(Originally Published on Otago Daily Times Online News (http://www.odt.co.nz))
Making movie dreams come true
By Marjorie Cook
Marjorie Cook finds a Reel recipe for film success in Wanaka.
Into the great migrant melting pot that is Wanaka put one South African adventurer, one American comedian, combine with creative New Zealanders and sprinkle liberally with enthusiasm.
Then watch the goggle-box to see Reel Dreams turn to porridge and rise to the occasion, all at the same time.
Reel Dreams is a film-production company launched this month by director Topher Straus and producer Darren Simmonds, both 35-year-old entrepreneurs who settled in Wanaka in 2007.
They met through the Wanaka Film Trust and decided to form a stand-alone company specialising in high-end television commercials.
Reel Dreams now has a modest portfolio of three completed products.
Their second project, an advertisement for Harraways Oats, is screening nationally and they have a seemingly bottomless well of other projects waiting on story-boards.
The pair got their start because they went out on a limb last year and made a speculative promotion for Nike, using numerous local people to film and star in a 45-second advertisement set on Roys Peak.
"It achieved its goal because it got us Harraways. It showcased what we could do.
"And now we have [another client] Dream Doors," Mr Simmonds said recently.
But who are these people so keen to put Wanaka's talents on the tube?
Topher Straus probably needs little introduction in his home town of Denver, Colorado, where he became immersed in the entertainment world at the age of 14.
He was employed by Tribune Broadcasting and by the time he was 18, the junior comedian had hosted a cartoon club programme, numerous other television specials, appeared in more than 350 commercials and won an outstanding public service campaign Emmy for his work.
Mr Straus graduated with a bachelor of fine arts (film art) degree from Syracuse University, in New York, in 1997.
He moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for a year as an assistant to the late film-maker Robert Altman (M. A. S. H., Tanner '88, The Player, Gosfield Park).
Working as assistant to the prolific Altman was "a dream come true".
Moments that spring to mind include waiting in a golf cart while Altman smoked a joint or taking a call from actor Robert Downey jun while the actor was in jail.
"It was great, really enjoyable. He [Altman] was a really nice person," Mr Straus said.
"He would say things like 'Topher, take this script to Lily Tomlin. While you are there, pick me up some oatmeal with real maple syrup.'
"I would be asked to research anything and everything. I was there for one year."
Then he took a similar job for a while with Academy Award-winning director Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, LA Confidential), and another telephone encounter with another actor - this time Russell Crowe, who cursed at Mr Straus when he asked for his name.
Mr Straus formed his first television production company at university and from 1995 began directing films. (See details above)
He and his wife Emelie, a Swiss New Zealander, decided to move to New Zealand in 2007 because they couldn't think of a better place to escape the busy-ness of Sunset Boulevard, six-lane highways, and Los Angeles' night-time noises of helicopters, sirens and gunshots.
They are expecting their first child next month.
Mr Straus says he has always felt compelled to perform.
"It's in my blood. My grandmother was a radio star, my grandfather and father were advertising executives ...
"I am glad I love doing it," he said.
Mr Straus now teaches improvisation workshops with Kahu Youth and in Queenstown.
Mr Simmonds has had a varied and colourful career in the outdoors, with scuba diving, skiing and climbing among his loves.
Growing up in South Africa and educated at an all-boys' school, the done thing was to get compulsory service over and done with soon after leaving school, but Mr Simmonds had other ideas.
"I didn't want to enlist in the army and thought, right, I am going to escape the country.
"A year after I left school it all changed anyway.
"I was interested in diving and my mother was trying to convince me to join the navy.
"But I decided to travel. I liked the idea of backpacking around Europe.
"At the time, a lot of people were taking money out of the country. They would pay people to take it out.
"So this guy paid for my trip to London," Mr Simmonds said.
Four years and 40 countries later, Mr Simmonds arrived in Queenstown, where he skied by day and worked as a magician at night.
Then he moved to Wanaka, where he had enrolled in an outdoor education course, met his future wife Vanessa, and worked as a researcher for a farm management company.
Visual arts had always been part of his life - his New Zealander father and Australian mother owned a photographic business in Johannesburg - so he rekindled his interest in film and photography and now works as a videographer. (See fact box for details)
He also founded the Wanaka Film Trust and four trust projects have won small grants from Short Film Trust of Otago and screened in Dunedin and at other festivals.
Mr Simmonds has participated in 24-hour film-making competitions*, with this year's effort (in the sex education genre) making it to the finals*.
*(that should read 48hrs and City Finals - Admin)
So what is their secret to short-story-telling?
"I'm the Yin. He's the Yang ... Darren is funny but he doesn't know it," Mr Straus said.
Mr Simmonds sees his role as keeping his creative partner focused on the client's vision.
"The more we work together, the more we understand each other," Mr Simmonds said.
Mr Straus says the amount of work in telling a story in 15 to 60 seconds is "amazing".
Several days' filming, for which camera operators and actors are employed, might be followed by several weeks in post-production.
More weeks can be spent in pre-production, requiring the input of graphic artists.
And there's also the all-important client liaison.
The art of making television commercials is a finely balanced one and relies on good communication, they say.
Even just 15 seconds is enough time for the audience to find out what they are being sold, if done correctly.
A client's expectation of an advertisement also has to be dealt with on the level.
"They see a great ad and don't realise that would cost them $1 million," Mr Straus said.
For example, the Nike spec advertisement was designed to look like a $250,000 ad "but we did it for about 1% of that".
The pair accept a portfolio of three ads - one spec, one screening and one about to screen - is very modest, compared to the number of ads screening on television on a daily basis.
Like many migrants to Wanaka, they have discovered a patchwork career has been a necessity; work puts food on the table.
But they emphasise they haven't been in the production business very long.
While Mr Straus will continue to teach improvisation and Mr Simmonds will continue to film weddings, Reel Dreams is a full-time commitment.
And they are committed to using Wanaka's pool of talent in making their dreams come true.
- Directs narrative and documentary films
- Films have screened at 10 international film festivals
- Directorial debut: Extra: In The Background of A Dream - screened 2002 Santa Monica International Film Festival and the 2002 Rome Independent Film Festival.
- Has now secured worldwide distribution.
- Remi Bronze Award: The Attackman - awarded at the 2007 Houston Worldfest
- Producer several short films
- Founded Wanaka Film Trust
- Producer: Fishy Tales (2009, funding assistance from Short Film Otago)
- Director: snow sports documentary on Olympic gold medallist snowboarder Kelly Clark of the US (in progress)
- Reel Dreams www.reeldreams.com
- Wanaka Film Trust www.wanakafilmtrust.blogspot.com
- Short Film Otago www.sfo.org.nz