Over the last week or so, New Zealanders have been lining up to see Cousins and have a cry (not that this was necessarily the plan). It’s a movie based on the novel that Patricia Grace wrote 30 years ago, and it’s been a long time in the making, with many people helping to caress the story into cinematic shape.
One of those people is Briar Grace Smith, who, as well as writing the screenplay and co-directing with Ainsley Gardiner, also played the older Makareta. Here she is reflecting on that experience with Dale.
Tēnā koe, Briar. You’re well and truly in the spotlight now with Cousins getting such a warm reception. But where did your story begin?
I’m from Ngāpuhi, and I descend from Ngāti Hau ki Whakapara. But I was mostly brought up on the Kāpiti Coast.
And Patricia Grace is your mum?
No. She’s my mother-in-law. I was married to Patricia’s son Himiona for many years, and we’re still very close friends.
My mum, Miriam Smith, was a pre-school advisor and she worked in kōhanga reo. She was beautiful with kids.
She was the author of several children’s books including Kimi and the Watermelon, Annie and Moon, and Rehutai and Tangitangi.
I grew up in Edgecumbe in the Bay of Plenty and then Pukerua Bay, about 45 minutes north of Wellington. We had a big house there, full of cousins and others who came to stay with us.
Mum was a very manaaki person. She had a big heart. She was one of those parents who convinced you that you could do anything you had your heart set on.
My dad, Alan Smith, worked in Māori education. He was Pākehā, but he spoke the reo. When I look back now, I can see that he was ahead of his time. He was a very bicultural person.
Are they still with us?
No. Dad passed away when I was about 15, and Mum passed away when I was 21. I lost them when I was still quite young. But those guys gave me a great start.
What got you interested in words — in plays, in screenwriting, and so on?
I wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. So, when I left school (Āotea College in Porirua) I was taken on as a journalism intern at the Evening Post.
And one of the first jobs they gave me was to come up with a story on a Māori theatre company on Willis Street. That was Te Ohu Whakaari.
I was up for that. My mother loved drama. She loved film, she loved theatre. And when I was a kid, she’d taken me to lots of plays.
When I rocked up to the Wellington Arts Centre, I found the company needed one more woman to join the troupe. They thought I’d come to audition — and I didn’t tell them that I was there for another purpose.
So, that was how I turned off the journalism road and into theatre. As an actor first, and then as a writer. And I became stronger in writing.
So, you were a qualified journo before your acting life began?
I did train as a journalist — but I’m not actually that qualified. But I was into writing. And when I was starting out, there weren’t any creative writing courses. There’s a whole lot of us who have come into the arts through journalism. Because that was the closest we could get to creative writing.
Your first play was Ngā Pou Wāhine. Tell us about writing that.
Ngā Pou Wāhine was a monologue, written for a Māori woman.
Before that, we’d had Jim Moriarty star in a John Broughton play, Michael James Manaia, in which he played various roles. But there were no roles like that for Māori women. There just wasn’t anything like that happening for us.
I wrote that play for Rachel House, who’d just come out of drama school. I wrote it for Nancy Brunning to direct, too — and that was her first time as a director. So, we were all quite young. And back in the day, it was a really big deal for us.
That play earned praise, too. No doubt the theatre sector sensed a young wāhine playwright on the rise . . . and since then, your output has been astounding.
Like I say, I’ve always loved writing. So, when I started writing plays, I couldn’t stop.
That’s slowed down a bit because working on film requires you not just to write, but to wear a whole lot of other hats as well. But I’m someone who can’t go too long without writing. It’s like breathing to me, really.
Do you write about what you’ve seen or feel? Or do you write of more abstract things?
I have experiences that I want to recall — that’s one thing. And I also see things that I would like to not so much “put right”, but that I’d like to address in a creative way. Because writing can also be a kind of political act.
I meet characters, I hold lots of threads of stories in my head all the time, and the time finally comes when it feels right to tell these stories. Some of which have been around for 10 years or more.
So, there’s a right time?
Yeah, they just gestate. And I’m always making notes about how I can add to the story, or how I can change things. Then the time comes when they feel well enough placed to be written into a film or a play, or whatever.
But they’re never about just one thing which has happened to me. My stories are made up of many things, and of many characters.
When you’re a playwright, you’re writing for a theatre process. Whereas a novelist or a journalist is flying solo. They’re quite different, aren’t they?
What I love about theatre and film is the community that it brings to you. You’re never alone, and I love the collaboration.
I’ve actually got a novel in my drawer, and writing that — I probably still need to do a couple more redrafts — was for me the loneliest experience.
Patricia Grace brought us Cousins, the novel, nearly 30 years ago, and it has taken over 20 years to come to the screen. But what appealed to you about that story? What can you tell us about getting involved — both as a writer, and then as an actor?
