This is a Resident interview about two strong women, not just one. The first is Amanda Millar. The second is Celia Lashlie.
Amanda is one New Zealand’s best known journalists. Before meeting her face-to-face, I knew her as the face of 60 Minutes. She is a mother, a wife, a Wellingtonian and now a film director, producer and distributor. Canny, clever and bloody determined, Amanda is energising to be around, with a sharp wit and crisp tone. She also feels, to me, like an old friend.
Celia Lashlie was a social activist and author. She worked for 15 years within the Prison Service, starting in December 1985 as the first woman to work as a prison officer in a male prison in New Zealand. Her final role within the Service was as Manager of Christchurch Women’s Prison, a position she left in September 1999. In September 2004, she completed the ‘Good Man’ project. The project, which facilitated discussion within and between 25 boys’ schools throughout New Zealand, aimed to create a working definition of what makes a good man in the 21st century. Celia wrote three books; The Journey to Prison: Who goes and why, He’ll Be Ok, Growing Gorgeous Boys into Good Men and The Power of Mothers: Releasing Our Children. Celia passed away from pancreatic cancer in February 2015 at her home in Mount Victoria.
Amanda Millar knew Celia personally. She agreed, at Celia’s request, to make a film about her life. One day in 2015, while Celia was struggling with her illness, Amanda was called by Celia’s daughter to come over and film, as an urgent request. Together, they recorded an hour and half of Celia’s reflections on her work. The next day, they planned for Amanda to return and film more. However, sadly that second interview never happened. Celia took a turn for the worse. She passed away shortly afterwards.
With this hour and a half of footage, Millar knew she had to somehow honour Celia and make the god-damn film. So, she self-produced, self-funded and directed Celia with no traditional funding, on a shoe-string budget. Somewhere along the way, Amanda got her film partially funded by a normal guy, Gary, who, after hearing about her asking for money for her Give A Little page on the radio, offered to help and believed in the project as much as she did. Somehow, together, they did it.
Celia it is one heck of a film - one every New Zealander must see.
A love letter to Celia’s legacy and to Wellington, you’ll laugh and cry. I reflected on New Zealanders and our relationships between men and women in fresh and uplifting ways. Celia’s life was one of hope. The film too is a story about hoping to be better and helping one another become so.
It is no exaggeration to say that the film has been as life changing for Amanda as Celia’s work was for everyone she encountered in her rich and interesting life. Here is what happened, when Amanda Millar and I (and probably Celia, somewhere up there) met at Te Wharewaka, to talk about Celia, the movie.
Lucy Revill: Amanda, the first question that I tend to ask everybody is where were you born?
Amanda Millar: I was born in Dunedin.
LR: What did your parents do at that time?
AM: When I was born they were both teachers, and then my father went on to become the Deputy Principal of Dunedin Teachers’ College, so teaching was kind of in the family. I think they always expected me to be a teacher, but that obviously didn’t happen.
LR: Was storytelling important in your early life?
AM: As a child I was an extraordinary storyteller; I liked telling big stories. My two siblings would always wind me up going, ‘Here she goes again.’ Stories have been a big part of my life. Loved reading them, loved telling them, and kind of loved being the centre of attention.
LR: When you went through school, did you start to feel a bit of direction towards English and the arts more than maths and science?
AM: The whole reason I got into journalism was because of my English teacher and my art teacher. I wasn’t great at art in terms of the creative side of it, but I wrote a mean essay, and my English teacher (bless his socks) encouraged me. He said, ‘You should be a journalist.’ I went, ‘Oh, that sounds a bit glamorous, sounds a whole lot more interesting than being a nurse.’ Don’t know why I thought for a minute I would ever be a nurse. So I kind of got a bit of a spark and I started to think about what journalists did: they’re the ones that write the stories and have conversations. I’ve always talked a lot, and I’ve liked to hear about other people, so that’s what got me on the path to journalism.
LR: What did you do in those days to start working in journalism?
AM: When I started there were no Whitireia’s. I think there was one Polytech course running, and I think that was in Wellington. There was one degree being offered at Canterbury University. Otherwise, you learnt on the job as a cadet reporter. I went to every single organisation in Dunedin, which was not very many because it's a small city, and I knocked on their doors and said, ‘I want to be a journalist.’ They essentially said, ‘No. Go away. Come back when you have experience.’ I was slightly annoying about it, but that’s the number one skill of a journalist: to be persistent.
