Peter Wells and Gareth Watkins’s conversation from our May Tuatara Open Late.
Peter Wells is an award-winning writer and film maker. His latest book is Dear Oliver: Uncovering a Pakeha History (2018). His other books include Dangerous Desires (1991), Duration of a Kiss (1994), Boy Overboard (1997), One of Them! (1997), Long Loop Home (2001), Iridescence (2003), Lucky Bastard (2007), The Hungry Heart (2011), and Journey to a Hanging (2014). His films include Newest City on the Globe (1985), A Death in the Family (1987), The Mighty Civic (1988), Desperate Remedies (1993), and Georgie Girl (2001). He is currently documenting living with cancer in his Facebook diary, Hello Darkness. He is co-founder of Auckland Writers Festival and Same Same but Different, the LGBTQI writers festival. As part of Tuatara Open Late, at City Gallery, on 3 May 2018, Wells showed his 1983 film Little Queen and talked to radio documentary maker, photographer, and curator Gareth Watkins.
Gareth Watkins: Peter, it’s been a special day for you. It started off with you talking with Tilly Lloyd at Unity Books about Dear Oliver, as a recipient of Unity’s Fiftieth Birthday Literary Awards.
Peter Wells: When Tilly gave me the envelope, I thought, oh, that’s nice. There’ll be a card in it saying, ‘You’re Unity’s favourite writer!’ She said, ‘Open it, open it!’ And I did. And, there, to my astonishment, was a cheque for $20,000! It was wonderful.
And, here we are, this evening, looking at one of your earliest films, Little Queen.
It’s twenty years since I’ve seen it myself. It was my second film and it has special meaning for me. When you make a low-budget film, you draw in everyone you know who’s willing to be in it. In the little crowd scene, there’s my mother and father, both of whom are now dead, and there are people who were babies then but now have children. For me, to see the film again is an emotional thing.
How did you come to make it?
It started as a short story—one of my first—based on my memory of seeing the Queen drive by during the 1953–4 Royal Visit, when I was a three-year old. They really worked the Queen; she went everywhere. We lived in Point Chevalier by the dump. She was driven past the dump and came across my family and all the locals on the street corner. A dog ran out and the Queen’s car had to swerve to avoid it, narrowly missing it. The dog became a local celebrity. Everyone wanted to touch it. This became the kernel of the story. Later in the film, it’s like, five years down the track, the dog has died in complete obscurity, and it’s lying in the dump. Memory has faded and nobody cares at all.
The film is based on the duality of the word ‘queen’. That’s the nub of it. On one hand, the Queen is this esteemed figure, this goddess from another world; on the other hand, queen is a derogatory term for a gay man. The Coronation and the Royal Visit were a lush visual spectacles in a time of austerity. I wanted to get that postwar flavour, where people were still in recovery, wore second-hand and patched clothes, and were starved for some sort of glamour event, like the Queen driving by. The central character, the young boy, identifies with the spectacle, and, in his fantasies, he takes on the Queen’s identity. He’s the little queen.
He’s played by Brendon Wells.
No relation. Many years later, I saw him on Oxford Street, dressed in leather from head to toe. He said to me, ‘How did you know to choose me for that role?’ It was a potentially awkward situation. I said, it was easy. I got all the boys who auditioned to crown themselves. You were the one who really got into imagining what that meant. That’s how you got the role. (Plus, I wanted the freckles, because they seemed so 1950s, somehow.)
The film is beautifully art directed.
It’s a part of film making I really love. Even though I had my own memories, I researched how the period looked. I watched Pictorial Parade cinema newsreels of the Royal Visit. They were boosterish but hokey. Everything was so down home, with Girl Guides and Brownies lined up along the roadside—things like that.
I love the playfulness in Little Queen. You’ve got the Queen being driven down a suburban street, but her car is preceded by one with a toilet on top. Where did that playfulness come from?
It was part of the double-edged crowd dynamic. People were there to see the Queen, but they would enjoy the spectacle on whatever level, even if it was a dog pissing on someone’s foot. Little Queen is a mad film. It’s got some beautiful images in it, which I’d forgotten. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing with it. Perhaps I was trying to say too much—to make a feature film in the format of a short film. My first film, Foolish Things (1980), was all talk—voiceover narration with images. I thought, for my second film, I’d do something more visual film, like a silent film.
So, you say silent, but there’s a lot of sound.
Wayne Laird, from From Scratch, did the sound. The film has this worked sound patina all through. It was a nightmare to put the soundtrack together as every sound had to be found or invented. The soundscape is elaborate and artificial, even though, at times, it uses ordinary sounds, like gulls cawing and a train trundling by. It helps to give an interiority to the film, as if you’re inside the boy’s head.
A lot of the soundtrack is radio. What was radio to you as a child?
Radio was an enormous thing. I loved a radio soap-opera called Portia Faces Life. At the beginning of Little Queen, there are excerpts from a radio soap. If you’re listening carefully, it’s about adultery. Radio is a bit like reading. You’re not passive. You have to supply a lot yourself, through imagination. I liked that aspect of it. I wanted to give the film some of radio’s texture and power. I used sound to enhance images, but also to subvert them.
As a child, were films also important? What films do you remember?
As a child, going to the movies every Saturday was a magical thing. I remember El Cid (1961). It was a big costume drama, a huge film, a terrible film, but with the hint of an erection in Charlton Heston’s tights. Also, of course, Ben-Hur (1959), which had Stephen Boyd in it and was very homoerotic and lush and camp. I didn’t like high-art films. Actually, I wouldn’t have known what a high-art film was. I just liked films, across the board. I liked those crummy 1940s serials. The cave collapses. Will they get out? Wait for the next instalment. They seemed tremendously real and exciting.
