When angels fall to earth

An interview with The Vintner’s Luck director, Niki Caro

by Carolyn Meers
See also at Scoop.co.nz: A Review of Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck – By Carolyn Meers

With the reception to Niki Caro’s new film The Vintner’s Luck becoming more downbeat by the day, it was no wonder that Caro herself seemed to be fully prepped and armed with some beautifully phrased (if somewhat off topic) interview responses. Admittedly, she is an enthralling speaker — even over the phone she has the ability to lull one into a kind of complacent, dreamy state.

To her credit, Caro has mastered the art of movie retailing. She is upbeat, with laughter and an audible smile behind her words. She is charming, and at some points in the conversation – maybe when the topics of children and miracle pregnancies arise — it was easy to allow Caro to go a bit off track.

For a moment, while she spoke of researching angel wings by studying Da Vinci’s drawings I found myself wishing I had seen that movie –the one she seemed so proud to have produced, the one that was derived from a lush, romantic “terroir” where the landscape imbued all the participants with fertility and virility. It sounded so lovely. Surely we were not discussing the same film. Where is this “earthy”, “sensual”, “human” masterpiece she speaks of? Where is the compelling love story Caro claims to have made? In its place is an impostor that Caro, clearly, is working hard to shine up for its potential audience.

In truth, Caro has become a seasoned promoter, surrounded by a well-informed damage control team. Media was provided with a list of “suggested” questions before the interviews commenced, most of which were topical queries about the actors and any “amusing” stories that occurred during film production. These were not the only questions one could ask, but it certainly seemed that, at times, these were the questions Caro was answering.

Meers : How was the experience of making this film? It was a brief shooting schedule, and it took place in two countries as well…

Caro : It was FAST. It was a very sensual earthy, shoot.
We had babies and children and gorgeousness all around, and in fact out of that humanity and elemental landscape and environment two babies were conceived and born, including Vera (Farmiga) who plays the baroness. She had been trying to have a baby for years and I, and she’d been talking to me about it — we’d had to delay the film — she really wanted to do it but she was desperate to have a baby and I said to her, “Look if you do this film it will be a very fertile shoot and I’m fairly sure you’ll get pregnant!” And she did! It was a miracle! There this beautiful scene close to the end of the film — it’s a wedding and she’s dancing — and she’s so happy, because she’s pregnant. And yet she was so uncomfortable because of the corset she was wearing!

That’s right, she must have been in all the period piece wear —

Yeah! And she was spinning around and around, and we had to take a little break because she got a little dizzy, and a little nauseous.

How was the experience of filming a period piece? That is something that you haven’t done before.

Yeah, no, it’s a good question. It takes more time making a period film than a contemporary film, literally because of the costumes. And the costumes (in the film) are so elaborate, and they’re very, in fact, they’re a very modern take on period costumes. The film’s, quite sort of — it has one foot in fashion as opposed to just accurate period detail. All the actors were very tied into [the costumes ] .The costumes were made out of a lot of different pieces and they were all tied and tattered — it was quite remarkable. A very fashion-forward piece of costume design.

The film was converted from the Elizabeth Knox novel, The Vintner’s Luck, which is a very well regarded piece of literature in New Zealand and around the world — did you have reservations about how the novel might translate to the screen?

Look, I felt the material offered the opportunity to talk about being human — but also, with magical elements. It’s both a magical film and a very sensual and earthy film. And there is no other material like it out there. And I relished the opportunity to put it onto the screen.

But I suppose the most challenging thing, and the thing that everybody worried about — everybody who’d read the book had said to me, “How are you going to do the wings?” Because the wings are so vivid in the book. So that was our greatest challenge, and out of the years of research and development –I mean, we went back to Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings, we were able to taxidermy the wings of large birds to understand what the architecture of those were like — and we literally scaled the angels wings up. They’ve got, like… a seven and half meter wing span. They are, for all the effort involved in making them — and making them to a documentary level of realism — they look effortless on the screen. There’s nothing about them that doesn’t feel really real and organic.

How has Elizabeth Knox reacted to the translation of her story to the screen?

She’s very complimentary about the film.

And you’ve had a good relationship with her through the process of making the film?

Well, I have the highest respect for her as an author, and love all of her work. And I’ve also adapted a number of novels now for the screen, and my process is very simple: I don’t collaborate on the screenplay. I go off and write the screenplay. and every draft is available for the original author to see and to make comments on and that seems to work very well.