I had also just left school after the sixth form because I felt like I was ready to leave. I thought I would do the postgrad course at the University of Canterbury but that would mean doing a BA at Otago first. I went along to Otago University and enrolled and then they discovered I was still 16 and they said, ‘Get out of here. Go away and get some life experience and then come back to University when you’re a little bit older.’ I was very dejected about that; I thought that sucked. I then went and sold shoes for about six months and got bored rigid, and thought, ‘I can’t stand this,’ and that’s when I got a job. I just hounded the editor of a paper, a now defunct paper in Dunedin called the The Evening Star and I landed a job as a cadet reporter.
LR: That’s amazing. I guess people used to think of journalism as being a craft and more like a trade, and now it's become very academic.
AM: Yeah, it wasn’t for us. I think that’s the thing: journalism kind of got elevated to this high pedestal, and especially when you consider what went on in the ‘80s and the whole advent of tabloid journalism—it changed completely. So rather than becoming more cerebral or more analytical, it actually got dumbed down. Let's not get too precious about journalism: it is really a pretty fundamental skill to write simply and to write effectively.
LR: You went on and had a very successful career working for TV3 and 60 Minutes, which is where I know you from with the wonderful red hair, which popped up briefly in the movie.
AM: I’m amazed that someone of your generation actually remembers that whole era.
LR: You would hear the news finish and then you would hear the tick-tick-tick-tick of 60 Minutes. When we were growing up, Mum and Dad would make us watch the news because they wanted us to know what was going on in the world, so you would get nagged to come and watch the news and get off The Sims or whatever.
AM: I talk to people now and they say journalism has completely changed. Not to denigrate what is happening in the contemporary landscape, but once upon a time the news was like meat and three veg, and then the current affairs after the news was often like the dessert. Now, with news and information it's like junk food on tap—you just pick. It's a smorgasbord where you take a bit of this and you take a bit of that. It's not necessarily very sustaining and it's not necessarily very good for you, but it's right there in front of you and you want to taste it.
Randomly, because I haven’t watched TV for ages, there was something recorded on our Sky (we are so old school) and it was about the year 1989. Now, 1989 was the year I left TVNZ and joined TV3, which was a huge year for me and things really changed. This programme was American and it was all about the advent of ‘A Current Affair’ which was real sensational TV programme. It was journalism like we’d never had before. It was truly the birth of tabloid TV.
Up until then we had been very purposeful about telling stories: they had to be balanced, they had to have perspective, and they had to have context. Now what tends to happen in journalism is that you find your niche—you find what you believe in—and that’s where you stay. So you don’t get that broad mix of information from all the other sources. If you’re a Donald Trump supporter you go to Fox News, or you go to wherever he sends you, and that’s all you hear.
LR: You’re silo’d.
AM: Totally silo’d—perfect word. That’s the danger of where we are now, and we’re not actually allowing people to be truly enlightened because most of us don’t have the time or capacity to go seeking that analysis, that balance, or that context. It's become entrenched and you’re just preaching to the converted. We’re not coming together and having really enlightened exchanges. It is, as you say, really silo’d and that’s quite dangerous.
LR: In your time doing interviews, who were the people you interviewed and now look back on with a feeling of pride, or interest, or amazement that you met them?
AM: There were a lot of people I interviewed that I think, looking back on it, what an amazing privilege. There were some incredible stories of real survivors—very uplifting. Some of them weren’t high profile, but they are people I still have in my life. That’s really important to me.
LR: At the showing of your film Celia the other night, you touched a little bit on how it began. May I first say, if I ever wanted to burst into tears and cry with a bottle of wine while I was in London, this is the film I would watch. It's actually a love letter to Wellington, too. When you were filming in Celia’s house, I was living around the corner on Brougham Street with my former flatmates in 2015. So I was watching it and thinking about walking up the track to Mt Victoria with my flatmate at that time. That shot out the window—I won’t be the only person who notices that in the film because so many Wellingtonians have lived in Mt Vic.
AM: I love that line, ‘A love letter to Wellington.’ That is really beautiful. I must admit, I didn’t consciously do that. It was a needs-must process because I didn’t know how to link all this incredibly intense interview. But I know that she loved Wellington; Wellington was her bot-hole. She travelled probably almost three out of four weeks throughout the year, and at least one of those weeks would be in Australia—going and speaking over there. Sometimes it was South Africa or America. So when she came back to Wellington it was truly her sanctuary. That house became the sanctuary and, as she says at the beginning, it was a cathartic process when she found that house and finally moved in. She used to sometimes house-sit or she lived with her daughter—she was quite nomadic, but she always came back to Wellington. That house was a very, very powerful, restful haven for her.
