Celia Jaspers, an accomplished New Zealand-based director, has been working in the film and television industry that has had much less interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of her most recent projects includes Milk, a short film about kindness that she wrote and directed.
Amongst the chaos of the COVID-19 lockdown, Celia poured her heart into writing Milk. Now, with restrictions lifting in New Zealand, Celia was able to have her vision realized as she filmed this completely self-funded project with the help of local film extras and the TriQUESTra production team. Milk will be released later this year and submitted into the NZ International Film Festival.
Celia has been an editor, director and producer for 28 years and has worked on a number of reality projects including, House Hunters International, The Amazing Race Asia, Real Escapes, Remarkable Vets, and Country Calendar. She has also directed other shorts, such as Home School, which was recently accepted into the Boston International Kids Film Festival. She talked to ProductionHUB about her experiences with COVID and her work on Milk.
PH: What has the past year been like for you (considering COVID, changes in the industry, etc.)?
Celia Jaspers: New Zealand had a relatively early lockdown, from March - April 2020, and the speed of that certainly was a shock at first. It grounded our entire industry to a halt and it was hard to imagine life beyond it. But literally within a few weeks of us progressing down our restricted levels productions were out and about filming, and I unexpectedly went on to have one of the busiest times of my career in the later half of the year. I was literally juggling documentaries, reality shows and a short film, as well as family time too! So from this point in time, NZ is really humming, production is full to the brim, we have multiple international productions shooting and doing post here and the whole industry couldn't be stronger. I'm enjoying the last of my summer break before starting to wind up again on a documentary series while getting my first film Milk out to festivals. I’m also in early development for the next exciting film, Chasing the Wind.
PH: Can you talk about Milk and the conception/process of writing?
Celia Jaspers: During lockdown I did my first 48 hour film, at home alone with my family. But everyone was in the same boat this year, and there were far fewer professional teams on the loose, so I was thrilled to win an award with that film. It's also gone on to pick up a few accolades internationally, which truly was a surprise. So off the back of that I really wanted to make another film. But being logistically challenged where I live and knowing it would be self funded, I started swirling ideas around and decided to make it locally. We live near a gorgeous little wine village called Martinborough, and I knew the scenery would appeal internationally. Also, in the midst of the COVID storm, the message of kindness was resonating rather strongly in our country so I was swept along with that concept. So during a short drive back from the shops with my daughter, I had the idea of selfless giving and an act of kindness. As soon as I was home, I started writing. It was only 2 pages at first, so it didn't take long, but the power of that moment was so strong even on paper I teared up just reading it, so I knew I had something powerful. Then it was just the challenge of how to make that translate onto screen. Even though I've written television scripts for years, I don't consider myself a screenwriter in any sense, but I do recognize story and this one just flowed out! So writing is relatively new for me, but a necessary step if I want to direct more narrative work, as scripts are hard to come by!
PH: What sort of restrictions did you face in New Zealand?
Celia Jaspers: For filming Milk, relatively none as we were out of lockdown at that time. For our mandatory lockdown period of 7 weeks earlier in the year, the whole country just stopped really. We had 48 hours notice and then everything shut down, it was very surreal. One person from each household could leave to pick up food or medical supplies, but nothing else was open. In hindsight it was an amazing time just to stop and be with our families and not have the usual business that fills our daily lives. But it was the uncertainty that was hard for sure. But that national cooperation has given us our lives back now. So day to day now we use a QR code in all shops and premises in NZ, and as long as you're logged in to a location we are free to work and travel in this country. As a citizen, we wear masks on public transport, mainly airline travel etc. But currently there are no community cases in NZ and everything is caught at the border, so we treasure that freedom that our strict border controls give us.
PH: Now that those are lifted, how did you see your vision come to life for this project?
