Sun, Aug 7, 2022 6:00 AM
A group of passionate creatives and filmmakers are creating magic for our screens in an old sawmill, turned studio. Sawmill Studios, Blenheim’s first film studio is finding national and international success with their locally made films.
Words: Judene Edgar
In 2004 Roger Wadham put New Zealand on the map, literally, when he ran an email campaign determined to see New Zealand on the giant Universal Studios globe at the entrance to its Los Angeles theme park, and now he’s helping to put Marlborough on the map.
Starting life as a boat builder in West Auckland in the 1970s, Roger never planned to get into filmmaking, but after 30 years in the industry, he’s still as passionate as ever, perhaps even more so. He was working in Australia when he got a call from someone asking if he could make “soft rocks” for a movie. “To this day I still don’t know who it was or why they’d even rung a boat builder; it’s not really the first person you’d think of to make film props,” he says. But his creativity and ingenuity came to the fore and before you know it those soft rocks were being used on Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. “My skill level was around spontaneous creativity to random requests to make strange things,” Roger laughs. “It’s a very dynamic environment so being able to respond quickly and ably to whatever’s asked of you certainly helped.”
His next step was Los Angeles and a very busy and varied career working on movies, television shows and commercials making props, building sets and then moving into project management. “It was six to seven days a week. I was usually the first person in in the morning, and the last person out at the end of the day.”
In 2010 he moved back to New Zealand for family reasons, assuming that his filmmaking days were behind him. Shifting to Blenheim six years ago to work on the second exhibition area at Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, he soon found himself thrust back into filmmaking.
Passionate local film director Aaron Falvey had set up the Top of the South Film Production Society to support filmmaking in the region. Roger went along to one of their monthly meetings “to see what they were up to,” and was delighted to find a depth of skill and talent that he hadn’t realised existed in the region. Aaron says that it’s been about the people; harnessing their passion and commitment to build a film industry from the ground up. He was also instrumental in establishing the annual Top of the South Film Festival in 2015, which this year had screenings in Marlborough, Nelson, Tasman and Kaikoura. “Everyone has grown and learned from their mistakes,” he says, “but it’s amazing to think that within a few short years, we’re now winning international awards.”
Aaron’s persistence paid off, and in 2018 Marlborough District Council agreed to a partnership with Screen Wellington to build a library of locations and support local talent and crew development. On the back of the successful collaboration, council has established Screen Marlborough, one of 10 Regional Film Offices in New Zealand. Screen Marlborough manager Dorien Vermaas says that “Aaron has been unstoppable. None of this would have happened without his mahi and vision; bringing different people together and utilising their talents and skills.” She also says that it’s a great opportunity to diversify Marlborough’s economy with an environmentally ‘lightweight’ sector. “Film is at the heart of all of the other arts – music, sculpture, writing, design – it’s such a fantastic vehicle to bring all of the arts together.”
At the same time, the Blenheim sawmill on Waters Avenue had closed and the sprawling property with seven large warehouses was sitting empty. A friend of Roger’s drove him out there and asked him ‘what could you do with this?’ “It was perfect. You don’t often get the combination of large indoor and outdoor spaces so close to town,” says Roger. Roger looked up owner Rick Osborne in the phone book and cold-called him. Once again, a phone call resulted in a major change in Roger’s filmmaking aspirations, this time, for the region. “Roger rang me with this idea, so I met him and some of his other creative friends,” says Rick. “It seemed like a very inclusive group with very different talents and people ranging from young to old; it was a nice melting pot of people.”
Despite saying that “he probably got me at a weak moment”, it was the perfect fit for Rick. “I’m interested in seeing things happen and I think we need more creativity and more people who think outside the square. All they needed was a bit of a hand-up, and I’m enjoying doing it.”
In fact, in addition to donating the venue, Rick has also joined the society helping to develop and grow the studios and local filmmaking. And the gamble is already paying off. The first films shot in the studio space were Rock Bottom written and directed by Aaron Falvey and War Paint, written, produced and co-directed by Nelson-based Justin Eade. Both films have gone on to win regional, national and international awards including Best Drama at the Paris Film Awards, Gold Award – Indie Short Film, Milan and Best Drama, New York Movie Awards (Rock Bottom) and Best Short Film, Berlin, Excellence Award, US Best Shorts Competition and Best Film, Top of the South Film Festival (War Paint). “Shooting on location you’re very beholden to weather and have to hire portaloos, generators and even build shelters, so having all of the facilities at hand is a real boon,” says Justin. “It’s also a great community hub for rehearsals, music videos and meetings.”
Geoff Anderson who crewed on and acted in War Paint is another of Marlborough’s “hidden talents”. With a background in sword play and martial arts, Geoff has been involved with filmmaking for over 20 years as a stuntman, actor, fight choreographer, director, set builder and prop maker. Having worked in studios and on-location across the country, Geoff is delighted to see Marlborough’s film industry maturing. “When you’re down at the Sawmill you have no other distractions, so it’s been a blessing for creativity and productivity,” Geoff says. Geoff and Roger have been using the workshop space to build props as well as building sets for War Paint and The British Broadcasting Corporal, which just wrapped up filming at Sawmill Studios last month. “It’s such a versatile space indoors and outdoors. You can dress it up into so many different genres. It looks and feels the same to any of the big studios I’ve worked in around the country,” says Geoff.
Having recently filmed the region’s first feature-length movie Northspur, the team have high hopes for Sawmill Studios. Shot on location in Marlborough, Northspur was written by Justin Eade and directed by Aaron Falvey and is being screened throughout New Zealand following its world premiere September 1 at Event Cinemas in Blenheim. The movie was picked up by a global entertainment company and will be screened across North America later in the year. “Northspur proves that we have the skill and talent here to make a film that will knock them out of the park,” enthuses Roger. “We’re just waiting for the perfect storm of ideas.”
In the meantime, Dorien says “as we get the word out, more and more activity is already happening”, and being so close to Wellington it provides a versatile overflow studio. “We’ve done so much in such a short period of time and there’s no looking back now,” says Geoff. “We’re going to ride this to the top!”