In some ways, the story of how I got into the screen industry really shows my age.

While I’ve wanted to be involved in the film and TV world since age 14, when I snuck into a screening of Oliver Stone’s hyper-violent Natural Born Killers and subsequently had my mind blown by what I was seeing and feeling, I had never taken the plunge into the business due to…well let’s call it cultural pressure from family and community to not engage in ‘lowly’ arts industries. Indians become doctors, lawyers, accountants, not filmmakers. And despite the fact that I had had a decent break in the acting industry by age 21 when I got to play a featured villain on Xena: Warrior Princess, New Zealand’s acting scene in the 1990’s meant that roles for Indians were practically non-existent outside playing dairy-shop owners. Even theater was out of the question; these were still the days where even stage work was cast for largely around skin-tone ‘authenticity’.

Director Rajneel Singh on the Xena: Warrior Princess set / Photos: Supplied

I had given up by age 22, armed myself with a degree in Psychology (no, parents were not impressed by that) and decided to slug it out in the world of corporate IT. I did, however, keep up my hobbies and one of them was an interest in Chinese martial arts. My particular Kung Fu school, by sheer coincidence, had a flock of students who were junior stunt people and word got around the class that I had access to my father’s video camera and some editing software. So when you’ve got day-job money and free weekends, what does a frustrated creative person and a bunch of young stuntmen get up to? Zero budget, shot-on-handycam, Kung Fu shorts.

One year later, the shorts had become increasingly more polished, the filmmaker skills had started to emerge and the world was in the middle of Matrix-mania as the sequels to The Matrix were just around the corner. It’s the early 2000’s, so of course we all had the same dumb idea at the same time: we know Kung Fu. Let’s make a Matrix fan-film! Our most ambitious project to date, shot for a gigantic budget of $900 NZD over nine freezing cold winter nights, The Fanimatrix: Run Program was a 13 minute action extravaganza that we released online in 2003.

The film, hosted secretly on a server at Internet provider iHUG, became such a viral phenomenon that it caused bandwidth problems for the company and was downloaded over 3 million times in the buildup to the release of the actual Matrix sequels. It became the most widely seen short film in New Zealand history prior to the birth of YouTube and is still being distributed today as the world’s oldest, still running, torrent file.

That’s when the filmmaking bug sank its fangs and released its brain-altering poison into my bloodstream. I had to be a filmmaker.

I had to be a director.

I was fortunate enough, at the time, to have a fellow hobbyist filmmaker confront me and basically dared me to put up or shut up. He said he would subsidise my income for six months if I quit my nice, comfy, corporate IT job and pursued filmmaking full-time. Specifically a job I had stumbled upon – from the popularity of The Fanimatrix – as a behind-the-scenes camera-operator on the Back of the Y feature film called The Devil Dared Me To. Terrified, but knowing it was now or never, I took the plunge into the film industry at the very late age of 26. Yes, still lying to my parents the whole time and insisting I was working in the IT world.

Director Rajneel Singh on set / Photo: Supplied

Working on that film and seeing the process gave me the confidence to chase the idea of doing something more legitimate and I had come across a short story – a parody of Reservoir Dogs – about fairytales that I had really wanted to make. Before the age of Kickstarter, myself and my producer friends went to every single person we knew and crowdfunded $13K NZD to produce a short film that became known as Big Bad Wolves. Shot on video, but with very high-end production values for the time and budget, one of the actors in the film was a producer at a post-production company and offered me a job as a junior offline editor. My first paying gig and a job that I did for over 4 years at his post facility while dabbling in directing TVCs, music videos, short films and filling out hundreds upon hundreds of funding applications.

Forbidden by family and culture, corrupted by youthful Kung Fu shenanigans, elevated by a Matrix fan-film and a Quentin Tarantino parody, there really are no two identical paths into this business nor really any identical paths to success.

That’s my story.

Oh yeah. One more thing. Years later I found out from Barrie Osborne that the Wachowskis absolutely loved The Fanimatrix and that it’s their all-time favourite fan-film.

This business is weird, man.

 


About Rajneel Singh

Rajneel made his directing debut with 2003 fan short The Fanimatrix: Run Program, which was downloaded millions of times in the age before YouTube. He followed it with Reservoir Dogs meets fairytale Big Bad Wolves. In 2010 his film Blank Spaces was one of five short films chosen for a Tourism NZ ‘Your Big Break’ competition. Rajneel is also part of directing duo The Unkindness.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out.

