Christine Jeffs first entered the film industry after the cameras had stopped rolling. Her early gigs were in post-production; as part of the team creating the sound mix on films, then as an assistant editor on a variety of productions, including Melanie Rodriga's Send a Gorilla, Gaylene Preston's Ruby and Rata and Alison Maclean's Crush.
In 1990, Jeffs completed a diploma in editing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Her 1993 short film, Stroke, a wordless mini-epic spinning off one woman in a swimming pool, was invited to numerous international film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance.
Jeffs went on to receive a Bronze Lion in Cannes for her work in commercials, and The Axis award for direction for three years running. In 1999 Admedia named her the NZ advertising industry's most popular director.
Jeffs spent a number of years developing the script for her debut feature, Rain. She was haunted by Kirsty Gunn's coming of age novel, but was unsure how to bring its distinctive atmosphere of summer holidays and fractured families to the screen. Shot in 34 days, the film was made for a smaller budget than some of her 30 second commercials.
Rain was invited to debut in the Directors' Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, which showcases new directing talent. Part coming-of-age tale, part portrait of a dissatisfied married woman (Sarah Peirse), Rain won enthused reviews from North and South, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, and awards for Peirse. American showbusiness magazine Variety named Jeffs on its annual '10 Directors to Watch' list, and Variety reviewer David Rooney praised Rain as an "evocative mood piece, enriched by gorgeous visuals" that communicated a powerful sense of time, place and atmosphere.
The praise for Rain brought Jeffs' talents to the attention of actor Gywneth Paltrow. After another director fell through at late notice, Paltrow engaged Jeffs to direct feature Sylvia, which explored the troubled relationship between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. "The script dropped out of the sky," Jeffs argued, "which had its blessings and its curses".
Sylvia was partly shot in Otago. Jeffs worked as usual with her partner, cinematographer John Toon. Sylvia received mixed reviews, unavoidably dominated by comparisons with the real-life subject matter. But there was general acknowledgement of Jeffs' grasp of the story's emotions, and it represented a solid first step on the international filmmaking ladder.
When Jeffs shot her first feature in America, she found the experience comparable to doing an indie film back in New Zealand: "It's low budget — you have to work hard and fast." The film was Sunshine Cleaning, which explores the relationship between two sisters whose job is cleaning crime scenes. The film shared actor Alan Arkin and some of the same producing team as hit road movie Little Miss Sunshine.
After screening in competition at the 2008 Sundance Festival, Wall Street Journal veteran Joe Morgenstern found the film "sweet-spirited", praising its director's "unerring instinct for the nuances of American life", and arguing that Jeffs and actors Amy Adams and Emily Blunt "bring a steadfast sense of truth to the story of two sisters trying to jump-start their stuck lives and grow up".
LA Times critic Betsy Sharkey praised Sunshine Cleaning as an "offbeat and oddly endearing drama, leavened with just the right amount of comedy ... but dig in a little deeper, and you uncover a smartly done morality tale that couldn't be more in synch with these troubled times".
Since Sunshine Cleaning, Jeffs has concentrated on directing commercials. Although still based in New Zealand, in 2011 she left American company Saville Productions, to sign with New York commercials house Xenon.
Profile updated on 5 June 2019
Russell Baillie, 'This mess we're in' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 8 August 2009
Rick DeMott, 'Xenon Signs Director Christine Jeffs' (Press release) Animation World Network website. Loaded 14 June 2011. Accessed 5 June 2019
Joe Morgenstern, 'Adams, Blunt, are Rays of 'Sunshine' (Review of Sunshine Cleaning) - The Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2009
David Rooney, 'Review, 'Rain' - Variety, 15 May 2001
Betsy Sharkey, 'Coming clean' (Review of Sunshine Cleaning) - The Los Angeles Times, 13 March 2009
Anonymous, 'Poppies in October: an interview with Christine Jeffs' Poets.org website. Loaded 15 October 2003. Accessed 5 June 2019
Rain press kit