Karting flick tracks emotions

Racing action from the film.
Racing action from the film.
Ordinary yet obsessive, Gazza, the key character in the film The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell, is the type of man who can be found in most suburbs, says New Zealand director Brendan Donovan.

You can add to the list of traits entrepreneur and man-about-Howick. He is equal parts charmer, fun father and frustrating husband, but mainly Gazza is crazy about karting, so much so that his expenditure on engines and the like has pushed his family to the brink of financial ruin.

Yet Gazza finds his world turned upside down when his two boys collide on the track, an event that prompts much soul-searching. Perhaps it's best to leave it at that lest the plot be spoiled. As Donovan hints: "A friend of mine rang me up after he'd seen the film and said, 'Dude, I haven't felt that emotional about a movie since I saw E. T.'."

William McInnes (left) and Josh McKenzie star in the film.
William McInnes (left) and Josh McKenzie star in the film.
Starring Australian actor William McInnes (Unfinished Sky, Look Both Ways, Seachange) as Gazza, Robyn Malcolm (Outrageous Fortune) as his wife Gail, Joel Tobeck (30 Days of Nights, Little Fish, Eagle vs Shark) as Gazza's old mate Ron and Josh McKenzie as eldest son Marc, The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell is a coming-of-age drama with a twist; i.e. the person forced to mature is 45.

Gazza is one of those blokes who always sees something brighter just over the horizon, Donovan says, adding his obsession with karting - in particular the careers of his teenage sons - provides a form of escapism from his suburban existence.

"He has got blinkers on as a result and doesn't see what is truly important to him until the end of the film - which is his family. I think there are certain Peter Pan-like qualities that are present in a lot of Kiwi males."

Brendan Donovan.
Brendan Donovan.
Like Australian films Crackerjack (bowls) and Kenny (sewage disposal), The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell offers audiences a close-up view of a world about which they may know little; in this instance karting provides an ordinary yet fantastical backdrop, a visceral place where one can almost smell the hot dogs and the burning rubber.

"It allows people to see something that might be quite outside their usual experience and they get to see it in deep detail," Donovan says of his debut feature film.

"I thought karting was a pretty good metaphor for the hopes and dreams of a suburban dad; it's small enough, but there are big enough aspirations inside it.

"I really wanted people to understand what karting was all about, to put them in the driver's seat. We built our own track at the old Hobsonville air base; that allowed us to put up barriers and a stand, which is a bit fancier than what you'd find at most kart clubs in New Zealand."

Yet karting and all its ambitions were far from Donovan's mind when he first began work on the idea in 2004.

The director of popular New Zealand television series The Insiders Guide To Happiness and The Insiders Guide to Love stumbled across the idea while doing a commercial.

"One time I walked into this guy's suburban house and his study was a shrine of karting trophies that his boys had won. In the middle of it, he was running a small business.

"It started out more as a Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers kind of thing. But as we developed it, one of the characters just kept screaming out for attention - and that was Gazza," Donovan explains.

"He was the guy who seemed the most interesting, who could go through the biggest change and that's what you want in drama; if people stay the same, well, that's an action film. For a drama, you expect emotional change. That's what the audience is after."

Also at the heart of the film is the East Auckland suburb of Howick. It's where Donovan (43) grew up. His mum (teacher) and dad (lawyer) still live there, as do his grandparents, who first moved there in the late 1940s.

"I think it is often the case that your first film or novel is about something you know best. One of the comments we get back about the film is that it is authentic in its feel about suburban New Zealand.

"In recent films, we haven't shown a lot of how most of New Zealand lives - and that is suburbia. For the people in the film, the biggest thing in their lives is not going to happen on some ship at sea or in some exotic location; it's going to happen where they live and work."

Not only does Gazza have to cope with change amid his immediate family; the racial make-up of his neighbourhood also poses a few challenges. This sense of flux is real, Donovan says.

"On the green fields that used to separate Howick from Manukau-Otara is a place called Meadowlands and there is literally an entire Chinese sub-community within the community. That fascinated me. When I was growing up the nearest restaurant was the Cobb and Co in Panmure, which was 20 minutes away. Now, there is this great diversity of people and, yet, you could live a life in old Howick and never actually go to this new place. Or, you could."

Beyond the hurtling karts and their haze of exhausts, at its core, The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell, is a love story, a reminder of the importance of honest, intimate relationships.

"At the beginning of the film, Gazza thinks the most important things in his world are getting his kid to Europe to race in Formula One and becoming a council member for Howick," Donovan says.

"He ignores his relationship with his wife and the deeper reasons why he loves his children - not just because they do well at sport.

"By the end of the film, he has totally grasped what is truly important to him. Sometimes you need reminding of that."


• Brendan Donovan was the lead director of the critically acclaimed television series The Insiders Guide To Happiness and The Insiders Guide to Love, for which he won a Qantas Award for best director.

• He directed Aftershock, a television film about an earthquake destroying Wellington, for which he won a Qantas Film and TV best director (television) award.

• He attended the University of Otago from 1985-1990, graduating with a BA and Bcom. He worked as a graphic designer in Wellington in the 1990s before moving to New York, where he worked in advertising as a creative director.

• He then began directing commercials, short films and music videos in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. He returned home in 2002 after eight years abroad.

The Otago Daily Times has five double passes to give away to The Hopes & Dreams of Gazza Snell. To enter the draw, write your name, address and daytime phone number on the back of an envelope and send it to Gazza Snell, ODT Editorial Features, Response Bag 500010, Dunedin, or email playtime@odt.co.nz with Gazza Snell in the subject line, to arrive before Wednesday. The film opens nationally on Thursday.

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