Kezia Barnett’s Nurse Me is a bold and experimental dance film which sees three lone figures reborn into an expressive world of solace, fetish and sexual power. Barnett’s short is shot against the backdrop of industrial silos which, combined with the dancer’s evocative choreography, creates a grand rejection of stereotype. These are not nurses as we would typically think, this is a satirical play on the image of the nurse, one which alludes to much grander themes. DN joined Barnett in conversation to talk about adapting Mary Jane O’Reilly’s Neo-Burlesque stage production into the cinematic space, the key aspects of choreography she wanted to focus on, and shooting 100fps to capture the tactility of skin.
I read that Nurse Me is based on Mary Jane O’Reilly’s stage production Nurse. How did you come into contact with the production, and what drew you to create a film from it?
Mary Jane O’Reilly, a legendary New Zealand choreographer, approached me to collaborate on a film based on one of her dances from the neo-burlesque stage show In Flagrante. After an enjoyable evening watching the show, created by Mary Jane and her husband Phil O’Reilly, what particularly caught my eye was a piece called Nurses, a short and deeply satiric tribute to nurses. A tongue-in-cheek riff on the well-trodden erotic cliché about women in uniform that traverses between Florence Nightingale and Linda Lovelace. Sassy and irreverent the dance is hypnotic and beautiful, as well as strong and evocative, which was perfect for a filmic re-interpretation.
Conceptually, I wanted the film to speak to our fleeting existence as conscious beings and our ultimate return to ‘dust’.
What themes are you hoping viewers pick up on? It seems to me like there’s a strong satirical side to the concept but there’s also a level of poeticism to the sequences with the dust near the end.
Nurse Me weaves a tight connection between concept, narrative and visual metaphor. Conceptually, I wanted the film to speak to our fleeting existence as conscious beings and our ultimate return to ‘dust’, leaving only the traces we have mapped onto the world. We become privy to these usually unseen marks via the use of UV dust at the end of the film.
The short film takes on new meaning in the pandemic world we now live in too, a post-apocalyptic world of social distancing, empty public spaces and nurses.
The location provides a shift in dynamic too, these are nurses in a large, industrial space what else inspired you to use that location?
Location as character became key to this film, and the concept clicked into place when I went to a photography exhibition at the Silos and discovered the industrial space, with vaults of curved concrete providing a juxtaposition to the female dancers’ bodies in Nurse Me. Developing the story and evolving the dance within a filmic context, the location provided inspiration – the waves lapping at the concrete cubes inspired an arrival for the Nurses, from the depths below, coming from the water.
Could you walk us through the considerations which guided the shoot. How long did you film for?
We shot over two days in one location in central-city Auckland, New Zealand; Wynyard Quarter’s old cement silos’ haunted concrete countenance was the perfect foil to the fecund Nurses. The architectural shapes echo and emphasise the human body’s curves and arches. We rehearsed on location, designing shots to maximise the choreography of the camera: to the dance, and also to the concrete silo structure, integrating the two onscreen.
An amazing cast and crew brought Nurses to life onscreen, becoming Nurse Me and it was beautifully shot by Director of Photography Ian McCarroll and exquisitely art directed by Sarah Cooper, and we brought in Julie Van Renen, Molly McDowall and Maria Munkowits to star. We recreated new versions of the original stage cut-out-crotch costumes, designed by Philip O’Reilly, too, where we developed the makeup design Verity Griffiths to create an otherworldly, futuristic feel.
And how did you achieve those sweeping shots in amongst the silos?
We managed to fit a crane inside the silos, which was quite a feat, given the scale and size. The crane was assembled inside the silos enabling us to get above the dancers and show their dissemination into dust. Rigging the crane on a specialised golf cart tracking vehicle for the exterior shots, we rode the cart, following the dancers walking in front of the silos with late afternoon sun, and we swung the rig low, down the concrete stairs, for the coming out of the water shots.
Were there key elements of choreography that you wanted to place focus on when shooting?
Nurse Me is an onscreen interpretation of the sassy, sexy and irreverent tone of Nurses; We are hypnotised by the movement, beauty and repetition. Movements reminiscent of giving birth and/or sex. We reveal the nurses’ dark pubic area yet to be discovered. We see them slap their forearms into action.
Intimate close ups were shot at 100fps, slowing down the choreography and emphasising the movement as well as revealing the visceral, tactile nature of skin contrasting the concrete curves of the silos. We are brought to life by irreverent cheek; humanised by the tactile nature of skin and individual character.
We managed to fit a crane inside the silos, which was quite a feat, given the scale and size.
What did you do to re-enforced those goals in the edit, both in terms of pacing and with the colour grade?
The artful edit, with Mark Bennett, also benefited from slowing things down, allowing audiences to sit inside the mood of the film and experience the dance. For the colour grade a desaturated, moody, post-apocalyptic colour sets the tone, with a ping of the red crosses (blood) and highlight of the UV colour (UV kills pathogens like viruses and bacteria).
How did you approach the music for the film, did you differ from the stage music?
Music was a key element. Nurse Me was filmed to the original stage show music; then Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper masterfully composed an evocative score for the film, in conjunction with the edit, adding to the hypnotic vortex.
When did you complete Nurse Me and how have you found the film’s journey on the festival circuit?
We shot the film in 2015 and it was released to festivals in 2016. Many generous and talented professionals input love and hours, as you can see in the credits.
Since completion, Nurse Me has been in international film festivals including BAFTA qualifying Aesthetica Short Film Festival and Oscar qualifying Hollyshorts Festival, VAEFF and Brooklyn Film Festival. It has won awards including Best International Music / Dance Film at New Renaissance Film Festival Amsterdam and has been distributed by Shorts International and acquired by Rialto Channel and Air New Zealand.
What projects do you have on the go right now?
I’m currently developing a couple of long form projects: including a satirical series and a feature film based on a series of books. I also continue to take a photo everyday in my Daily Photo Project, which I began in 1997, 24 years and counting…