Ahead of Rūrangi: Rising Lights’ premiere on Prime on Sunday 12 February, and Neon and SkyGo the following day, Writer and Executive Producer Cole Meyers takes Oliver Hall behind the scenes to reveal the groundbreaking approach to filmmaking that contributed to the show’s unprecedented success.
Coinciding with Auckland’s Pride month, Rūrangi’s second season ‘Rising Lights’ debuts with longer episodes that promise to delve deeper into the lives of Rūrangi’s core characters with issues of trans rights, colonialism, and the environment at its beating heart.
As I meet writer Cole Meyers for the first time, it’s hard to not immediately gush over Rūrangi’s viral International Emmy win.
“I’m still completely in shock. Never in a million years, would I have expected that to happen,” Cole tells us.
“When I came out as trans, which was an incredibly emotional low point in my life; if I told that person what this past year has been like, they wouldn’t believe it!”
It becomes clear talking to Cole that they helped forge a culture with the cast and crew of Rūrangi that assured the culture behind the scenes was just as groundbreaking as the final product we see on our screens.
“This was my first major project and I didn’t really know how the whole process normally worked,” they admit adding that their mission has always been to make, “authentic work in a compassionate way, that’s good quality.”
On set, Cole championed the attitude that “when people feel truly listened to and empowered, you make better stuff,” while avoiding an environment where people were told what to do, particularly Rūrang’s gender-diverse cast and crew.
“For some of the people in the team – often with a lot more experience – this was a very different way of working because they were giving so much power away. Talking with actors about their consent and bodily autonomy; acting and directing being more of a negotiation, rather than a dictation. That was quite scary for them,” reflects Cole, “but it’s made Rūrangi so much richer, more authentic, and embedded in Aotearoa queer and trans culture.”
The key for Cole was the team having a very clear view of who Rūrangi’s audience was and keeping them at the forefront of every creative decision.
“Hollywood attempts to make stuff as appealing as possible to as many people as possible and ends up watering things down, making something vaguely appealing to everyone, but not very appealing to anyone. With Rūrangi our primary audience was our trans and gender-diverse communities. It wasn’t about trying to make trans lives or experiences more broadly appealing,” explains Cole, pointing out that many Hollywood-produced trans stories tend to focus on cis people and how they are affected by their interactions with a trans person.
“The starting point was a list of the stuff I didn’t want to see, and the stuff I’m not seeing: like trans people in romantic intimate relationships, connecting with Whānau and community in a positive way.”
Cole was determined to do right by their community which they have seen let down in the media many times before.
“When you watch things and they get quite basic stuff wrong or focus on things that are known and kind of boring to you, you realise at no point was anyone like me given any sort of power!”
Working alongside Rūrangi’s lead producer, Craig Gainsborough, they doubled down on the production’s trans kaupapa, by establishing a Trans Advisory Panel made up of an intersectional group of trans and gender-diverse people, who got to give feedback on how scenes and storylines were perceived.
“So often, when you’re trans, you’re the lone voice in a room full of cis people. The Trans Panel brought this incredible breadth and depth of trans experience to Rūrangi. As a writer, I’ve never felt more supported,” enthuses Cole.
“The conditions were that they got to meet without any cis people in the room, cutting down that sense of us ‘explaining ourselves to you’ and by virtue of them all being intersectional activists, I knew they were going to have a broad range of knowledge. I didn’t want to do ‘awesome on the trans stuff, but then fall down terribly with race or disability,” they explain.
When it came to filming, Cole remained hands-on, taking on the role of Kindness Officer on set – a new role in the industry that prioritises the wellbeing of cast and crew.
“We decided to create this new role as the idea that you would have 50 to 100 people working together and living together (as we did for two weeks in Ngatea) in a high-stress environment, working really long hours; that you wouldn’t have someone to check in with people about their emotional and physical wellbeing is ridiculous!” They exclaim.
Cole loved the role, which often involved being the person that everyone could vent to, allowing them to help sort out small issues before they became bigger problems – which cost a production money and time to solve. “This one role ended up saving potentially tens of thousands of dollars,” they tell us, highlighting a business case for this progressive approach.
Cole’s contribution to the kaupapa of the production as Executive Producer, Writer, and in their role as Kindness Officer not only helped assure an ‘amazing’ season of Rūrangi Rising Lights to air, but this new way of working has gained a lot of interest from NZ On Air and the New Zealand Film Commission.
“For us, that says the screen industry has faith in our revolutionary methods,” they say, adding that an awareness of consent culture and the idea of Kindness Officer is something they hope to see adopted by future productions both in New Zealand and overseas.
A result even better than an Emmy.