Christopher Pryor’s The Ground We Won is a character-focused, black and white documentary about a rugby club in New Zealand. Despite its seemingly simple focus, the film is actually a powerful commentary on masculinity and our inter-generational attachment to sport. Ahead of the film’s screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, we spoke to Pryor about his film.
I’ll start with perhaps an obvious question, which is how did you first come to the story of the Reporoa rugby team?
It was born of, well, both myself and my wife [Miriam Smith] are rugby outsiders, we’ve never really followed rugby and I’ve kept rugby culture at an arm’s length my entire life. So, it was about looking at why it is so important to so many people. Particularly in New Zealand, it is the national obsession. So we felt that, whilst we didn’t understand it, it obviously means a lot to other people and they must be benefiting from something [in it]. So we wanted to look at the culture that surrounds the sport and it’s not obviously about rugby per se. And the other thing is, bizarrely, given how pivotal rugby and its culture is to New Zealanders it’s never really been explored on the big screen. And I think a big part of that is too many of us are too close to it; we assume everyone understands what it’s all about and why it matters. So that was the beginning, but sort of getting beyond that we wanted to look at male tribalism and what it means for men; we wanted to look at men and their relationship with other men and to really explore the kind of rites and rituals that exist, that I think we’ve kind of lost in our secular culture but is still very much a part of sporting culture.
Definitely. For me your film is very much a story about masculinity and framing sport, in a subtle way, as a means of escape and attachment to youth. It’s really hit home by the fact that one of your main subjects in the film is a single father with two young kids. All of those scenes with him and his family had so much intimacy packed in. How did you manage to convince him to be a part of the film?
Well, I mean you gain that access purely through spending time with people.
How long were you in that community with them?
We were there for about a year.
Is that including filming time?
We made quite a number of trips, gathering material for funding applications and all that. With the team it was a good year or 18 months prior to the shoot. With the shoot itself we made a lot of trips down from Auckland, which is where we live. So we got to know those guys very well and they got to see our commitment; you know, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive down for practices. But it’s through spending time with people and for them getting the opportunity to learn what you are about.
I read your interview with Doug Dillaman over at The Lumière Reader and he had a really interesting turn of phrase when describing your film, which is that you were “aestheticising something normal”, that idea that when you showed the film to the team, you had re-framed their lives in cinema. Do you think that your presence there, filming them, had a noticeable impact upon their behaviour?
For us they would do anything that they would be doing otherwise, and we made really sure that we don’t intervene at all – we don’t get people to repeat things. And so it’s not that we’re invisible, it’s that they’re completely uncomfortable with us – and that’s really important. Of course, when we first turned up they would crack jokes and then look over their shoulder to make sure that you got their joke and people get sick of that really quickly. Beyond 2 to 3 weeks, in fact it was about a month, nothing was a problem.
It did feel like you were able to get this impressive access. There’s that sequence where the young Scottish kid on the team is forced to drink beyond his limits and you have a shot of him on the bus crying and players around him having to grapple with that.
I think the other thing too is that it wasn’t like we were focusing on individuals – I mean we did – but it’s that sense that we’re in it together, that they felt comfortable that they could let go – and they did, as you see in the film.
It’s almost a return to a collegiate atmosphere, as one of them says the games are almost an excuse to drink, a way for people to bond together in such a disparate farming community.
Yeah, I think the excuse to get drunk has reasons behind that as well, and that’s something that we were wanting to look at. And obviously, as you said, a big part of that is release. These guys own multi-million dollar businesses and so they work incredibly long hours and there’s a lot of uncertainty and they’re often alone and this gives them – and there could be better ways of going about it – but this gives them that release.
It’s also their behaviour under the influence of alcohol, the schoolboy atmosphere, hazing rituals. It’s almost like rugby makes them kids again.
Well I think that there’s something that happens on the field that is like a simplification of the world – you have an us and a them, all of those boundaries are very clear —
One of them says that rugby in “gladiatorial”.
Well, that’s the thing. It evokes that going to war and for a lot of people that is a channeling of a lot of energy – and it’s probably a positive way to channel that, you know, I’m not going to make a judgement on that.
Often you intercut these sense of conflict and action with scenes where they’re coaching children playing rugby as well, a way to take a step back and look at rugby in life more broadly.
Yeah, and amongst all of that there is a great tenderness and that was part of how we came to the sport that we came to, it was about underpinning the existing tenderness that you don’t necessarily see on the surface but is absolutely there.
You play with this perception of the act of rugby as separate from life through the music. For most of the sequences of actual rugby there is no music, but as the film goes on it slowly seeps on.
I guess that’s how, for us, we love about documentary. We’re not trying to relay facts or pick apart social issues, we see it as an opportunity for expression, and that’s what interests me in documentary and what it can do.
