SAVAGE: An interview with film director Sam Kelly

In conversation with Sam Kelly, director of gut-wrenchingly brutal New Zealand gang film Savage.

Interview India Hendrikse

A criminal record doesn’t mention the intricacies of childhood. But if it did, what then? Would the fact the now-criminal used to play soccer, got confused tying their shoelaces, and giggled when they had too many lollies change our perception? Would mention of their abuse at seven, neglect from their parents, or empty-stomach poverty enable us to show more compassion when they inevitably fall between the cracks years later? 

Fresh New Zealand film Savage, directed by Sam Kelly, raises questions like these, showing us humanity hidden beneath lawlessness. His film highlights that even in the most brutal of criminals, if we dig deeper, a glimmer of boyhood, or a smidgen of softness, may just remain. It by no means glorifies gangs, but instead, offers us the psychology and motivations behind them. 

The feature film flits between three decades of tough-nut gang enforcer Damage’s life; from his childhood, spent facing trauma after trauma, first in a violent home and then in punishing 1960s boys housing, to a teenage runaway chasing belonging through a gang, to his ‘present-day’ 1980s self, patched-up, leather-clad, angry and ultimately, lost. 

Here, Porirua born and raised Sam Kelly discusses the film, and explains how he built the fictionalised yet painfully realistic world of a New Zealand gang.


The film’s incredible, congratulations. But by the way, I cried from start to finish, so I can’t say it was a relaxing watch. 

I feel mean celebrating people crying, but I like that it connected with you. 

India: Is there a particular piece of feedback that you’ve received that has meant the most to you? 

It’s generally been the people who have been through state care that have had really profound responses to the film. One of the guys we’re working with, Wayne Hapi, who has been through state care, watched it at the Wellington premiere and his children were there. For children, even if theoretically they know their parents have been through it, it’s a different experience feeling it and feeling what they went through. So Wayne said that he and his children were crying together afterward, and it brought them closer. 

So it’s almost bringing up trauma for people, but in a healing way. 

Yeah totally. I wondered whether people who had been through state care were going to be upset that these things had sort of arisen again for them, but the people who have stopped me after seeing this film and had been through state care have been really supportive in lifting the covers on that side of things because a lot of New Zealanders don’t get it or understand it. For some of them, they’ve been trying to tell people about their experience but have just been shouting into the wind. 

I feel that in New Zealand, we often have a bit of a ‘grin and bear it’ type attitude towards people and feel that if they have a roof over their heads, they’re okay. But this seems to uncover a lot of the deep emotional trauma that goes alongside parental neglect. 

We understand when soldiers come back from overseas with PTSD, and yet when kids go through massive trauma and abuse of different kinds, how can they not be profoundly affected for the rest of their lives, and affect the way they move through the world and the way they understand the world. And that’s the great understanding and compassion you can have when you appreciate the extent to which children’s backgrounds influence them, even as adults. 

Your short film Lambs in 2011 also focused on abusive households. Why are you drawn to this particular subject matter? 

I grew up in Porirua and went to school there. My entrance into that gang world happened from a violent incident that happened to a friend’s family and that’s what got me emotionally angry and sort of curious and wondering why gang members exist, so it was sort of that intersection between the gang world and my own that provoked that journey for me. 

The question of ‘why are young people joining gangs?’ sent me into that world of at-risk youth programmes and leaders and the kids themselves told me about their situations and lives and backgrounds, so Lambs is made up of those stories. That lead me into the adult gang world a bit and I met gang members who were older, in their 50s, a lot of them had been through state care, and they told me not only about how gangs worked in terms of their values and hierarchy and conflict and violence and everything, but also their personal stories and it was those personal stories that I collected. I formed a collage of stories and a journey that represented what several of them had gone through, which was state care and forming this young gang in the streets and internal conflict and the out world or out gang. 

And so as part of your research, you met with actual gang members. How did they respond to the project?

Everyone was pretty generous. I’d sit down with them in different settings like parked cars, McDonald’s, or in their homes, and they confided a lot in me actually. They trusted me with information that you wouldn’t normally be so forthcoming about. 

Australian actor Jake Ryan plays the main character, Damage. How did you end up picking him for the role? 

We auditioned a lot of people from the community who were people who felt like they were from that world. We put a call out on Facebook asking for people with missing teeth and scars and tattoos, and criminal records were okay, so did this massive casting call and saw a couple of thousand people across the country and hadn’t found Damage. I’d also been seeing every actor who I thought was in the ballpark of Damage in New Zealand and hadn’t felt like I’d found him, and opened it up to Australia and we got 50 or 60 self-tapes in, and we chose eight to audition, I went to Sydney to audition these eight and Jake was a real stand-out.

