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Country Calendar: Behind the lens with Roz Mason

Directing in the busy stockyards involves jumping through pens and avoiding the worst of the mud while filming. PHOTOS/GIANINA SCHWANECKE

Rural reporter GIANINA SCHWANECKE heads out with the Country Calendar crew to a local shoot to see how they get things done and put together the iconic series.

It’s a frosty Martinborough morning when I meet Roz Mason, one of the directors behind New Zealand’s longest running and most iconic TV series, Country Calendar.

The steam is rising off the sheep as they congregate in the yard, ahead of drafting and a bit of proactive dagging – they’re relatively unperturbed by the presence of a film crew and certainly not camera shy.

Between readying the team, soundman Don Paulin is busy capturing the sound of morning birdsong.

“That’s going in my library,” he says as a Tui warbles overhead.

Cameraman Richard Williams is praising the light and the location as he explains to me the elements of good film.

“You can do with two of three; scenery, story, or character.”

And at Palliser Ridge near Pirinoa, in South Wairarapa, they have found all three.

Country Calendar director Roz Mason speaks with Palliser Ridge manager Kurt Portas about what needs doing while filming in the yards.

Filming on farm represents about 20 per cent of Mason’s time.

An excellent research team and word of mouth in the farming community are how most of their stories are found, she tells me.

The six-season veteran director has more than 30 years of experience in the film and television industry, but for her, Country Calendar was a homecoming of sorts.

She started her career at TVNZ in 1988, shooting current affairs shows like Fair Go, Kaleidoscope, and Crimewatch, before going freelance.

She was doing documentary work in Dunedin, doing science and medieval history films when she got the call to do an episode.

“The Country Calendar offices were in the room just across the hall, so I’ve known them for 36 years.”

Her first episode was also one that was close to home, a piece about international horse whisperer Gavin Morison who lived just down the road.

“My first episode was special for me for a lot of reasons.

“Because it was my first, it was a big deal for me. It was also someone in my own neighbourhood and the neighbourhood was part of the story.

When the video editor put the iconic Country Calendar music in at the beginning of the piece in the editing room, she got tearful.

“It’s a really happy place for me doing this sort of work.

“It’s very straight forward storytelling.”

It’s honest and straightforward work, she tells me.

“We turn up to the farm and ask what they’re doing. Our job is about people and the technical stuff.”

She says it’s important to make sure they capture what’s important to the film subject and represent that fairly and accurately.

It involves quickly building relationships with people.

“Camera and sound men end up sticking their hands in personal spaces, so they have to be very personable people,” she told me as the ‘talent’ were being microphoned.

It’s also about learning what makes them tick.

“Yes, it’s a story about farming but really about what makes you tick as a person.

“How do you juggle family and work life? How do you make relationships work with your staff? How do you overcome obstacles?”

She compares it with a piece she worked on about a young man rowing across the Tasman Sea.

“On the face of it, it’s an extreme sports story, but for me it’s about how he coped being alone on the sea for 54 days.”

She draws people out easily.

Interviews are “friendly chats” and she only offers a few directions to young farmhand Flynn Beagley as he’s being interviewed – asking him to incorporate the question in his answer so it can stand alone.

Storytelling is at the heart of her job, and Mason must make sure they capture all of it.

Every shot must work within the wider context of the story, and she needs to make sure she’s asked the right questions.

She also has to operate within the working farm environment.

There’s stops and starts to work around the sounds of farm machinery, like a quad heaving uphill or the tractor getting started for feeding out to stock and navigating muddy stockyards as the sheep are being drafted.

Being a director is one-part blocking stock from getting out of the yards, one part watching out for the camera and sound crew, and one part making sure she’s got it all.

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