Make a big difference to The Big Idea.

Help us tell the most creative stories.

Become a supporter

Fantail takes flight

"Pretty proud of our big little film, it's achieved way more than we ever expected. We're delighted that it is getting a cinema release and we can't wait to find out what New Zealand thinks." Writer and actor Sophie Henderson.
Fantail is one of the local film success stories of 2013 – originally a monologue by actor Sophie Henderson.


Fantail is one of the local film success stories of 2013. Originally a monologue by actor Sophie Henderson, it was developed into a play and then a full length feature film, shot on a tiny budget, and is now winning accolades both locally and internationally.  

As it comes home to a cinematic release in selected theatres across NZ, Renee Liang talks to Sophie about life before and after the film.

How did you get the idea for Fantail?   

The idea for Fantail came from my hate of retail and my love of Maori myths and legends. I wanted to play a character I would never normally be cast as and I was really interested in exploring what it means to be a white Maori or a brown Pakeha.

From ten minute monologue to full length feature script – that’s a huge leap, how did it happen?

I wrote the monologue in third year at drama school, it was a confession to the audience and to a security camera, which if you've seen the film would come next. I played all the characters, it was definitely the same world but super theatrical. My teachers at drama school and theatre industry people who saw the piece always said there was a bigger story. That they wanted to see the play. And so then there was a theatre show of Fantail, it was maybe a first draft. It was early days. The play had all the characters from the film, the same ending, it had very long scenes. I had done some readings of it, with some of the actors who would later be cast in the film. The first time I applied for funding to develop Fantail as a play it was denied. And I'm so thankful for that failure because it's the only reason I considered it as a film.

At the same time as this rejection letter came, the NZ Film Commission Escalator initiative came up. Curtis Vowell (Fantail's director) and I knew we could achieve it as a micro budget film because it was all contained in one location and only had a handful of characters. When I applied to Escalator, I had no idea how to write a treatment, so I just squished the original monologue into a one pager and sent that in. We were shortlisted  and from then I had three months to deliver a draft.  I taught myself how to write a screenplay by attending to every single Script to Screen, I read many many screenwriting books and I watched a tonne of movies and read the screenplays of movies I love.

How did you make the journey from actor to writer?

My journey goes from actor to theatre maker to playwright to screenwriter. As an actor I had worked on a number of devised projects including Theatre Beating's Milk and Rumplestilts and Silo Theatre's Ensemble Project. Devising is a form of writing, it is definitely story-telling and it always eventually ends up in script form. When I was straight out of drama school it was really easy to get a group of actors together and hire a scout hall and just make a play for two weeks full-time, but as I got older and my peers got jobs or moved overseas, it became harder and harder to make happen without funding, so I guess I started devising by myself. Which was writing. As an actor you are such a small part of someone else's project and what I love about writing or theatre-making is that you are the boss of the world.

As well as being the writer, you also play the main character, Tania, in the film, so you must know her really well. How has she changed during the development of the film?

I wrote the script as an actor, I worked out what she wanted, her attitudes and relationships. It's an actor’s job to create a memorable character and that's how I approached screenwriting I think.

When it came to playing the character, I was already in her head and knew who she was but needed to find out how she moved and how she sounded. I joined a high school kapa haka which was an absolute pleasure and hung out with girls who had a natural Maori English accent. I would test out Tania's voice on them and they were very straight up about whether it was any good. I observed one girl in particular who didn't look Maori and overcompensated for this - she had Maori tattoos and was the best at poi and had a hard out accent. She was terrific. I went for big walks in South Auckland, where the character is from, I worked some shifts in the petrol station we filmed in. All of those things helped me develop the character as an actor and all those discoveries would then feed back into the script so it was pretty handy!

Who’s your favourite character and why?

Rog is my favourite character. Stephen Lovatt makes him so loveable and grumpy and vulnerable all at once. I wrote Rog to sound like my grandpa, so I have a big soft spot for Rog.

Tania’s a Pakeha girl who thinks she’s Maori – how much did your own childhood in Whangarei feed into your writing?

At primary school I felt totally accepted as one of the only Pakeha kids in my class. I was in the kapa haka and learnt some Te Reo and made plastic bag poi. It didn't seem strange to me as a kid because I assumed that the culture belonged to me too. I think it was later in life when I realised it wasn't mine and that's where the story comes from.

Tell me about your next project, Manhunt.

Sure! Manhunt is a comedy about a woman who always falls for the wrong guys so she decides to make her own boyfriends - she folds one, knits one, grows one and sculpts one. I'm writing it at the moment and it’s based on a short story by my mum Katie Henderson.

This film is your passion project – how did you get it made?

Making a film is such a privilege and we feel very very lucky that we got to make this film so quickly. It was the happiest accident and has been life changing. When we were shortlisted for Escalator, the Film Commission told us we were the wild card because we had the least experience. I'm really glad they took a chance on us and told us that because it made us work harder than we thought possible to prove we could do it. Everyone shortlisted was given a small amount of money for development and we used that to make a teaser for the film instead. We shot a scene from the end of the film so that they knew we could do it. It's the scene where Dean sings through the road cone and it has an uncomfortable mix of comedy and tragedy - we were interested to see if that would work too. Together with Fantail's editor, Richard Shaw and our producer, Sarah Cook we worked tirelessly to make the best application we could. We also had to pitch to a panel which was terrifying. We found a lot of our crew from the commercial world, which is Curtis and Sarah's background. Our small and exceptional team of people deserved way more than we were paying them but they believed in the story and they all have points in the film. We shot Fantail in 20 days. It was mental.

Did being a real-life couple help or hinder during production?

It helped. We both cared about the film so much that it was all we talked about for probably a year. I didn't have to call Curtis and set up a meeting, I could just run something past him at any old time. And what I mean by that was all the time. It was a very collaborative process. Curtis was involved in the development of the script and I got to be part of the edit which as a writer was invaluable since it's a whole other rewrite.
It was really challenging at times, the film took over our lives. Sometimes we screamed at each other driving home from set at 5am, but mostly because we ran out of time to do another take. The time pressure was enormous.

Have you got any tips for aspiring filmmakers with a script they really, really want to see made?  Where do you start, what should you avoid?

I sent my script to so many people, don't be afraid to let people read your writing. And work out which notes you are hearing more than once. These notes must be listened to.

Have a reason to tell your story, really work out why it is you need to tell it. Once you know this it is much easier to get others on board.

You need a script consultant, they are gold dust. Katherine Fry was my script consultant for Fantail, she is one of the smartest, most insightful and nurturing humans I know. She taught me how to write for film.

What happened after the film premiered at the NZ International Film Festival?

Since the film premiered in the NZ Festival, we have travelled to Rotterdam International Film Festival where it had its international premiere. Our screenings sold out and we sold the worldwide rights to a sales agent there.

We were nominated for eight New Zealand film awards and The Dominion Post named us in their top ten films of 2013.

This Queen’s birthday weekend we are in the Wairoa Maori Film Festival. And we are going to some other festivals soon which we're not allowed to talk about yet, sorry. Pretty proud of our big little film, it's achieved way more than we ever expected. We're delighted that it is getting a cinema release and we can't wait to find out what New Zealand thinks.

Written by

Renee Liang

30 May 2014

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.