Tapanui 'how America used to be' - Redford

Robert Redford. Photo Getty
Robert Redford. Photo Getty
Robert Redford says Tapanui taught him New Zealand is a country with ‘‘a smile on its face’’.

The screen legend was expected to attend last night’s Los Angeles premiere of Pete’s Dragon, which was partly filmed in the West Otago town last year.

"I would imagine that New Zealand today is the way America was when I was a little kid,’’ Redford said.

"Where people bonded together, there was community work and there was joy and there was happiness, and it’s a can-do thing.’’

Tapanui proved it could do when the town of just 770 people was transformed into the Midwestern town of ‘‘Millhaven’’ for the shoot.

Graeme Smith, who has lived in Tapanui all his life, and his wife Rosalyn, who has lived there almost 50 years, were among those involved.

‘‘We had a wonderful time playing townsfolk on the main street,’’ Mr Smith said.

‘‘We’d do things about eight to 10 times. We weren’t to look at cameras and just go about things as normal, which meant not staring at the main actors and to try not to do anything unnatural, such as staring in a shop window for a long time.’’

The retired couple would arrive on set at 6.15am and not leave until about 4pm.

‘‘Everyone in the town embraced the film, and those who weren’t interested leased their houses to the movie cast and crew and took a holiday, so it was beneficial for everyone.’’

Rosalyn said the scale of the film in the town was amazing. It was run like a ‘‘well-oiled machine’’.

‘‘It was absolutely wonderful, but a little strange having everything done for you and made for you.

‘‘The food from the catering truck was not the kind of thing you normally get in Tapanui.’’

The Walt Disney Pictures remake of Pete’s Dragon stars Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, New Zealand actor Karl Urban and Wes Bentley.

It tells the story of orphan Pete and his best friend, a dragon named Elliot.

The film, a children’s fantasy, has already won positive reviews. The Guardian described it as ‘‘sweet and soulful with a bitter streak’’.

It certainly had a sweet impact on Tapanui, where the community was heavily involved..

Several businesses increased revenue by 80%-90% during the month of filming in the town. That included the local pub, which sold more bubbly in one night than it normally would in an entire year.

Tapanui’s postman, Horace McAuley, was the go-between for locals and production crew.

‘‘It was unbelievable,’’ he said. ‘‘There were two thinking streams, them and us, but everyone got along so well.

‘‘The locals bent themselves backwards to help. There’s a book full of memories for everyone.’’

Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery said Tapanui was his favourite shooting location.

‘‘I loved going to that little town and the way the town welcomed us,’’ he said.

'‘They made us almost feel like honorary citizens for the month that we were there.

‘‘New Zealand just has something magical about it, that extra layer of magic that we needed.’’

Private screenings are being held in Tapanui on Saturday and Rotorua and Wellington this week to thank the communities that were involved.

In Tapanui last week locals queued up to get their hands on tickets to the ‘‘give-back’’ screening. The 400 tickets disappeared so quickly Disney agreed to put on a second screening.

• Pete’s Dragon opens on general release in New Zealand on September 15.

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