We've seen a lot of New Zealand recently, doubling as Loch Ness in The Water Horse, Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, and Skull Island in King Kong. With directors like Peter Jackson making extensive use of the country's dramatic vistas, we'll no doubt be seeing much more of it, but, for a chance to see New Zealand playing itself, watch Whale Rider.
This is a far subtler movie than any of the above. It's not set among dramatic snow-capped mountains, and there are no CGI fairy castles to enhance them even further. The movie, like the book (about a young Maori girl coming of age), is set in Whangara, 29km north of Gisborne on the east coast of New Zealand, within the area of the Ngati Porou tribe. A small town nestled in vividly green landscape, against a rugged coastline.
As producer John Barnett says, 'It would almost have been heresy to shoot anywhere else. There are very physical things that are described in the book – the sweep of the bay, the island that looks like a whale, the meeting houses, the number of houses that are present and of course, the people whose legend we were telling.'
'The very first time we went there,' he continues, 'it was obvious that this was the place to make the film. If we'd gone somewhere else and tried to manufacture the surroundings and the ambience, then I think it would have been noticeable in the picture. I think in fact, what we've captured is the absolute spirit of the place.'
The crew encountered interesting problems when it came to filming on location. One was the noise of the surf, which, though integral to the plot, was difficult for the sound recordist.
On the whole, however, cinematographer Leon Narbey enjoyed the experience of not having to 'cheat' in their depiction: 'We weren't pretending that the wharenui [meeting house] was there when it wasn't. The beach was there; the waka [canoe] was there; even Koro's house was there.'
In addition, shooting on location brought other benefits. The crew were able to cast locals in smaller roles and as extras, which gave further authenticity – people who actually knew the Paikea legend that the movie was based on.
Interestingly Ihimaera was inspired to write the novel Whale Rider while sitting in New York overlooking the Hudson River. A whale had swum upriver and was spouting. Ships were surrounding it and sirens blaring. It made him think of his home town and the legend surrounding the whales. He went on to write the novel in three weeks.
Although little was changed in Whangara for the movie, the crew did have to build the waka that was used in the final scenes. All 60 feet of it. It took about 12 weeks and it had to be shipped in two parts from Auckland. When they finished shooting, the crew left it there for the people of Whangara as a living memory of the movie. – Roshan McArthur