It’s a book that I’ve read three times. I’ve always loved it. I could pick it up again now, and I know I’d still keep going, from page one to the last sentence.
It’s a compelling drama about three different women at three different stages of their lives. It covers them when they’re children, teenagers, and when they’re older.
And I was also privy to a lot of conversations that Patricia Grace had with Merata Mita, who was the one who first wanted to adapt that story for film. Unfortunately, that never happened. But I saw their passion for that story.
My journey with it began when I was working at the Film Commission. I was going through all the scripts they had on file, and I was remembering Cousins, and thinking: “That’s been languishing for too long.”
At some point, I contacted Ainsley Gardiner, who is just the most fantastic producer.
“Ains?” I said. “Can’t you kind of pick this up? Wouldn’t you like to do something with that story?”
Ains had also worked with Merata as a mentor, so we just started talking. Then, about a year later, I asked her: “Have you found a writer yet? Someone to adapt that novel to the screen?”
She hadn’t. That’s when I asked her: “Would you be okay if I did it then?”
It came from there.
And the acting? In the first place, Nancy Brunning was cast as the older Makareta. Merata had her in mind to play the younger version of that character years ago. That’s how long this went back.
But Nancy became ill. Even so, the three of us — Nancy, Ains and I — were holding on to the hope that Nancy was still going to be able to play this role. Then she became very ill, and she passed away two weeks before we went into the shoot.
So, we needed to find someone else to play Makareta. I didn’t want to play the part at first, but as time went on, I came to really want that part, because I knew the character so well.
It wasn’t like Ainsley just gave it to me, though. I had to earn that part. To fight for it, really. I had to do many auditions.
What is it that makes Cousins such a compelling story? Is it a Māori story? Or has it got more universal themes?
It’s a story about connection. And that’s absolutely universal. And I think that, because of Covid, the timing is spot on. We all know what it’s like to be isolated, and we’re coming to understand how important whānau is to us.
So, these are Māori themes. But they’re also universal themes.
The other beautiful thing is that the novel is written in a very Māori way — which I didn’t change.
It’s a whaikōrero, really. You know, when the speaker has to make a point on the marae, he does that by going backwards and forwards. Backwards and forwards and round the corner till he comes back to make the point.
So, the narrative is not direct. It’s non-linear. It’s fractured. But by the end, I think everyone understands.
Does it belong in the same category as Mahana or Whale Rider as a Māori film? Or does it sort of stand out as something a little different?
It’s a film in its own right. I guess there’s a similarity to Whale Rider, in that Cousins is, in a way, a family drama. It’s a tear-jerker, too. I’ve discovered that people cry a lot during this film. I didn’t expect that.
When we had the first screening, a woman sitting next to me was heaving, with lots of hupe and that kind of stuff. I thought she was sick. But then the lights went up, and I saw that she was crying. And I realised most of the people in the audience were crying.
But it’s cathartic, right? It’s good to have a cry.
It’s lovely as Māori to see ourselves on screen and to see our wāhine portrayed with a sensitivity.
Oh, my gosh. There’s so many of us in this film and we were spoilt for choice. So, it was a jigsaw puzzle putting that cast together because we have so many talented wāhine actors.
Sing the praises of a few of them while we’ve got the chance, please, Briar.
Well, there’s Tanea Heke. I’ve worked with Tanea a lot. In Cousins, Tanea plays the role that binds us all together. She plays Mata, as a homeless person, in her older age.
Tanea is a standout. She has hardly any words, but she wears all her feels. Ana Scotney is powerful as the younger version of Mata. She plays this role alongside the exuberant Hariata Moriarty as the younger Missy, and the fierce, but always composed, Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne as the younger Makareta.
Rachel House is a firecracker, so strong. Cian White, too. Miriama Smith. And the children, Te Raukura Gray, Keyahne Patrick Williams, and Mihi Te Rauhi Daniels, were amazing, too. All of the girls held within them a certain spirit that was also owned by the characters they played.
If we look at the international success of films like Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, what do you think it is about our storytelling skills that appeals not just to us, but to international audiences?
Māori don’t beat around the bush. That’s the way we are. We just put things out there.
People call it brave but, really, we don’t mince words. It’s not polite. We’re authentic. And people everywhere are drawn to that. That’s what I think.
Can you talk us through the challenge of adapting the novel to the screen?
Firstly, Patricia had recently written her own draft of the film script, which I used as a starting point.
And, as I said, I’d been privy to conversations between Merata and Patricia, and I understood the problems they were grappling with, trying to adapt the book to the screen. Because the novel is epic. Epic, epic, epic.
