The New Zealander’s stirring true story has been one of the hits of the Palm Springs International Film Festival and stars a memorable Cliff Curtis as Genesis Potini, a bipolar Maori who used chess to improve the lives of thousands of Maori children.

The Dark Horse received its world premiere in Toronto last autumn and the US premiere in Palm Springs. Transmission Films releases the Four Knights Film and Southern Lights Film production in Australia and New Zealand. Seville International handles international sales.

Who did you make this film for? For New Zealanders? For the broader global public to learn about Genesis Potini? For yourself?
I wanted Genesis’s story to be known by more people, both New Zealanders and internationally. He was such an incredible person, and I couldn’t believe more New Zealanders hadn’t heard of him.

Was it a difficult movie to get off the ground?
Yes, although I think almost all movies are difficult to get off the ground. There were many times when it looked like it might all fall over at any moment… Thankfully somehow we got over the line, in large part due to the amazing tenacity and determination of Tom Hern (producer).

What kind of funding support did you get?
Primarily the film was funded by the New Zealand Film Commission. There were smaller amounts that came from a few other areas: NZ On Air, distributing partners, TV sales.

The physical transformation by Cliff Curtis is hard to believe. What did he go through before the cameras rolled?
He ate a lot! I think Cliff put on about 50 pounds in the end. He also stayed in character for the entirety of the shoot, and for a few weeks leading up to it. These were both approaches that he was not at all excited about doing when I first suggested he attempt them, but I just felt it was going to take a radical approach to try and help him get into such a unique character. In the end he went for it 100%, and I think they helped.

James Rolleston from Boy, who plays the nephew of Genesis, is charismatic, too. Were these two your first choices in casting?
James Rolleston was my first choice for Mana. Cliff was so far physically from the real Genesis that we weren’t really considering him that much initially.

Was there much chess training and if so, by whom?
Ewen Green, who was one of Genesis’s original teachers, came on and coached Cliff a lot. Also the real Jedi and Noble helped with chess consulting on set.

How are the children of the chess club known as Eastern Knights doing today?
Fantastic. They just keep getting bigger and bigger, and having to move into larger halls to accommodate everyone!

Where and when did you shoot?
We shot in Gisborne and Auckland (New Zealand), in May/June 2013.

You show aspects of Maori culture that are both heartening and unflattering. Talk a bit about the rites of passage for a young man.
Well the rites of passage for a young man in a gang are pretty brutal, the ‘initiation’ process usually consisting of them committing terrible crimes, getting beaten up by members of the gang, getting tattooed… it’s rough stuff.

The movie earned a fantastic reception at Palm Springs. Why does the festival matter to you?
It’s been wonderful at the festival, the audiences have been amazing and the festival has been extremely involved with the film-makers, looking after us and encouraging us to share our stories with each other. I’ve been really impressed and have loved being here.  

How has the movie been received by Maoris?

Are the other Maori actors in the movie well known in New Zealand?
Some of them are, some of them this is the first time they have ever acted before. Kirk Torrance and Miriama McDowell are both seasoned and well known actors, whereas Wayne Hapi and the kids in the club have never done any acting at all previously.

What are you doing next?
I’m working on an incredible true story about the performance of a symphony during WWII in Russia. Adapted from a book that was written by a New Zealander actually. I’m very excited about doing it. It’s a little more ambitious, but I believe hopefully will be a beautiful film.