A Conversation with Leon Wadham and Eli Kent by Alex Bonham
Leon Wadham arrives an incredible half an hour early. I was ensconced in One to One even earlier, so I know. While I was trying to sneak in a bit of my other work, he has simply come for the meeting. He is accompanied by his publicist. It is the first time I have ever met a publicist at an interview – she’s very nice and offers tea – but I suspect her presence is more down to the appeal of hanging out with Leon than with me. He asks me about my work and his manners couldn’t be nicer. In addition, he is tall, blonde, handsome, and looks younger than his 27 years. He confesses later that he is resigning himself to the reality that he will be cast as schoolboys right up to his forties, before becoming the creepy bloke.
Eli arrives and greets everyone happily. He admits he was incredibly early too, but instead of coming in, decided to have a walk around the block instead. Lovely publicist pops up to get him a coffee. This is very much a world one wants to join. Leon won two film-making competitions before he left school. He writes plays that tour internationally, and appears regularly on television. Eli is 28, and also ludicrously successful – Chapman Tripp awards, international tours of his plays, most recently All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled that was excellently reviewed, going from a sell-out fringe show to the ATC in barely a year. The interview itself had to fall into quite a small window as they have been at the Melbourne Film Festival and have other commitments to follow. I have realised that my prepared question – ‘So how did it feel to have your short film accepted in the Short Film Festival?’ – may not cut the mustard. They have been doing this for years, after all.
They met, they tell me, when they were ten and eleven, in a drama group in Wellington and they got on well. Back at school, they kept up the drama and the writing and found themselves both cast in a play at Circa. They stayed friends ever since. Leon went to drama school, and Eli Kent did a year long course in scriptwriting. They perform in each other’s plays and then came together to co-write and direct a short film – officially, this is School Days in 2014 starring Hayley Sproull, but when pressed will admit the first one was called A Black Day for Beasley, a black comedy which involved two actors playing seven parts in an office with absurdly low production values. The latest, Moving, is appearing in short film festivals all around the world. The plan now is to make that big jump into feature-length films. I ask if they know what that will be. They do not, yet.
Their inspiration is down to earth. While they admire Spike Jonze and the Coen Brothers (and Clueless), they mostly get ideas from their friends. Moving is like that. A couple in a flatshare break up, affecting everyone as they help her move out. Wryly and truthfully observed, the fabric of the house changes literally. ‘Is the microwave Sarah’s?’ Yes, unfortunately – as are all the spoons. We’ve all been there.
They are also courageous enough to be able to stand up and devise things out of thin air. Or perhaps, not so courageous. They are part of a big group of creative talent who trust, interest, and enjoy each other so much that what can be an agonising process, is an absorbing one. They have also learnt not to worry too much about whether it is good or not. ‘It is always going to be bad the first time,’ says Eli. The trick is to keep rewriting and have someone reliant on you to deliver. ‘It’s why you work with other people, so you don’t let them down.’ He does admit, though, that he is happier as a writer more than a deviser. They remind me a little of the Forced Entertainment company in 1980s Sheffield. Trying things out, experimental, looking for what works theatrically, not actively trying to send a message but finding the message in the work. In that group too, one emerged as the dominant writer/director, here though they seem to lead in pairs.
When they worked together on the film, they would find their instincts usually in tune with each other. Sometimes one had stronger feelings than the other and they would lead the process. Occasionally they would disagree, and then they would unpick what they were trying to do and why, and sort it out. I ask if their collaboration skills are a New Zealand thing, and they think it is more a generational thing; they are used to working as a hive mind. The idea of the auteur is being steadily eroded – the performing arts have long been a collaborative form in many ways. At Melbourne there were lots of directing pairs, being trained up, getting information on the industry – hard truths, no money, nothing new there – and being more collaborative than competitive. They agree. ‘It was awesome’.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever had? They have to think. People say ‘write every day’, says Eli. He hates that. ‘I love writers who say they slack off’, but he admits to long stretches of concentrated work. Advice, though? He admits the technical advice he gets is great, and recommends working with good people that interest you. Leon hates to make choices. He knows it’s a first world problem. I get it though, I am the same. He tells himself to ‘just make a decision, if it is wrong, you can make another decision afterwards. Indecision will kill you.’ Interestingly Leon likes devising – he is perfectly happy seeing what happens if he doesn’t have to decide what to do with the material at the end. They seem to fit each other like the proverbial jigsaw puzzle.
Eli has described his life in the theatre in other interviews like being in a creative lolly shop. This still seems to hold true for both of them. A lolly shop. A playground. And a playground populated by their friends overseen by an older generation that rate them. The trick it seems is, as a kid, to do what you enjoy, and then keep doing it. I do ask my question about their feelings at being accepted into the film festival after all, and their answer echoes the final lines of Boys will be Boys (directed by Leon’s old Toi Whakaari mate Sophie Roberts) that the aim of the game is just to keep playing a little longer. ‘Relief,’ says Eli. ‘We can keep moving forward. We haven’t hit a wall.’
Moving screens at the upcoming Show Me Shorts Film Festival. Details and tickets can be found here. The festival trailer follows: