New Zealand’s Ant Timpson Is Watching the End of the World From the Ends of the Earth

Ant Timpson (and co.) at home in the Coromandel
Ant Timpson & Co. at home in the Coromandel. Photo: Courtesy of Ant Timpson

I’m in New Zealand, in an area called the Coromandel, [in Opito], which is an isolated beach community. Normally, there are maybe five full-time residents, but during peak vacation time, it swells up to a few hundred. Up until midnight last night, a lot of people were charging back to their houses down here. We went to what they’re calling “level four.” The government is very transparent in the way that shit’s going to hit the fan, giving these levels to work from. It’s good, the social engineering part of it, how to control masses of people without panicking them: “Hey, we’re going to level one now. Then we’re going to go to level two in a little while. And then …”

So we’re up to level four, which friends of mine like to refer to as the fascist state kicking in. Level four is essential services only. Basically, it’s a full lockdown, so the place that you were in before midnight is the place that you have to stay for the next four weeks. If you’re going to do this thing and if you’re going to knock it on the head, you have to self-isolate if you think that’s the quickest way to kill the virus.

But they did something smart. Jacinda [Ardern], I think, is a pretty phenomenal prime minister. They’ve done this thing where the leader of the opposition is holding them accountable for any indiscretions on a daily basis. They’re setting up a select committee to oversee how they perform during this period — because, obviously, it’s a time when governments historically can do sneaky things that we’re very averse to. It’s mind-blowing in a way. It’s like Trump saying, “Hey, what I’m going to do is, I’m going to let Bernie Sanders watch over me for this next little while.”

We hit the jackpot in that, in January, we decided to leave the Big Smoke [meaning Auckland]. The timing couldn’t have been crazier. I had come over to Los Angeles for the premiere of [my directorial debut] Come to Daddy, and just going through LAX, it was the first sign — and I’m not prone to anxiety on any level, my wife hates the fact that I don’t take things seriously enough. But everyone was bailing out of Asia and everyone was congregated in immigration. There were masks and there was coughing everywhere. I started to feel like, “Okay, this is where I feel I’m in a Wolfgang Peterson movie, just at that first stage where we’re starting to go over the edge.”

So coming back, it made me feel almost guilty that we were suddenly going to this place where nothing feels like it’s changed. It’s a place where you feel like the end of the world could happen and you wouldn’t know — if you stayed off social media. We have to drive over a couple of the hills to get to a small convenience store, and that’s not even there now, that’s closed. We got chased by a shark yesterday, and there was a moment where I thought, “That’s a lot of food right there. That’s a substantial fish burger.”

I love a dystopian, depressing film as much as the next person. I’ve done them! I’ve done nearly every sort of cinematic portrayal of the end of the world. In times like this, especially if you’re hanging out with kids, you tend towards lighter stuff. Just the sound of your kids wetting their pants in laughter is a beautiful thing. Watching Melissa McCarthy shit out hot lava in a sink in Bridesmaids last night was the perfect antidote to the world turning to shit as well. Unfortunately, my kids have incredibly weird taste in comedy. I showed them Adam Sandler very early on, and Grown Ups was their peak moviegoing experience.

I’ve been trying to rein it back in, but I really dislike those parents who want to make mini-mes of themselves in terms of the things that their kids are influenced by. The joy of discovery is such an important part of creating taste. It’s just a lifelong thing, you can’t buy it, you can’t transfer it. In terms of me, I’ve been watching screeners for the New Zealand International Film Festival, which might not happen. All those poor filmmakers, having their films ready to go out in Tribeca and South By [Southwest]. It’s very hard to explain to people the amount of buildup — four to five years, I’d guess, on average for a lot of these people. And having that just pulled away from you at the last second, it’s heartbreaking.

Everything’s ceased for me in terms of film work. There’s programming for the festival in July, which is not yet on hold, but there’s probably going to be an announcement sooner or later. The Sydney Film Festival canceled two days ago. I’m also on the board of the New Zealand Film Commission, and there are a lot of productions going through upheaval at the moment. Then I’ve got my own projects as well, which are sort of … what are you going to do? Luckily, we still have internet connection down here, but it can become problematic if everyone jumps on at the same time. I’m trying to clear some footage for a film I’m executive producing called Censor, by Prano Bailey-Bond, this great upcoming filmmaker from the U.K. That’s a film set during the heyday of the video nasty period in the U.K., in the mid-’80s.

Toby Harvard, who I worked on Come to Daddy with, we’ve written a new one. We were just starting to go out to actors before everything went south. I don’t like bothering people at the moment because, even though there’s probably a lot of spare time around, family hopefully comes as a paramount. It’s also a time where people are very blunt. And these sort of films, you really get one shot at approaching certain people, so I just feel like it’s probably better to be patient than rush ahead. Toby and I also thought we should probably write our big sellout commercial film if things go bad — if the independent film world falls apart completely, we may as well have a scorching-hot blockbuster script.

It seems queasy to think about it — but will Hollywood create a new wave [of pandemic movies] like how we had the competing hot zone movies back in the day? Will there be a whole raft of these things spilling out and will it just take one to tank before they all suddenly change their minds? I don’t know. There’s such a great pedigree of films playing around in that arena. I’m curious to see how low people will stoop to exploit the misery of the world at the moment in terms of cinematic. Obviously, it is different from watching it to experiencing it.

We walk on this beach which is usually isolated, but there was someone yesterday. And it’s so weird because we’re in the great outdoors. There’s no one around on a giant wide beach, but still you’ve got that sensation like, “Get the fuck away from me.” It’s funny how quickly you can adapt.

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Ant Timpson Sees the Pandemic From the Ends of the Earth