Kiwi filmmaker Brad McGann almost passed on the opportunity to make his feature debut with In My Father's Den, believing the 1972 novel by Maurice Gee (not to be confused with the late Bee Gee) had little to say to a modern audience. Thankfully he changed his mind, and the result is a "thoughtful, atmospheric drama" that is winning rave reviews for British actor Matthew MacFadyen. The Spooks heartthrob plays Paul, a jaded war photographer who returns to New Zealand after 17 years, only to become implicated in the disappearance of local teenager Celia (Emily Barclay)...
What was it about the story that you found appealing?
Paul is an outsider coming back into a small town who threatens the community. How is it that someone becomes culpable by association, that behaviour equals guilt? That was the thing that drew me in - to use a mystery to explore those assumptions, and the way we sometimes look at people who are different and attribute untoward behaviour towards them.
How did you come to cast Matthew MacFadyen?
There was a practical rationale behind it; because it was a co-production we needed to spend some money in the UK. But also I really like Matthew as an actor - he has this restrained sensitivity that I felt really suited the character - and because Paul had been away for 17 years it made sense to get an Englishman to play it. The accent thing was an issue: Matthew had a go at a New Zealand accent but sounded like a South African! I knew it wouldn't work for a Kiwi audience so I asked him to put it aside. Apart from that, he was definitely the right choice.
There are a lot of flashbacks in the film. Were you worried the audience might not be able to keep up?
The first cut was three hours long; it was more like an ensemble piece originally, but the film ended up concentrating on the Paul/Celia relationship. It made it more elusive and atmospheric; it was left up to the audience to do quite a lot of the work, whereas in the shooting script a lot of work was done for them. People have said some of the peripheral characters feel underwritten, but we had no choice: we had to tell the story in two hours.
As a New Zealand filmmaker, how do you feel about Peter Jackson and the success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy?
The Lord of the Rings has done a lot to create awareness of New Zealand as a country, but it's also made it harder to make a low-budget film. Everybody's price has gone up because of these American productions and crews have become much harder to work with - they've suddenly got massive egos, and all they care about is lunch! We are a small culture that's easy to stampede. As filmmakers we need to stand up for what we believe in and maybe say no to some of these commercial ventures. Peter Jackson is very enterprising and successful, but he is only one example of what it means to be a filmmaker in New Zealand...
In My Father's Den is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th June 2005.