The thing about Jake is, I always felt that he had Damage’s heart, which is really important. He’s also got a real physicality to him. He was one of the best in Australia at taekwondo [he’s a 10-time champion] so he can really look after himself. Damage needed to be someone who not only had an outer hardness to him but someone who had a really deep soul, and walking around with Jake and getting to know him, even just going to restaurants with him, and seeing the way that people in New Zealand continually stream over to stop and talk with him, how generous and lovely he is in those moments, you get to see how someone is when they are put in those sorts of situations. He’s just a really humble guy. 

=Seeing Damage cry shattered the film stereotypes which we’ve come to know about criminals. Was it difficult to make this feel believable when you ran it past actual gang members? 

No, I mean one of the surprising things for me when you meet these guys is how absolutely human they are and how they have unexpected passions and careers; one of the guys I interviewed loves tenpin bowling, another grows a worm farm. You’re exactly right in the sense that we have stereotypes about what gang members are like and to meet them is to understand that they’re all deeply human and it was that human side of them that was really important for me to portray in this film, because it needed to be about a man’s inner life and that meant not just sort of showing this exterior, it was showing gang members how I met them, rather than how they might be thought of. 

I found the scene where they’re all sitting around, playing music and singing really powerful. 

And that’s what it’s like. If being a gang member was all horrible, being beaten up every day, no one would do it. The thing is, there’s beautiful camaraderie and friendships and belonging, and great, great times. In this film I couldn’t show a completely everyday sense of what it means to be a gang member, because we didn’t have the time, we had a dramatic structure, so there is more weight and violence put on Damage’s storyline, but in an everyday sense for these guys, it’s really important to show that lighter side as well. 

Obviously people are joining gangs for that sense of community and that sense of family, but in an ideal society we wouldn’t need that, because people would already have it. What do you hope culturally we can shift in New Zealand for future generations? 

You’re right. A lot of the reasons why people have become gang members are systemic — particularly throughout history, that sense of removing kids from families and placing them in institutions so they feel alienated and stigmatised and need to form their own families… 

I think the people doing the most incredible work in this space are the at-risk youth leaders, they are my heroes. They are the people who are working with these kids who have been caught up in the justice system and trying to connect them to our society, to the world. Because a lot of them can feel really alienated from that and feel they’re not part of this greater story that’s playing out, and so if you don’t have buy-in to something, you just take what you can from it and turn your back on it. So it’s about connecting them to male role models, it’s about connecting them to employment opportunities, connecting them to their marae or cultural institutions, to sports, all sorts of things. Often, the answer, I think, to drugs or alienation, is connection. 

How did you guide everyone to get into character? Particularly the people who hadn’t acted before?

I love working with performance, it’s perhaps my favourite part of directing. The first thing is I try not to frame them as playing a character, because what can happen is they can end up trying to think about things through someone else’s eyes and ears — and you can’t. As a person, you’re only ever perceiving things through your own brain and your own eyes and your own ears, so what can happen sometimes when actors try to play a character is you get false notes. So I work with them in a really personal way, which is something that needs to be built up through rehearsal. So knowing what the scenes are that they’re going into, and try and connect them to personal experiences they’ve had in their life. 

I read that you encouraged Jake Ryan to walk through a mall dressed as his character, to get into the zone? 

Yeah, he got his makeup put on in rehearsal, and whenever he gets his makeup put on this weight comes down on him as Damage. I thought it was important for him to experience as much as he could about New Zealand gang life, because it’s such a different culture. Even our macho culture is different. Australians dig at each other and yap at each other, but New Zealand gang members punch first and ask questions later, it’s a very different, masculine culture, so I wanted to anchor him in our one. 

I got him to walk through the Lower Hutt mall and I followed behind him to observe and support him. And he just walked through the mall, didn’t have a patch on, but had his full facial mask on [his tattoos]. He said he could see people walking towards him and staring at him and then realising they were staring too long and looking away. He said the experience felt alienating and he felt resentment for the people he felt were judging him. It was destructive how his psychology changed within that short space of time. 

And finally, what do you hope people take away from the film? 

I think the most powerful thing sometimes is not necessarily a theme that you think about, but actually the emotional experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. I think the opportunity to walk in the shoes of someone through those life stages and understand how they got there, but also to feel their experience, can be profound and lead to understanding and empathy when perhaps there wasn’t. 


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