Breaking up is hard to do – or so the lyrics go – but what if you could pay someone else to do it for you?
This is the jumping off point for The Breaker Upperers, an offbeat comedy from New Zealand writers-directors-actors Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek. The film premiered at the prestigious South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, before opening the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year.
It’s a modern rom-com that explores love in all its guises, most poignantly the platonic relationship between friends Mel and Jen. When Mel falls for gormless teenager Jordan (Boy’s James Rolleston), who has been unsuccessfully trying to dump his girlfriend with sad face and broken heart emojis, her relationship with Jen is stretched to the limit.
The idea for the film came to van Beek in her Auckland kitchen, contemplating various friends who had extricated themselves from tricky relationships.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we had a film with two females doing something really morally ambiguous,” van Beek says. “‘What if they were getting paid to break up couples, if that was their job?’”
She took the idea to her friend, fellow actor and comedian Sami, who jumped at the chance to be involved. Both are actor-directors – van Beek has made five award-winning short films and appeared in fellow New Zealander Taika Waititi’s critically acclaimed vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (alongside Sami), as well as Australian drama 800 Words. Sami created, co-wrote and starred in two seasons of New Zealand comedy Super City and starred in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. The film also features Australian comedian Celia Pacquola (Utopia, Rosehaven, The Beautiful Lie) as one of Mel and Jen’s first victims.
Taika Waititi was the pair’s first choice to direct, but he was busy making Hollywood film Thor – Ragnarok, so van Beek and Sami backed themselves as co-directors.
“We spoke to both Taika and [Shadows’ co-actor, writer, director] Jemaine Clement before we decided to direct,” Sami says. “They encouraged us to do it; and the NZ Film Commission was really supportive, so it was all go.”
The filming itself was short and sharp – just 22 days on a super skinny NZD$2 million budget – with plenty of favours called in from their “comedy family”. Clements cameos in the film, and Waititi is executive producer.
Not only does the film tackle stereotypes around gender, sexuality, race and ageing in a delightfully subversive way, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud “you can’t say that” moments. And you can’t help but notice the film is part of a trailblazing set in having two women writing, directing and playing the leads.
Wearing many hats brought unique challenges. “We used a lot of improvisation, which was fun,” van Beek says. “Our problem was if we were on set we’d never call ‘cut’ because we just thought we were being so brilliant, we’d keep improvising.”
Despite their belief in the film they were astounded by the reception at SXSW. “We went in with really low expectations,” Sami says. “It’s a New Zealand film, we haven’t done anything intentionally to make the film more accessible to American audiences, so that was a really nice surprise to sit in that world premiere and hear the laughter and be so embraced by that audience there.”
Although in person they find the idea of being a “breaker upperer” entirely immoral, the pair hopes the film contributes to increasing the female presence in the film industry.
“One day we won’t be interviewed as ‘female filmmakers’, just ‘filmmakers’,” van Beek says. “Wouldn’t that be good?’ adds Sami.
The Breaker Upperers is showing in cinemas nationally. See the trailer here.