance as the titular abuse survivor in Robert Sarkie’s vital 2014 film, “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story,” inspire you to cast her as Tonyah?
The character in “Consent” was very young, yet her age wasn’t all that far removed from Tonyah. Of course, Thomasin was younger when she played Louise Nicholas, and she has such an amazing screen presence. When I look at her, she’s like a pond. Ponds are so still on the surface and yet there’s all this life just bubbling away underneath. That’s what you see when you watch her, and she had that in “Consent.” She was able to ground herself in that character in such a believable way, and for an actress who was so young at the time, I just couldn’t forget that.
Then when I was casting Tonyah in “Bunny,” I wondered who the actress would be who would play this role. Then I thought, ‘It’s Thomasin!’ She was a lot older than when she was in “Consent,” but she’s such a chameleon and is so youthful looking that she could play a lot younger and had already done all that preparation with a character who had been through a similar situation. She understood Tonyah on an instinctive level, having explored that emotional terrain at the beginning of her career, which enabled her to step into this role quite easily. That was fortunate because we didn’t have a lot of time with her. In fact, I had almost no prep with her because she was busy. So I sent some notes over to her via email and asked her to watch some films. Then she arrived, she did a wardrobe check and was on set the next day.
I especially love the time you allow Thomasin to take with certain moments, such as when she utters a single shattering line of dialogue to her parents.
It was hard because we were rushing so much, but there’s always those points in the script that you know you have to hit, and that was one of those important lines that I knew I had to provide space for. We probably had all of ten minutes to shoot it, so we put two cameras on it, and then just gave it the space it needed while rolling. I think we did three or four takes, and Thomasin nailed it on her first take, which is the one we used in the film, but they were all beautiful. She’s one of those actresses who will give you so much in one take that you’re absolutely spoiled for choice. Bunny has her moment that sort of resolves her emotional thread where she makes that beautiful phone call and it was important to us that we didn’t leave Thomason’s character hanging. She needed her moment as well, and that scene where she confronts her parents needed to have that emotional power as well. She portrayed her character’s pain and anger and her rejection of her parents so beautifully.
Tell me a bit about the organization you founded, the Screen Women’s Action Group, which is committed to changing the culture of abuse in the film and television industries.
It emerged after #MeToo was receiving widespread attention in the states back in 2018, and I realized that we had the same issues in New Zealand. A lot of people were like, “Oh no, it only happens in Hollywood,” and I, along with a group of other local women filmmakers, were like, “No it doesn’t.” [laughs] So we just decided to have a discussion about it and we involved the New Zealand Film Commission along with various funding bodies, government agencies and educators. We conducted a survey, and found a quite alarming statistic of how many women have either encountered or witnessed sexual harassment within the film industry, so we asked ourselves how we could put a stop to it. We decided that it was a health and safety issue and that it had to be a part of our health and safety briefing, which every set has these days.
Then we worked with Actors’ Equity to introduce intimacy coordinators who could help protect actors as well. Since then, they’ve started a whole program to train more intimacy coordinators, which is spearheaded by Ita O’Brien, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tandi Wright. We ran workshops for the industry as well, so you can actually get accredited that you’ve done the ScreenSafe Screen Women’s Action Group course, which teaches about things like recognizing misconduct and bystander intervention. It’s interesting how this has really been picked up by younger women. They’ve latched onto it, which has illuminated a generational shift. A lot of older women are like, “Well, I had to put up with it,” and the younger women say, “Well I’m not going to put up with it!”
There is clearly a universal relevance to “The Justice of Bunny King” just as there was with “Whale Rider.”
Essie told me, “This is happening in Australia too.” I know it happens in the U.K. and I’m pretty sure a lot of women will find this to be a familiar story in the states as well. It’s interesting how, as I’ve gotten older and matured, I’ve learned how to take space. So often, particularly as an Asian woman, you are conditioned to be a bit quiet, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m like, “No, I’m going to take space and not be quiet.” [laughs]
And that is entirely to our benefit.
Thank you! This is a little film that unfortunately had a difficult birth, getting released in New Zealand during Covid. A lot of people are probably in that same boat. It’s awesome that the film is finally getting to be seen in the states.
“The Justice of Bunny King” opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, September 23rd, and On Demand on Friday, September 30th.