15 Oct 2021

Behind the scenes of the movie Juniper

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 15 October 2021

Auckland film director Matthew Saville went to great lengths to persuade award-winning actor Charlotte Rampling to star in his debut feature. 

Juniper tells the story of the relationship between a self-destructive teenager, played by George Ferrier, and his gin-soaked curmudgeonly grandmother, played by Charlotte Rampling.

It opens in cinemas on 28 October, and Saville and Ferrier joined Kathryn Ryan to chat about the film.

Saville says Ruth - the character Rampling plays - draws on his own grandmother, who moved from Europe to live with his family in New Zealand when he was 17.

"She was a real character, she liked gin and was incredibly intelligent.

"I didn't really notice it as a child, I just assumed a lot of her characteristics where she was very forthright and said exactly what she thought came from her personality and I suppose it did, but certainly she liked to keep things to a level, she never got outrageously over the top drunk but she just consumed all day, every day.

"She also had been through some incredible events. She was present in the Spanish Civil War in Spain, that kind of thing."

Ruth is an amalgamation of his grandmother and some of the great war journalists of the time, like Martha Gellhorn, he says.

"I sought parallels between these characters, Ruth's her own character but she draws from aspects of those two people in my mind and aspects of other great women like that."

From the time he wrote the script, he knew he wanted Rampling to play Ruth, so he flew to Paris to persuade her to come Down Under and film alongside newcomer Ferrier.

"Charlotte has a kind of gravitas required to play Ruth and so I just couldn't really see anyone else in the role.

"We just had the ambition and she really connected with the work and when we met, we got along.

"We felt that if we made the trip and as we sort of connected as humans that things would potentially work out, it was a bit of a risk, but it was the right thing to do."

Meanwhile, Ferrier - who plays Ruth's grandson Sam - jumped onboard Juniper just six months into drama school in LA.

Although Saville never met him, he says the actor "killed it" in the follow-up tapes he had requested and cast Ferrier right away. 

To create Sam's character, who goes through a rough time after his mother's death, Ferrier says he tried to draw on parallels with his own life.

"I used examples of my own life and saw how that had made me behave and I sort of delved deep into Sam's psyche, creating a backstory, creating all these memories, all these moments, trying to do as much research, re-reading the script as much as I can just to get the best grasp on who this guy is."

He also established a relationship with Rampling ahead of filming thanks to a suggestion from acting coach Miranda Harcourt to send a letter to the veteran actress in Paris.

"I just sort of confessed how much I admired Charlotte, that I'd admired her career, how I'd love to have a career similar to hers, and I thought she was an amazing storyteller and that so much of what she does is so iconic and that I just can't wait to work with her and then I told her a little bit about myself.

"I probably spent two days drafting this letter, making sure it was perfect.

"It was an amazing way to break the ice and we sort of had this intimate connection without having even met each other yet. So when we did get to meet each other, we had already bonded in a way."

There was pressure in seeing how the first scene together would go, Saville says, but he was at ease once he saw their chemistry in one frame.

"I remember that day, I was very nervous as well," Ferrier says. "Then I remember once we'd rehearsed that scene, Matt coming over and seeing how excited [he] was, it was like 'great, okay, we're on to something here'."

There were little rehearsals between them and so it almost became like a live play that they collaborated on as it was being filmed, he says.

"[Rampling] wants to find these moments that we can't plan for, and these golden moments and wants the camera to be recording while these happen. So that was an amazing way to learn for me."

Saville says he was open to feedback and changes and encouraged everyone to voice their opinion.

"As long as everyone's coming from the right place, it's not about how to make their character more likable or something, it's about actually understanding their character and journey, it's a really positive experience."

He says he's proud of the work they've accomplished.

"It's a very personal story and the big feeling with something like this is watching it with other people and watching and feeling the emotions come off them."

Ferrier says he's also excited about his first project with him in a lead role being on screen soon and has also just finished working on the series One of Us Is Lying.