4 Apr 2018

How to make a great low-budget movie in New Zealand (in 10 years)

9:06 am on 4 April 2018

Now or never.


A still from "Stray."

A still from "Stray." Photo: Image: Supplied by Long Road Films Ltd.

A local film that broke crowdfunding records has become the first New Zealand feature to compete at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Stray, written and directed by Dustin Feneley, 35, raised $125,000 through donation-based crowdfunding in a matter of days - the most ever for a New Zealand film.

The film will now make its world premiere at the world’s second oldest film festival in late-April.

Feneley is stoked to be able to speak those words together - “world” and “premiere.”

“We made a film we’re really proud of and that we think artistically works. When you’ve spent almost 10 years working on something, you want the best possible outcome,” he said.

“And none of us have ever been to Russia.”

Back in 2008, the indie filmmaker, whose main focus was making short films, wrote down an idea for his first feature:

Two characters on the margins of society who have, for different reasons, lost their place in the world, have an intimate relationship. Their pasts don’t define them. Instead, they provide each other a humanity that allows them to move on.

It wasn’t until 2012 that he found the time and energy to focus on hammering out a script. By 2015, he had a final draft - Stray.

Dustin Feneley.

Dustin Feneley. Photo: Ari Wegner

For many, passion for an idea wanes over time. There are creative geniuses with treatments and unfinished scripts clogging up their hard drives.

Feneley wouldn’t let that happen.

“I always had conviction in the story and the characters and the themes. I always knew that if I could pull this off, it would be a film that I would want to see, and others with a similar taste would also dig it,” he said.

What did wane was his belief he could get Stray made.

The Film Commission approved some development funding, but ultimately stopped short of financing the film.

In other countries, funding in the form of donations, private investment and subsidies is the norm.

“In America, for example, if you’re a relatively young filmmaker who made some shorts that did OK and you’ve got aspirations of making a feature, you might put it on credit cards,” he said.

He and his producing partner Desray Armstrong were able to raise relatively modest amounts by approaching local arts patrons and philanthropists, but were still comfortably short of the smell of an oily rag they needed to even begin thinking about shooting.

Dustin Feneley on set.

Dustin Feneley on set. Photo: Ari Wegner

“When we began thinking of crowdfunding, we settled on going for $50,000, which we knew would be a massive ask in New Zealand,” he said.

“We talked to Boosted, which cautioned us about having unrealistic expectations as it’s an all-or-nothing website.”

Feneley, who lives in Mt Eden, was understandably apprehensive about the idea of putting his hat out into the ether.

“I didn’t really want to ask people for money, but we reached a point where we’d been talking about making the film for so many years, we decided if we didn’t move past the awkwardness, it was never going to happen.

“It was now or never.”

More details were released about the film on Boosted. Stray’s mysterious synopsis was: “In a cold and remote landscape, two strangers, a young man and a woman, find solace in each other as they struggle to repair their broken pasts.”

Rather than $50,000, Feneley and his team aimed for a do-or-die $75,000. That target was reached within 13 days. Record - smashed.

They raised their target to $125,000 and swiftly hit that mark too.

Among the hundreds who donated were Sam Neill, and directors Alison Maclean and Bruce Beresford.

“We wanted to make an uncompromisingly arthouse film - the type of project that might usually struggle to get funded - so that was a key point we realised people wanted to see the film,” said Feneley.

A standard New Zealand drama feature usually has a budget of at least $1 million, but with a lot of goodwill from crew, donors and sponsoring companies, Stray was shot for far less.

Filming took place over a six week period in mid-2016 in freezing cold central and north Otago.

A still from "Stray."

A still from "Stray." Photo: Image: Supplied by Long Road Films Ltd.

Once editing was complete, Feneley aimed high by sending his film to the world’s biggest festivals - Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, Venice and Moscow. He came close to being accepted into a couple, before receiving a congratulatory email from Russia.

“It was just … amazing.”

The biggest festivals stipulate that each film's first screening must be a world premiere. Feneley has no problem with that.

Stray will screen in New Zealand later this year.

“We actually haven’t even shown it on a big screen yet. We also haven’t had a chance to show it to our cast and crew - only a handful of people have seen it.”

If the film is as good as advertised, that’s going to change.

Stray will premiere on April 21 at the Moscow International Film Festival.