James Napier Robertson didn’t waste any time booking a trip back to Gisborne in his native New Zealand. Based on a tip from his producer Tom Hern, he watched a documentary about Genesis Potini, a man afflicted with bipolar disorder but who shows an unusual affinity for chess, and Robertson, who was in Los Angeles at the time, knew what his next film would be. He just needed to get the rights to make it, which required getting over one major obstacle.
“I ended up sitting down across from [Genesis] over a chessboard, and we played a game,” says Robertson, who figured the many chess matches he played as a young man might serve him well. “I lost, but I managed to hang in there long enough to earn his respect.”
Although Napier wasn’t victorious on the board, there’s no doubt he won in the long run since the director subsequently spent nearly the next five years working on “The Dark Horse,” a winning drama that not only recounts the pivotal point in Genesis’ life when the gentle giant found his calling passing along his gift to at-risk youth, but also that of his teenage nephew Mana (James Rolleston), who flirts with life in a local gang before Gen turns him onto chess. In telling of the founding of The Eastern Knights, the chess club Potini takes all the way to the national chess championship, Robertson creates a compelling multigenerational story of a pair of misfits carving out their own community when they have no natural place in the world.
Sadly, Potini didn’t live to see “The Dark Horse,” having died in 2011, just as Robertson began working in earnest on a screenplay, but shortly before the film hits American shores following a successful run abroad, most notably in its home country where it won six New Zealand Film Awards including Best Picture and boosted enrollment in the Eastern Knights to astronomical levels, the writer/director spoke about the weight of cementing Potini’s legacy on screen, how the story evolved to include Mana and how he created the film’s intimate and vivid visual style.
Although they’re very different films, it was interesting to see this film following up your first, “I’m Not Harry Jenson,” because they would both seem to be about outsiders finding their place in the world. Was it coincidental or is there something about that idea that keeps you coming back?
There seems to be. It’s funny, because you don’t quite know what it is that always draws you to something, but I’m really interested in the outsider in society – the person that is misunderstood or troubled internally – and how our own inner struggle, in a sense, or our mind can be our worst enemy. It can play tricks on us and almost be the toughest challenge for us to overcome. Those were things that interested me about the first film and that drew me to Genesis as well, because I just fell in love with him and I was so struck by him as a person. He was so inspiring and articulate and eloquent, but complicated and full of contradictions and in him, I saw a character who had an inner turmoil that was on a scale that not may of us actually have to go through.
We all have our inner turmoil and our internal struggles, but for someone with severe bipolar [disorder], it’s in a much more heightened sense. Yet not only was he ultimately trying to overcome that, but he was actually trying to use it to help others. I just saw this very honest human depth in this character, as well as a beautiful sense of hope and optimism in it.
You’ve said you were actually able to spend a year with Genesis before he passed on. Did the experience of spending time with him and then not having him around change what you wanted to do with the film?
It had a huge impact. It was such a shock to lose Gen. None of us knew he was sick and up until that point, I had spent a year writing the script, and he had been a very crucial part of that. He’d been such a supporter of it. When I wasn’t with him in Gisborne, I would be writing in Auckland. He would call me, and I would always want to tell him what I was writing because I wanted his approval, but he never wanted to hear it because he put his trust in me. Instead, he would sing to me on the phone. He would sing, [inaudible 00:04:25], just to give me support when he knew I was going through a challenging period writing the script. That was an amazing thing, to have that. When we lost him, I found it really challenging to carry on. For a period there, I actually just couldn’t face the script.
But then I remember being at his funeral in New Zealand, and the hall was overflowing with people. All these schools and principals were bringing up kids, and they were getting on stage, talking about how he had changed their lives. There were young men who are now successful lawyers or even playing chess, sending him videos from overseas, saying that they were on a path to crime and he’d turned them off it. I remember sitting there thinking, “I have to tell this story.” By losing Gen, it changed the film, because it went from being a film about him that he was a part of to [something] that was going to become his legacy. That came with a lot more pressure.
The first draft that I wrote was much more Genesis, and Gen did have a nephew who Mana is based on, but also there were countless young men that he’d helped. It was after a couple of drafts of the script that I realized in order to capture his true gift, his ability to connect with young people and help them – because as much as he was a brilliant chess-player, he was an even better teacher – I really wanted to bring into the story a character like Mana, who reflects all of that. Initially, it was more just Genesis, and then it evolved into Genesis and Mana.
There are so many stories from New Zealand about becoming a man – in fact, James Rolleston has grown up in front of our eyes in such films, but was it important to do something a bit different?
[A lot of that] was James, who shot to fame with “Boy,” and he was fantastic in it and charming, and there’s a lot of comedy. There was much heavier drama and much heavier emotion [here], which he was nervous about, whether he would be able to really go there on the day, but also there’s an unflinching aspect to his character. James, as an actor, has so much humanity to him that even when he’s doing things that we, as an audience, might struggle with, I felt like we could still connect with him.
Probably coming from acting myself, I have an appreciation for how hard acting is. To really be truthful and in the moment when a camera’s on you and the pressure’s on is not an easy thing. It’s very important for me to create an environment that is set up to allow actors to be able to be in that moment and, in a way, push them a lot further than they might think they actually can go by doing things like making them method act [like Cliff Curtis] or all the kids in the chess club, The Eastern Knights. They only knew each other by their character names, and for them, they were almost role-playing, [and we were] trying these different things to challenge them and bring out something they might not know is in them, but you can see it is there if the right approach is taken.
Visually, you have such rich and interesting colors in the background at all times and you stick pretty close to the characters in the foreground. Was there a certain aesthetic approach you had in mind?
The most crucial thing was for the film to feel authentic, and immediately, when I was thinking about a way to shoot it, I was led to a cinéma vérité, documentary-style approach with the camerawork, with handheld movement so that we feel very grounded in the reality of the film. But I also felt there is an immense beauty within the urban environment. I didn’t want [the film] to just be this grim, grey, ugly, shaky-cam thing. I wanted to get that beauty out of it, so my wonderful cinematographer Denson Baker had a pretty challenging task, because I also wanted the camera to be able to look wherever it wanted in 360-degrees, so we see the real world. I wanted actors not to have to hit particular marks, but to be able to move freely in an organic fashion, so Denson had to light it and Kim Sinclair, our production designer, had to approach it in that way, and they did an amazing job. As you say, the colors and the lighting were really important in letting that that emotion and beauty shine through.
What has everything after wrapping the film been like? You’ve won countless awards, been around the world and after this interview, James Cameron is presenting the film at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles this evening.
It’s fantastic, but to be honest, I find it pretty exhausting making the film and staying strong to the integrity of why you’re making the film in the first place. You’ve got to fight the good fight a lot. It took four-and-a-half years to make it, so you come out of that process pretty worn out, and then you have to move into the process of actually bringing the film to people around the world. Still, it is extremely rewarding. When you get some of the responses that we’ve been lucky to have, it’s extremely gratifying and to have people like James Cameron support it in the way that he is and [our distributor] Broad Green to put all the love behind it that they are, it just feels like a beautiful thing for the film. I’m very grateful.
“The Dark Horse” opens on April 1st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Angelika Film Center.