Briar Grace-Smith

Briar Grace Smith. Photo by Himiona Grace.
The Strength of Water writer Briar Grace-Smith answers The Big Idea community questions


Arts laureate Briar Grace-Smith has written for the page, stage and screen and now her first feature film, The Strength of Water, is on the big screen nationwide.

Arts laureate Briar Grace-Smith has written for the page, stage and screen and now her first feature film, The Strength of Water, is on the big screen nationwide.

Grace-Smith says she enjoys the collaborative nature of writing for theatre and film. "I like un-wrapping the gifts that others bring to the table: the director, the actors, set design, costume – when that happens it can be like Christmas."

The Strength of Water is about growing up, surviving difficult times, and becoming stronger for it. 'Ten-year-old twins Kimi and Melody live happily in an isolated Maori community until the arrival of enigmatic stranger, Tai, precipitates an accident which forces them apart.'

Grace-Smith’s story has travelled from the fictional Maori community of Te Pari to Sundance film labs with Robert Redford, and was captured in the far north landscapes of Hokianga by director Armagan Ballantyne.

After premiering at the NZ International Film Festival in July, The Strength of Water opened in cinemas nationwide on August 27, while continuing its journey at international festivals including Montreal International Film Festival last week.

Grace-Smith answers The Big Idea community questions about writing, completing shelved projects, the audience and Sundance workshops. See the comments below.

During what hours of the day do you feel most inspired?

I’m naturally inspired around 1 – 5 am in the morning but unless a deadline is looming I try and work almost regular hours these days.

I feel pretty energized in the morning, after nine when kids are at school and the house is empty – usually in the afternoons I turn to the less ‘creative’ aspects of the work.

How would a good friend describe your aesthetic or style?

If that means my dress style well, right now I’m wearing trackpants, ugg boots and a sweatshirt. So a good mate might say my style is ‘laid back’.

On those occasions when I have to dress-up I turn to my sister in law for advice. I have no idea what she’d say about my style but she’s helpful and knows her stuff.

But if this is about writing style, I have a love of language (am also inspired by moteatea) so if it feels appropriate for the project I take every opportunity to push that, wheather it be in a character’s dialogue or in a piece of prose. I also like to push the boundaries of the real world and to explore the magic or possibility of worlds within worlds.

What aspect of your creative practice gives you the biggest thrill?

There are different kinds of thrills at different parts of the writing process. A big one is when you have finally discovered what your idea really is.  Yes!

When the printer pushes out the final page of the very first draft. The ink smells so good!

Hearing the story read aloud by actors for the very first time and getting an idea of how your script works ‘off the page’ is also a thrill (or heartbreaking depending on how well you’ve done your job).

The work of theatre and film is also collaborative so I like un-wrapping the gifts that others bring to the table: the director, the actors, set design, costume – when that happens it can be like Christmas.

How does your environment affect your work?

The elements can be major players in my stories and its no wonder.

I live by the sea in Paekakariki and the sound of the sea is ever present and now I even get to look at it because the council have finally trimmed the side-ways growing pine tree that’s been blocking my view. The rain hammers at my window, the southerlies whip through….

Do you like to look at the big picture or focus on the details?

At the beginning I paint my stories with broad brushstrokes, looking firstly at character then the story, setting and situation but the fun for me lies in the small details: the way a person talks, their nuances and their sense of humour, if they have one. With film you get to write about even smaller details because the camera can pick up on the tiniest of things. All of these can all inform the tone and mood of the story.

What's your number one business tip for surviving (and thriving) in the creative industries?

To survive as a writer in New Zealand most of us have to be able to work in different mediums. More recently I’ve been working on a project with a producer supporting Maori tourism.  I enjoy the diversity.

Which of your projects to date has given you the most satisfaction?

Call me a a romantic but the first play I ever wrote ‘Nga Pou Wahine’ and working with Nancy Brunning (Director) and Rachel House (actor) was a hugely satisfying experience.

We were all first timers in our various roles as were set designers Sean Coyle and Kate Peters.

Sarah Hunter and Erolia Ifopo helped with lighting and publicity and Himona Grace played live music. We didn’t have a budget so we called on a lot of favours from friends, whanau and building sites. Taki Rua, a theatre then, booked us into the venue for a season because they wanted to support emerging talent. All that faith and passion paid off. The play did well. We all felt encouraged to keep going.

Who or what has inspired you recently?

I’ve been traveling to various film festivals with our film, ‘The Strength of Water’ and because of that have been watching a lot of films. In Sydney I saw the movie ‘Samson and Delilah’ by Warwick Thornton. I thought about it for days afterwards. It presented itself simply and strongly – it carried with it a sense of truth that can only come from a story-teller who lives inside the world and characters he’s created.

In Brisbane I saw a film called ‘Roots’. This was made on a shoestring budget by film maker Father Joseph Pulinthanath and tells the story of people displaced by the construction of the Dumbur Dam which submerged their lands. It was told in Kokborok language and the people from the region were also the actors. The courage and strength of these people is incredible. Lets hope the world starts listening.

A few days ago I was driving home from Wellington and heading into Paekakariki when I found the traffic had completely stopped. People had literally just stopped their cars and were staring out at the ocean.
I looked too and saw a whale, not far out, playing in the surf.

If you could go back and choose a completely different career path to the one you've chosen, what would it be?

‘Career path’ sounds serious. Hmmm, if I could only do one thing I’m not sure what I’d choose, but the work of writing can be fairly ‘head and computer’ based at times. When that gets to me I imagine that in my other life I’m extremely competent and practical outdoors. A total green-fingers growing organic vegetables and flowers perhaps. There are chickens, horses and dogs. Or a park ranger who knows the ranges and forests of these islands like the back of her hand.  Don’t laugh.

What place is always with you, wherever you go?

Whangaruru harbour.

What's the best way to listen to music, and why?


See. Hear. Feel.

You are given a piece of string, a stick and some fabric. What do you make?

A small doll to hang in the window.

What's the best stress relief advice you've ever been given?

Laughter. Lots of it.

What's great about today?

The noise of the sea after last night’s storm. My five year old telling me her plans for ‘morning talk’. ‘The Strength of Water’ having its New Zealand release!

What’s your big idea for 2009?

I plan to step out of my comfort zone sometime this year or at least to explore its boundaries. Not sure I’ll be exploring any mountain ranges though.

  • The Strength of Water

The majority of The Strength of Water was filmed in the far North of New Zealand, in the Hokianga area, around the settlements of Panguru, Mitimiti and Pawarenga. Some scenes were filmed at West Auckland’s Bethell’s Beach and Anawhata.

In creating the fictional community of Te Pari as the setting for The Strength of Water, writer Briar Grace-Smith described a place she had never actually seen. It wasn’t until she visited Panguru in the Hokianga that she realized this was the place she’d written about. 

“I was worried, though, about setting a film there because as far as I knew my people, although from the north, weren't from that area, so I went to see my uncle. He told me that Hokianga was the place our hapu (subtribe) originally came from, we migrated from there. He told me it was absolutely right the story should be set in that place, he said 'think of it as a mihi (salutation) to that place we came from, the great Hokianga'.”

The Te Rarawa iwi (people) of the area worked closely with the filmmakers, particularly kaumatua (tribal elders) Joe Cooper from Panguru and Malcolm Peri from Pawarenga, who both fully embraced the film.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

1 Sep 2009

The Big Idea Editor Cathy Aronson is a journalist, photo journalist and digital editor.

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