The story of Flight of the Albatross

In 1995, had the wonderful experience of watching my second novel, Flight of the Albatross, being made into a film in New Zealand in a German-New Zealand co-production. The film was shot on location on Great Barrier Island, where I once lived and which I fictionalized as the setting for my novel. The pictures here include photos of Great Barrier Island when I lived there in 1981, photos of various foreign editions of Flight of the Albatross, photos of the island and the shooting of the film in 1995, and photos of material from the director’s shooting notes.

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. I could walk utterly alone on wide white sand beaches along the Pacific Ocean that stretched virtually unbroken all the way to 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 Flight of the Albatross, my second novel. I had been deeply affected by my time living on Great Barrier Island and by learning about the two cultures of New Zealand, the indigenous Maori, 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 begun settling there in significant numbers by the 1830s.

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.

Flight of the Albatross was published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1989, 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. After that I heard very little from the German film company.

Five years later I was surprised by a phone call from one of my now-ex-relatives who were still living on their small farm on Great Barrier Island where I'd lived when I first found myself on the island. She told me that a film company was there on the island, making a film called Flight of the Albatross! Within a week I'd bought an airline ticket and gone back on the island I'd first lived on almost fifteen years before. Athough I had no official role in the making of the film, I stayed in my ex-relatives' guesthouse and spent the next three months following the German and New Zealand film crew around the island to the various set locations, watching as they shot the film version of my novel.

I quickly became 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, Julia Brendler, a German actress who played the part of Sarah, and Rei Rakatau, the official Maori kaumatua, or elder.

It was fascinating to watch the characters from my novel transformed into characters in a film. Even Celeste, the old work horse I'd ridden when I lived on the island in 1981 and who had become a character in my novel, 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, the film-making was difficult, complex work on an island with no easy access, electricity or good roads. Everyone and everything was choreographed by the director and set down on daily Call Sheets, which everyone from the film’s stars to the make-up artists to the gaffers carefully followed. The actors were on location all day, even if hours passed 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.