Noir Zealand Road Trip

Breakout noir filmmaker James Ashcroft speaks to Letterboxd’s Indigenous editor Leo Koziol about his chilling new movie Coming Home in the Dark—and reveals how Blue Velvet, Straw Dogs and a bunch of cult New Zealand thrillers are all a part of his Life in Film.

Many different types of feet walk across those lands, and the land in that sense is quite indifferent to who is on it. I like that duality. I like that sense of we’re never as safe as we would like to think.” —⁠James Ashcroft

In his 1995 contribution to the British Film Institute’s Century of Cinema documentary series, Sam Neill described the unique sense of doom and darkness presented in films from Aotearoa New Zealand as the “Cinema of Unease”.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate addition to this canon than Māori filmmaker James Ashcroft’s startling debut Coming Home in the Dark, a brutal, atmospheric thriller about a family outing disrupted by an enigmatic madman who calls himself Mandrake, played in a revelatory performance by Canadian Kiwi actor Daniel Gillies (previously best known for CW vampire show The Originals, and as John Jameson in Spider-Man 2). Award-winning Māori actress Miriama McDowell is also in the small cast—her performance was explicitly singled out by Letterboxd in our Fantasia coverage.

Based on a short story by acclaimed New Zealand writer Owen Marshall, Ashcroft wrote the screenplay alongside longtime collaborator Eli Kent. It was a lean shoot, filmed over twenty days on a budget of just under US $1 million. The film is now in theaters, following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it made something of an impact.

Erik Thomson, Matthias Luafutu, Daniel Gillies and Miriama McDowell in a scene from Coming Home in the Dark.
Erik Thomson, Matthias Luafutu, Daniel Gillies and Miriama McDowell in a scene from Coming Home in the Dark.

Creasy007 described the film as “an exciting New Zealand thriller that grabs you tight and doesn’t let you go until the credits are rolling.” Jacob wrote: “One of the most punishingly brutal—both viscerally and emotionally—first viewings I’ve enjoyed in quite a while. Will probably follow James Ashcroft’s career to the gates of Hell after this one.”

Filmgoers weren’t the only ones impressed: Legendary Entertainment—the gargantuan production outfit behind the Dark Knight trilogy and Godzilla vs. Kong—promptly snapped up Ashcroft to direct their adaptation of Devolution, a high-concept novel by World War Z author Max Brooks about a small town facing a sasquatch invasion after a volcanic eruption. (“I find myself deep in Sasquatch mythology and learning a lot about volcanoes at the moment,” says the director, who is also writing the adaptation with Kent.)

Although Coming Home in the Dark marks his feature debut, Ashcroft has been working in the creative arts for many years as an actor and theater director, having previously run the Māori theater company Taki Rua. As he explains below, his film taps into notions of indigeneity in subtle, non-didactic ways. (Words in the Māori language are explained throughout the interview.)

Kia ora [hello] James. How did you come to be a filmmaker?
James Ashcroft: I’ve always loved film. I worked in video stores from the age thirteen to 21. That’s the only other ‘real job’ I’ve ever had. I trained as an actor, and worked as an actor for a long time. So I had always been playing around with film. My first student allowance that I was given when I went to university, I bought a camera, I didn’t pay for my rent. I bought a little handheld Sony camera. We used to make short films with my flatmates and friends, so I’ve always been dabbling and wanting to move into that.

After being predominantly involved with theater, I sort of reached my ceiling of what I wanted to do there. It was time to make a commitment and move over into pursuing and creating a slate of scripts, and making that first feature step into the industry. My main creative collaborator is Eli Kent, who I’ve been working with for seven years now. We’re on our ninth script, I think.

But Coming Home in the Dark, that was our first feature. It was the fifth script we had written, and that was very much about [it] being the first cab off the rank; about being able to find a work that would fit into the budget level that we could reasonably expect from the New Zealand Film Commission. I also wanted to make sure that piece was showing off my strengths and interests—being a character-focused, actor-focused piece—and something that we could execute within those constraints and still deliver truthfully and authentically to the story that we wanted to tell and showcase the areas of interest that I have as a filmmaker, which have always been genre.