Foolish Things was overtly gay. Little Queen is subtler. How do you determine how much emphasis to put on portraying a character’s sexual identity?
Of course, in this case, it’s tremendously awkward, because you’re in the whole controversial area of childhood sexuality. I was not really aware at the time, but, when the boy is pushed over into the rubbish by the man and forced to touch the dead dog, it prefigures a rape scene. When we were editing the film, a feminist refused to work on it, saying it showed rape. I was mystified at the time. Many years later, I came to terms with the fact that I’d been sexually abused by an adult when I was a boy. So, perhaps the film addressed something my conscious mind could not accept or perceive, yet my subconscious led me to symbolically re-enact. They say film is the screen on which the subconscious plays and I believe it to be so. That also explains the abrupt change in tone—from 1950s nostalgia to the symbolic rape scene—accompanied by what could almost be horror-film music. I thought of cutting that scene out, which would make the film a sentimental idyll. But I left that darkness in the heart of the film, as that’s how it played out at the time in my mind. It’s part of the texture and reality of my experience of the 1950s.*
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about feeling constrained as a child. You were bullied at school.
As a child, you can lack the framework to understand that you’re being bullied. It’s just something that happens and you think that’s how the world is. Myself, I went inwards, into an imaginative world where I could create my own freedom and independence. Growing up, I was imaginatively starved. There didn’t seem much happening, apart from what you could make up in your own mind out of books and films. When Little Queen shifts from black-and-white into colour, it’s to represent the boy’s imagination. He lives in a drab black-and-white 1950s reality, but, in his fantasy, he’s in this technicolor world. In Little Queen, the shots of coloured lights playing on cinema curtains that frame the fantasy sequence were remembered from my childhood.
If you could now give advice to yourself as a child, what would it be?
I was a determined little sissy. Although I was bullied, I had a strong imagination, and I just kept going, until, here we are, I’ve made these films and written all these books. My advice: don’t submit, follow the freedom of the imagination. I hope that’s not too highfalutin, but it’s what I think.
You crossed paths with the Queen later.
Actually, it was the most extraordinary thing. I met her at one of the royal garden parties, when she was touring New Zealand in the 1990s. Through sheer accident, I ended up standing in line with the All Blacks and the Front Lawn. When I was introduced, I said, ‘Well, I made this film about you on the 1953–4 Royal Visit.’ And she said, ‘You look much too young.’ I think she thought I was running around with a camera as a three-year-old. She was very charming. She’d been to the races, and, I would say, had had a good wallop of champagne, and was in a good mood. She seemed a rather jolly person. I thought I should send the film to Buckingham Palace, but never did.
How hard was it to make queer-themed films in the early 1980s, before AIDS came into mainstream consciousness, before homosexual law reform.
I’m quite pushy. I felt it was my right to make films and write stories in these areas. I was implacable about my right to apply to funding agencies, etcetera.
How was it, getting funding for queer-themed films?
Not bad at all, really. They recognised the seriousness of my intent.
Do you consider your filmmaking activism?
I try to make each film exist on its own artistic terms. I don’t think I’ve ever made a film that was ‘activist’.
You wouldn’t consider Jewel’s Darl (1985) activist?
Implicitly, not explicitly. Jewel’s Darlis a half-hour film about a transgender person and their transvestite friend—a day in the life of two characters. Looking back, it was an advanced film, because I treated the characters as ordinary people, with dignity and humanity. That was implicit activism, not explicit. It’s not like a character turned to the screen and said ‘Equal rights, give it to us now.’ Just placing characters like that before the nation’s eyes was a political act, and, as it turned out, a dangerous one. Television New Zealand refused to screen the film, because they said it was unacceptable for transgender people to be shown as anything other than figures of fun. That was the official line at the time. They held it back for two years.
Your films often focus in on small, inanimate objects, things left behind, like the Coronation cake tin in Little Queen. Why?
I like looking and I like things. I tend to invest emotions into things.
The last film you made, Friendship Is the Harbour of Joy (2004), is about Jonathan Dennis, the founder of the New Zealand Film Archive, a friend of both of ours. You focused a lot on objects in his house.
It was one of those extraordinary things. I had come down to stay with him. He had cancer, very badly. He asked me to chronicle his death, which was difficult and challenging. Afterwards, I did wonder whether I should have. Jonathan’s house was decorated with Pacifica. It was full of fabulous things and incredible colours. So, the way I represented him was through the objects in his house, each of which he’d carefully selected. It seemed to be a way to represent a person who was on the margins of no longer being there.
You’re currently writing a Facebook diary, Hello Darkness, on your own journey with cancer.
When I found I had cancer and was in hospital, I started writing on Facebook every day about what was happening and how I was feeling. To my amazement, people started following, replying, and giving me aroha. It was extraordinary. Now, I’m making it into a book.
How does writing Hello Darkness differ from documenting Jonathan’s journey?
Hugely. I’m talking about myself. I don’t have any responsibility except to myself, whereas with Jonathan I had this tremendous responsibility to him, and felt hemmed in by it. With Hello Darkness, my only responsibility is to make it as representative as possible of what I’m going through.
How have you found it?
Well, I’m living it, so the writing gives me something to do. People reply to me all the time. It’s wonderful, not negative. It’s about life, about living. It’s a positive thing, not a miserable one. In the posts, I’ve often talked about feeling lucky. It seems perverse to think that you could have cancer yet feel lucky. But I think I’m lucky because I’m alive.
* This answer, not part of the original discussion, was added later.