Chelsea Winstanley reveals why marriage to Taika Waititi broke down

Award-winning film producer Chelsea Winstanley says the end of her marriage to Taika Waititi has helped her grow professionally and personally.

"I don't need anyone else for me to be able to be happy, in control, or do what I want to do in the spaces that I love doing," she tells Anika Moa in a new RNZ podcast.

Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngai Te Rangi) has been one of the driving forces behind te reo Māori versions of popular Disney movies like Moana, Frozen and The Lion King. In 2022, she was appointed an officer of the Order of Merit for her contributions to the film industry and to Māori.

She speaks frankly about her life in the first episode, including discussing the "humiliation" she felt as a young solo mother on a benefit, her recovery from a car accident that left her unable to walk, and the collapse of her seven-year marriage to Waititi, with whom she has two children.

"I think I was married to someone who really, was just on their own buzz, and [had] tunnel vision for whatever reasons," she says.

"It's nice to have someone who can support you… or just to go, 'you got this' or 'I'm so proud of you'. But there was never any of that. There was no interest in what I wanted to be doing. So that said volumes."

Winstanley, 48, tells Anika Moa that "regret" started to set in when Waititi was working in Australia in 2016. Realising she had to take a back seat to Waititi's work, despite being successful in her own right "was the beginning of the unravelling," she says.

"I didn't want to be the dutiful wife and race over to the Gold Coast where he [Waititi] was making Thor and sit in an apartment all day long f***ing twiddling my thumb.

"I mean, lots of other wives do that in other departments and they'll dutifully do that thing. But I couldn't think of anything f***ing worse to go to the Gold Coast. I'm sorry.

"And also that would mean I have to take my babies out of kōhanga reo. And that to me was really important. So I said, 'I'm not going to do that, but we'll come over and visit'. That probably was the beginning of the unravelling because I wasn't that pandering, dutiful. Get on my knees and whatever you want. Someone else was, though."

Winstanley grew up in Mt Maunganui and had her first child on her own at 20.

She says it was "humiliating" to be on a benefit at that time.

"You feel heaps of whakama, shame, that you're taking taxpayers' money so you can feed your kid or dole bludging or whatever it is. And it's not a good space to be in. It's not the right motivation for you to go back and study, for you to feel shame, it should be more like, 'oh, I want to further my education'."

Winstanley had started studying communications when she was involved in a catastrophic car accident that left her with "broken legs, broken face, broken everything".

"I was out of uni, out of action. Had to learn to walk again."

After she recovered, she continued her studies and got her first job making documentaries with Libby Hakaraia and Rhonda Kite. Seeing these two Māori women owning their business and telling uplifting stories about te ao Māori was inspiring, she says.

"I was like, 'oh, you can be successful in this space and own your own stories'."

Winstanley has accumulated a long list of film and TV credits. Following her split with Waititi she was the first indigenous female producer to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for Jojo Rabbit in 2020. She co-produced te reo versions of The Lion King and Frozen which were released in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

In addition to her professional successes, she's also navigated recovery from childhood sexual abuse, stopped drinking and moved back to Aotearoa from Los Angeles.

"I knew that in order for me to truly, truly and stop repeating mistakes, like, why am I putting myself in harm's way? Why do I not believe that I'm worthy of a much better partner, whatever it might be, or putting myself first in my career or speaking up for myself or whatever it might be. So I don't want to do that ever again in my life. I don't want to give my power over to someone else again, linking that back to childhood trauma, like, literally giving myself away because I didn't know anything else."

Learning te reo Māori has been an important part of that reclamation; in 2022, she dedicated a year to total immersion classes at Te Wānanga Takiura o Ngā Kura Kaupapa Māori o Aotearoa in Auckland.

"It is like therapy 101.

"You have a few young people in there, but the majority of the students are, like, middle-aged. And we're really f***ing upset and sad that we don't have our reo… I didn't grow up with it. having to find it later and trying to learn it, hear it, understand it, you just feel like a dummy."

Winstanley is currently finishing a documentary on a contemporary Māori art exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery that she returned to New Zealand to make in 2020. Being in control of her work, and helping others claim their place, is important to her.

"That's another thing I've actually really enjoyed about coming home, is returning to the things that I want to do and be in charge of and in charge of creatively."

She's also recently gotten involved in the distribution end of the film business, out of concern that most cinema distributors are "old white dudes" mostly based in Australia.

"So how many of our stories have not been made, told, or seen because they're like this? For me, at the moment, it's about that having full participation... I don't care what colour or ethnicity we are, but we don't have an equal level playing field in that space of storytelling.

"And then look at the success of things like Barbie. It's a woman's story. It's all the things. Unapologetically having a go at the patriarchy, all the things. We have stories. We deserve to see them and hear them."