AN INTERVIEW WITH ALBERT BELZ
Interviewed by Christopher Howe and Hera Lindsay Bird
The 2011 Victoria University Writer in Residence was Albert Belz. Albert studied at Carrington Unitech in Auckland and Auckland Institute of Technology before securing acting roles in stage and television, including Shortland Street. He became a full time writer in 2001.
His first play was Te Maunga, followed by Awhi Tapu in 2003 which was nominated for Best New New Zealand play at the Chapman Tripp theatre awards. Yours Truly won the Best New New Zealand Play Award at the 2006 Chapman Tripp awards and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award 2006 for Best Emerging New Zealand Playwright. In 2008 Te Karakia featured in the Wellington International Festival of the Arts, and he also completed Whero’s New Net, an adaptation of stories from Witi Ihimaera’s The New Net Goes Fishing.
In 2010 Albert was the Waikato University writer in residence, and his play about the golden age of Maori showbands, Raising the Titanics, was The Listener’s Best New Play of the year.
Albert lived in Auckland from the age of 12, but moved to Hamilton in 2010 and Wellington in 2011. In 2012 he will accompany his partner to Australia.
This conversation took place at the ‘Milk and Honey’ café at Victoria University on the 17th November 2011 with Chris Howe and Hera Lindsay Bird (who transcribed the audio files.) The initial questions were suggested anonymously by IIML staff and students, but the conversation often departed down other interesting avenues.
What did you work on during the year, and was it a year?
Close to a year, February to November. Beginning of February I started off, just leaving as of yesterday. What was I working in while I was here? A couple of projects, the main one being Morning Star, which is a feature play I wrote while here, and we did a little public reading last Wednesday just gone, and got lots of good feedback from that, and we only need to do one, two more drafts and then she’s good to go. It’s a play about the fall of Lucifer from heaven, and the events leading up to his eventual fall.
Is that the only project you’ve been working on this year?
I’m also writing a children’s book, young adult anyway, and I didn’t work on it anywhere near as much as I would have liked to, but it’s very close to finished anyway – in terms of first drafts. It’s about a hundred miles from being really finished, but the first draft is very close to being finished and it’s not terrible, which is okay I guess. I don’t know. It’s my first shot at it, but I figured I had a chance to give it a go this year. I’d written a lot of it last year as well.
So did you get feedback or support from other staff at the Institute for either of these projects?
A little bit, not so much in that I didn’t really search for it. I kind of like being locked away and just doing my own thing, and then it works or it doesn’t work, at least in workshops it works or doesn’t work, and we find out there, but I haven’t really asked for it. I’m sure if I had asked for it it would have been there.
So have you workshopped the children’s book?
I just had a really strong outline for it, had some ideas in my head and ran with it, did lots of reading and figured I’d give it a shot.
You mentioned that this was your first time writing a children’s book. Is this also your first time writing prose?
Yeah, very much so. I’d written some prose in the past, but never with any intention of doing anything with it, it was just a bit of fun while I was bored, but now I have a teenager and my youngest is turning twelve, and I was kind of hoping to have it finished and published (laughter) before the teen years, but that is very very very unlikely.
So that room that you’re in, we’ve walked past it lots before, down at the bottom, but I’ve never actually seen the door open. What’s it like in there? Is it a writer’s room?
It’s beautiful, it’s sunny. It’s not my kind of writer’s room. I like it to be a bit smaller and a bit more cell-like, but it is beautiful. Lots of windows, lots of sun, and a little bird outside in the morning. I was living with my partner in Kelburn and it was nice for her to have a break from me, and vice versa, and it was really nice to be able to run away to that office. I did the Waikato residency last year, and as much as I enjoyed that one, this was a mansion compared to the office in Waikato. That was more a working space with a white board, the Victoria one was a place to hang out. I just wanted to invite a few mates over and have a few beers down at the office. Very unprofessional.
So the two things you worked on, that’s what you came with then. Did you work on anything else?
Yeah, I did a couple of other smaller projects for television, and something that’s top secret and still in the frigging works and blah blah blah crap bullshit television.
Top secret? Turbine gets published in December, is there any other hint you can give us?