LR: I think it was captured beautifully by the cinematography as well, the connection to nature that most people living here have.
AM: I had to find a device that took us in and out of the intensity of the interview, because it is demanding. It's full on, listening to what she is saying. It is powerful but you need respite. I thought that could be the view. All these things, were from her window. As time went on, through those ‘twelve hours’ that Celia talks about in the fim, she was looking out that window—there was the bird, there were the kids in the park, there was the person walking their dog. That was a device that I thought would give people that light and shade and rest from some of this powerful content that was really going to be very, very hard on them to watch.
LR: For you, was finding the rhythm of the film an ‘aha’ moment, or was it something that you gradually came to over time?
AM: It was incredibly organic, the whole process. Essentially I could only ever do it in a very piecemeal way, so we had the interview at the beginning. We had borrowed a really crappy camera. We didn’t really have any lighting. Everything was pared down. I didn’t have money. I couldn’t pay the camera woman. It was just a matter of getting what we could. Then whatever filming I did for the next two years was like a day there, or I would beg, borrow, or steal some equipment with the help of a Givealitte site that Celia’s daughter, Beks set up. Things happened organically, and I do believe that Celia had a role in that. I’m not a religious person, and she says in the film the same thing, that she’s not a religious person—but she is deeply spiritual. I think she had a role in making a lot of things happen so that it would eventuate in the way that she would be comfortable with. That sounds a bit woo-woo, but I honestly can’t explain a lot of the things that happened.
One of those things was the painting. I didn’t have a vehicle—I had the interview, but how could I tell something that was in the past? I had nothing that was contemporary. What could I film? I watched some documentaries and there was a scene of somebody looking out a window, and there was rain on the window. I thought, ‘Right, the window has to be the vehicle for coming in and out of the interview.’ Then, when Heather Main was commissioned to paint that portrait for the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, I went, ‘Well, I’ve got something that’s evolving, and I can also use that as my vehicle.’
LR: I think there are so many jaw-dropping moments in the film. Obviously that was communicated by word of mouth when it showed at the Film Festival last year. Was it the People’s Choice film?
AM: It was the most successful box office local film in the festival. Every single screening sold out, and that completely blew me away. We had to arrange a whole lot of extra screenings. When the director Bill Gosden accepted the film, that was like, ‘I can’t breathe. It's accepted. People are going to see it.’
There had been a moment in about February 2018 when I went, ‘I can’t do this; it's just not working.’ I gave it to a couple of really respected film-makers I know, and they gave me some advice: ‘Stop being a journalist and be a friend.’ That was an epiphany for me because I had been going back into my default mode, which is ‘I’m a journalist so it needs separation’. I wasn’t in the film so it lacked that connection. That was the moment when I realised I had to change how I was telling Celia’s story.
LR: Did you start to put yourself in the film at that point?
AM: That’s when we filmed some of those bits of me typing and reading her email. That was the only way I could link it back to me and my involvement, so I had to kind of physically get myself in there to help make it more seamless and a more intimate.
LR: I think one of the most interesting stories about making the film really must be the fact that you had no money.
AM: I think it's pretty standard for New Zealand film makers. We are really, really, grossly unsupported and it's very hard, if you’re an independent film-maker, to get that support—even from sources like the New Zealand Film Commission. I approached TVNZ; I approached TV3, and put the idea of the documentary to them because at that stage I was kind of thinking, ‘I’ve done TV documentaries. I can do this.’ They really were either wanting to manipulate Celia’s story to fit in with their marketing plan or create a storyline that I wasn’t comfortable with. I knew she would be mortified, so I thought, ‘I have to make this documentary myself, in a way I feel comfortable with.’ So then I went to the Film Commission.
Making a feature film is a very different process to making a TV documentary. I put together a proposal and remodelled it to make it more cinematic, and went to the chief executive and sat in his office. He was really supportive. He viewed the master interview and said, ‘She’s really powerful, but you know what? I think it really needs to be focused on the mothers and the teenage boys.’ That was because he knew he would get bums on seats. I thought, ‘No, that’s not what was the focus of this documentary to Celia.’ Her story was deeper than just trying to understand teenage boys. So I decided I’ve got to do it myself.’
