NZ Film Commission in contact with They Are Us filmmakers since 2019, but alerted Jacinda Ardern two years later

The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) was in contact with filmmakers of the planned They Are Us movie as early as 2019, but they didn't want Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's office seeing an early draft of the script.

Hundreds of emails between the film's producers and the NZFC, a state agency that funds and promotes New Zealand filmmaking, have been released under the Official Information Act (OIA). 

The planned film has been heavily criticised after Newshub was leaked an early version of the script in June. Calls to cancel the movie have been backed by the likes of the Human Rights Commission.

The OIA document begins with emails sent on May 7, 2019, less than two months after the March 15 shootings in Christchurch.

One email sent from a They Are Us producer to the NZFC describes that the intention of the film is "to make a drama that honors the lives that were lost and focuses on the heroism and the humanity that so many people displayed".

In March 2020, the NZFC invited the film's director Andrew Niccol to a "cocktail reception" hosted with the New Zealand Consul-General in Los Angeles to connect production, creative, and funding personnel in the United States with New Zealanders. 

Also in March, NZFC's former chief executive Annabelle Sheehan was sent the first draft of the script, "strictly for [her] eyes only". Producer Tim White told her "the script is strong", but added it will "clearly evolve and be enriched over coming drafts".

White reassured Sheehan that the movie would be approached sensitively by producers.

"I have made it clear to them that you/Film Com cannot play a proactive role or be a strong advocate, however you will be able to give guidance and also perhaps some support re NZ costs," he said. 

"Importantly, everyone is sensitive to timelines: the imminent anniversary of event; the lead to the general election; and the trial that is due to start mid-year. We do not want to rush into making any announcement on the project."

The NZFC wanted Ardern to read the draft script after the 2020 election, with filming planned to commence in late summer in 2021, depending on the COVID-19 situation.

Then on June 9, 2021, Niccol sent another draft of the script to NZFC's acting chief operating officer Chris Payne, asking him to "keep it between us for now".

Niccol said he was happy for others in Payne's team to read it, but wanted it to stay in-house.

"For instance, I wouldn't want the Prime Minister's office reading it," he said.

Payne was still considering how to approach the Government, which he had to do under the "no surprises" principle that requires chief executives to keep their ministers informed of significant or controversial matters, especially ones that may arise in public.

On the same day, he emailed his team asking to "chat ASAP" to "determine [the] best approach to briefing ministries/ministers and PMO".

He then sent a backgrounder on the film to the Prime Minister's Office, which was the first it was alerted to it in the two years the NZFC had known about the movie.

Jacinda Ardern with NZFC chief executive Annabelle Sheehan (R) in 2019.
Jacinda Ardern with NZFC chief executive Annabelle Sheehan (R) in 2019. Photo credit: Getty Images

After the public announcement of the film, in which the overseas producers spelt Ardern's surname incorrectly, Niccol, New Zealand-based producer Philippa Campbell, who has since left the project, and British producer Stewart Till had a virtual meeting to discuss the film. 

Payne took notes from the call that he emailed to himself.

It says Till "has read six drafts and still cries". He also discussed the film's budget, but that has been redacted. He also believes production could start at the end of 2021, but nothing was scheduled yet.

Niccol said the film would be a "love letter to Jacinda and to the two mosques" and an "inspiring story of what Jacinda was able to achieve over that week" after the attacks. He described that the span of the movie's timeline would be from the Friday the shootings took place to the following Friday.

"[It would] mirror the approach that Jacinda took in real life - never show the gunman, livestream, don't say his name, don't show his manifesto - he's kept away just as the real events."

He says the film "mostly focuses on the heroism that happened during the attack, acts of sacrifice and what Jacinda was able to accomplish during that week".

There were also several planned reactive statements the NZFC prepared to anticipated questions following the film's announcement. One of them was when Ardern was advised of the project and what communications she's had with filmmakers.

"The Prime Minister was advised less than 24 hours ahead of the announcement to media by the NZFC and has had no communications with the production team," the response says.

A spokesperson for Ardern said neither Ardern nor the New Zealand Government has had any involvement in the movie.