Not really no. One for Iworks, and that’s really really really top secret, and the other one’s for South Pacific, and they’re both on hold now. It was all guns blazing in the middle of the year, and now it’s “we’re not so sure Albert, we’ll see what happens.”
These are the producers saying this?
Yeah, one of the producers. They had a little bit too much work on, and had to put one project on hold which is going to be mine, well, ours really, they came to me with the idea, and they’re not sure what to do with it now.
Oh well, good luck.
I think I’ll need it.
You’ve had material on TV before, that you’ve written as well as acted?
That was mainly for Maori television, and I’d done comedy stuff and did some work for South Pacific, storylines on Shortland Street and heaps of other little stuff, one offs. Nothing I’m too terribly proud of. Still, it pays the rent, and you put it up, and you’re like, I’ve done it now.
The storyline idea – I’ve seen films recently where it says screenplay by a certain person, and then it says screenplay storyline by someone else. Did you do scripts or storylines, or both?
When I was storylining for Shortland Street it was pure storylining, and that was no scripts at all, just literally writing out scene by scene what was going to happen in that scene without any dialogue. I found it really difficult and frustrating in the sense that I would look at other writers who were doing it, and they were just jamming away and doing their thing, and I was like why can’t I do this? So I wasn’t very good at it, is the answer there. I got good at it, by which time I was ready to burn out.
Can you tell us a bit more about the storylining work?
On Monday we’d sit down at a table and work out a week’s worth of plot, and then we’d be given day by day what your story was going to be anyway. I think there were three or four of us at the table by the time I left, and that was it, so I would do Friday or half of Friday, and somebody else would do Monday and we’d just work it out from there.
How do you get the consistency with different writers working on different days?
Because it’s so formulaic. The consistency would come in when it was sent away to the dialogue writers or script writers to knuckle it down, and then you had your editors who were the standard editor and the head overall editor who links the storyliners with the scriptwriters. For me it was frustrating. I could find lots and lots of people who were like, ‘I don’t know what he’s talking about,’ and there were several writers who are still there to this day, who were just jamming away and doing that.
Who’s influenced and inspired you, and the work you do and the things you write about?
Certainly in the early stages of writing and reading, Witi Ihimaera’s work influenced me a lot, in fact to the point of, the first play I ever wrote, I heard that he was at Auckland university and I just went and knocked on his door and was like ‘hey, can you read this,’ and then he did. And also Briar Grace-Smith, as well. I hadn’t actually published anything, but had written a lot at that point, and so I threw away a lot of what I had written and started again, after seeing Purapurawhetu, and seeing how powerful theatre could be, none of which anything I’d written was.
When was that?
That was 1998, 1999 I think. Other than that I’ve been strongly influenced by film and comics and Japanese animation. That’s pretty much it.
You said you’d been doing a lot of reading for your children’s book. What have you read?
I read the Harry Potters and that’s what made me think this is going to be so easy (laughter), find some teenager and chuck him with some power. Done. Easy. I read three of those but I got tired of them, and then lots of fantasy stuff which is really easy for me anyway, and I like a lot.
Is fantasy the genre of children’s book you’re writing in?
What’s your favourite fantasy book?
Pretty much anything by David Gemmell, and I’ve been reading some Brandon Sanderson, the Mistborn series.
What about those Christopher Paolini, Eragon books.
Oh god, they’re shit (laughter). The Northern Lights, that was awesome. That was amazing that series. But yeah, Christopher Paolini, that’s just shit. I can’t believe anyone is publishing his books. But if I were a teenager and I picked that up, I would be like whoa! I wished I’d read that as a teenager and actually like it.
What have you done that you’re most proud of and what are your ambitions?
‘Yours Truly’ is my favourite and getting that up and running was something that I’m really proud of, because I didn’t think it would ever get put on, because of the nature of it being a very British piece, so to get that up and running and see it on stage was a really proud moment. My ambition is to settle down and make a buck doing it, it’s not too much of an ambition, but to make a buck writing would be cool.
Is there any theme or subject matter, anything that you’re really burning to write about at the moment?
