Novel prophecy: Gavin Hipkins

This year’s New Zealand International Film Festival is bolstered, as always, by a strong array of locally produced films, and for audiences with an interest in photographic art, cinema, and literature, there’s one release of particular note – Gavin Hipkins’ Erewhon. The Auckland-based visual artist has been exhibiting his photography throughout the globe over the past two decades and, after turning his attention to film in recent years, has now produced his first feature-length project. The film, described as a moving-picture essay, made its world debut at the Auckland leg of the festival this week, and travels down the country in coming weeks. D-Photo catches up with the artist to ask him about the transition from still photography to feature film:

Erewhon (Origins)

D-Photo: Can you tell us what your film, Erewhon, all about?

Gavin Hipkins: My film is an experimental adaptation of Samuel Butler’s anonymously published 1872 novel Erewhon: or, over the range. The book has been described as a utopian satire. The film charts the narrator’s journey from a Canterbury high country sheep farms to a fictional society where vegetarianism is the law and machines are banished for fear of their becoming conscious.

This is your first feature-length film, was working in that format a challenge?

I’ve completed five short films leading up to the feature and this helped understand narrative structure and pace. Certainly the feature-length nature of the project has been a challenge. But the production duration of the film mirrors some of my major photography projects that can take two to four years to work on and complete.

Erewhon (Mountains)

How would you describe the style of visuals in the film?

The aesthetic styles I use in the film are quite pluralistic really. They range from pictorial landscape work, to close up studies, to heavily stylised abstractions.

What sort of gear did you shoot the images with?

It was just me shooting so an emphasis was on portability, so light and basic gear. I am lucky to be working with such a great sound team. The sound designer, Ben Sinclair, has built a compelling sound scape by calling on additional elements.

Erewhon (Mask)

What attracted you to Samuel Butler's novel, Erewhon?

It’s a prophetic novel, especially around machine dependency. So many of the lines have dated so well that they ring true today. And Butler never takes himslf too seriously so there’s room to play in adapting the novel.

Did you begin the project looking to create images inspired by Butler's Erewhon novel, or did the images come first?

One affected the other. Ultimately the images have been determined by what I’ve been able to point the camera at so there’s a documentary element to the film, even if this is not literal.

Erewhon (Lamb)

In the film you have Mia Blake reading from the book, how did you find working with the actor on the project?

Mia is a terrific actor and an absolute professional. I had always envisioned her in the role but had to find a way of asking her to take it on. Initially Mia was unable to commit to the role due to another project but we managed to juggle the recording times. Mia has brought a complicated text alive and made it sound easy. I have also worked with the experienced dialogue editor Chris Todd since my first short film The Master (2010), and once again Chris brought to the recording another level of depth.

How did the process of completing and releasing your film differ from getting photographic work exhibited?

Getting a film together obviously requires careful planning on the production side of things. The fundamental difference for me is that with my photography projects I am basically working by myself whereas film is a more collaborative process – there’s a need to be open to others’ input.

Erewhon (Engine)

What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing your film?

The meaning of the film doesn’t need ‘to be got.’ The film can have an affect, like a journey, without necessarily making linear sense.

What advice do you have for other photographers who might be considering a feature film project?

Definitely start with the short film format to learn and make mistakes. Film requires significant resources, energy, and mental stamina. Gather good people around you and listen to them, then make your own decisions. Hopefully your first feature film won’t be your last. Look at the attitude that locally Florian Habicht brings to the medium. He’s not too precious and has found a way to keep making films and telling stores within sustainable means.

Erewhon (Dome)

What else are you looking forward to at this the Film Festival this year?

Regrettably I’m going to miss the festival this year, bar the opening and close, as I will be in the UK for an exhibition and screening of Erewhon as part of Edinburgh Art Festival. But I did catch The Dark Horse at the festival opening in Auckland – it’s a terrific film.

Check out the film festival website for Erewhon screening details