They Are Us director Andrew Niccol did not want Jacinda Arderns Office to read script, which could get $20m taxpayer funding

Director Andrew Niccol did not want the Prime Minister’s Office seeing an early draft of his They Are Us film, which intended to have 40 per cent of its New Zealand production costs subsidised by the taxpayer, netting the film as much as $20 million in subsidies.

The details are revealed in documents recently released under the Official Information Act, which show communications between the film’s producers and the New Zealand Film Commission. The documents show the commission had to be persuaded by the film’s producers to be upfront about the fact the film was likely to receive taxpayer support – commission staff were keen to “drop” references to taxpayer support from a response to a query from the media.

Niccol emailed a draft copy of the script to the commission’s acting chief operating officer, Chris Payne, on June 9, with a request to “keep it between us for now”.

Payne emailed back asking whether he could share the script with other commission staff.

Niccol replied saying he was happy for “others in your team” to read the script, but he wanted it kept “in-house”.

“For instance, I wouldn’t want the Prime Minister’s office reading it,” he wrote.

A draft script has subsequently been released to Newshub, which has published substantial portions of it.

Payne was, however, at the same time thinking about how to brief the Beehive, and in particular, the Prime Minister’s Office on the film, which he had to do under the “no surprises” rule, which requires the public service to flag any potentially contentious topic with ministers in advance.

On June 9, Payne wrote to his team to request a “chat ASAP” – “we’ll need to determine the best approach to briefing Ministries/Ministers and PMO”.

A detailed backgrounder on the film was soon sent to the Prime Minister’s Office, giving them their first heads up on a project the commission had known about since late 2019.

The public announcement of the film did not go quite to plan. The film’s overseas producers spelled Ardern’s name wrong in the draft press release – an error picked up by the film’s New Zealand-based producer Philippa Campbell, who has since left the project.

“Please could you correct the spelling of the NZ PM’s name in the release – it is Ardern, not Arden,” she wrote in an email to the overseas team on June 8.

Around this time, Niccol, Campbell, and British producer Stewart Till caught up for a virtual meeting with the commission to discuss the film. Payne took notes on the call, which he then emailed to himself.

Those notes record Till had read “six drafts and still cries” over the film. Till also mentioned the budget for the film, but the precise figure has been redacted.

Payne recorded that Niccol described the film as a “love letter to Jacinda and to the two mosques”. The film would take place “Friday to Friday, prayer day to prayer day”.

It would “[m]irror the approach that Jacinda took in real life – never show the gunman, livestream, don’t say his name, don’t show his manifesto – he’s kept away from real events, mostly focuses on the heroism that happened during the [at]tack, acts of sacrifice and what Jacinda was able to accomplish during that week, banning assault weapons in six days”.

Payne wrote that Ayman Jamal, another of the film’s producers had met “12-14 from the victims’ and survivors’ families, including the two imams”.

Another note said Niccol described the film as the “First inspiring film about a massacre?” – although it’s not clear whether the question mark was Niccol questioning this, or Payne.

Another note said that Niccol suggested the film would apply for the New Zealand Screen Production Grant, the main film subsidy. Films made by local producers are allowed a 40 per cent subsidy, capped at $6m, while international crews are allowed a 20-25 per cent subsidy, which is uncapped.

Certain films are allowed to apply for a higher subsidy if they meet certain conditions, allowing them to have 40 per cent of costs subsidised up to a budget of $50m, equating to a subsidy of $20m.

Niccol said the production would “maybe” apply for the additional grant, which could allow the film to apply for a maximum payment of $20 million.

“[W]e will have a better idea of financing structure after Cannes,” he wrote.

Act Party deputy leader Brooke van Velden, a critic of film subsidies, said Kiwis would rather the film did not get taxpayer support.

“New Zealand taxpayers would be happier to have more money in their back pockets, as the cost of living has increased, rather than spent on a project nobody thinks should be made,” she said.

After going public with the film in June, the commission began receiving requests from media about the level of taxpayer support for the film. The commission’s communications team drafted a reply which it sent to Payne and Campbell for vetting.

The reply said that the commission understood “that the production does intend to apply for the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG)”.

This text was highlighted in yellow, with the question, “Do we add in the yellow section or just drop it for now? I think we should drop it…”

Campbell, however, wanted greater transparency, saying the film’s producers “felt it was important to be transparent about our intentions applying for the SPIG [sic] to the NZFC”.

As the saga rolled on, the commission’s communications staff considered holding a press conference and texted the acting chief executive Mladen Ivancic saying, “We are thinking we may just hold a media conf. Will let you know.”

Ivancic replied, “Who is we?”

No media conference took place. Ardern has so far distanced herself from the film.

The Film Commission said it would be “premature to discuss ways the film would be financed before it had been announced to the market.

The “film-makers indicated there were a number of ways the film might conceivably be financed, potentially involving the NZSPG, but that it was premature for the film-makers to determine this until the film had been introduced to the market.

“The NZFC has not received any applications for the NZSPG for They Are Us, nor has it received any applications for development or production funding,” it said.

The commission said that the grant was “just one possible financing approach under consideration by the film-makers”, and given the “uncertainty” around how the film would be financed, the commission did not want to get ahead of the producers by announcing to media whether or not the producers planned to apply for the grant.

“However, per the email correspondence Philippa Campbell subsequently confirmed that she—on behalf of the producing team—did intend to apply for the NZSPG for They Are Us,” the commission said.

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