No, I just want to get this first draft of the children’s book done, see Morning Star up and running. No there’s nothing really, I’m moving to Australia soon, so I might try and do the great Mozzie play, whatever that’s going to be about, I have no idea.
When are you going to Australia?
January next year, mid January.
Just because you want to?
My partner got a job over in Geelong, which is outside of Melbourne, and since she’s going to be the major breadwinner next year, off we go. I’ll definitely try to take some opportunities over there and see what’s going on.
A couple of things you said, they were referring to this Maori renaissance, and we wondered when we were putting the questions together, whether you think of yourself as a Maori writer, or in some way representing a Maori point of view.
Yeah, because I am. It’s just, my only – it’s not even a beef, I just I don’t like pigeonholing things so much, in general. I mean even, part of wanting to write the kids book is like I don’t just want to be a playwright, I want to do everything. I want to write a book, I want to write a film, I might write a book of poetry later (laughter). Whether any of it gets published … I’d like to see one of my films get made, I’d like to see a book I write get published. I just want to do everything.
Have you written any children’s plays for the school journal before?
Everyone keeps nudging me to do that, because there’s some good money in it, but the moment I start doing this for money, is the moment it’s all over really. As if there’s money in this. I did a children’s play for Capital E, called Guardians of Boy about some toys that came to life over Christmas to save their master from his nightmares, and we workshopped that in 2009. I still haven’t finished it. It’s a really cool piece, it’s just about me finishing it and getting it up and running. It’s been at the bottom of the drawer for probably too long.
Do you have any favourite films/plays /books?
Purapurawhetu and Twelve Angry men. Films, I love Fargo and Immortal Beloved, and my favourite books are Bulibasha and Sophie’s World. And Akira, that was a good movie.
What is it about those particular plays and books and films that appeals to you?
Fargo is just really really well written, except for the bit where the Asian guy comes in. I’m not sure what that’s about, it’s kind of another reason why I like it, it’s like that has nothing to do with the story. Immortal Beloved, I just didn’t see the reveal coming and then it’s a really well written piece as well. A lovely period piece. Sophie’s World, I just like the otherworldliness of it. It’s cool, it’s not the greatest writing often, but it’s just really cool, and Bulibasha, man I love that book so much, and I can so relate to it, the places and the people and then Witi Ihimaera’s given them a voice and that was so cool. I know the places and I know the people.
When you watch your own work, when you get your plays produced and you go and watch them, how do you feel when that happens? Are you hanging on every word to see what the actors are doing?
In workshops I am, and actually in the beginning of my career I probably was hypercritical of those opening nights, but as I got a little bit older and my career’s gone on a little bit, I do all that in the workshop. You can only do your best in the workshop and all should go well on opening night, if the hard graft has been done before hand, so I think it’s a bit foolish to be hypercritical or critical generally on opening nights.
Have you workshopped and developed your plays after they’ve had an initial run?
Yeah I have, we did it with Te Karakia, because it was quite a big piece on stage, and then it was time to tour it, so “oh shit, how are we going to take that stage on tour?” so we had to write around a few things, and then there were some issues with some of the writing anyway. As much as I thought I’d done the hard graft beforehand, there were some issues with characters and what they were doing there, so we took the opportunity to rework those elements into one, and came out with another piece called Te Karakia.
When you’re talking about workshopping, are you talking about developing ideas from the start, or working on material you’ve already got?
I like to go into workshops with very strong ideas of what’s going to happen in the workshops, in terms of what needs to be found out. I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a workshop without a first draft. Oh no, I have actually with Massive, and that was kind of the point, but apart from the Massive piece, I’ve always had at least a first draft, and knowing that it has some weaknesses and trying to figure out how to overcome those weaknesses, and also seeing what the actors can bring to it, and what the director can bring to it. Sometimes it’s nice to have a little reading at the end of that workshop, so an audience can come in and say it’s on the right track, or whoa! When mum and dad go whoa! it’s probably because it’s really shit. That’s never happened yet.
How come you’re into scriptwriting? You’ve already talked about wanting to do everything, poetry and prose, but that’s all writing, so how come writing and not a different career?
