Max’s new film Everything We Loved premier simultaneously at Wellington’s Paramount Theatre and Auckland’s Skycity theatreAt 8.15pm on Monday 28 July, as part of the NZ International Film Festival.
How did you get into movie making?
From the moment I could write I was dreaming up stories and characters. Growing up in Palmerston North, I’d always loved the movies, but making one myself seemed like something so, so far away that the idea never once occurred to me. Then, when I was 22, it was 2am in the morning, and I was walking home from a late night edit on my segment for QueerNation, and this idea came to me out of the blue… holy shit – I could write and direct a movie. I’ve never had a moment like it, where you know something with such lucidity. It took ten years, and a lot of scripts and pitches that never saw the light of day, to actually come to fruition.
Tell us about your earliest memories of realising you were gay and how you felt about it?
As a primary school kid I had lots of girlfriends. I joined them in chasing boys round the school trying to kiss them. I was into dance and gymnastics. And I was really happy. Then at high school I started hearing other boys snarling about someone they didn’t like being a ‘faggot’ or ‘gaybo’ – and so began the stomach-knotting realisation that there was something different about me. I had wet dreams about Sir Lancelot while I was reading the Once And Future King. I chanced across a kind of hot, kind of disturbing scene in Steven King’s IT where the two bully characters get it on, which I probably read when I was far too young. All these small, distorted pieces of a puzzle you’re putting together, with this creeping realising that maybe there’s something wrong about you? And it has a name. And it’s called being gay. And yet – and this is the really important part so I want you to print it – the way people, guys especially, talked, these faggots and gays sounded like such despicable, awful people, and that didn’t match up to my impression of myself. Sure, I was a bit confused, but I was never cruel or untrustworthy or ‘bad’. And I knew I was loved. So even then, being ‘gay’ wasn’t something I identified with because it was never talked about strictly in terms of being attracted to the same sex, it was something bad.
Then later, when I met other out gay people, I started to realise that most of what I thought of being gay was just bad press. Which is why the pride movement was (or is?) important – it’s essentially a big group of people helping each other deprogram all the shitty ideas society has taught them to think about themselves. On the downside, though, I think gay-pride should be a transitioning phase for us, and not the final destination. Too many people get stuck there and it can start to get a bit heterophobic. I’ve seen some nasty heterobashing from rabid gays and that’s not on.
What’s Everything We Loved about?
It’s a suspenseful, psychological drama about a travelling magician called Charlie, who tries to get his wife and family back with his greatest and most dangerous illusion – a little boy.
What would you like viewers to take away from Everything We Loved?
I want audiences to fall in love with this family, this beautiful family – even though they shouldn’t. On a logical level, audiences should hate the Shepherds. I do wonder whether I would have made this movie if I wasn’t gay, because on the most basic level I’m going, “you think you can judge these people, you think they’re monsters – but look, they have dreams too, they’re in pain too, they just want to happy like the rest of us.” Watching this film will grow your human empathy, it will remind you of that part of yourself – the good part – that reaches out to others who are suffering.
Were you anxious of casting and directing a child actor?
God yes. And not just a child actor, but the youngest ever NZ actor in a leading role. Ben Clarkson auditioned when he was four-and-three-quarters and we shot with him when he was barely five years old. Ben was THE biggest risk of the film, but it paid off. He was such a natural as an actor – his performance has been praised by The Hollywood Reporter in a review adult actors would kill for – and his authenticity, his ability to be so in the moment as only a child can, was a gift to his co-stars Brett and Sia.
What’s the craziest job you’ve ever had (& why)?
When I was about fourteen I worked as the handyman at the Ilawara cat hotel in Palmerston North for $2 an hour. It was an OSH nightmare. The owner was a lady with a hunchback, who was always heading off to the beauty parlour, and the ceiling on the cat kennels was really low so I had to stoop for five hours everyday, cleaning up cat shit, killing my back. I had to start the lawnmower with a powertool. They wouldn’t let me in the house to use the bathroom so I’d just pee in their garden.
