Broken English Interview

Interviewwith Writer/DirectorGregor Nicholas
[Gregor Nicholas]

Was Broken English an original idea of yours or did someone bring the idea to you?
It was an original notion of mine. I was keen to create a picture of New Zealand society that hadn't been seen before in the cinema, that would be fresh and exotic to New Zealand and foreign audiences. So I wanted to create a picture of the new migrant communities that exist now in Auckland, and the one I was most attracted to was the Croatian migrant community.

Why?
Well, basically the immigrant culture in New Zealand is very monocultural, it comes from the British Isles--Ireland, Scotland, and so on. But the European migrant communities are mainly Dutch and Croatian, and the Croatians came out in three waves; one in the 1890s, one in the 1950s, and the latest one in the 1990s. And the thing that attracted me to them was that they were incredibly expressive, passionate, intense and colorful people. Most of the immigrants in New Zealand are very emotionally repressed in comparison. So I was quite attracted to this sort of fiery temperament.

What's your background?
My background's the classic: my father's Scottish, my mother's second generation Kiwi to German-English parents.

Tell about the Croatian community when you started preparing this film.
Did you have friends in the group?
I had a couple of friends who were children of Croatian migrants, and I had a little bit of contact with the community through them. But then once I got talking with more and more migrants, I got more and more kind of fascinated by their world, you know, and so a lot of the development of the screenplay was driven by research and many, many conversations with numerous migrants, and I'd always have my conversations transcribed. In fact, some of the dialogue from the picture is generated from things from the transcripts, like that line "small Kiwi," for example, when Clara's talking about her desire to have a child in this new land that she's come to. That was something that a Chinese woman from Mainland China said one day. In fact, most of the incidents in the movie are taken in some way from stories that have been told to me. So although it has a kind of classical structure of a melodrama, almost every incident is drawn from life.

Is it particularly easy for people to emigrate to New Zealand?
There's been a real huge wave of immigration into New Zealand in the last five or six years. And that was the other thing that kind of propelled my interest in the story, you know, because you could see that there are sort of tensions and conflicts starting to generate in the community. And ethnic prejudice starts to come out of the closet as this new wave of migration wasn't white, it wasn't English, it was predominantly Asian. And these people-- especially the poor Asian migrants are incredibly hard-working and have a completely different ethic. Most white New Zealanders are very complacent about their life style. They have an expectation that they will have a very good lifestyle without actually having to work very hard for it. So here are these Chinese migrants coming into the country, and they start with nothing and they work and they work and they work and they save and they save, and then they get somewhere really quickly. And there's a bit of resentment in the established community about that.

The Croatian community in the film is also portrayed as very enterprising...
The migrants that came out in the 1950s-- it'd be fair to say that they were working-class people, getting away from an old world order. And a lot of them had that hard work ethic. But they're also very entrepreneurial. They love to provide for their families. Part of that whole ethos is that providing for your family and being a generous host, etc.

How did the love story develop out of your research?
I was interested in telling a story about a young woman who had a bold sense of identity. And as I accumulated these stories, it just sort of naturally evolved. I could see that breaking away from the patriarchal, oppressive environment in the home was quite a common story. So I just sort of used that as my springboard, the relationship between the father and daughter. And then I wanted to just sort of include all these other cultural collisions in the picture. So I thought having her fall in love with a Maori guy and have the father be totally against that kind of thing was going to form the basis of a good story.

Is that unusual in New Zealand? Relationships between different ethnic groups?
No, it isn't at all. In fact, ironically, the early settlers--Croatian settlers--who settled up North, in the North Island, had a strong relationship with the Maori community. But more recent migrants don't necessarily have that point of view, yeah.

Tell me how you found Aleksandra Vujcic...
We must have put about sixty to seventy actresses on tape. Some of them were kind of "semi-star" status people, and we still weren't happy. And my casting director literally saw Aleksandra in a bar one night and was really sort of beguiled by her. Aleksandra was surrounded by a group that were obviously charmed by her, and so my casting director, Fiona approached her, and we convinced Aleksandra to come in and do a screen test, and that's how the thing got going.

Apparently she threw the script away.
She was not taking it very seriously. She didn't sort of see it as a possibility. She had a job working as a receptionist. Her command of English at that point was not that great, so getting a job was a problem even though she had an education in Zagreb. Her boss wasn't very cooperative in allowing her to come and do a screen test, so she just decided that it wasn't something that was gonna happen. And when I finally convinced her to come back for the screen test she confessed to me that she had thrown the script away.

How did the screen test go?
It was completely obvious from the very first test that she had this incredible thing going with the camera. And what I was particularly attracted to, apart from the fact that she was beautiful and she was charming, was that she couldn't lie to the camera. She couldn't betray her own instincts. And there was no technique getting in the way of her expression. So then we had to see whether she could deal with rehearsing and choreographing a scene for shots and all that kind of stuff. So we got her back to do a very intensive screen test on one scene, and then I got Rade to do that scene in London. And then I cut the two tapes together, and it was quite an exciting kind of moment for [producer] Robin Scholes and I, because it was very clear that we'd found Ivan and Nina.

How did you decide to cast Rade Serbedzija as her father?
I met Rade at the Sundance Film Festival when he came with "Before the Rain." He was looking for an English-language picture to do, because he had fled his homeland and he was now having to make a new career for himself in movies in the West. So Broken English just came at the right time. And it was also a story that had a lot of personal resonance for him. The fact that it was about a Croatian nationalist--and that whole whole nationalistic thing that took place in former Yugoslavia and broke it apart is what forced Rade to leave his homeland. So he brought a huge amount of authenticity to the story, because of his personal experience.

Did you have them in place before you cast the other people in it?
They were cast way before anyone else, and we spent the next four months casting the movie. And we really went out of our way to find actors and non-actors who could really bring their characters to life.

How was the film produced?
It came from the New Zealand Film Commission and Village Roadshow. The writing and development process went on for about four years.

The film has a very intense portrayal of sexuality. Was it difficult to stage the love scenes?
Ironically, no. I think that has a lot to do with the way in which I prepared with the actors before the shoot. And one of the things I did was spend a lot of time with my cast before I shot the film--just becoming friends, and forming a sense of trust. After that preparation, doing those scenes was actually relatively easy, you know. One of the great things about Aleksandra is that she has a very natural and candid sensuality, sort of fused with innocence. And that really came out in those scenes, I think.

The film opens with scenes of war-torn Croatia. Did you go there to film this?
No, that footage was shot by a Spanish film crew on the day that Vukovar fell to the Serbs. It was shot from a refugee bus leaving the town.

How long has Aleksandra been in New Zealand?
She was in New Zealand for just over a year before we found her. She lived through the war. In fact, some of the experiences that her character talks about in the film are experiences that Aleksandra had. And she helped write some of the dialogue in those scenes. The opening voice-over, for example....

What does the title mean to you?
One of the things I really wanted to do was create the world of Broken English that these migrants live in. Every day they're coming to terms with a language they don't understand very well, and they're listening to it and they're having to speak it. So there's a little bit of a hurdle for the audience--they actually have to live in the world of Broken English when they watch the movie.
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