I don’t know, I did go to AIT, or AUT now, and did the communications degree with every intention of becoming a writer-director.
So you’ve always wanted to do it?
Yeah, very much so.
Do you remember a time when you wanted to be a fireman or a policeman or a doctor?
When I was about ten or something. In high school I was going to be a journalist, so writing has always been something … I’ve just always been writing anyway, as a kid. At high school I was going to be a journalist, and by the time I left high school I had fallen in love with the camera and wanted to do stuff with the camera and I tried to do that at Carrington, but Carrington had a really terrible course, and I was busy drinking anyway most of that year, but they had a shit course anyway. I think that Carrington got sued by people saying ‘it’s a shit course, and I want my money back,’ and they got their money back too. But yeah, I couldn’t sue them because I was drunk most of the year, so I wasn’t really there. Well, not in good conscience. But I left that pretty jaded and thought I’ll go and do some acting, so I went and did some acting, and fell in love with behind the screen stuff again, and went to AUT to do it properly, and finish off the degree there.
Could you imagine yourself not writing?
No, not since high school. There might have been a time where I might have imagined myself acting, but I quickly grew out of that. Realities kick in, and unless you’re on Shortland Street, there’s no long term, although I think every actor should go on a sickness benefit, because you have to be pretty sick in the head to want to be a full time actor.
Do you think the writing side is in a way more creative than the acting side?
No it’s just different. Acting is more interpreting it from a piece of paper, writing is more interpreting it from your imagination and what you imagine these people saying. I’m sure I could find lots of actors who would say no, we can come up with our own stuff.
You mentioned Billy T James at your Te Papa session this year, and it sounded like you weren’t really a fan.
Well I am a fan of his, I just think he could have been smarter. That’s pretty much it. He was just working with what he had at the time, and who he was at the time, and the unfortunate thing is that he’s going to be remembered for some outdated comedy, and comedy outdates pretty quickly, I know, but this is opposed to the great comedian that he was in pubs, and as a musician. He’s a great musician. He could pretty much play anything, anywhere, anytime. So yeah, unfortunately he’s going to be remembered for that stuff. He’s better than what we see on TV, a lot better. He had a real opportunity to go to the next level which unfortunately he didn’t take. I don’t envy him at all. He could have taken it somewhere else, somewhere cleverer, but I mean his live act was tried and true and that’s what he did. In the nineties, he came out with that drama/comedy thing that he was doing.
So do you prefer writing for stage or screen?
I prefer the stage because it’s more my voice. Screen I enjoy the pay, but there are just so many creative fingers in the pie that my voice as a writer is too diluted, with the director, the producer, which is the reason why I enjoy writing for stage better. I do enjoy writing for the screen, don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy it.
Do you think that would be different if you penned a really successful film?
I would be very surprised actually. There’s just so much money involved and so many people fighting for that money, that nobody likes to take a gamble. I mean even if you’ve written something successful before, this is the gamble, like Niki Caro can write and direct a great movie, Whale Rider, and then the next two things she does are absolute toilet paper. I very much doubt whether producers will give writers, let alone the directors, the freedom of range I certainly need. I think you’d have to knock out at least three [movies], I don’t know, I’m putting a number on it, I really don’t know, before saying I think this guy can go hard, he can just do whatever he wants, but there’s just too much money in film and television for producers to want to take that gamble.
But you’d like to?
I’d love to.
What would it be, if someone said, ‘right Albert, we love your work and we’d like you to go for a big film here?’
I’ve written it. It’s a film called Mer, about an old woman who finds a mermaid on the beach and tries to bring it up, but there are tragic circumstances (laughter). That would be the one I’d like to see done by a good director. With lots of money. Lots and lots and lots of money (laughter).
Do you work with other writers as well?
No, I’ve tried it in the past and it generally didn’t work out very well. Mostly because of me, funnily enough. I can be quite stubborn about direction and stuff. Even though I’ll be nodding and going ‘yeah,’ I’ll be thinking ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’ (laughter). It ended quite amicably before things had gone any further, but yeah, luckily I’ve learned pretty early that I’m too stubborn and kind of want things my way, in terms of writing anyway.
