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Seeing the Light Behind The Dark Horse

James Napier Robertson was unsure the world had a place for him as a troubled teen growing up on Auckland’s North Shore. This year he released ‘one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made’. Heather Vermeer meets the bright mind behind The Dark Horse.

Hope in the face of perceived hopelessness. It is the most prominent message to reveal itself from amid the negative themes of this year’s critically acclaimed Kiwi movie, The Dark Horse. Gang culture, domestic violence, the awkwardness of adolescence, the debilitating effects of mental health disorders are all thrust into the spotlight by Devonport-export James Napier Robertson in this his second feature film, which is attracting widespread praise at International Film Festivals. But it is the positive themes of community, resilience, strength of character winning out over physical strength of force, that make this instant Kiwi classic film a beacon of hope. It’s writer and director admits to having ‘the handwriting of a five-year-old’, got into trouble as a teen, flunked school and spent time flatting in Forrest Hill as he found he struggled to find his feet as a young man. But the former Takapuna Grammar kid is now making a name for himself on the world stage as one of the exciting flock of prominent arts exports from the school. 

“I didn’t go to uni and I didn’t know what my path would be,” explains James, the latest world-class talent to emerge from the Shore’s disproportionately large star-breeding ground. “I love music but that was never going to go anywhere for me. Acting was the first thing that actually enabled me to pay the rent. My sister Christa lured me along to auditions to start with, and then my uncle {Australian actor Marshall Napier} helped me to get an agent.”

A major role in American hit TV series, Power Rangers, got James noticed outside Aotearoa, where, prior to this, he’d followed the well-trodden path to Shortland Street and other low budget local series. 

Last month he signed for a management agency in Los Angeles that counts Ryan Gosling, Steven Soderbergh and other megastars amongst its clients. But it is writing and directing where James’s fiercest passions lay and which, this year, have garnered this softly-spoken 32-year-old Kiwi worldwide attention and admiration.

When we meet, James has just returned from L.A. and Canada, where he was at the Toronto International Film Festival with The Dark Horse; his ‘child’ of four and a half years. The culmination of his daily, and nightly, focus since 2009 - James mentions 23-hour working days - is currently being sold all over the world for theatrical release. North America is next in line to land New Zealand’s latest hit film. And James is finding it hard to let go. 

“Toronto was quite stressful,” he explains. “It was quite an intense experience, but the reception to the film was great, people really loved it. 

“It is quite traumatising though, letting go. For me, once I have finished a film and it’s out there, my job is done. My relationship with it is over. The release is a kind of ‘farewell’. It’s all about the film’s relationship with the audience from then on, and it’s my time to move on.”

So how does it feel to have just created ‘one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made’? The moniker has been used by National Radio Review and other critics. 

James hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says, pausing. “I guess it’s like when you have a birthday and someone asks you ‘how does it feel to be that age?’. It doesn’t feel any different.”  

He thinks about it a little more. “I am extremely humbled by the reaction the film has been receiving in that way, and really grateful for the response that it has gotten. I’m really relieved that people have connected with the film. It reassures you that you are not insane or anything!  

“I was really moved by the material and it’s nice that that is translated across to lots more people. I am deeply proud of the film, but certainly, on a personal level, I don’t feel like I have gone through any kind of transcendence or anything!” 

James was brought up in Devonport where his school life began at the family’s local Stanley Bay School, before he transferred to Devonport Primary to expand his social circle - there were apparently very few boys at SBS at the time. He went on to Belmont Intermediate and Takapuna Grammar School, where his twin 17-year-old brothers Sam and Ben are now pupils. He admits to having been troubled during his teenage years. 

“I went through a hard time in my teens when I was very confused and didn’t know what I was going to do in the world. I didn’t even know if the world wanted me or had a place for me, or if I was worth anything, and I got into trouble. I lacked any kind of belief in myself. 

“Acting was for me a way of providing me with a sense of worth. And that’s a theme that’s very strong in The Dark Horse; young men who don’t know what to do in the world and don’t know if the world really wants them.” 

James recognised the potential in sharing the true story of bi-polar chess genius Genesis Pontini’s struggles, and the challenges of the other real life Gisborne-based characters, and spreading a message of hope. The complexities of Genesis’s makeup attracted him; his charisma, his kindness, his sharp intellect, his lack of surety, his battles with the mind. Subjects with which James is familiar. 

The 32-year-old writer learned his art his own way, reading up by himself on how to write for the big screen. He admits his writing style is somewhat unconventional and often unstructured. “You end up learning in your own idiosyncratic way. You make mistakes and you learn from them in your own way,” he says.

To write The Dark Horse, he gravitated towards darkened corners of cafés where he would anonymously hammer out copy, utterly consumed by the process, often blind to his surroundings. Much of The Dark Horse was written in the back of Starbucks in Browns Bay. The lack of artistic stimulation in the branch of the mega-chain cafe providing a creatively non-distracting, bland environment. 