LR: That’s very brave; that takes a lot of guts.
AM: I didn’t have any option. There was a woman up there called Celia and I knew that if I didn’t do her justice, if I put a documentary together that didn’t truly honour her in the way she would have wanted, I couldn’t live with that. In the end, I think I instinctively made what was within me as well. After years of working in journalism and getting to where I am, I know how powerful my instincts are. That’s what guided me the whole way through: if it wasn’t Celia and some ooky-spooky sign, then it was instinct saying, ‘No, it's got to be this, it's got to be that.’
LR: When you get rejected by the Film Commission, what are the choices?
AM: There ain’t many choices. Rebekah (Celia’s daughter) and I had talked about running a Boosted campaign. At the beginning we had a Givealittle campaign. When Celia died, it was such a shock to so many New Zealanders that there was this outpouring and people went, ‘I’ve got to do something or give something.’ So a Givealittle site was set up. Quite a bit of money came into that, which helped me for some of the time, but I was also very aware that it needed to be used for some of the ongoing projects that Celia wanted.
Rebekah and I felt we couldn’t keep the Givealittle going forever. We knew we had to get brave about this. The plan had been to run a Boosted campaign in 2017, probably about May. It was February when I went on RNZ’s, The Panel and said we’re having to close this Givealittle fund but we do need money.’ It was pretty unashamedly like hustle, hustle, hustle, and that was when the money came in from Garry. It was time for me to ring him and go, ‘That is very generous.’
LR: Are you able to share more a ballpark figure of how much it took to make the film?
AM: I don’t really want to do that because that’s an arrangement between Garry and I. Needless to say, it was made really, really cheaply. I had shot a lot of it by the time he came along, but it was readying me for the editing and the post-production, which is the chunky money end of the business, and I really needed help with that. When I reflect on how we managed that budget, we still had to cut a lot of corners. Park Road Post was so, so generous. It was such a gift that people—not only Park Road Post but every person who worked on the film—became so emotionally involved and connected to Celia that they gave their time, their resources, and they gave their creativity for next to nothing. So I was really blessed, and that’s all due to Celia.
I think that’s what I was truly astounded by: that men, grown men, professionals who work in the film industry, were crying. They were moved. I had never made a feature film before and all these people were saying, ‘It's the best thing you’ve ever done.’ Not because of me but because of Celia.
LR: Has there been a moment where you’ve sat and taken a moment to just be like, ‘Holy shit, we’ve nailed it.’
AM: The time Garry came and watched the sound mix, when the film wasn’t completely finished—that was the moment. He would constantly say in the phone calls, ‘This has got to be powerful, Amanda. You and I are putting a lot into this and it's got to be powerful. It's got to make a difference.’ It was a big task. So when he saw the film and he was completely blown away and the tears were rolling down his cheeks, I knew I had what I needed to take out to the world in terms of Celia’s legacy. That was a really, really pivotal moment for me.
LR: Has your family been a good support for you?
AM: Amazing. My daughter was working with me. She’s just had a baby, so I’ve become a grandmother. Her name is Tennessee. She worked really, really hard on the film and supporting me, doing everything from production to helping with publicity. She’s in it: she’s the one carrying the suitcase. All the family was involved. My son, who is now in Japan, was kind of like a runner and assistant camera person for quite a lot of the shooting, especially at the boys’ schools because Rongotai College was his old school. So he was involved. John, my husband, has just been awesome. I mean, he had to put up with the film being edited in his house for more than a year and a half. He saw me get swallowed by the project, but he knew how much I believed in it and he’s been really so loyal, patient and supportive. So I could not have done it without the family.
LR: What can we all do to support your film and to make sure that it does the best that it possibly can? Seen by every person in New Zealand.
AM: Well thank you, Lucy. That’s the plan, and that’s why I’m self-distributing it. So, instead of a commercial distributor, a couple of very key people are helping me get the film to every single town in New Zealand. That’s what I want. The way people can help is to come to the film because I know it works on so many levels. I promise there is something in this film for every single one of us. If it changes your life in the way that you deal with your partner or your children, or the disadvantaged people around you, then that’s enough. But there is also the opportunity for people, if they truly feel inspired, to go to the Celia’s Army website and support the Celia Lashlie Trust, where Rebekah Henderson (Celia’s daughter) is now getting behind some projects that Celia would have supported. People who we like to call ‘change makers’ can come on board and actually carry that baton and continue to improve New Zealand and the lives of those who are most at risk.