By Poppy Tohill
We’ve seen them on our own television screens multiple times, but this time around actresses, Hannah Marshall and Fleur Saville have chosen to step behind the camera and take on the roles of director and producer of Sitting Room Only, an all new interview series that shines light on several New Zealander’s journeys to success from their homeland to Los Angeles, the cultural differences and ways of being in America and that little perceived tendency, we kiwis know all too well - Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Making the move to Los Angeles a few years ago, director Hannah Marshall found herself amongst a community of New Zealand talent thriving in the international entertainment hub, making it her mission, alongside friend and producer Fleur Saville to celebrate the achievements of their friends and fellow kiwis. Three years later, a website appeared and Sitting Room Only premiered on nzherald.co.nz. Think of it as a charm bracelet of inspiring people and their stories. A striking series with a point of difference and an intimate, candid and honest snapshot of some of New Zealand’s most beloved performers.
“I’ve always had this idea to celebrate all of the incredible things New Zealander’s are doing overseas and shed light on the realities of moving to America, but also the things that are really great about it, in a way that hopefully gives hope and inspiration to others,” Marshall revealed about the concept behind Sitting Room Only. “Everyone in New Zealand knows what Tall Poppy Syndrome is and has their own philosophy around it which we used as the basis of the idea, whilst creating something inspiring, positive and celebratory that equally looks at aspects as a culture, kiwis in the arts might have experienced, or might be able to articulate. We never wanted to portray it in a negative light, because I think it already has such negative connotations in New Zealand, so we developed a discussion around what it meant or if it meant anything because it’s so significant in NZ divide, it really brought out an interesting conversation,” she concluded.
“When you talk to an American about Tall Poppy Syndrome they have no idea what it is,” Saville added. “I always talk to them about the concept of growing up believing they can do and be anything they want, which is interesting when it’s turned back on us [kiwis], because people seem to jump on board once you get success. So Sitting Room Only is all about people on their journeys up and to,” she exclaimed. “We wanted to find a way to inspire other people to live their dreams and help them understand that there will be ups and downs and nothing is what it seems, because everyone creates their own story and makes their own way, and we are lucky to even have that option to follow our dreams in the first place!” “
“It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I realised I was apologising for my talents,” Marshall confessed, admitting she has faced her own experiences with Tall Poppy. “It’s more of an internal effect I think but I also like to believe it’s changing because of people like Lorde and Lydia Koh who are doing such great things for New Zealander’s,” she declared. “When we were growing up, there seemed to be more of a sense of apologising when you did well because you didn't want to seem different from anyone else and I found it really interesting that some people we talked to throughout the series were really affected by it and others not at all. The good thing about the sensibility of New Zealander’s is that we are very humble people with great work ethics, but we need to find that balance between not complete self-centredness, but not being afraid to be proud of our achievements in that awesome kiwi way which is so unique to us,” Marshall concluded.
“Something that Los Angeles taught both Fleur and I, was that if you don’t go ahead and do something, somebody else will,” Marshall revealed. “We went through so many different ideas, even talking about a print edition at one point, but with Fleur and I both being actors, film is a medium we’re very comfortable with, so when we first reached out with this idea and found out nobody else had done it we were constantly surprised. That also gave us the drive to then get it done, because it became apparent that if we didn’t do it, nobody would do it in the way we wanted to, so I’m glad we’re sort of at the front of it.”
Reinforcing the intimate tone of the series, Marshall explained, “I wanted to experiment with a personal angle on the whole thing, because I know as an actor, it’s really hard for people to get a sense of who you are throughout interviews, because you’re so often pitching a version of yourself. Because these women are our friends, it made it easier for me to sit back and have a real conversation with them about their experiences, so I wanted that sense of just hanging out with one another to come through when you watch the interviews, because that’s exactly what we were doing. It’s not a professional set up at all. They’re literally sitting on a stool in my living room, in front of a blacked-out window and David starts recording as soon as they sit down, which is why you can hear all the kitchen noises in the background as I get a drink and Dave sets up the microphone,” she laughed.
With the first series set to feature interviews with eight different females, Marshall revealed they had no idea it was going to be female-centric. “The series started with me talking to our friends, as it felt natural to start with sharing their stories, later evolving from there, because we really didn’t know if it was going to be interesting to anyone else. But when we got to the point of having talked to about four women, we realised there was still a collection of talented ladies we hadn’t talked to yet, only then deciding that perhaps we should make it female-centric. So the second season will feature eight kiwi males who are doing really well in America!”
Both coming from acting backgrounds, Saville and Marshall opened up about why they didn’t want to be the ones in front of the camera when it came to Sitting Room Only. “For me, I think as an actor, it can be a very passive thing, because you’re always waiting for someone else’s approval,” Saville admit. “It was really nice with this project to go, wait a minute, we don’t need to fit into a box or get approval, because Hannah and I know each other so well we have the same vision. But that’s also equally terrifying,” she laughed, “because if it turns out bad... well, sorry girls!”
“If I’m on camera that’s fine, but I never watch myself on screen,” Marshall exclaimed. “I also love being behind the camera though and always wanting to learn new stuff, this seemed like a real challenge. Because of the style of the interview, I felt it was important for me to not be in the interviews, because it’s not about me, it’s about the girls. I’ve never even been an interviewer before and getting each of the them to say their full names at the beginning was my awkward way of starting it off because I didn’t know how to interview my friends,” she added with a laugh. “But personally I’m more interested in why people do what they do, how they came about doing it, the things they overcame and those moments in their lives where their trajectory changed, which all came out as we talked about America vs New Zealand in terms of how it’s different but can also be really scary.”
Already pleased with the positive response they’ve received, Marshall confirms they’re hoping to get a partner on board, so the pair can dedicate more love and time to the project in the future. “We’ve already had a bunch of people call us wanting to share their stories,” Saville disclosed. “It’s such an amazing way to profile people in a way where they get to say what they want without being told what to say,” she concluded.
Asking each interviewee for a piece of advice, I reciprocated the question onto Fleur and Hannah, to see if they could handle their own medicine. Just as well, Saville admits she loves “quoting up a storm,” as she takes the reigns - “Build a community, ask for advice and surround yourself with good people, because good people find good people,” she vowed.
“Someone once told me to go boldly in the direction of your dreams and live the life that you’ve imagined,” Marshall joined in. “And ‘live the life you’ve imagined always really stuck with me. I’ve always felt that living your life with fearlessness is a cool way to approach it, because why not? If you fail, fail gloriously, because it’s not the end and don’t be scared to follow the things you want to do.”
“And I’ll follow that up by saying, ‘jump and build your wings on the way down,” Saville chuckled, as Marshall chimed in excitedly announcing that is their favourite quote.