Do you see the film more as a horror or a thriller?
We’ve never purported to be a horror. We think that the scenario is horrific, some of the events that happen are horrific, but this has always been a thriller for me and everyone involved. I think, sometimes, because of the premiere and the space that it was programmed in at Sundance, being in the Midnight section, there’s a sort of an association with horror or zany comedy. For us it’s more about, if anything, the psychological horror aspect of the story. 

It’s violent in places, obviously, but there’s very little violence actually committed on screen. It’s the suggestion. The more terrifying thing is what exists in the viewer’s mind [rather] than necessarily what you can show on screen. My job as a storyteller is to provoke something that you can then flesh out and embellish more in your own psyche and emotions. It’s a great space, the psychological thriller, because it can deal with the dramatic as well as some of those more heightened, visceral moments that horror also can touch on.

Director James Ashcroft. — Photographer… Stan Alley
Director James Ashcroft. Photographer… Stan Alley

There’s a strong Māori cast in your film. Do you see yourself as a Māori filmmaker, or a filmmaker who is Maori?
Well, I’m a Māori everything. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a friend. Everything that I do goes back to my DNA and my whakapapa [lineage]. So that’s just how I view my identity and my world. In terms of categorizing it, I don’t put anything in front of who I am as a storyteller. I’m an actor, I’m a director. I follow the stories that sort of haunt me more than anything. They all have something to do with my experience and how I see the world through my identity and my life—past, present and hopefully future.

In terms of the cast, Matthias Luafutu [who plays Mandrake’s sidekick Tubs], he’s Samoan. Miriama McDowell [who plays Jill, the mother of the family] is Māori. I knew that this story, in the way that I wanted to tell it, was always going to feature Māori in some respect. Both the ‘couples’, I suppose you could say—Hoaggie [Erik Thomson] and Jill on one side and Tubs and Mandrake on the other—I knew one of each would be of a [different] culture. So I knew I wanted to mirror that.

Probably more than anything, I knew if I had to choose one role that was going to be played by a Māori actor, it was definitely going to be Jill, because for me, Jill’s the character that really is the emotional core and our conduit to the story. Her relationship with the audience, we have to be with her—a strong middle-class working mother who has a sort of a joy-ness at the beginning of the film and then goes through quite a number of different emotions and realizations as it goes along.

Those are sometimes the roles that Māori actors, I often feel, don’t get a look at usually. That’s normally a different kind of actor that gets those kinds of roles. And then obviously when Miriama McDowell auditions for you it’s just a no-brainer, because she can play absolutely anything and everything. I have a strong relationship with Miriama from drama-school days, so I knew how to work with her on that.

Once you put a stake in the ground with her, then we go, right, so this is a biracial family, and her sons are going to be Māori and that’s where the Paratene brothers, who are brothers in real life, came into the room, and we were really taken with them immediately. We threw out a lot of their scripted dialogue in the end because what we are casting is that fundamental essence and energy that exists between two real brothers that just speaks volumes more than any dialogue that Eli and I could write.

Matthias Luafutu as Tubs in Coming Home in the Dark.
Matthias Luafutu as Tubs in Coming Home in the Dark.

What was your approach to the locations?
[The area we shot in] is very barren and quite harsh. I spent a lot of time there in my youth, and I find them quite beautiful places. They are very different kinds of landscapes than you normally see in films from our country. We didn’t want to go down The Lord of the Rings route of images from the whenua [land] that are lush mountains and greens and blues, even though that’s what Owen Marshall had written.

I was very keen, along with Matt Henley, our cinematographer, to find that duality in the landscape as well, because the whole story is about that duality in terms of people, in terms of this world, and that grey space. So that’s why we chose to film in those areas.

Regarding the scene where Tubs sprinkles himself with water: including this Māori spiritual element in the film created quite a contrast. That character had partaken in something quite evil, yet still follows a mundane cultural tradition around death. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah. I’m not really interested in black-and-white characters of any kind. I want to find that grey space that allows them to live within more layers in the audience’s mind. So for me—and having family who have spent time in jail, or knowing people who have gone through systems like state-care institutions as well as moving on to prison—just because you have committed a crime or done something in one aspect of your life, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room and there aren’t other aspects that inform your identity that you also carry.

