I‚ÄôM about to start my interview with Madeleine Sami and Jackie Van Beek, the high-octane creators of the latest buzzed-about New Zealand comedy, The Breaker Upperers, when we‚Äôre interrupted by an Instagram video from none other than the First Gentleman of New Zealand Film himself, Taika Waititi.
Waititi has filmed a short video for Sami and Van Beek to celebrate their film‚Äôs opening in Australia, in which he congratulates Australians on getting another New Zealand import to enjoy ‚ÄĒ like ‚Äúpavlova and Phar Lap and Russell Crowe‚ÄĚ. The two women lean into Sami‚Äôs phone to watch Waititi, laughing, then hold up the screen to show me.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs our idiot friend,‚ÄĚ Sami explains.
In fact, Waititi is not far off, comparing The Breaker Upperers to pavlova: like the beloved (Aussie) dessert, Sami and Van Beek‚Äôs film is light, indulgent, crunchy and prepared with a sense of foreboding, as if everything could go wrong at any moment. However, as with any good pavlova, it all comes together rather spectacularly in the end.
Of course, none of it would work without Sami and Van Beek, the duo who write, direct and star in the film as Mel and Jen (respectively), a pair of entrepreneurs from Auckland who handle people‚Äôs messy breakups for cash.
‚ÄúThe premise just kind of popped into my head one day,‚ÄĚ Van Beek says, ‚Äújust thinking how awful it is when you have that dawning realisation when you have to break up with your partner. And I was thinking about how so many people would probably pay quite a lot of money to avoid doing the breaking up.
‚ÄúAnd I thought it was such a terrible idea for the world, but quite a funny idea for a film, so I rang up Madso ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúAnd I just loved the concept straight away,‚ÄĚ Sami says. ‚ÄúIt was so exciting. Especially because it‚Äôs such a dark premise on the surface, but knowing that we were going to make it into a comedy, and knowing our sense of humour, I just felt we would have a lot of fun with it.‚ÄĚ
New Zealanders are no stranger to dark humour. In fact, you might recognise Van Beek or Sami from What We Do In The Shadows, the cult hit horror-comedy written by Waititi and Jemaine Clement, which is about to be spun off into a TV series. (Clement also has a cameo in The Breaker Upperers.) Or perhaps you recognise Sami from her one-woman TV series Super City, the first season of which was directed by Waititi.
To an outsider, the New Zealand entertainment scene might be beginning to look somewhat incestuous.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just such a small community where you find like-minded people and you gravitate toward them and you make stuff with them,‚ÄĚ Sami says.
Though this is Sami and Van Beek‚Äôs first major project ‚ÄĒ or ‚Äúthe first of many major events‚ÄĚ, as Van Beek insists we call it ‚ÄĒ the women have known each other for many years.
‚ÄúI was a five-year-old street urchin selling candles,‚ÄĚ Sami jokes, ‚Äúand Jackie‚Äôs family ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúAnd I bought your soy candles ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄĚ Van Beek interjects, catching on.
‚ÄúJackie‚Äôs family chanced upon me in their carriage. They trotted up to me.‚ÄĚ
The pair are whip-smart, with their rapid-fire jokes so in synch they are finishing each other‚Äôs sentences faster than I can ask questions. It‚Äôs clear their real-life friendship is the inspiration for the central relationship of The Breaker Upperers, between besties Jen and Mel.
‚ÄúEarly on we started defining it for ourselves as a buddy comedy,‚ÄĚ Van Beek says. ‚ÄúA female buddy comedy.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúOr a ‚ÄėWomance‚Äô,‚ÄĚ Sami suggests, ‚Äúwhich is like the woman version of a bromance. Which kind of incorporates rom-com and buddy comedy, I think. We wanted to blend those genres together a bit, but also undercut it and subvert a few of the tropes.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúAnd also be silly with it,‚ÄĚ Van Beek says. ‚ÄúBut we were always aware that our male love interests would never dominate the central relationship.‚ÄĚ She thinks for a moment, then adds, ‚ÄúI mean, we wanted some men in.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúYou know, we both love rom-coms but sometimes we just feel like we‚Äôre being sold this lie that permeates into real life and society and you think, ‚ÄėThat‚Äôs impossible to live up to,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Sami. ‚ÄúSome women are in their late-thirties and early-forties and they don‚Äôt have their sh*t sorted out, and that‚Äôs fine.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúOr,‚ÄĚ Van Beek adds, ‚Äúthey just haven‚Äôt found a partner and they‚Äôre not going to have kids, but they can still be happy.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúOr they thought they‚Äôd found their one,‚ÄĚ Sami says, ‚Äúand then it just didn‚Äôt work out. I know a lot of people like that, who have just gotten out of big, long-term relationships and are like ‚Ä¶ Tinder?‚ÄĚ
The film, which has already premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and Austin‚Äôs SXSW Festival, has been well-received by critics and audiences craving genuinely female-led content ‚ÄĒ stuff that doesn‚Äôt ‚Äúchicken out‚ÄĚ on the female focus, as Sami puts it. I wonder if they feel any responsibility or pressure, considering female filmmakers are having a ‚Äúmoment‚ÄĚ in the industry right now.
‚ÄúI wanted to maximise a great opportunity,‚ÄĚ Van Beek says. ‚ÄúI felt like the New Zealand Film Commission were so supportive of the project, and there‚Äôs been a lot of excitement at screenings and when people interview us ‚ÄĒ mainly as female filmmakers.
‚ÄúAnd that‚Äôs really important, that we‚Äôre speaking as female filmmakers right now. Hopefully one day we‚Äôll just be speaking as filmmakers.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI was excited to get our perspective up on screen,‚ÄĚ Sami agrees, ‚Äúand to talk about what we want to talk about, and joke about what we find funny.
‚ÄúAnd I felt like even just in the doing of that we were representing our perspective, our voice, just which is seldom portrayed. We were lucky that we could make this small film in New Zealand, and that we weren‚Äôt going to have to compromise for anyone.
‚ÄúSo I didn‚Äôt feel the pressure to do it. I just felt proud we were getting the opportunity.‚ÄĚ
We talk about race, which comes up naturally in The Breaker Upperers as it does in many New Zealand films. Sami is half-Indian, as is her film counterpart, Mel; and many of the film‚Äôs younger stars are of Maori or Polynesian descent. I note that New Zealanders seem to be much better than Australians are when it comes to talking about race.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre playful with it,‚ÄĚ Sami agrees. ‚ÄúI feel like of the top 10 New Zealand films of all time, about five or six of them are Maori/Polynesian-led films. So New Zealanders love to celebrate our diversity, and it‚Äôs in our films and our audience reactions to films a lot more.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs something we‚Äôve still got a long way to go with, as a nation ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBut I think there‚Äôs just been more of that awkward conversation that‚Äôs happened ‚ÄĒ that‚Äôs still happening,‚ÄĚ says Sami. ‚ÄúAnd because that‚Äôs happening we feel more comfortable in our cultural expression to joke about it.‚ÄĚ
Van Beek adds, ‚ÄúWe talked about just putting an Auckland we recognised up on the screen.‚ÄĚ