Well rugby documentaries are few and far between on their own but especially cinematic ones. I don’t think I’d seen any of them, really, but in the last few months I’ve seen yours and this Australian documentary, Scrum, about the Sydney Convicts rugby club. That film is also very cinematic, the visuals are very striking. For The Ground We Won you decided to shoot in black and white. What was the impetus behind that?
Lots of reasons, we were looking again at the fact that rugby hasn’t been explored in a popular context; it’s overfamiliar and we wanted to pull it away from all of those images that we’re bombarded with on television and everywhere, of rugby and fun, and say “we want you to look at this in a different light”. Black and white does that, but also it means that we can evoke a sense of timelessness. Because what we’re also trying to explore is the fact that what’s going on with the farm and the field could have been happening 10, 20, 50 years ago – it’s these cycles being repeated, one generation handing it on to the next. It actually also allows us to access that sort of mythological element, but then we can subvert that with what goes on in the court session, for examples.
Well the black and white, because it strips everything back, means that our eye is trained to simplify things, particularly in the rugby sequences. We have to make the call as to which is the white team and the black team, regardless of what their original team colours are. And of course the landscape shots, it actually reminded me of the Icelandic film Rams, not only because both are about farmlands but also because both films focus on the self-image of men. How did you go about shooting those gorgeous scenes of fog? Did you know you wanted to have them form the start of shooting?
Well Reporoa, the area, is legendary for its fog. There are days where it doesn’t lift. It might lift at 2 in the afternoon and come back down at 2:30, so fog was always going to be in it, like it or not.
Was that part of your decision to shoot there?
No, actually. We obviously had the idea to make something along these lines for quite a while, and we kept our eye out for a club. It was largely by chance that we came across Reporoa, and it was about identifying the characters and where they need to be. What was important for us is that these three characters needed to represent three stages of manhood. So, you know, when knew that, especially with Kelvin and the twin boys —
Yeah he was a pretty perfect subject for the film. You’re instantly drawn to him, he seems to have a lot of internalised aggression in him, even when getting his kids to get spoons out of the car.
I don’t think he’d call it aggression —
That might be the wrong phrase —
He can be gruff but, as you can see, he’s an absolute loving father.
Yep. I love the scene on the team bus where he’s testing his son on his timetables.
Well yeah, competition is so much a part of their lives. The twins are always competing, Kelvin is always encouraging competition. That’s one of the interesting things about, I guess, being an ‘arty townie’, is that we often don’t think of ourselves as competing too much. It was actually interesting to see healthy competition, what it entails and what it produces.
It does feel that as these guys get older there’s that desire for physical competition, that need. As Kelvin says, when you’ve been playing rugby for so long you feel like you need to play a game on a Saturday morning.
That’s right, it’s the opera of the week.
It does feel like your film does, in a microcosm, capture the relationship between New Zealanders and rugby, particularly as they get older. It’s the same here, really. I played rugby in school, you grow up with it, and so that same conversation is really valid here – what is it that makes us want to play? Is it because it’s a national culture, is it built into us as individuals?
Well yeah, as I was mentioning before I think it does turn into something pretty primal, and culturally, Australia and New Zealand are similar, our rugby culture is drawn from our pioneering culture, something very different from the Public school system in the UK and so our game takes on that particular flavour and takes on those values associated with that pioneer culture – you work hard and show no pain. I think that’s also something around the alcohol thing, it’s little wonder that in a culture where you’re not allowed to show pain, where you can’t express your feelings, to have this sort of numbing agent is so much part and parcel of what’s going on.
It does also feel like rugby is a way to consume time, almost. There are very few scenes in which we the guys not working on the farm, playing rugby, coaching or drinking. Only one shot comes to mind, one where Kelvin is sitting on the couch after putting his kids to bed. The camera holds on him for about ten seconds, it’s this brief moment of respite.
Well that’s right, particularly for Kelvin, who is juggling so much.
How did you go about financing the film? You mentioned early you had grants.
We got financing from the New Zealand Film Commission, which was amazing.
Is the process of documentary financing in New Zealand difficult? I guess specifically what I want to ask is whether the fact that your film was about rugby made it easier to get made?
No. In fact, it was actually quite the opposite. Everyone knows, in terms of world sales, rugby audiences don’t go to the cinema, rural audiences don’t go into town to go to the cinema – the combination of the two is crazy, then make it black and white, you’re fuckin’ nuts. We’re really pleased that the cinema release in New Zealand was a big success.
Did you have any indication of that when you first showed the film to the team?
Yeah, we were really encouraged.
Did they have notes?
No, and part of that first screening is just before we lock the cut, and give them the opportunity to bring up concerns about how they were represented and so on that they needed addressed. There were none. And it always surprised us. When you’re filming, if there’s anything that’s crossing a line, [we need] for them to let us know and we’ll address it, preferably later on. The only things that would come up were like, someone would be worried about their fence line – they were doing fencing, they were more worried about other farmers seeing their farming than anything else.
