by Dov Kornits

“I’m an Anzac Biscuit, do you know what I mean?” laughs director Paul Middleditch when we speak about his latest feature, Uproar. “I spent my childhood in New Zealand, but I’ve actually spent more time here.”

We first spoke with Middleditch back in the late ‘90s, when his debut feature Terra Nova was made and released in Australia. He followed that up with 2003’s cast devised steamy drama A Cold Summer. Today, we are interviewing him from his office in Bondi.

In between, Middleditch returned to New Zealand for 2009’s Separation City and to the US for 2013’s Rapture-Palooza, and “zillions of ads,” he adds.

“Making Uproar was an extension of that, going back and making a movie about my childhood, but about my memories of New Zealand in 1981. But it’s interesting, I also had more of an objective view. I was able to come from Australia as an expat and do something that was really important to me – to make something that was, I suppose, for a wider audience, to make it inclusive, even though there are specific cultural elements to it. I wanted to make a story about an underdog for a global audience.”

Uproar is a real crowd-pleaser, following the coming of age of high school misfit Josh Waaka (Julian Dennison). His brother (James Rolleston) was the school rugby hero, his mum (Minnie Driver) a strong single parent, whilst Josh discovers a knack for acting, uncovered by the eccentric school drama teacher (Rhys Darby).

“I suppose that I was a misfit, somebody that didn’t fit in the world of a Catholic rugby obsessed school,” says Middleditch about Uproar’s autobiographical premise. “I was making movies. There was a short film competition in New Zealand, a national one called Spot On. And the camera that you see in the riot scene is actually the camera I used in 1981 to film my early movies. An earlier draft of the film was about a boy who was a filmmaker. And then when Julian came on board, we thought it would be exciting to see what it would be like for his journey as an actor, as a kid at school, learning acting, which seemed to relate a lot better to him.

“I left school and started directing. I started with short films and for instance, the first film I made called Light of the Blade, Graeme Tetley wrote, who also wrote Vigil with Vincent Ward,” Middleditch says, referring to the groundbreaking New Zealand filmmaker behind The Navigator, Map of the Human Heart, and What Dreams May Come.

“Vincent actually gave me the direction prize in my last year of school; he did a lot of things to help me get into the film industry. I was self-taught, but I started doing music videos, short films, and then got into directing ads at 19.”

Julian Dennison’s casting also prompted another change to the Uproar production, the introduction of co-director Hamish Bennett to the film.

“When I first approached Julian Dennison, he was going to play another character,” says Middleditch. “And Julian’s mother, Mabelle Dennison, who plays Tui in the picture, she was the first person I spoke to. And she was passionate. She was a protestor, and she loved the script. But originally Josh was myself, like a white Kiwi. And then Julian said he really wanted to play the lead role. There were a lot of things in that role that Julian really wanted to explore about his own life, about himself, about the struggles he’s had fitting in, and all of those things. I thought that this amplifies our story because now what we’re dealing with is a Maori boy and issues about choice, about standing up and about racism within his own world.

“I thought that we needed to have a Maori writer do a draft. Hamish came on board, and he was a wonderful collaborator and understood that world passionately. He’s also a teacher, and he added lovely dimensions to Madigan [Rhys Darby] and Julian’s roles. As a Maori writer and director, he was also able to understand some of the more complex cultural issues that have to be explored for this journey. I thought that we needed to co-direct based on the fact that there is a respect for the material, a respect for having to understand the depth of those things particularly.

Hamish Bennett, Rhys Darby and Paul Middleditch on the set of Uproar 

“I also think that it was really important to create an environment of respect. But more than that, because the material is very evocative, and particularly when you’re talking about race, there’s been an overwhelming positive response to the way the film’s been made. I think it comes across in the movie, the potency of that.

“The two heads enabled us to come up with something I think that we might not have been able to achieve as individuals. I came in having done five features, so he trusted my experience to be able to bring all of that, and I was then able to trust his emotional connection with the material and understanding that.”

Uproar has been a massive hit in New Zealand, only toppled by the Taylor Swift phenomenon, Middleditch laughs, but he’s most excited by the release in his adopted backyard of Australia. “A lot of the issues that are dealt with are issues here in Australia; complexities and politics around indigenous culture… Not to say that it becomes an overwhelming force in the film, but it’s there because I think those issues which we talked about in 1981, we are talking about in 2023 in Australia; they are always there. I think the potency of the subject matter, one of the exciting things I think with the script is that it’s not black and white or didactic, but some of the most emotional moments are specifically to do with Maori culture. You don’t have to necessarily understand that from being Maori, but you certainly understand that as identifying yourself and who you are and what your place is and what you believe in, which makes the film universal.”

Uproar is in cinemas from 30 November 2023