Shooting papers - Blueprint of bach

The story of Flight of the Albatross

I give presentations in schools about the experience of writing my second novel, Flight of the Albatross, and watching it be made into a film. The presentation includes a showing of the two-hour film Flight of the Albatross, a PowerPoint showing of photos taken on location on Great Barrier Island and of material from the director’s shooting notes, and a discussion of the book, the film, and the process of retelling a written story through images.

This presentation generates a great deal of interest among middle and high school students. It is a unique opportunity to hear about an unusual experience, learn about another culture, and a get a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing a book and making a film. The presentation should take place over two or three days, and is most effective if students have a chance to read the book and see the film before I meet with them.

I will work with administrators and teachers at your school to plan this event, lend copies of the book (now out-of-print), schedule the showing of the film (available on DVD) and my talk. Please see my Contact page to get in touch with me. I will visit schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire.

In 1981 I moved to a remote, mountainous island fifty miles off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Great Barrier Island had no electricity, no paved roads and a few tiny settlements, some of which could only be reached by a trail through the bush. People farmed, fished and lived off the land. There were wide sand beaches along the sea that stretched unbroken by land until the coast of Peru. I spent my days writing, drawing the wildlife and animals of the island, riding a big work-horse named Celeste and working on a small subsistence farm.

Several years later, after I’d moved back to the United States, I wrote my second novel. I had been deeply affected by my time living on Great barrier Island and by the two cultures of New Zealand, the indigenous Maori, a Polynesian people who had been living on the island for almost a thousand years, and the pakeha, people of British and European descent who had settled there 150 years earlier.

The setting of my story was a fictionally-named Kauri Island, which I’d modeled closely on Great Barrier Island. In the novel, an American girl from New York spends her summer vacation with her mother, an ornithologist doing research on Kauri Island. There she meets a Maori boy and together they find a wounded albatross trapped in a fishing net. With the help of a mysterious old woman who lives alone deep in the bush, they nurse the bird back to health and eventually set it free.

The novel was called Flight of the Albatross. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1989, it received good reviews and was soon being translated into different languages for publication in other countries.

In 1990 I got a call from a German film producer. She had read my novel in German and decided she wanted to make it into a film. She took out an option for the film rights to the book and a year later she took up the option and bought the film rights. For a long time after that I heard very little from the German film company.

Five years later I heard from a friend who lived on Great Barrier Island that a film company was there making a film called Flight of the Albatross! Within a week I found myself back on the island and although I had nothing to do with the making of the film, I stayed for three months and spent my days on the various set locations all over the island watching a German and New Zealand film crew shoot the film version of my novel.

I became very friendly with the cast and crew, getting to know the director, Werner Meyer, as well as Taungaroa Emile, the young Maori actor who played Mako, and Julia Brendler, a German actress who played the part of Sarah, who in my book was an American girl but in the film was German.

It was fascinating to watch the characters from my novel become transformed into characters in a film. Even my old horse Celeste, who had been a character in my book, was played by an equine actor. From the set designer’s blueprints to the work of the set carpenters, scenes from my book we re-imagined as actual places and buildings for the film.

The story from the novel I had written ten years earlier, based on experiences I’d had five years before that, was being retold in a new way on a remote Pacific island as wild and lovely as I remembered it. But as idyllic as it was, it was obvious that film-making was difficult, complex work. Everyone and everything is choreographed by the director and set down on daily Call Sheets, which everybody from the film’s stars to the make-up artists to the gaffers has to follow. The actors have to be on location and available all day, even if it takes hours between shooting one scene and the next.

Flight of the Albatross was edited both for international cinema film release and for a four-part mini-series shown on European television. There were publicity articles and a film edition of my novel published by HarperCollins New Zealand.

The film was released in 1997 and shown at the Berlin International Film Festival in Germany, where it won the Golden Bear Award. Werner Meyer, the film’s director, accepted the award and sent me a photograph of it. Soon after, the residents of Great Barrier Island, many of whom had been extras in the film, got their own private film premier on the island. I was not able to be there but Werner was, and he sent me a carefully packed bottle of special Flight of the Albatross wine, made on Great Barrier Island from a local vineyard, so I could celebrate.

These are the photos I took while I was on Great Barrier Island, New Zealand, for the three months of the shooting of Flight of the Albatross. It was January, February and March--high antipodean summer--the days warm and breezy, the sand blazing white and the southern Pacific every shade of blue from turquoise to indigo. It was 1995, fourteen years after I'd lived there as a newly-married twenty-five-year old. I was only an observer during the filming, and I spent most of the time sitting on the dunes with Rei Rakatau, the Maori kaumatua, or elder, who was the "spiritual minder" for the production. Rei made sure that any Maori content in the film was handled with the correct protocol and portrayed accurately. Sometimes I helped Donna, the second assistant director, or ran errands for the actors.Once I was directed to sit in the pub while a scene was being filmed, and somehow that scene survived the editing and there I am, for about two seconds, doing a "Hitchcock" in the film.  

These are some of the pages from the notebook belonging to the second assistant director, who gave it to me after the shoot was finished. In the notebook are all the Call sheets (the daily shooting schedule), the artist's drawings of various structures to be build at the locations, the shooting schedule, maps of the island, and all the information the cast and crew needed to know about living on Great Barrier Island.