Appeal to a higher authority

Byron Coll ventures into the bush as struggling father Hugh, in The Mountain. Photos: Madman
Byron Coll ventures into the bush as struggling father Hugh, in The Mountain. Photos: Madman
A new film looks to Mt Taranaki for answers.

It was no stretch for actor Byron Coll to venture beyond the last boundary fence in search of answers, in new New Zealand movie The Mountain.

It’s where he often goes himself.

The challenge for his latest role was to portray a man who only reluctantly headed for the hills.

The Mountain is the feature film directorial debut of Rachel House (Ngāti Mutunga, Te Atiawa, Kāi Tahu), who arrived in the role with extensive experience as a theatre director, but perhaps best know for her acting in films such as MoanaBoyHunt For The Wilderpeople and Whale Rider.

Coll says he knew House’s work from the theatre and has always loved it.

"Her sense of play, her ability to shape scenes and adapt to challenges that arise are so so great. I think being in the theatre gives you that training and freedom to let go of preconceived ideas of how things will pan out. She really is an amazing talent."

The film centres on Sam, a young girl who has been raised outside of her Māori culture, but now, battling cancer, she is determined to connect with her mountain — Mt Taranaki — in the hope of finding healing. She’s supported in her quest by a couple of new friends — evoking a long list of children’s adventure films from The Goonies and Stand by Me to Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

In making the mountain central to the story, the film recalls the whakataukī, "Hokia ki ō maunga kia purea koe e ngā hau a Tāwhirimātea" — an invocation for people to return home to be refreshed and renewed.

House has said that in a shifting world, in which societal structures and systems no longer serve us, the teachings of our ancestors have become even more powerful.

"When Māori first introduce ourselves, we name our maunga. Maunga (mountains) are ancient living ancestors — who have shaped and formed our identity, belonging and connection to each other."

That, for House, is a key theme of the movie.

The film was an opportunity to share some of the wisdom and magic that exists within te taiao, the natural world, she says.

That also resonates with Coll, who as well as being an actor — familiar from everything from Uproar to Time BanditsThe Luminaries and Muru — is also a fine-art photographer.

He was named one of the top-20 emerging landscape photographers in Australasia by Capture magazine in 2019.

"I spend a lot of time out in nature with my cameras and often use that time to not only put myself in a creative space, but also allow the drag of city life to wash away," Coll says.

"I personally find comfort in being able to revel in the joy of my own insignificance when being deep in nature. There’s nothing like staring face to face at a gigantic maunga knowing it was formed many centuries before me and it’ll still be there when I’m well gone! For some, I guess that is scary, but to me, it’s powerful and freeing."

There’s an extra layer of risk in casting a maunga as a central character, as they have a life of their own, and Taranaki spends a good part of it’s time in a korowai of cloud.

That though wasn’t an issue that Coll encountered.

"Well, the only day I was scheduled to be in the national park filming was a scene where Mt Taranaki loomed in the background and was to be shrouded in cloud. It was the hottest and clearest day I’d ever seen that day, with absolutely no cloud cover. So, I guess that posed some visual effects challenges! The age old saying ‘just fix it in post’ was ringing in my ears that day."

The young stars of the film, Terence Daniel (Bronco), Reuben Francis (Mallory) and Elizabeth...
The young stars of the film, Terence Daniel (Bronco), Reuben Francis (Mallory) and Elizabeth Atkinson (Sam).
And indeed the film-makers did enlist help with Taranaki’s korowai.

The filming schedule revolved around days when Taranaki was out in all its glory, then clouds were added during post-production — the clouds brought to life by Wētā FX to convey the purpose and consciousness of the mountain.

Coll plays the part of Hugh, the father of one of Sam’s two partners in adventure, Mallory. While it’s the young trio in the film who initiate the adventure, their friend Sam is not the only one in need of healing.

Mallory’s father has had a rough run, Coll explains.

"His wife passed away, who was the heart and soul of the family. Without her around any more he has been really struggling to cope with simple day-to-day activities, let alone raise a child too. Shifting out of the Big Smoke and down to Taranaki was a huge task for him as he is a bit of a creature of habit. ‘Adventurer’ would not be a word he’d ever use to describe himself.

"The poor bugger is trying his best, but just doesn’t know where to start."

He was, though, a lovely character to play, Coll says.

"I have people in my life that are in a similar boat, and I can draw on to give me inspiration and help this character come to life, which is always handy. Upon shooting this film, I had also just lost a big job, which was a huge heartbreak for me, so was able to use a bit of that feeling of loss and instil this character with a bit of that truth."

The film marks the debuts for all three of the starring young actors, Elizabeth Atkinson (Sam), Reuben Francis (Mallory) and Terence Daniel (Bronco).

They brought a great energy, Coll says.

"Not only seeing how they relate to a new life on set, but also the learning they are getting by being in front of a camera. As my niece, who wants to be an actor said to me when she was on set for the first time, ‘this beats learning about Ancient Rome any day of the week’.

"So to be around that energy is contagious and makes the film set light and fun. Even with heavier scenes, which these actors have to perform, they give it everything they can and also respect the processes other actors use to generate the right feeling and tone for the scene."

When you have child actors on set, there is almost an unwritten rule from everyone to keep the energy light, he says, which is no bad thing.

"Some films really need a dose of that from time to time."

While the movie has its comic moments, there are serious issues at its core — a tough challenge to balance.

"That’s why so many movies and shows are made. To create the right balance takes a lot of care and energy. Most of the time it’s behind the scenes. It’s also having the right team for the right project."

Coll says he’s been on projects where a step or two has been missed and as a result they haven’t quite managed to mix the light and shade in the correct proportions.

"I take my hat off to anyone trying to make a film that does just this. When it works, it really works! And it’s something to celebrate when it happens."


 - We have three double passes to The Mountain to give away. To go in the draw, email including your name, address and phone number.

 - The Mountain opens in cinemas on Thursday.