Louis Sutherland joins a long line of Kiwi creatives whose talents in one field have aided achievements in others. Though better known internationally as co-creator of festival hit short films Run and The Six Dollar Fifty Man, Sutherland spent much of his early career as an actor, and takes one of the starring roles in the former film.
Of part Samoan and part Scottish ancestry, Sutherland grew up in Porirua, and then the Kapiti Coast. Arriving at high school in Raumati, he found himself a rare brown face in a sea of white. He talks about the experience in this video interview. Sutherland hung out with Mark Albiston’s older brother; though the two had not yet become close friends, their differing schooltime and community experiences would provide fertile material for later film collaborations.
In the 90s Sutherland helped kickstart Albiston’s film career. By now Sutherland had scored a job at cable TV channel Kapiti TV, and the two found themselves shooting a four-minute news item every day: "research it, shoot it, edit it, everything; the whole shebang".
In 2000 Sutherland won a place at drama school Toi Wakaari. He made his screen debut that year (playing Ben, a robot who felt human emotions in short The Guinea Pig). Meanwhile Albiston had launched company Sticky Pictures, soon to win attention for their innovative arts documentaries; Albiston would later return earlier favours by signing Sutherland on as a director for Sticky's first arts series, The Living Room.
Together Sutherland and Alibston served early notice of their talents when they collaborated on 2004 short film Dead End. Made for drama school Toi Whakaari, the film was required to showcase the talents of that year’s 26 acting graduates in its 15-minute running time. Sutherland was one of them.
The two meshed well — though a collaboration in the best sense, Sutherland would take the lead in the scripting and casting process, while director Albiston’s original and highly visual eye helped bring the stories alive.
The following year Sutherland began a run of acting gigs. Black comedy Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby was part of Danny Mulheron’s continuing mission to satirise the overly politically correct; amongst a strong cast, Sutherland held his own in a small role as a wimpy Māori teacher. He stretched his comedy muscles further in sketch show Facelift, channelling among other characters Ahmed Zaoui, All Black Ma'a Nonu, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Sutherland had a small part as one of the boat crew in King Kong, and a cameo in black comedy Black Sheep. But his most memorable role in this period was for acclaimed TV drama The Insiders Guide to Love. Sutherland brought humour and unexpected vulnerability to the role of Marty, a travel writer who pretends he is overseas while desperately balancing two unwitting lovers. "He can’t come clean because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone,” said Sutherland of the part. “So now the whole thing has grown until it’s bigger than his life".
Others will remember Sutherland from a high profile safe drinking commercial in which his character’s whirlygig drunkenness results in tragedy. By now Sutherland was working behind the scenes again as a director on Sticky Pictures arts series The Gravy.
Sutherland and Albiston had already begun collaborating on a short film, partly inspired by Sutherland’s first arrival in Kapiti. Run is the tale of “a Samoan bother and sister who live in fear of their over-protective widowed father”. After playing back the audition tapes, the pair overcame opposition from their executive producers to Sutherland playing the father.
The family tale went on to win awards (including NZ Screen gongs for best short, and screenplay) and screened at festivals around the globe. Then it was invited to compete for the best short award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Sutherland and Albiston were “stoked but gutted” to get a runner-up special distinction award, after jury head John Boorman announced that Run had "missed the Palme d’Or by a neck".
The Albiston/Sutherland duo achieved another award at Cannes, thanks to another tale inspired by childhood in Kapiti: The Six Dollar Fifty Man. By now they were both officially credited as co-writers and co-directors. The pair garnered increasing local media coverage, after the short won invitations to a run of 'A-list' international festivals. The flying visits were about more than just drinking cocktails and watching films; the pair were also "working the room" and cementing relationships for future projects — most urgently their long-awaited debut feature, Shopping.
Sutherland turned down a number of auditions in order to concentrate on getting the feature off the ground. His by now well-practised pitch described it as a tale of "a 16-year-old half-Samoan boy who runs away from home and joins a shoplifting gang led by 55-year-old petty thief Eddie the Greek."
Shot in April 2012, Shopping debuted the following January in the prestigious international section of the Sundance Film Festival. The following month at the Berlin Film Festival, it won the Grand Prix for best feature film in its section, Generation 14plus International. Later came a run of Moa NZ Film awards back in New Zealand, including Best Film, Screenplay, Director, and best supporting actor for young discovery Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople).
Sutherland has also directed commercials for company Sweet Shop, and helmed a 2010 Artsville documentary, following South Auckland theatre group The Black Friars.
'Interview: Run away success' (Interview with Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston) - Onfilm, May 2007 (Volume 24, No 5), page 22
'Margaritas not Meetings' (Interview Louis Sutherland and Mark Albiston)- Take magazine, Winter 2009 (Issue 55), page 3
'Pre-production starts on debut feature from Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland'. Onfilm website (broken link). Loaded 9 March 2012. Accessed 8 May 2012