Portraits/ Todd Eyre
You’ve probably never heard of him but film producer Carthew Neal is making his mark with box-office hits Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Tickled.
“I think the best analogy,” he says, when I ask him exactly what a producer does, “is that it’s like bringing up a child. You end up doing everything: you wipe its bum, you tell it it’s been good, you’re screamed at by it. One day you’ll be doing something manual like making sure it’s fed properly, and the next you’re trying to figure out how to pay for its school camp.” His film babies were very different creatures, which meant his roles were as well. “With Taika, he’s really experienced, and it was about going on a journey with him,” Neal explains. “Being there when he wasn’t able to and giving him space – protecting him.” With Tickled, “it was about helping enlarge the vision. They had an amazing idea, and were passionate about it, so it was about bringing in other elements to make them see it in a bigger way.”
He joined the Tickled team after it won a pitching competition at the Documentary Edge Festival in 2015. The NZ Film Commission saw the proposal and wanted to give it additional funding – on the condition they got a producer. “We had a small vision of it being on maybe YouTube or Vimeo,” Farrier tells me over the phone. “Carthew came in and forced us to think bigger. He pushed us really hard in that direction all the time… basically nagging a lot.”
The film encountered several stumbling blocks, including the possibility that they’d never be able to screen the finished version. Legal action had already been threatened and insurers didn’t want to touch the film. “We were dealing with people who were fairly crazy,” says Farrier. “We were on high alert that maybe these people were going to start stealing hard drives to get the film.”
Throughout all of this, and the film’s rapturous reception (it was sold to HBO), Neal remained calm. “He never panics,” Farrier continues. “And during the shoot and the edit and at other various moments, I panicked quite a bit.” He considers the number of times they encountered problems that seemed insurmountable; the number of times he thought he’d have to walk away. “Without Carthew,” he says with certainty, “there’d be no movie.”
There’s a kind of low-key alchemy to Neal’s work.
“I like being able to make something out of nothing,” he says. As a teenager, he worked shifts at both Nelson’s Theatre Royal and the local cinema. He rigged lights. He ripped tickets. He swept the floor. He fell in love with films like Tank Girl (“This powerful woman was holding the screen and it was something I hadn’t seen before”) and City of Lost Children.
After high school, he found his way to Wellington’s BATS Theatre. “That’s how I met Taika and [theatre-maker] Jo Randerson – there’s a whole crew of people who were around at that time who were really inspiring,” he remembers. “I was like: woah, this world’s amazing, but I got a sense of...” he pauses. “No matter how much effort you put in, the audience was always really small.”
Reaching a large audience is important to Neal.
It makes the making worth it, and a big part of his role is understanding what appeals, both at a local and international level. He’s careful to emphasise that this isn’t about creating by committee, but about being constantly aware of how something might be received, and how things might get lost in translation. He’ll test things, but the artist sits at the heart of his work. “He’s always been driven by originality and new voices,” comments Jessica Hansell, aka Coco Solid, whose work Neal has produced since they became friends as teenagers. “He’s constantly trolling paradigms of popular taste and technology and following weird hunches.” She calls him an artist’s producer, good at connecting invisible dots and lassoing turbulent visions. “If he likes what you’re doing and sees a future in it,” she says, “he’s gonna go there. It doesn’t matter whether you’re worth a dollar or a million dollars, I see him give everyone the exact amount of attention and collaborative intensity.”
He tells me he wants his projects to have something meaningful to say. “I’m not really interested in making stuff just for the sake of it,” he says. You see this conviction at its most personal in the film My Friend, The Addict.
It was 2003, and he’d just returned from a two-year stint in the UK where he’d been working in reality TV. While he’d been away, a high-school friend had developed a P addiction, and he decided to make a documentary with her.
“I was trying to get her off drugs through filming her and being around,” he says, “because I’d seen in all these reality shows that this was what kind of worked.” He spent week after week with her. Months turned into a year, and he had to go on the dole. They fell into a cycle where she’d stop using, he’d get his hopes up, and then she’d relapse. “It was a bit naive really, so that was what the film became about – me learning that this [film] wasn’t necessarily the way it was going to work.”
That was the last time he directed a major project. He’s produced ever since. “Maybe it’s because I don’t want to be as vulnerable as a director,” he muses, “let alone all the craft and skill and talent you need. Maybe that’s too scary. Whereas when you’re a producer, you’re more of a protector.”
Recently Neal has been working through Piki Films, the company he started with Waititi and producer Leanne Saunders in 2014. “Taika had been working on [Disney animated film] Moana,” he says, “and had been in a room with 40 people telling him how to change his script.” It was a horrible experience, “but really useful as a process,” so they adapted this as a collaborative mode of working for Piki, which currently houses Oscar Kightley, Madeleine Sami, Victor Rodger and Jess Hansell. “We meet up every few months and have these workshops where we read each other’s scripts and discuss them,” says Neal. It’s through this that his next project, Sami and Jackie Van Beek’s The Breaker Upperers, has emerged. “It’s about two best friends who are cynical in love, and they’ve got this agency to break couples up.” He’s also working with David Farrier and Dylan Reeve on a new documentary, though he’s deliberately taking things slow. “When things have gone well,” he says, “there’s this sense of responsibility to do more immediately, but I’m keen on making sure the quality is good.”
I ask him what good work looks like on an international stage – what sets our films apart.
“Gentle humour,” he says after a moment. It’s a quality he sees in both Tickled and Wilderpeople, particularly in dark moments where it’s least expected. There’s another element he sees, too, and it’s one that seems to describe his own character: a soft persistence.
A quiet determination. “Brave,” he says, “but not in a heroic way.”