That’s so fascinating. I figured there might be some concerns about the drinking scenes. Maybe that’s the natural order of things approach to that atmosphere. I guess, for them those scenes just depict life.
Well it’s not just for them. When we released the film in New Zealand we did a Q&A tour around the country, you know, from North to South, and everyone from the rugby clubs that came along said “that’s just like us”, that we could have been filming them. Everyone felt that we’d captured this really authentic experience of rugby culture and that’s certainly satisfying. The same is true of the farmers, we wanted for farmers and rugby players to feel like the film was as authentic to their world as possible.
That’s almost a part of the release strategy, then. I know That Sugar Film over here was a huge hit because they had an unconventional release strategy, touring around with Q&As. It’s almost as if that strategy is much more personal, the idea that ‘we’re coming to your town’, ‘we’re here to show you something’, not broadly release it. That seems like it would be much more effective in rural areas too.
Well, yeah. We self-distribute it as well.
Do you find it hard getting the film into cinemas?
Well this is our second film that we’ve done like this, and in those three years there have been some big changes, virtual print fees, for example. We had to invest a lot more to get the film in there. Certain distributors demand more screen time and so it was a lot harder to get our second film into cinemas because of scheduling demands.
Yeah even over here some of the scheduling, particularly in independent cinemas, clearly shows distributors sometimes holding them over a barrel. It’s pretty disheartening.
We were every lucky that we just had amazing reviews. We had about five, five-star reviews, and that opened up so much.
All local publications?
Do you think it’s because they saw the film as latching onto a local identity?
I think so, and that was the gist of the reviews, but I think what it says more than anything else is that there’s a sort of appetite for this kind of thing that’s not as clear in this market-driven system.
I guess the only way to tell these stories, then, is independent filmmaking, because no one else is going to tell these stories. That must have been especially gratifying for you to get such a positive response not only from farmers and rugby players but also critics in the cities.
Well we were terrified that we would fall somewhere between the two, and so we had to think really hard about how we marketed film, so that we didn’t put off the arthouse but also not put off rural sporting audiences. Actually going back to screening to the guys, as well as being for any changes to the final cut, we were also very aware that this was a kind of film they hadn’t seen before. We were hopeful that they would understand what this kind of film means and that, somehow, it wasn’t a disappointment to them. But they did and that was really clear. So – to get back to your first question – given that, we felt that we had a really good chance with the wider release.
How much footage did you have to edit from?
We had about 200 hours, which is not crazy for a year. That’s less that our last film, which was 300. It think that reflects our growing experience. Obviously we never knew what was going to happen, we never dreamed that they would start winning, we never dreamed of the drought. They started winning because of the drought. In the edit, we had these three main characters, and the narrative, if you will, has to progress through these characters and so if it’s not to do with them and the themes that they embody then it’s not in. That cut to the chase in terms of the nebulous amount of footage.
When did you decide on those three men?
Well we had Kelvin and Peanut, but we hadn’t met Broomie, who was the team captain, because he wasn’t playing rugby that year. We, obviously, met him during the shoot. We had our eye out for someone, and we were looking at the themes, the dichotomy of the how someone is with them team and how they are on their own. In our initial assembly we had 70 or 80 scene cards laid out and there’s probably 60 left. So it was actually just stripping away.
Making it more minimal, yeah. I think some of the most potent moments are actually those untethered to the narrative. My favourite shot in the film is one of Kelvin sitting on top of a cow; he’s in the middle of the frame, on the phone to one of his kids about getting ready for the day. He’s holding a bag attached to the cow as well, and the shot is held for like 90 seconds, like something out of a Roy Andersson film. I guess you can do that once you’ve mapped out a story, is just cut through with these visual moments.
Well yeah, and the farmers of the audience know exactly what that means and know exactly that you can’t pull a calf out if the cow’s dead. And they know how hard it is during harvesting season, and having to sit on top of like 500 cows to check that everything’s going smoothly.
That’s interesting with regards to information, because I was completely clueless as to what was happening. I know that you do the cinematography on the film and your wife Miriam does the sound?
Well yeah, it’s just the two of us, except for the games where we had a second camera some of the time.
Do you find in the editing process you had different focuses regarding image and sound?
No, it really just came down to, and I think I got really good at it, just being brutal. If it’s not progressing the characters, then it’s gone. I think that in my younger days I would have been awfully attached to, you know, that shot that was so meaningful or technical. I’m almost the opposite now, it’s not that ‘I’ll never get that shot again’, I think that, with experience you know that there’s always gold, you’ll always get another shot. Editing it myself, I developed the art of non-attachment.
How did you go about approaching shooting and framing the players?
I try and approach it as if we were shooting a drama scene and we had all the time in the world, as if you could bring all of the considerations of shooting a drama into the mercurial nature of documentary, so we wanted to bring that back. The feeling that there is a considered gaze, that we want you to look at this for a reason.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
The Ground We Won plays again at Melbourne International Film Festival on the 10th of August. Tickets can be purchased here.