Vincent Ward’s first film, shot at art school, called for a naked man to run across a semifrozen lake.
No one in the conservative city of Christchurch would agree to his odd request, so Ward ended up stripping down and doing the job himself.
It’s a story Ward likes to tell, and it illustrates several qualities about this tenacious New Zealand director.
It shows, he says, how we learned to make films--"literally by jumping in and getting my feet wet; by falling down on my face and trying again.”
But it also gives an early hint at the extraordinary lengths to which Ward will go to get what he wants, and the considerable aura that has grown around his refusal to compromise that vision.
At 32, he is now firmly cast as the “anti-podean Herzog.” His films bear the unmistakable hallmark of a grand quest and, like the indomitable West German director, he attracts a loyal band of followers.
In New Zealand, his work and his working methods are regarded as obsessive. It is a term Ward rejects, but one that has followed him to Australia, where he is now based.
“It’s not a particularly complimentary phrase, is it?” he asks, “I might have fallen into that category once, but now I’d like to think my approach is a bit more low-key. I just don’t see any point in doing something unless you put everything you have into it.”
In the 13 years since Ward’s icy plunge into film-making, he has put his all into just two feature-length productions and two award-winning short films.
Despite this slender output, he has developed an increasingly international profile, as each film’s release reinforces the presence of a startingly fresh style and vision operating Down Under.
His films have not generated much box office in America, but recognition has come from the international festival and art-house circuits.
Ward’s first film, the 50-minute psychological drama “A Stage of Siege,” won awards at the 1978 Chicago Film Festival (a Golden Hugo) and the Miami Film Festival (Special Jury Prize).
Then his 2 1/2-year odyssey into the remote Urewera ranges (living with an 82-year-old Maori woman and her 40-year-old paranoid schizophrenic son), resulted in “In Spring One Plants Alone,” a haunting documentary that was Grand Prix co-winner at the 1982 Cinema du Reel and a Silver Hugo winner at the Chicago Film Festival.
Both his feature films, “Vigil” and “The Navigator,” have been selected in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, a rare double achievement in the festival’s 41-year history.
But similar success seemed to elude him at home. As his producer John Maynard states: “In France, Ward is seen as an auteur director, but in Australia he was seen as self-indulgent, and in New Zealand he wasn’t seen at all.”
However, Ward’s latest film, “The Navigator,” is crossing over some of those previously defined boundaries.
The film scooped six Australian Film Awards last year, including best film, best director, best cinematography and best editing, and its box-office success in Australia and New Zealand has opened up a whole new audience for Ward’s work.
Released in New Zealand’s five main centers last month, its per-screen average in the first week was $20,000 New Zealand (about $13,000 U.S.), placing it just behind Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Red Heat” as the country’s top-grossing movie. Its dream run was then halted by the release here of “The Accidental Tourist.”
“The Navigator,” subtitled “An Odyssey Through Time,” concerns a pilgrimage by a group of 14th-Century English miners who believe they can save their village from the advancing Black Death by erecting a cross on top of the “highest church in Christendom,” on the other side of the world.
Led by a 9-year-old visionary boy called Griffin, they tunnel through the Earth, emerging into glittering 20th-Century New Zealand, and the “celestial city” of Auckland, 1988.
The bold leap in time is made without any of the convenient time-travel devices seen in films like “Back to the Future.” Ward moves between stark black and white for Cumbria, 1348, and deep, foreboding color in the 20th Century.
“I prefer to tell a story visually as much as possible,” he says, “That is the art of film making and what makes it interesting.
“If you want dialogue or easy answers, listen to a radio play or watch TV. Film is visual. I try constantly to whittle away unnecessary dialogue and overt explanation.”
Yet the juxtaposition of the 14th and 20th centuries has a meaning in the film that is all too clear.
The Black Death has its modern-day counterpart in AIDS, and Ward compares the Cumbrian village (an isolated pocket untouched by the plague) to New Zealand with its “courageous or foolhardy” anti-nuclear stance.
“Most of New Zealand is Celtic in origin,” says Ward, “I liked the idea of what our distant ancestors would make of us if they came to visit one dark night. Normally we film stories about he past which are implicitly judging the past. I wanted the film to be from their perspective--they are judging us, and we see our century through medieval eyes.”
Ward is a fourth-generation New Zealander, from a long line of farmers who worked the land by hand, shaping it through sheer hard work.
“I was a hunter and a possum trapper,” he says proudly. “And I trained in amateur wrestling and boxing (before concussion put an end to all contact sports).”
At art school, he originally intended being a painter or sculptor. Yet when film critics talk about his art, Ward cringes, preferring, if pressed, to describe it as craft.
“For me the important thing is working and making things. If I was a carpenter or a sculptor, I’d be just as happy. The act of creating is a very physical process . . . I identify very strongly with the miners in The Navigator.”