An unbroken sea of black polythene, dark water, a child struggles … A dated, suburban room, a staggering man, a pink knitted-balaclava marked with a rudely drawn smile … Shadows, a subterranean bunker, a creature red, shackled … Bright urban colours, a crew of bodies moving wildly to a hip hop beat … A dim wood-panelled room, two children dressed for summer poke a prostrate male … A speeding vehicle convoy splayed out across a black-sand beach, wheel spins, sirens blare.

What do these disparate vignettes have in common? The Weight of Elephants (2013), A Song of Good (2008), The Devil’s Rock (2011), Born to Dance (2015), Christmas (2003) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) are all New Zealand stories told with help of Leanne Saunders.

Familiar names from here, there and elsewhere pop up in her resumé: Working Title Films, Zentropa, Severe Features, Headstrong. Individuals include Vincent Ward, Greg King, Ant Timpson, the late, lamented Paul Swadel, and – for Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Barry Crump and Taika Waititi.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Leanne could be described as cresting a wave right now. Her appointment captaining Production and Development at the NZ Film Commission (NZFC) comes alongside simultaneous and unprecedented success for Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Garnering the highest-grossing opening weekend for a New Zealand film began the journey to local box office champion. Overseas it’s winning awards and critical love (including a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

We asked Leanne if she had seen such success from the outset. Kicking off with a perspective that can only be described as ‘classic-producer-meets-classic-Kiwi’ she replied, “The underlying property was the book (Wild Pork &Watercress) from Kiwi icon Barry Crump whose novels have graced dunnies up and down the country. Taika Waititi was an exciting proposition to drag it kicking through the backblocks and into contemporary NZ. He’s a seasoned and endlessly inventive storyteller who loves to understand audiences. This combination offered fresh possibilities that we saw in the script from day one.”

Will all that success translate to profits?

Hunt for the Wilderpeople premiered at Sundance

Back row L-R: Rhys Darby, Sam Neill, Taika Waititi, Carthew Neal, Matt Noonan, James Wallace
Front row L-R: Julian Dennison, Leanne Saunders

“Yes,” Saunders said. “The film has in part been funded through the [NZFC’s] NZ Screen Production Grant, whose stated aims are to grow the producer sector. Through this mechanism the NZFC has equity in the film. The success of Wilderpeople will also see returns to investors including the NZFC.”

Considering her new professional home at the NZFC and the development process, Leanne commented, “There are lots of different entry points now – it’s not just one size fits all. It’s a complement to working on your own, [filmmakers and the Commission] work in partnership. Although [the NZFC] only funds films, we are involved in conversations at development stage about platforms and audiences and best fit for each project.”

On differences between the Australian and New Zealand screen production industries Leanne noted, “We are less unionised, which people refer to quite a lot. I prefer to think of our industry as more self-governing. We obviously don’t have the sheer numbers which means advantages and disadvantages. A lot of talent and crew … work successfully across both countries.”