Western 'The Stolen' filming in Christchurch

Western 'The Stolen' filming in Christchurch

It's not a pace Christchurch's vintage Ferrymead Heritage Park is particularly used to -- crew members rush frantically in and out of Victorian-era buildings, stopping suddenly at a director's shout of "shooting -- still and quiet".

There is deafening silence -- a quiet undertone as an actor recites their line -- and then the din resumes -- the make-up artists, technicians and designers blurring in against extras in hoop skirts and dirty overalls.

Every second counts in this tight, 30-day shoot for The Stolen -- a gold rush colonial adventure story set in 1870s New Zealand, and the biggest film shot in Canterbury since Peter Jackson's Frighteners in 1996.

Produced by Christchurch's Emily Corcoran and starring Star Trek's Alice Eve and Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Davenport, the film has been eight years in the making. It has a US$4 million budget (NZ$5.6 million), which doesn't stretch far when period costuming and sets are involved.

The film's British director and co-writer, Niall Johnson, says it's a story with "the heart of a western".

Like most westerns, it has violence, horses and cowboy hats, but unlike most outback films it has, in Eve, a strong female lead. The film follows the heroine as she chases ransom notes across the rugged West Coast mountains with a wagon load of "dancers and hookers" to save her kidnapped baby.

"She goes from comfortable life -- little English lady -- to frontier woman who literally has to pull out the guns to solve her problem," Johnson says.

"It feels like a western, it plays like a western, but we're trying to make it look like New Zealand in the 1870s."

The idea belongs to Corcoran, a Christchurch-born producer and actress whose work includes the Bafta-nominated dystopian drama The Survivalist and psychological thriller Confine. Now London-based, she's been trying to make The Stolen for almost a decade.

"From inception it took eight years, so there's been a very long period of time of it falling apart and us putting it back together again," she says.

Despite struggling to secure investors during the global financial crisis of 2007 and earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, Corcoran still managed to bring the project back home.

"I genuinely believe we have so much to offer here," she says. "There is a lot down here that hasn't been explored and I really wanted to show off my home region."

But the challenges are far from over -- thanks to the tight budget -- and the filmmakers are relying on local talent and skill to bring the story to life.

Director Niall Johnson has been amazed at the depth local talent, encompassing everything from lighting, costuming, set design and extras.

"The faces that we had, with the extras -- the guys had their own beards, and their own straggly hair -- it was just brilliant," he says.

Johnson is in the country for the first time and is amazed at the cinematic landscapes Canterbury has to offer. Scenes have already been shot at Birdling's Flat and the Waimakariri riverbed.

"Everyone kept saying, 'You just go 30 minutes out of Christchurch and you've got everything.' I was thinking, '[maybe not]', but actually, with the right location scouts, you do have everything within 30 miles."

The actors, however, are still coming to grips with the realities of a cold South Island winter. Even the Kiwi cast, including pop star-turned-actor Stan Walker, is struggling with 0degC days.

"Oh my gosh, it's flipping freezing here," he says. "[But] it buzzes me out because it's New Zealand, but it feels like we've got the best parts of the world, but it's all in one place."

Walker plays a "quiet and ruthless" Maori guide who joins the heroine on her journey. The physically of the part, which involves "killing and fighting" proved challenging.

"To become that person is quite difficult sometimes, especially when they're action scenes and we have to learn the stunts," he says.

"I just honestly have to get into a different zone; I have to become a beast in some way."

Walker, who has featured on several films, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Mt Zion and Born to Dance, believes audiences will be "blown away" by the film.

"It's coming to life and it's coming to life in a big way," he says. "There's never been a movie out of New Zealand that's like this. You've got an adventure story; you've got powerful movie."

Shooting is expected to wrap up in three weeks' time, with The Stolen likely to be released next year.


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