Dipping her toes in

Olivia and Chris Parker in a scene from the film Blue Lake, by Anya Tate-Manning.
Olivia and Chris Parker in a scene from the film Blue Lake, by Anya Tate-Manning.
There were lessons lurking just below the surface, during the making of Anya Tate- Manning’s Show Me Shorts entry, she tells Tom McKinlay.

One thing was certain for first-time short-film writer director Anya Tate-Manning. Her comedy-horror was to be set at Central Otago’s man-made and otherworldly Blue Lake.

The rest? Well, the experienced theatre practitioner was well used to improvising.

"I think I made the story last, if that makes sense," Dunedin-born Tate-Manning says.

"I used to go there as a kid on holiday sometimes and I remember swimming in the lake with my best friend and we would always imagine that there was a monster in the lake because it is so deep and the incline of the bank is so steep sometimes," she says.

"I think it had been in the back of my brain for a long time, because I had always loved St Bathans. It is quite a strange eerie place. You start to dream about all sorts of things while you are there."

The white clay is positively lunar, she says.

"Then that village up the top where the road is, is like going back in time."

"I feel like it is a place where you could make 100 different films. I really love it."

Her film’s two protagonists don’t feel the same love. The wannabe YouTubers arrive at the lake hoping to ignite their moribund bid for viral stardom by capturing a monster of the deep on their phones.

They’re not feeling the location’s magic and the only fuse their fractious zoomer ennui is likely to light is the one that will finally put their channel out of its misery.

Tate-Manning’s first short-film outing in charge heralds much better things for her.

For a start, her film, Blue Lake, is screening as part of this year’s Show Me Shorts film festival, the annual celebration of bite-sized celluloid.

And if casting is the key, then she has the Midas touch.

In the opening frames of Blue Lake, her leads, brother and sister Chris and Olivia Parker, appear to be continuing an argument that’s been running forever; it’s funny and carries an imprimatur of authenticity.

Comedian and actor Chris Parker was an early decision, Tate-Manning says. She wrote the script on the back of touring with his Hudson and Halls Live show, the slapstick stage homage to the TV chefs. Parker was Halls.

"I sort of wrote it for him, or with him in mind because I just think he is so funny and such a wonderful performer," the director says.

Then his sister agreed to play opposite him.

"The characters are written as brother and sister but it is never explicit," she explains.

"For me it is in the way they argue. I think they argue like siblings.

"A lot of the dialogue is improvised as well, because Chris and Liv are both excellent improvisers. So I wrote a script and most of that is in the film but most of the good bits are actually bits they improvised."

So, Tate-Manning had all the pieces in place for backers Short Film Otago to help her make it happen. Short Film Otago is amazing, she says.

"They really help you and mentor you along every step of the way. So I feel really lucky to have made a film with them."

Along the way, there was much to observe and learn. Like producers, and how crucial they are to assembling a team.

"Because almost every role on the shoot is something I don’t know how to do," Tate-Manning, who in her day job teaches at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School, says.

There were moments Tate-Manning recognised from her many years in live theatre — when, in the finest traditions of the stage, making do was the solution available.

One such moment arose during scenes shot at night, when the lake’s dramatic banks were playing backdrop to its inky inscrutable surface.

"That’s all lit by one light," she explains.

"Stephen Kilroy our lighting guy, he brought a massive floodlight with him and we rigged it to the house on the hill, so it is actually quite far away. And it was windy so someone had to stand up there and hold the light on the edge of the cliff.

"We were just running a cable from a house to light an entire lake basically.

"I was like, oh, I know this, this is where you don’t have much stuff and you just figure it out how to do it on the spot."

It’s where Kilroy, an old theatre chum, came into his own.

"He can just do anything. He can magic up anything out of his car, rustle up whatever you need."

There was a final lesson during the winter shoot, this one about limitations, when filming was cut short after the actors emerged from the lake closing in on hypothermia.

"You can write what you like, but whether you can shoot it is another thing."

Film in the can, the editing process meant returning to foreign territory, Tate-Manning says.

"We have probably re-edited the film like 100 times for a 10-minute film."

The realisation arrived, eventually, that she’d need to make a final decision, which exposed another difference from theatre. Up on stage each night provides instant feedback. So performers can react. If a line of humour is working, they can double down. If it is not, they can move on.

Making the film’s final cut involved making a decision without that feedback, another reason reducing all the material down to 10 minutes proved difficult, Tate-Manning says.

"If I had had my way the film would be one hour long, I think."

Show Me Shorts

Waikaia October 13

Dunedin, Wanaka and Arrowtown October 17

Stewart Island November 17-January 22

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