I knew I had to be brutal. I had to decide what to include and what to throw away. I did that almost immediately. I read the book three times, and I was like: “What stayed with you? What didn’t stay with you? What characters stayed with you?”
Then, there was a process of distillation. So, sometimes I would merge characters. Or merge places. But what I was really aiming for was to hold on to the spirit of the novel.
Patricia Grace watched it last night — and I think she felt that we’d kept that. That was big for me. And it’s not easy to do.
But if the writer and the fans of the book come away from the film feeling like the spirit of the novel is still there — well, that was our main aim.
How satisfying was it to have the author’s seal of approval?
So, so satisfying. They had a screening for Ngāti Toa, which is one of Patricia’s iwi.
But she wanted to wait for the premiere in Rotorua. Then Covid happened. So, we had five staggered screenings last night, with only 70 people per screening.
Patricia was in the first bunch and I was acutely aware that she’d never seen it. I was so worried! But she was moved enough to speak at the end. And she doesn’t normally like speaking publicly.
Cousins has been a long time coming — because of Merata passing, the funding hassles, and so on. Do you think that the fact that it sat there for so long has given it a life of its own?
Absolutely. So much is about timing. When Merata tried to get this film up, we weren’t seeing anything written and directed by Māori women. There was a real prejudice against Māori films, Māori women directors, Māori stories.
But times are changing. And by the time Ainsley and I had come along, we were in a stronger space to push that film out.
And also, we’re not newbies. We’re both quite experienced — not as directors, but as writers and producers. It was a timing thing.
There was a glass ceiling. But our wāhine have hung in there. They’ve taken a stand and said: “Hey, listen. We’re good enough.”
There’s been a wonderful network, created in recent times, of wāhine writers, producers, filmmakers. What would you say of our Māori women who decided to band together and put their pou in the ground?
Yeah. It’s still tough. We’ve had to shake it up a bit to free up the space for us.
But things, I believe, are changing. We’ve had Waru. Now we’ve got Cousins. We’ve had Vai, which had eight Pasifika and Māori women writer/directors. So, I’m looking forward to that becoming the norm.
Because, when I grew up, I didn’t have anyone. We weren’t seeing true reflections of ourselves on screen. The reflections we were seeing on screen were nearly always driven by Pākehā. Mostly Pākehā men.
I work a lot with emerging writers, and I can see the game changing. We just want to become part of the fabric of the storytelling world in Aotearoa. Like, a big part of the fabric. Because we’re tangata whenua.
We’ve had an undoubted impact, too, on Pasifika storytelling and filmmaking. What do you make of the new crop of actors, writers, producers?
Amazing. Just amazing. I read a lot of scripts and I hear the voices of the characters and they’re real, they’re true. They’re not coming from outside. They’re authentic. There’s a lot of talent, we just need more experience.
But also, there’s a lot of hype around writing and directing. But when you’re in the industry, you realise we need cinematographers, we need sound recorders, we need distributors. The list goes on. We need to be operating on all levels if we want to have an authentic voice.
We’re on the move as a people. There’s no stopping us now. We’re pushing out in all directions — whether it’s science, or education or the arts. So, how do you sense our filmmaking and our storytelling prowess fits in with the overall emancipation of Māori and with Māori development?
I think we’re building numbers, and the game is changing. You used to be able to predict what a Māori story was going to be. After the commercial success of films like Once Were Warriors, the aspect of violence in our stories — and I’m not saying that the film was just about violence — became an expectation.
And Cousins is a gentle story about whānau and connection. So, the more stories and more perspectives on ourselves that we put out into the world, the better for everyone.
Because the diet that I definitely grew up with was that we were so lost. So now we’re getting real. And it’s amazing.
We can’t change that stuff now, of course. It’s there. But now we have a film that’s been dreamed of for a decade hitting our screens in New Zealand so, in some ways, your journey with it has ended. What’s the feeling now that Cousins is up on screen for people to enjoy?
In writing the screenplay, I realised it’s not my film. It’s not Ainsley Gardiner’s film. It’s not even Patricia’s film. This retelling of Cousins has been passed through many hands — including Merata’s.
It’s a story that talks to Māori, specifically to Māori women, but it also talks to the human condition. It’s big in terms of what it deals with, and it just feels like it belongs to so many people.
So, you just go: “You helped nurture the baby”, and “You helped put it out there”.
Cousins is on your CV but it’s no longer part of your future. So that must be an exciting feeling, one that’s a little open-ended?
Yeah, it is a bit open-ended. I’ve got three or four projects on the boil, including a comedy, which I’m really looking forward to. I don’t want to be serious all the time.
And I’m really looking forward to finally finishing a project that’s been in the works for years, that’s more specifically my voice.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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