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Fiona Jackson is a Wintec Master of Arts (Visual Arts) graduate

Fiona Jackson

Tell me about Penny Black!

Penny Black is about a high-strung model who decides to drive the length of the North Island with her 'superhero' sister to attempt to get her job back, but on the way she meets up with a low-key anarchist who challenges the way she sees the world.

​The idea came from Joe Hitchcock wanting to film a road trip movie, and the two of us thinking about our lives in our early 20s, the people we were and who we could have become. It's also a bit of a statement about the world we live in now, what our society values, and if there's another way to live.

The catalyst for making the film was I needed to experience the production of a feature film as research for my PhD thesis, but there weren't any films scheduled to film in the area so I realised I'd have to make my own. I'd worked with Joe when I was doing my Masters project at Wintec and thought he'd be a great collaborator and he agreed to co-write and then direct the film. It's taken just over four years which seems like an eternity, but a lot of self-funded features take considerably longer than that.

How did studying at Wintec help prepare you in your career?

The most invaluable thing would be connections. All the key crew were people Joe or I met during our tertiary education. As part of my Masters I directed a project with Richard O'Brien and several of the people who helped me with that ended up working on Penny Black. When you're making film projects in New Zealand you're often not paying people, and almost never paying them what they're worth, so you have to get a great group of likeminded people who want to make quality productions to increase their experience and their body of work.

John Mandelberg was my supervisor for my Masters and one of the best things he did was trust me. He was always there with helpful advice and suggestions and answers to my questions, but if I was doing okay he didn't interfere. He was an interested, supportive presence throughout, and that was huge for building my confidence and my belief in my own abilities.

It is also extremely encouraging that Wintec have continued to support me after completing my studies through continued interest in my work and career. This is not the case with all institutions.

What was your favourite part of studying?

Filming. I love being on set. I love the people I get to work with. I wrote a feature length script as part of my Masters, and that taught me a lot about constructing a story, and adapting a true story into fiction. It was short listed for the NZFC First Writers Initiative, but didn't get through as they thought the lead character wasn't proactive enough.

They were probably right, but I'd based it on actual events. Fact isn't always interesting enough for the screen. I also spent months writing my thesis, which, though interesting is a pretty solitary endeavour. So time on set was even more memorable because I was reminded that there are other people who also like creating worlds, and then making them come to life, putting people in them, making them interact. That's the best part for me. Creating worlds with creative people.

What tips would you give to other budding film makers?

Don't do it for the money, or the accolades. The only reason to make films is because you love the process. And it's hard, every step of the way, writing, funding, finding cast and crew, filming, editing, it's all hard work, sometimes agonisingly difficult, so you have to love it. And love the films you're making. And be really, really good at finishing what you start.

What are you working on next?

We still have a lot of work distributing Penny Black, getting into festivals, looking into online distribution, television, DVDs, etc. I'm also finishing my thesis, finishing a short film I made with my daughters, editing a live show, and co-writing another feature about how our childhood can impact our adult lives.

I'd like to make some more episodes of Lapwing, the superhero short we made as part of the Penny Black package because it was so much fun to make and we got a good reception at festivals in the USA, but that will depend on if we can secure funding. There comes a time when we can't just keep paying for everything, and we can't keep asking people to work for free, and we kind of have to start acting like adults even though we're really still living in fantasy worlds in our heads.

* The Penny Black Movie was made with funding from Wintec and The University of Waikato.​