But with the acting, you said you go in with a strong first draft, but you’re open to suggestions … say your lead actor is going, ‘Albert, I really don’t think this is going to work, I really think this guy needs to be twenty years younger.’
They’re in the wrong play. ‘Why don’t we try?’ is probably a better way to approach it, but the moment you tell me I’m wrong … (laughter) I don’t mind being shown that I’m wrong, ‘yeah, you were right, I was mistaken,’ and I’ve been mistaken lots and lots and lots and actors have come up and said ‘do you mind if I try it blah blah blah,’ and it’s like ‘yeah man, that sounds cool,’ but twenty years younger … I mean, an actor in general would find himself out of work a lot, it wouldn’t just be me if they came up with something like that. I know you’re being extreme, but (laughter) that would be extreme, ‘and I don’t like the title, I don’t know if it’s going to work.’
Is there any really big change that came out of the workshopping process?
I know with Massive theatre company, with Whero’s New Net, the whole point was, I mean I had a beginning and an end and an idea. No, in fact I might have just had an idea, I didn’t have a beginning or anything. I wanted to take Witi Ihimaera’s short stories from The New Net Goes Fishing – a book of short stories about Maori moving from rural to urban New Zealand Aotearoa – and try to make something out of that, a feature piece. I mean, I wanted it to all make sense, I didn’t want it to be vignettes, or whatever, have a short piece there, have a short piece here and let’s all be happy. I wanted it to really blend in and find some way for those short stories to make absolute sense within a bigger piece, and they did thank god, I think anyway. But yeah, working with the actors and such. We did quite a few workshops for that one. But in the first workshop I wanted to figure out what the thing was that held the stories together now, in the new millennium, when I was writing the play rather than when the stories were originally set. I had a suspicion that it was so many Maori going overseas – I mean the amount of Mozzies in Australia let alone in England – and I wanted to hear stories and how relevant those were. And what I wanted to find out, to make a long story short, was how do we turn these from urban drift into global drift, and how relevant that is, and hear some stories from the actors about what their experiences were. And the other thing was, if you have an opportunity to be anyone else in the world, this is it, ‘I’m going to move overseas, I don’t know anybody over there, and this is my chance to be anybody I want to be,’ and then we came back with a first draft six months later.
Did anyone stay with it to production?
Yeah, most of them. A lot of actors had to drop off because the cast was going to be a cast of seven in the end, maybe eight, but in the first workshop there were maybe fifteen people, and the more we knew what we wanted etc, the smaller that cast got and the workshops got, but there was nobody in that cast that wasn’t in the first workshop. That’s the way Sam works as well, as a director and a producer, Sam Scott, she’s extremely good like that. I don’t think you find that too often.
If there’s someone just starting out on scripts and screenplay what would you say to them? Is there any advice or anything they must do? Anything they really shouldn’t do?
Write your first piece, put it at the bottom of the drawer and don’t ever look at it again (laughter), and then write something else and that’s going to be it. And then rewrite that, rewrite that, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and patience, and show it to as many people as you think might want to read it, or who have the patience and time to read it, not just mum and dad. I was lucky at AUT, we got to do a lot of writing, so all the stuff I wrote there is at the bottom of the drawer, in fact I think it’s burnt by now, and never saw the light of day.
With the temporary closure of Downstage this year, and the produciton of Raising The Titanics being cancelled, what do you think about the general climate of theatre? Is it all doom and gloom?
I have a feeling that Wellington’s taken a tumble but although theatre could always be healthier I know that Auckland is very healthy at the moment, and if I had my way, it would be Auckland as a priority for funding and grant applications. In terms of theatre anyway, it’s brimming with a ton more potential. There’s a lot of twenty-somethings coming through and doing some unbelievably crap shit, but they’re going to get healthy and it’s going to be awesome, and you know what, there are also a couple of twenty something’s doing some alright shit, and we’ve just got to get Eli Kent to move to Auckland and we’re sweet for a decade or so. But Auckland is the place for New Zealand theatre practitioners to be since the Wellington scene has plateaued and is likely to be flat for a while. There should be an Auckland first policy, in fact a South Auckland first policy if I had my way.