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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



The Tide Keeper (2014). Interview with filmmaker Alyx Duncan.

“Who knows how to stem the tide except through dreams?”

Stunning short film 'The Tide Keeper' (2014) by New Zealand newcomer Alyx Duncan is a mesmerizing metaphor of the concept of time through the movements of the tides. Have you ever felt the panicked sensation of time running out and you not accomplishing what you feel you need to do in the short time you have on this earth? Duncan's film emits the feeling of choking anxiety of lost time through breathtaking images not soon to be forgotten. 'The Tide Keeper' held its World Premier last month at Palm Springs International ShortFest.

Synopsis: “One night an old man dreams a storm into his bed. In the optimism of his youth, he believed he could save the world. But now, nearing the end of his life, he is losing hope he has run out of time to make a difference.” The film is inspired by the life, and performed by the filmmaker’s father.


I interviewed Alyx during the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Here is what she had to say:

ME: How did you pull off such amazing graphics for your film?

ALYX: The effect of the objects/props moving is done in-camera using puppetry. My background (and much of my existing work) is as a choreographer working with movement and dance within film and television. I worked with dancers being puppeteers to manipulate the household objects, sheets, boats etc. Following the offline edit we had a lengthy online process with VFX artists removing all the puppet strings and reanimating and compositing some of the live animation such as the ocean waves.

ME: Was it a large budget to do this?

ALYX: The budget was minimal and could not have been made without the generous support of my family, crew and post-production facilities. Most of my collaborators worked on the film for very small daily fees, and the post-production was made possible with a huge amount of in-kind support from post-studios: Envy Studios, Mandy, and Park Road Post Production. One of the most important elements that enabled the film to come into existence was support from my family: The set for the film and all the props and art direction comes from my father’s house. We were able to minimize the budget by using existing materials found on location (our family home). Using existing resources also aligned with my fathers’ principles of being low impact on the environment. Film is often a wasteful medium but shooting in this way aligned with his conservationist beliefs. The film originally started as a small scene within a feature film I was shooting in which my father and stepmother play the main roles. But the scene that we shot ended up on the cutting room floor. Later I came back to the material and received a small grant from Creative New Zealand to develop the scene into something that was freestanding. After the film was accepted into two A-list festivals (Palm Springs ShortFest and Melbourne International Film Festival) The New Zealand Film Commission supported the last finishing touches with a post-production grant.

ME: The actor was your father. Was this his first film or have you worked with him before?

ALYX: This is the third film project I have created with my father. The first was Bound, an installation as part of my Masters in Theatre Arts in 2010. The second was when both my father and stepmother became the main protagonists of my first feature film called The Red House (completed in 2012). It was during The Red House shoot that we started making The Tide Keeper. It began as a surreal dream-sequence that we shot to be part of the feature film. Ultimately it wasn’t the right language for the feature, so that scene ended up on the cutting room floor. Since completing The Red House I have often wanted to rework that dream sequence but it took a long time to find the dramaturgical arch of the idea. It was after showing the rough edit to my film mentor Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer that inspiration struck, and I was able to write the action of short film you now see.

ME: I loved your film and thought it very deep. Can you talk about your inspiration for the film? Is it based on a person or is it meant to be a metaphor for something like death or imprisonment?

ALYX: The Tide Keeper is inspired by my father: his fears for the ocean environment, and growing sense of his own mortality. My father Lee Stuart has lived on a small island just off the coast of New Zealand for more than 30 years. His mission has been to keep the environmental integrity and sense of the small NZ community on his island. Lee is from a generation of people who cared for an island culture that is fast disappearing. More and more our use of plastics and disposable materials are impacting on our oceans, creating phenomenon’s like the Great Garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean (, and devastating populations of migrating birds and fish. I think it’s tricky for any one of us to feel like we can make a difference. In this film I wanted to explore this ‘nightmare’ through the mind of one aging seaman. I was interested in exploring in a surreal way, how it feels when the causes you were committed to and the contributions you made don’t have the same emphasis now as you grow older. Your impact in the world is waning. My father was part of the 70s activist generation and is still an idealist. In The Red House he says: “ideally the relationship between land and people is like that of a couple deeply in love”. He is trying to understand his place in a world that’s changing. In The Tide Keeper we were exploring his personal feeling of the growing tide of environmental vulnerability, his fears for the ocean, and impact of each of us has as individuals in the household waist we produce.

ME: How long did it take you to produce the film?

ALYX: We started shooting the film in 2010. So from start to completion it’s been four years. Obviously/thankfully we haven’t been working on it the whole time, but have fitted it in and around more commercial work and other projects such as finishing my feature film The Red House. The Tide Keeper had three different shoots adding up to 15 shoot days in total. The post-production process took approximately seven months.

ME: How has your experience been at PS short fest and reactions to audience?

ALYX: I had an amazing and joyful time at Palm Springs ShortFest. Films take such a long time to produce, and is often quite a focused act of determination and alchemy. It’s important to have moments of celebration and reflection as well as time to interact with the films audience and grow a community. It was great to meet such a diverse bunch of talented filmmakers, festival programmers, publicists, and other facets of the film industry.

ME: What are you working on next?

ALYX: I currently have a few projects in development. I’m in post-production of a web-collection of short films DanceBox commissioned by a mixed ability dance company called Touch Compass Dance Trust. I’m also at the beginning of the offline edit of a short film I’m producing called Mouse. It’s written and directed Lani Feltham. Together we are also writing two new feature films. One is called The Moon Baby’s Daughter: A scientist’s quest to find out what is killing off an endangered frog, leads her to contemplate motherhood and the fate of the generations of women that came before her. Pregnant, and diagnosed with cancer, she must decide whether to save her child or the future of a 150 million year old species. The other film is Wildness: A metaphysical mystery-drama about a Maori woman living in Australia. When she’s visited by her father who’s half-horse half-man she realizes she has to go home. But when she gets there he disappears and she has to go searching for him. In order to find him she must accept her mother’s madness, forgive herself, and let her father go.


View trailer here:

Interview and edited by Vanessa McMahon

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