It’s something that he’s adopted for whatever reasons to ground him in who he is. And they can sit side by side with being involved in some very horrendous actions, but also from Tubs’ perspective, these are actions which are committed in the name of survival. You start to get a sense Mandrake enjoys what he does rather than doing it for just a means to the end. So any moment that you can start to create a greater sense of duality in a person, I think that means that there’s an inner life to a world, to a character, that’s starting to be revealed. That’s an invitation for an audience to lean into that character.

Erik Thomson and Daniel Gillies in Coming Home in the Dark.
Erik Thomson and Daniel Gillies in Coming Home in the Dark.

What is the film that made you want to get into filmmaking?
The biggest influence on me is probably David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I saw that when I was ten years old. A babysitter, my cousin, rented it. It’s not a film that a ten-year-old should see, by the way. I was in Lower Hutt, there in my aunty’s house, and it was very cold, and there’s a roaring fire going. My cousin and her boyfriend were sitting on a couch behind me, and they started making out. I sort of knew something was going on behind me and not to look. So I was stuck between that and Dennis Hopper huffing nitrous, and this very strange, strange world opening up before me on the television.

I’ve had a few moments like that in my life [where a] film, as well as the circumstance, sort of changed how I view the world. I think something died that day, but obviously something was born. You can see what Lynch did in those early works, especially Blue Velvet. You don’t have to go too far beneath the surface of suburbia or what looks normal and nice and welcoming to find that there’s a complete flip-side. There’s that duality to our world, which we like to think might be far away, but it’s actually closer than you think.

That speaks to Coming Home in the Dark and why that short story resonated with me the first time I read it. Even in the most beautiful, scenically attractive places in our land, many different types of feet walk across those lands, and the land in that sense is quite indifferent to who is on it. I like that duality. I like that sense of we’re never as safe as we would like to think. Blue Velvet holds a special place in my heart.

What other films did you have in mind when forming your approach to Coming Home in the Dark?
Straw Dogs, the Peckinpah film. The original. Just because it plays in that grey space. Obviously times have changed, and you read the film in different ways now as you might have when it first came out. But that was a big influence because there was a moral ambiguity to that film; those lines of good and bad or black and white, they don’t apply anymore. It just becomes about what happens when people are put under extreme pressure and duress, and they abandon all sense of morals. The Offence by Sidney Lumet would be another one, very much drawn to that ’70s ilk of American and English filmmaking.

Coming Home in the Dark was filmed on location around the wider Wellington region of New Zealand.
Coming Home in the Dark was filmed on location around the wider Wellington region of New Zealand.

Is there a New Zealand film that’s influenced you significantly?
There’s a few. I remember watching The Lost Tribe when it was on TV. That really scared me. I just remember the sounds of it. Mr. Wrong was a great ghost story. That stuck with me for a long time. The Scarecrow. Once I discovered Patu! [Merata Mita’s landmark documentary about the protests against the apartheid-era South African rugby tour of New Zealand in 1981], that sort of blew everything out of the water, because that was actually my first induction and education that this was something that even occurred. I think I saw that when I was about eighteen. That this was something that occurred in our history and had ramifications that were other than just a rugby game.

And Utu, every time I watch that, it doesn’t lose its resonance. I get something new from it every time. It’s a great amalgamation of identity, culture, of genre, and again, plays in that grey space of accountability. Utu still has that power for me. It’s one of those films, when it’s playing, I’ll end up sitting down and just being glued to the screen.

It’s a timeless classic. I will admit that when I watched your film, The Scarecrow did immediately come to mind, as did Garth Maxwell’s Jack Be Nimble.
Yeah. [Jack Be Nimble] was really frightening. Again, it was that clash of many different aspects. There was a psychosexual drama there. You’ve got this telekinetic mind control and that abuse and that hunkering down of an isolated family. There are plenty of New Zealand films that have explored a sort of similar territory. They’re all coming to me now.

Bad Blood has a great sense of atmosphere and photography and the use of soundscape to create that shocking sense of isolation and terror in these quick, fast, brutal moments, which then just sort of are left to ring in the air. But I love so much of New Zealand cinema, especially the stuff from the ’80s.

Kia ora [good luck], James.
Kia ora.

Coming Home in the Dark’ is available now in select US theaters and on VOD in the US and New Zealand. All photographs by Stan Alley / GoldFish Creative. Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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