“To be able to sit and write in the back corner of the place, I had to run a power cord down the length of the cafe for my laptop to be plugged into. I bet people thought, ‘what is this guy doing? Why doesn’t he just sit near the plug point?’ But I would sit there in the dark corner of this café, sometimes almost crying, writing about the experiences these characters were having.”

He shares a piece of wisdom that has become something of a mantra for him with his writing. “I read this quote from Marcel Proust where he said, ‘the quality of his work is a direct reflection of the suffering that has gone into it. If he hadn’t suffered, his work wouldn’t be of any value.” 

James lives by that. He came close to exhausting himself emotionally, mentally and physically in the writing and editing stage of The Dark Horse project. He is, for example, still receiving physio for a leg injury caused by sitting, pouring over the content - he talks of ‘25 and 26-hour working days’. “I would say to Tom (Hern, the film’s producer) that I’d know it had been a good day of writing when, at the end of the day, I was a shaky mess and was incapable of communicating in any intelligible way. If I am to do anything that’s at all worthwhile, I have to really bleed for it!”   

How very worthwhile that has all proved to be now. He smiles. “It’s wonderful when people do embrace your film and you feel that all those years of pouring your life into something you are doing produces something that other people connect to.” 

Has writing always been a passion? “I always enjoyed creative writing, even at primary school, but I never really thought ‘oh, I’ve got a gift for this’ or anything. I never really thought I was any kind of ‘star kid’ but writing was always something that I loved doing. For me, now, writing continues to be the most enjoyable part of what I do.”

In a beautifully home-spun Kiwi want, James gave cameo roles to pretty much all his close family in The Dark Horse; his twin brothers Sam and Ben are competitors in the film’s national chess championship scenes, competing against players from the focal Gisborne chess club - the Eastern Knights. His Mum and Dad, Stephanie and John, from Stanley Bay, along with his musician partner Dana - who hails from Toronto and composed the musical score for the film - are all spectators at the chess finals.  And Grandma Pat has become something of a local celebrity on her Kapiti Coast home turf following her role as the competition’s registration desk clerk. Her front page feature in the local newspaper proved to be an unexpected and personally fulfilling highlight of the project for James.  

“There was this really big photo of her on the front page of the Kapiti News, with her holding a photo of me! The headline said something like, ‘Film well-received by critics - and Grandma!’ I thought it was brilliant. To see her face, and her reaction to this, has probably been the single most enjoyable part of this whole process for me.”

Exposing some of the hard truths of gang culture and domestic violence, with The Dark Horse James digs into the murky corners of New Zealand culture. He prods around uneasily and gives the world a picture of Aotearoa far-removed from the ‘Pure New Zealand‘ Hobbit territory of sweeping landscapes and green, green grass of Godzone that have become familiar backdrops to many an epic blockbuster of recent years.  James spent countless hours researching the characters and issues that are woven into the film’s fabric. “I played hundreds of games of chess with Genesis,” he says. “And spent a lot of time with the real Noble and Jedi, and the others.

“Genesis is all about giving hope in what seems a hopeless situation and I found that very inspiring. What I was trying to capture was a sense of realistic hope. Not a fairy tale kind of hope that everything is going to be wonderful and Genesis is cured, etc. because that’s not how life works.”

The positive offshoots to this project that consumed four and a half years of James’s life are many and varied: The Eastern Knights Chess Club on which the story centres has had to move to bigger premises to accommodate the upsurge in numbers following the film’s release, with chess proving to be more popular than ever before. Harsh, heart-wrenching realities of New Zealand’s gang culture are given a wide expose. Mental health issues - particularly bi-polar disorder - are given a wider understanding, being presented in a touching, non-patronising way. Youth is given hope. Human spirit is celebrated. Community’s value is reinforced. Love wins over hate. And James’s Grandma is happily enjoying new-found fame in her later life. 

He’s excited about his latest project which, although still very much under wraps, he can reveal is an even more ambitious project than The Dark Horse. Unsurprisingly this is now occupying much of his headspace, currently in terms of background research into ‘a certain period of Russian history’. 

After offering himself as a very pliable ‘puppet’ for our appreciative photographer - he relished being directed rather than doing the directing - James continues combatting the jetlag with more caffeine, kindly advises Kirsty about the high demand for good ‘film stills’ photographers, and flashes many more of his dazzling smiles, before heading to his next appointment. He is honouring a rather punishing schedule of arts-related engagements he committed himself to a while back as his way of ‘giving back’. 

One of life’s good guys, here is a man who, with The Dark Horse, can no longer be termed as such himself. He has announced his arrival on the world stage, very brightly. He’s found his feet and is into his stride. 

by Channel Magazine