What’s the best city you’ve ever lived in (& why)?
I have a thing for Berlin, and I’ve shopped around a bit. There’s something about the city’s grit and history and graffiti – she’s a bit dirty sometimes, but she’s brazenly beautiful as well. HA – Berlin’s like me: poor but sexy. I went there on a Goethe-Institut scholarship to learn German, and life became thrillingly simple – the only goal, every day, was to understand and be understood in a foreign language. Every interaction with a stranger was a learning experience. Berlin was where I learnt to talk to strangers – for me it’s easier to do it in a foreign language. If you accept that there’s no way you can’t sound like a moron, it takes the pressure off and you can talk to anyone. As a result, I met the best people, and learnt that everyone is yearning to be talked to, to be given attention, to be listened to. Honestly – if you learn to talk to and listen to strangers, the world is your Oyster. That’s what Berlin taught me. In fact, in May of this year I shot a concept teaser there for my next film, Life In Subtitles, about what it’s like to fall in love with someone when you can’t speak the same language. It’s funny and heartbreaking.
What are the most important lessons your parents taught you?
Mum taught me to own my mistakes, and to apologise for them. Dad taught me integrity – by way of example during a tricky period in my family’s history. I was sixteen, and Dad was head of Microbiology at Palmerston North hospital. But the lab was being privatised. He could have kept his job, but he had to let all his staff go. So instead, he went with them. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve come to understand what a profound decision this was. And it’s not like anyone awarded him a prize for being a decent human being or gave him a round of applause. It was this quiet decision he and Mum made in view of his own principals. And our family took a big hit, because he and Mum had a mortgage and two kids. Mum stepped up to full time work and was the bread winner. And it took Dad a long time for him to find work again, over a year, because he was so overqualified. But I’m so, so grateful for this lesson, because Dad put his inner world, his principals, ahead of comfort in the outer world. And in many way it’s his example that’s helped me live with the rough side to filmmaking – I’ve had to live in a shed and sleep in cars and on friends’ couches and basically live like a hobo with a laptop to get this film made.
What’s your favourite language (& why)?
I’m eternally grateful to English for the ease in which I can express myself and talk to people from all over the world, but my heart belongs to German. For me, German is fused with some of the best experiences of my life, it’s connected to Berlin, it’s connected to a hundred different varieties of delicious cake (I eat a lot of cake when I’m in Germany). It’s connected to a feeling of freedom, where I can easily talk to strangers. And German will also always be connected to my sexual awakening, as cheesy as that sounds – because my first relationship with a man was in German. Oh, and this is funny – the first time I hooked up with a guy once I was back from Berlin in New Zealand, I started speaking German mid-coitus and it freaked him out a bit. I learnt pretty quickly to have sex in English.
What’s the best thing you cook?
I make a mean pavlova. My proudest pavlova moment was making one for Diane Keaton. I was doing some work for her producing partner and he invited her to his pad in Palm Springs for a BBQ. It was really casual, five friends, Diane and her kids. And thankfully it turned out great (I have a failsafe recipe).
Other than movie making what are you most passionate about?
Cycling. If the bicycle was invented today it would be seen as a stunningly eloquent solution to the world’s problems: congestion, our oil addiction, air pollution, obesity, cardio health, depression, cheap public transport. Dear employers, put decent showers in at work so your staff can do the world and themselves a favour and cycle to work.
As a former Queer Nation presenter, do you miss NZ having original gay programming?
It’s tricky. Minority programming creates great visibility, but it’s also ghettoised. A gay program is a bit of a fantasy land, where everything is gay, gay, gay. I think more powerful than gay specific shows are out gay television celebrities, out gay sports celebrities, and gay characters on drama. Trumping all of this, though, is an out, gay school teacher. I think the biggest battle ground for NZ GLBTs now are our youth, especially those young people that are struggling but yet to fully identify with being gay. They’re hard to get support to, because accepting help means accepting you’re gay. Which brings us back to the importance of out gay role models in young people’s lives.
Article | gayexpress