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NZ International Film Festival: Crossing Rachmaninoff

Jul 10, 2015 Film & TV

A chance encounter between an Auckland writer and an Italian-born pianist leads to a feature film about following a dream even when the going gets tough.


Rebecca Tansley had this grand piano. “I picked it up somewhere along the way.” You know how it is with grand pianos.

Tansley is a freelance writer with a portfolio of corporate clients. She’s worked in publishing and film production. She and her then-husband founded and managed Dunedin’s Plato restaurant. None of these are fields in which you survive without a hard head for business, and Tansley clearly has one. But it is important to understand that she is also insane.

Her piano, to which we will return, is Exhibit A. Exhibit B: she has just directed and produced her first feature film, Crossing Rachmaninoff, using her own money. Also her partner’s money, her father’s money, and $10,000 or so raised via crowdfunding, but she’s in the red herself for somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. “I haven’t totalled it up. Which sounds really unprofessional, doesn’t it? It would be a bit frightening.”

Film is the most expensive of the arts, and “How do we pay for it?” is the question that prevents most films from being made. OPM — “Other People’s Money” — is Hollywood’s foundational acronym. “I don’t want people to think I’ve got a lot of money, because I don’t,” Tansley says. “I don’t own a house. I joke that the state of my car reflects the progress of the film.” Her car has been accumulating dents and unfixed minor problems since last August, that being when she sat bolt upright in bed one night, having just realised she’d found the story she needed to tell.

“I knew I wanted to make a feature, but I’d always vaguely thought it would be a scripted drama; I had no plans to make a documentary until Flavio came to dinner and told me about going to Italy for the Rachmaninoff. That was only four months before the actual concert, so I didn’t have the luxury of applying for funding and waiting for funding rounds and everything you need to go through if you want to get money out of the Film Commission. It was just, ‘Right, I’m doing this.’”

Flavio Villani is an Auckland-based, Italian-born pianist who returned to Italy last year to make his concert debut, performing Rachmaninoff’s towering second concerto. The concert was more than a professional milestone for him. “It was huge that he was going home to do it, sort of showing his family, ‘This is who I am now, this is where I’ve got to,’ after growing up in the Italian south in the 80s, where being a pianist just wasn’t considered an option.”

It was the realisation Rachmaninoff’s challenges in writing the piece chimed perfectly with Villani’s in performing it that spurred Tansley’s sitting-up-in-bed moment.

She got to know Villani thanks to her piano, a possession which makes as much sense in her life as a pet giraffe. It needs its own room. She can’t play it. “It wasn’t such an issue in Dunedin, because we had one of those huge Dunedin houses, but then my marriage ended and I moved back up here and I’d become sort of attached to the piano so I brought it with me. And I was living in something akin to a shoebox, and yeah, it became a bit of a hassle. But I had this idea that I’d learn to play and accompany my daughters.”

Both of Tansley’s daughters are singers, which is how she and Villani met. A few years ago, one daughter needed an accompanist for a gig, so Tansley phoned around and eventually found Villani, who was supporting himself through a master’s degree in performance and needed any work he could get. After the gig, Tansley, whose own degree is in modern languages, decided Villani would be the ideal piano teacher, because she could practise her Italian during lessons. “He’s a very good teacher and I was a very poor student.” She got to know him well enough to understand immediately what it meant that he’d been invited to perform with an Italian orchestra.

“The film is about following a dream when it’s really hard, when you have to question yourself and keep on going. That was Flavio doing the concert, that was Rachmaninoff writing the piece, and to be honest, that was me making the film. My ambition was always to get it into the festival,
so I had two and a half months after filming to get the
edit done — which for a documentary feature edit is not long. There was a period of weeks when I was like, ‘What was I thinking, this is not going to be a film, I’m out of my depth, I’m going to have to tell these people who gave me money that I can’t do this.’ But then it all started falling into place.”


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