Last updated on 25 August 2022

DEGANZ member Rebecca Tansley’s second film for the New Zealand Opera, The Strangest of Angels, is currently in pre-production. While her first film with NZO, Semele, was of the titular opera’s live performance, this new project will be filmed on location.

The Strangest of Angels is a new opera inspired by the life of internationally renowned New Zealand author Janet Frame. Set in Seacliff Mental Hospital in 1945, this story sheds light on mental health from the past and present. The story contrasts the experiences of a traumatised nurse torn between power and empathy with that of a calm, rational person trapped in the asylum.

Semele was well received internationally; Naxos/Opus Arte picked up the DVD rights, and audiences can stream it on Marquee TV.

Additionally, Rebecca’s narrative short film The Finding adds two more international festival selections to its list. It was screened in Vermont on 24 August at the 8th annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, a festival dedicated to celebrating first or second-time filmmakers. The 14th annual Lady Filmmakers Festival, which celebrates women filmmakers, will feature the project in Los Angeles in September.

Congratulations, Rebecca! We wish you all the best for your upcoming project.

Earlier in the year, DEGANZ was joined by UK director/writer Steven Chatterton to discuss his approach when directing kids. He shares the tools he found useful when working with a first time child actor in his short film Adnan.

Steven discusses how important the tools were when working on every aspect of Adnan, through auditions, rehearsals and on set. Enjoy this seminar on The DEGANZ Podcast.

Adnan is the story of an imaginative ten year old Syrian refugee boy who has had to flee his home country with his mother after the rest of their family were killed and their neighbourhood destroyed. Now settled in the UK, he must use all his creativity to break through his mother’s PTSD or risk losing her forever.

The short film is not currently available to watch online. Head here to read more about it.

Last updated on 25 August 2022

DEGANZ member Michelle Ang explores the tumultuous journey of healing and self-improvement in the new comedy web series, Self Help, out now on YouTube! She and Rawiri Jobe directed four episodes each of the eight-part series, produced by Wrestler and made with the support of NZOA.

In the aftermath of a devastating break-up with his boyfriend, Nikau begrudgingly searches for healing through any means possible. After episode one, aptly titled Intervention, Nikau fumbles through the advice of his friends and whānau to get out of his heartbreak rut. From working out to pottery to chakra cleansing crystals, the series comedically unpacks the growing pains that stem from young heartache.

While this is Michelle’s first series directing gig, she has quickly proven herself as an acting and directing powerhouse. The Emmy-nominated actress for her role in Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462 has also recently worked on Hair Now, a docuseries that explores the relationship between Pan-Asian women and hair.

Watch the series

Last updated on 25 August 2022

Four DEGANZ members were selected for the 10th annual FilmUp Mentorship Programme!

Rajneel Singh (writer/director)

Rajneel has been working in the film industry since 2006 as a writer, director, and editor. His short films The Fanimatrix: Run Program, Big Bad Wolves, and Blank Space have all reached success through going viral, screening internationally, or winning awards. Blank Space won Best Short Film at the MBF Indian Film Festival in Melbourne in 2010. He currently has multiple feature projects in development.

Kim Webby(writer/director/producer)

Kim is a documentary maker with over 30 years of experience and a dozen documentaries and long-form television series. The Price of Peace, her first feature doco, won four international awards in 2015. Her recent work includes directing three modern art documentaries for television and two features in development.

Marina Alofagia McCartney (writer/director)

Marina is an award-winning filmmaker and scholar. Her last film Vai, an anthology feature that explored 9 Moana Pasifika wahine, opened the NATIVE programme at the 2019 Berlinale and screened in NZIFF, SXSW, Edinburgh Film Festival, MIFF, and more. Additionally, she is a PhD candidate studying Moana Pasifika film.

Tom Augustine (writer/director)

Tom is a well-known Tāmaki Makaurau writer and filmmaker. He won the NZ Writers Guild Seed Advanced Grant (2020) and participated in Script to Screen’s Story Camp (2020) to develop Arsonist, his debut feature screenplay. Other credits include directing and producing The Story of Te Awe for Auckland Museum, his short film Long Time Coming, and many music videos.

This six-month professional development programme, run by Script to Screen, for writers, directors, and producers selects eight filmmakers each year. The participants are supported to take the next steps in their careers through mentorship with an experienced industry professional, group work, and round tables. See the full list of participants.

Congratulations to all our members selected!

Last updated on 25 August 2022