24 Sep 2023

Dame Gaylene Preston on a life making movies

From Smart Talk, 7:00 pm on 24 September 2023
Gaylene Preston looking through a viewfinder lens

Photo: Dame Gaylene Preston

Gaylene's Take is the autobiographical memoir of an influential director who created a style of cinema unlike that of male directors of her generation.

Dame Gaylene Preston talks about her career at the 2023 Auckland Writers Festival.

‘A beatnik, introverted, smoking, drinking student culture was well established out at Ilam by the time I arrived. The artist took a back seat in society, and so did we.’

Gaylene’s Take is not only a story about the difficulties of filmmaking in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but about the making of an influential artist who was determined to create films fulfilling her unique vision of what cinema could be about.

The writer-director of enduring classics such as Mr Wrong, Ruby & Rata, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us and My Year With Helen talks about going where others feared to tread with Michelle Langstone.

As a child, Gaylene Preston would sit drawing on the floor under the table round which her mother and female visitors gathered. In this unobserved spot, she would overhear conversations and secrets not meant for her, and she attributes her love of storytelling to this formative time of her life.

Gaylene’s Take reflects on the attraction of voices.

In about 1977, I sat in a small house of this old man in his eighties, who was living in what had been his family home. The ghost of his wife was ever-present as he sat on the grey rug thrown over his ancient couch and told me his experiences of the battle of the Somme. I sat there in the little house in with the occasional train woefully passing, listening to his tales of the horror. The blood mixed with mud, and the boys he left behind, as though it had happened only yesterday.

I was stunned.

He assumed I knew much more about the whole sorry tale than I did, as he described terrible things. Hearing the stories of death and destruction, I found some of what he told me surprising. Mysterious. Like the fact that no matter how bad it gets, in the icy rain and rancid mud, the bully beef is always hot.

This is when I fell in love with oral histories. When the teller hits the present tense, you can tell that they’re right there. Pure memory. I’m transfixed, barely daring to move, checking that the little cassette tape is recording.

About the speaker

Dame Gaylene Preston

Photo: Dame Gaylene Preston

Dame Gaylene Preston

"I believe that the basic responsibility of New Zealand filmmakers is to make films principally for the New Zealand audience. If we don't, no-one else will."

Dame Gaylene Preston DNZM was the first filmmaker to receive an Arts Foundation Laureate Award. She is the creator of cinema classics such as Mr Wrong, Ruby & Rata, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us, and My Year With Helen. Gaylene goes behind the scenes in her new memoir Gaylene’s Take, which was longlisted for the 2023 Ockham Book Awards.


This session is broadcast thanks to the generous help of the Auckland Writers Festival held in May 2023

Photo: Auckland Writers Festival