Like so many, James Napier Robertson graduated from actor to director. Some don’t quite get there, talent-wise, but Robertson, along with a touching and wonderfully-written script, takes “The Dark Horse” to great heights.
A native of New Zealand, Robertson has appeared in TV shows such as “The Tribe,” “Power Rangers DinoThunder,” and most recently, “Go Girls.” Turning his focus and attention toward directing, Robertson makes a good impression with his latest film, “The Dark Horse,” about Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a Maori man and former New Zealand chess champion, who finds purpose teaching underprivileged kids about chess and life.
Robertson spoke so respectfully and endearingly about the real-life Genesis, whom he spent time with during the writing of the film. You can hear the passion for “The Dark Horse” and the care taken to make it. Robertson took the time to talk to me about making the film, working with Cliff Curtis and the pressure involved in making a film that felt true to who Genesis was as a person and honoring his legacy at the same time.
You can read the entire interview below! “The Dark Horse” is in theaters April 15.
What drew you to writing and directing this film?
I’d made a film, a low-budget film before, and for me writing and directing is something that I very much am passionate about. I had just finished this other film and I was in LA and I was thinking about what to make next. It’s extremely hard work making a film. It’s years of your life and you’ve got to go through hell and back. So it felt like it had to be something worth sacrificing your life for. And my producer had seen this documentary and was like, “You’ve got to see it! It’s about this guy and he’s so incredible. I think this could be our next film.” After 20 minutes [of having seen the film], I was booking my flight back to New Zealand because I was just so blown away by Genesis, the character, the real man. He was so intelligent, articulate, and had such incredible philosophies about the world and was also so full of contradictions.
I know this film was four and a half years in the making and Genesis passed away in 2011. How did that influence the outcome of the film?
It changed it, definitely. It was kind of like a film I was writing that I thought, you know, when it premieres, I could sit there alongside Gen and we could watch it together and I could turn to him and be like, “What do you think?” We could have a laugh about it. When we lost him, it suddenly became a lot more serious in a way because I realized that this film would now become his legacy. This would be the thing that people would define him as and remember him as. And that had a lot more weight to it, a lot more pressure. When he first passed away–which was a real shock, none of us saw it coming–for a few weeks, I just couldn’t look at the script. I couldn’t imagine doing it. It was so upsetting.
When I wasn’t with him and I was writing, he would call me every week and I’d want to tell him about the script and what I’m doing and he wouldn’t want to hear it. He was one of those people. He had decided that he’d put his faith in me and we’re not going to question that, and so instead he’d sing to me over the phone. Because he knew I was having a hard time writing the script and knew I needed support, which is beautiful. While I was there [at his funeral], this hall is overflowing with kids who came in to talk about how much [Genesis] had changed their lives. That because of Gen, they were going down a gang path and now they have a whole different life because of him. I sat there and was overwhelmed, but felt I had to tell this story.
The cinematography is beautiful. The characters were front and center, but along with the colors in the background, it thankfully isn’t an ugly portrayal of urban life. How did you approach that aesthetic?
Literally in the kind of way you’re describing where I wanted it to be very real, and very gritty, and very authentic. But there’s also a lot of beauty in that urban environment. A lot of beauty, if you look at it in the right way. And I wanted to make sure we looked at it in the right way. I had a lot of talks with cinematographer [Denson Baker] about wanting to bring out the beauty in this world. I didn’t want it to be just a heavy, grim, depressing, harsh dose of reality. That wouldn’t have captured the spirit and beauty of Gen and of the world. I was encouraging the actors not to hit marks and instead just organically move. Yet Denson has to somehow light this and capture the beauty in that, so there was a lot of pressure on him and he did an amazing job.
Mental disabilities are portrayed so differently from movie to movie. But because you were so close to Gen and you got to know him, how did you approach his bipolar disorder when it came to portraying it onscreen?
Trying to tell the truth. That was always my guiding light. Just tell the truth. Don’t manipulate mental health or manipulate gangs or aspects of this community just to try to fit the narrative or try and make a film that would be more entertaining. But instead, it’s like, just tell the truth, be honest. I think I am an optimist at heart, and Gen was as well, and there is a real sense of I believe in that optimism and hope within that. It was just like, don’t do something disingenuous or a Hollywood portrayal of mental illness. That was absolutely crucial to me, that it always felt respectful, but truthful.
I especially loved the relationship between Genesis and Mana [James Rolleston]. How much of Mana’s character was based on Genesis’ actual nephew versus how you wanted to show the influence on the youth in Genesis’ community?
It’s both. Gen’s actual nephew, I’ve changed his name for his privacy, but very much of that story was based on them. His actual nephew came to the premiere in Gisborne [Genesis’ hometown]. That character also had to encapsulate and capture the hundreds of other kids that Gen helped change the lives of that the film doesn’t have time to show. There’s so much to the story that I couldn’t even fit in the film.
I heard Cliff Curtis went into method actor mode with his portrayl of Genesis.
Yeah, his commitment was amazing! He’d never done that before and it was something that, when we were in the early days and discussing the possibility of him playing the role, I was struggling with this thing: Cliff’s usually a slim, good-looking guy, and Gen is not. Gen’s a big guy with missing teeth and funny haircuts. That was the Gen that I knew. I didn’t want to water that down in any way. So, in the end, I asked Cliff to do two things to play the role: One was to gain all this weight, and the other was I asked him to stay in character for the entirety of the shoot.
And he thought those were awful ideas [laughs]. In the end, I think he realized that that’s what it was going to take to try and capture the magnitude of someone like Gen. So he put he on close to 60 pounds and he stayed in character for the whole of the shoot. He didn’t know what it was going to be like because he’d never done it before; I didn’t know what it would be like because I’d never done it before and I’d never asked an actor to do it. As I said, it just felt like it needed something extraordinary like that to capture such an extraordinary character.