Exclusive: Director Chris Herd on making uplifting Aussie film Find Your Voice

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Find Your Voice is a celebration of family and culture through one young man’s spiritual odyssey. The film tells the story of a young Maori musician who, after a divine windfall, returns to his native New Zealand in a quest to explore his musical roots.

Written by Chris Herd (director):

The Story of Find Your Voice:

I always wanted to make a film and decided it was time after 20 years of TV production. There were no offers from Hollywood, so I decided to make it independently. Ben Rupp, a close friend and US-based entrepreneur, believed in the dream and got us started, followed by several other important investors. And that’s how Find Your Voice was born.

As for the storyline, I’ve always been interested in the contrast and synthesis of culture. I am an Aussie, but grew up in the USA and the UK. When developing the screenplay, I was working on a series at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with actor Adam Saunders. He was a great personality and we decided there and then to make a film together. I had an idea about a mixed-race youth winning the lottery and going home to find his roots. I got about 60 scenes down loosely and then passed the ball to Matthew Scott, a young and very fast screenwriter. He wrote about 250 pages and I got it back down to 160 before we started shooting. That length later proved a challenge to edit down in the cut.

Adam, who is Kiwi/Aussie, understood the part immediately, and provided a wealth of information and ideas for the screenplay and main character Elvis “E” Pineaha. I wanted our protagonist to be a budding pop star as I felt this would click with a young audience. Adam is one of those multitalented actors who can sing and dance, so playing the part was natural. Music also works on a metaphorical level as E strives to discover his voice and himself. This is one of the key themes in the film.

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The themes explored in Find Your Voice?

Ironically, many young Kiwis come to Australia to find themselves or be discovered, but that’s not easy in this homogenized, bling culture. That is why I believe family and the church play an important role today, even though I’m not of any particular faith. It’s all about core values and respect. I would like to think the film is a celebration of this – family and culture. It’s also a swipe at the “get-rich-quick” phenomenon that is so widespread.

I’ve always been inspired by the Maori people and New Zealand as a whole for remaining independent throughout the ages and keeping their culture so vibrantly alive. Another outstanding quality is the level of respect that exists within the Maori family unit. And again this is something I wanted to touch on, as it’s something that seems to be disappearing elsewhere.

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How Find Your Voice differs from other Australian films

The film is somewhat unique for a low-budget, Australian indie, because firstly it’s got a huge Kiwi presence. There are also no murders, sex scenes or significantly violent moments – and in the end it is uplifting! The story is about searching for your identity and expressing yourself, which I believe is so important these days. E wants to write a hit song, but has nothing really to say until he hits rock bottom and realizes what is worth writing about. His journey is like that of the Prodigal Son, where our hero falls wayward before finding himself and the respect of his family, in this case, Uncle Tama.

Find Your Voice 9Casting Find Your Voice

The casting seemed to emerge organically. Talented and eclectic people just popped up, including some legends, and the next thing they were on set performing. Most of the cast was comprised of real musicians, which was great. Maybe they could feel some of E’s frustration in trying to write a hit song?

One actor I always had my heart set on was Keisha Castle-Hughes. Ever since her Oscar nomination for Whale Rider, I’ve been following her career. I still can’t believe she took the role and now she is featured on Game of Thrones! Their catering costs would have eclipsed our entire budget. I guess she identified with something. Like Adam, she is also Kiwi/Aussie. Or maybe she just felt sorry for us as newbie filmmakers and wanted to help out. She is the kind of girl who simply does what she wants.

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Having musician Tama Lundon onboard was also a real privilege. He’s actually Adam’s real uncle, so he is almost playing himself. In real life, he’s a member of the iconic New Zealand band Herbs now featured in the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame.

I spotted Michael Long, who plays E’s friend Roadie, in a Sydney theatre production playing an ex-rocker. Before acting, Michael was the tour manager for INXS and Cold Chisel. He knew the character Roadie better than I did. He also persuaded Ian Moss, yes the legend of Cold Chisel, to get involved. Moss makes a cameo in the film and went on to record original music for the film score, so we are forever in his debt.

Thomas Stowers, who played Rabbit the villain, is also a well-known musician, and believe it or not, a part-time boxer. Taaz Harrison, who plays Jonno, is a rebel Kiwi rapper. Danielle Hayes, who plays Aunty Sarah, was the first Maori winner of New Zealand’s Next Top Model. So it’s a star-studded cast!

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Favourite moments while filming

One memorable moment whilst shooting was when we were out in the middle of nowhere, completely lost in rural New Zealand, with nothing locked in. The terrain was surreal and we were all crammed into our little RV that’s featured in the film. It was also the production office, make-up room and accommodation. The crazy thing was, even though we had no idea what was happening next or where we were going, we had a script and everyone was enjoying the ride. So nothing mattered and everyone had a laugh. This culminated in the fire scene on the beautiful Lake Taupo where Adam and Keisha’s characters almost kiss. That fire kept burning well into the night with lots of tall cast and crew stories.

 

One of my favourite scenes is with Adam and Keisha on the Waiheke Island pier. Most of this was impromptu, which says a lot about my script writing. I just wound them up about who they were and whom they were perceived to be and the rest flowed. I hope people appreciate how easy it is to be labelled something you are not and that can become a negative trap.

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Valuable experiences

We did a prescreening at the Sydney Maori Anglican Fellowship, which we also featured in the film, along with Reverend Kaoi Malcolm Karipa. People were asked to come along and also donate towards repairs on the roof. We packed the place out and the generous audience seemed to be entertained. I don’t think we had the right edit then and we received valuable feedback that has directed the final cut.

Making this film has been a life changing experience, and I really mean that. Working with such a young and enthusiastic cast and crew has been an unforgettable ride. Actor/producer Adam Saunders and producer Pat Rohr gave everything they had and stuck in there until the end. But as first-time filmmakers, we probably would never have finished unless Executive Producer Steve Jaggi came onboard.

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With his wealth of knowledge (having a dozen or more films under his belt), Steve knew immediately what our strengths were and how to get the best story out. His first step was to get Adrian Powers onboard; a young Sydney director/editor who jumped into the edit and worked magic, helping to create the endearing film we have today.

Steve has been polishing and nurturing the film since, through the quagmire of post-production and distribution, and on to a cinema release.

I really want this film to be seen, because all the cast and crew who worked on it deserve recognition. Adam Saunders for one is a young talent with huge potential. My experience making this film, especially in New Zealand, has reinforced to me the importance of being yourself, and that your family and heritage are unique and should always be respected.

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