New Zealand Law Society - The insatiable moonlighter

The insatiable moonlighter

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The best things in life often come unexpectedly to Judge Rosemary Riddell. She studied law just to see if she could pass and directing the film The Insatiable Moon was “a happy accident”.

Rosemary Riddell is a District Court Judge in Hamilton who is also a director. Her feature length debut The Insatiable Moon, based on her husband Mark’s 1997 novel of the same name, is receiving “spectacular” reviews.

The film tells the story of Arthur (Rawiri Paratene, Whale Rider), who believes he is the second son of god and lives in a Ponsonby boarding house under threat by developers.

Although a “very universal story and one that deserves to be told” the film nearly didn’t get made and Judge Riddell’s involvement in the film came about as a “happy accident” after investors withdrew funding in 2009.

The film, slated to cost $6 million, nearly went “down the plughole”. Husband Mark had already dedicated seven years to the project though and invited his wife to direct in place of Scottish director Gillies MacKinnon.

“I was terrified,” Judge Riddell says. “I just thought ‘no I can’t possibly do a feature film.’ Then my initial terror was soon replaced by a certain ‘yes of course I can.’”

Judge Riddell wasn’t a complete novice. She had directed plays and a short film, Cake Tin, that won an award at the Moondance International Film Festival in 2007.

“I knew how to get the best out of actors. I wasn’t too hot on the technical side of things but we happened on Tom Burstyn who’s got 30 years of cinematography under his belt.”

However the issue of funding remained.

“We had a couple of public meetings and encouraged people to step forward and support the film. This was 2009 during a recession so it was a pretty risky thing for people to do. We cobbled enough money together to make the film for $340,000 – that’s with producers and script-writers still not being paid. Then we showed a rough cut to the same group of investors and some others and from that another $100,000 came in. At that point the Film Commission kicked in $25,000.”

The filming was done while Judge Riddell was on leave from the bench. Judge Riddell says trying to balance work as a judge and filming was challenging.

“In retrospect I don’t think judging is the kind of job where you can do that, so I would never do that again – that had some health spin-offs.”

Judge Riddell says the directing wasn’t just a creative outlet – she sees parallels between her work in court and her directing.

“The court is a kind of theatre really… From those that have given up and have a hundred convictions to those for whom it’s their first time in court and you hope it will be their last – it is a rich parade of people and I find people fascinating.”

These stories also provided inspiration for the film.

“Out of that come really poignant, funny, sad stories of people’s lives and there’s a lot of that in the film. As Bob (the manager of the boarding house in the film) says ‘we’ve had all sorts through, some people think they’re god or the pope… we haven’t had too many of them lately.’”

Judge Riddell entered the legal profession later in life.

“Many of my colleagues have gone from school to university to a law firm, then to the bar and then to the bench. That’s a fairly linear path. Mine has been anything but that. I started out working in broadcasting, then travelling, meeting my husband in London, three children, various careers.”

When her children were at school, Judge Riddell thought it was time “to get a proper job.”

“I thought then about university. I did four papers just to see if I could pass.”

From this chance event Judge Riddell says she “found her feet”.

“I loved working with people and trying to get the best for people.”

Judge Riddell believes the experiences she had before working as a lawyer make her a better judge.

“It hasn’t been the charmed life that many of those who go into university and then a firm have had. I know what it is to be hard up and to struggle and trying to manage with three young children. I think those experiences break you open, teach you compassion, and teach you never to take anything for granted.”

Having received an “incredible” response from the film, Judge Riddell is keen to continue her creative endeavours but isn’t about to quit her day job.

“I’m of the view that all the best things in my life have come to me at unexpected times. I enjoy being a judge and I wouldn’t want to give that up but if this offers a lot of opportunities that are creative then I’m up for it.”

This article was published in LawTalk 763, 29 November 2010, page 9.

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