Success in Hollywood for Māori director James Ashcroft

By Mārena Mane

Māori director James Ashcroft's first feature film, Coming Home in the Dark, is in cinemas this Thursday.

The film brings to life Owen Marshall's frightening short story and is set among some of Aotearoa's most stunning scenery.

It tells the story of a teacher, who is forced to face a secret from his past when his family encounters two vigilantes while on a road trip.

Writer, actor and director James Ashcroft, nō Ngāti Kahu me Ngāpuhi, says, “I hope audiences are going to leave the theatres with their pulses racing and sort of contemplating more than anything that life isn't as black and white, as it was when they first went in. This is an emotional ride as well as a thrilling ride.” 

According to Ashcroft, his film is not for everyone, but it is confronting and compelling.

“I wanted to make an engrossing, nightmare ride,” he says.

The film, according to Ashcroft, casts a shadow on some of New Zealand's social structures and their flaws, which are still rarely discussed but which affect not only the community but also family members.

“I wanted to address an aspect of that - have a good scare but also walk away and contemplate as I say some of these issues that are very resonant and coming to light not only for Aotearoa but also around the world.”

Hollywood Success

Ashcroft says he was called by Legendary Studios' executive vice-president Alex Garcia, who is working on a project based on the novel "Devolution" by Max Brooks, who also penned World War Z, which Legendary Studios adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt. Garcia approached him here and asked him to work on the Sasquatch film alongside him.

Ashcroft says, “Funnily enough, I was able to reach back to one of my bookshelves and get the book off the shelf and say 'oh yes, I know the book, this one you mean'.”

According to Ashcroft, because New Zealand is currently on the global radar, everyone wants to film here because it has so much to offer and is a terrific opportunity for production workers. He also says he has no plans to relocate to another country, preferring to work on the Hollywood film here in Aotearoa.

“I want to be able to work in the country that I'm from with my collaborators who have been developing relationships for years. We've got the best of the best in every department here so it's a no-brainer. And I think it's looking quite positive that Devolution might be able to be filmed here with Aotearoa sasquatches.”

In both Aotearoa and overseas, Ashcrofts says he has always felt welcomed by fraternities.

“One thing I've found really refreshing is that it doesn't matter who you are, how long your career has been offshore, or in Aotearoa, the community embraces you. It's there to support you, it's there to share war stories it's there to share successes and help you navigate a way forward.”

Impacts of Covid 19

The feature film was finished a week before Aotearoa's first Covid-19 lockdown, which changed the landscape of film festivals all around the world. Later the film had its online premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

“Sundance got three times as many eyes on screens this year so we really felt that the film actually got really great traction, it was seen worldwide.”

Since then, the film's release has been eagerly anticipated.

“I think all of us who made the film were just wanting that closure of being able to bring it back to New Zealand audiences and see it with them and experience the film and the theatre as it was made to be seen.”