Celia Jaspers: A lot of hard work and amazing friends! First step was arranging the location and the amazing people at Kitcheners Cafe pretty much gave me their premises for a weekend while they were closed. First time actor Christy who works there normally is actually our shop keeper character too, and she is sensational. I cast Frank Edwards, who is a professional actor, and of course had to test my daughter Charlotte to see if she could carry this role. Then I approached a DP and gimbal operator friend Jono Drew that I have done a lot of professional work with. He read it and loved it and completely took over the camera and lighting team side of things. He performed a miracle gathering a brand new Sony Venice from our amazing friends at the Gear Room, and with gaffer Olly Harris begged and borrowed a van full of lighting gear and Jono's Ronin gimbal and drove it 8 hours from Auckland all the way down to Martinborough. Then the community of Martinborough itself sprung into life, and everyone just wanted to help. One of my regular sound recordists, Joseph Veale, flew up from Christchurch and we even were blessed to have the ridiculously experienced former hair and make up artist Gail Wilson from Lord of the Rings, who lives locally, on the team. Then my good friend Don Paulin did all the sound design. Underground Sound kindly offered to do the surround mix, and The Finishing Suite very generously offered to master and grade the film. It was truly a passion project for everyone in the end. I tried to make it as enjoyable and well supported as possible, and I think the end result of such a high quality piece reflects all the hard work and love that was poured into it!
PH: Can you talk about the fact that this was a self-funded project? How did you accomplish this?
Celia Jaspers: Self funding is not ideal, but it's a necessary step to show your worth as such! Also, I didn't want to wait for the next funding rounds, and it was achievable enough in a 1.5 day shoot to ask those favours. I wouldn't do that for a longer piece however. I hope people wanted to help because it was a lovely story and they liked the message. I also knew my technical team from professional work and the wider industry, and I was just so grateful that they wanted to help me direct this film. And I would absolutely be committed to making the best possible product I could to showcase all their hard work. There was also a lot of wine generously donated from Martinborough wineries to give as thanks!
PH: You also worked with local film extras and the TriQUESTra production team. How was that experience?
Celia Jaspers: The extras were all locals, either cafe regulars or school mums that we all knew, but they loved it and again very grateful for their time to come on set with us. None had seen a film set before, so their eyes were certainly opened wide. And co-producing with TriQUESTra was our first time together too. Auriga Martin, Juanita Deely and I formed this creative collective a year or so back with the vision to create films led by a strong female team. Recently joined by line producer Jane Cook, we all love filmmaking and storytelling and this was certainly the first step of many we hope. We have a feature script Sunshine Retirement ready to go if we can secure funding and distribution. We also have another short in the wings, Scammed, that is an offshoot from the feature. We all have different strengths that we believe will help us create strong and diverse content.
PH: What's it like working with production in New Zealand? How might it differ from the U.S.?
Celia Jaspers: I'm not sure I can answer that, as I don't work in the US. However, I do direct and produce for House Hunters International based out of New York, but I've never been there or met the team in person! All our work is remote. I know NZ crews are very hands on and the "can do'' attitude is everything to us. If we don't know how to do something or don't have the right gear, we just make it work. Also being non-union here, there is more flexibility to help others on your team and rise through the ranks too I believe. But we just treat everyone with respect and leave locations as we found them so the next team can have a good experience too. That's always been my ethos to filming no matter where in the world I am.
PH: Can you talk about your time as an editor, director and producer? How has each project shaped you as a professional and what are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Celia Jaspers: Very early on in my career, I was probably 17 or so, I realized editing was something I really enjoyed and understood the power it had to complete the story. So while I always wanted to direct for some reason, I knew I needed some craft skills to do that too. So I frequently flip flopped between editing work, directing and sometimes camera. I think this really cemented a strong sense of story and the technical skills that come along with editing and offline/online etc, but it makes me a far more efficient director in the field. I have never been one to "spray it down" covering every conceivable angle multiple times, because I know I just don't need it. I definitely edit in my head as I'm filming, either listening to my interview subject or working out shots with the DP. Then about 15 years ago, I started to helm primetime productions as producer or producer/director, and again all those craft and in field skills just help you become a better producer, being efficient with crew and time and just organizing the schedule in a logical and seamless way. So while I like all the roles, I relish being able to flex my muscles in different fields from time to time, I don't think I'd ever put away the editing keyboard or my logistics hat! I do love the feeling of completing a project too. I've never really had a 9-5 job. I've always worked on projects or contracts for set times, so there's always an end! The finishing off and delivering a project that you've had your hands over every part of is very satisfying, and bringing together teams that work well together is a pleasure too.