Keisha-Castle Hughes joined you in this film, it’s your first collaboration with her since filming Whale Rider [2005] — how has she changed as an actress since then?

Well to be honest, she hasn’t changed at all. I mean, apart from her physical changes — which have made her even more beautiful if that’s possible — she’s as instinctive and sensitive and compelling as she ever was as a child. And my relationship with her is very special. And it’s also kind of unique.

You know, its very unusual that a director should have the opportunity to direct a young child in their first film role, and then direct that same child as an adult in their first film role as an adult. So that was a great privilege and an amazing, amazing experience — not so much for what had changed in Keisha but for what had remained the same. And the fact that we’re both mothers –we’ve got babies the same age –and we had both of our babies on set at different times…our babies were the only babies that didn’t cry. It was like, “There’s Mummy!”
And the film is now a very beautiful living record of our children at exactly the age they were at the time, because it was a year ago. Now they’re all toddler-ish and noisy — not quiet and babyish.

I’m so proud of Keisha’s work in the film. There’s a scene in the film where the character she plays [Celeste Jodeau] loses her mind when she sees something she cannot understand or process. She literally loss her mind — becomes possessed. It is the most phenomenal piece of performance. I think Keisha’s going to surprise everybody all over again.

You were saying earlier that this is a very human story, but it also contains this very supernatural element — this fantasy of an angel who visits the character of Sobran.. What was it about the contrast of humanity and fantasy that drew you to this story?

That’s a great question. For me, it’s the story of one man’s life and the loves of his life. The physical love he has expressed with his wife Celeste, his intellectual love he has with the Baroness, and his spiritual love for the angel, and how keeping all of these things in balance is not easy. And yet, this is what it means to be human. And its only when he acknowledges all of those forces that he makes the greatest wine of his life.

When it came to the relationship between Sobran and Xas, their relationship in the film ended up being a bit different than the one in the novel. How did your instincts help you to make decisions about that relationship?

Well, clearly the novel is way more sexually explicit and homoerotic. And my instinct for the relationship was for it to be one of the great loves of his life. And an abiding love. I mean, this angel is with him from when he’s a young man to when he dies.

And the homoeroticism is implicit in that, but not explicit. And it couldn’t be. I wanted the film to appeal to a wide audience, firstly. And secondly…I feel that what can be expressed in words sometimes cannot translate so well to the screen.

Making a very nice wine might be compared to compiling, constructing and producing a great film…

Oh yes! Oh, you’re so right. And look, when I first started adapting the book I was very intimidated because I don’t know much about wine — I’m not a connoisseur, in fact I’m probably more of a Philistine. And so I wrote to all the wine makers in the country and asked them to answer one question for me, and that was: What does an old winemaker know that a young winemaker doesn’t?

And I got back the most amazing responses from these guys — old men, in fact. [They were ] so poetic, so practical…so sensitive…and so practical! And it was very heartening for me because I realised I didn’t need to know everything about winemaking, because winemaking and filmmaking are identical pursuits. They’re absolutely the same.

And so I just needed to look at my own practice, my own struggles, my own instincts. And (through that process) I could really understand the world and the passions and the ambitions of my lead character.

So what does an old filmmaker know that a young filmmaker doesn’t?

Oh, it’s the same thing! There is so much to learn in filmmaking — just at a technical level. And yet, there is even more to learn at a creative level and an instinctive level. Knowing when to trust yourself, knowing when to ask for help…its all instinct, really. It’s having courage. It’s using your intelligence wisely. It’s communicating well. It’s having faith and spirit and heart. You can’t teach those things in film school — I don’t think you teach them in wine school either.

There’s a French word called “terroir” which is a common winemaking term that means “the earth” and “the plant” and the climate and all the situation in which the plant grew and the wine was made.

“Terroir” to me also very clearly expresses the spirit of the winemaker. If the winemaker is harsh and cold, it follows that his wine will have some of those properties. Because wine is nothing but a plant and the forces of nature and the decisions of the person who is making the wine — and film is the same!

Film has all very elemental, natural forces at work — in my work particularly because I do a lot of my work in the landscape. But also the elemental forces of human nature, and how, as a filmmaker and director, you’re like a conductor of a very amazing orchestra.

See also at Scoop.co.nz: A Review of Niki Caro’s The Vintner’s Luck – By Carolyn Meers


Images courtesy of Hoyts Distribution