“This story is very close to my heart,” says writer and director Welby Ings of the endearing Punch, a contemporary love story about loyalty and redemption that has been In development for fourteen years and financed by the New Zealand Film Commission.
Punch was in development for many years, with writer and director Welby Ings having fought hard to bring it to life, as a commitment to his late partner, who held the national title in the triple jump but grew up in a small-town boxing family.
Also serving as inspiration are the experiences of two gay boxers known to Ings, as well as a number of takatāpui tane (gay Māori men) with whom he currently works.
Ings is a gay man who also grew up in, what he calls, “the wops”. “We drove to a small town for the big shop”. He has been actively involved in the pursuit and protection of gay rights and has been so since coming out when he was 20. In the 1980s he was arrested several times while campaigning for Homosexual law reform and he worked on the amendments to the Human Rights provisions of the 1990s. He was fired more than once for being an out gay man and was beaten up on several occasions. He was a key organiser of the Auckland protests against the Victoria Spa raids and “the entrapment of gay men”. For instances like these, the gay community has never received an apology from the police, even after homosexuality was decriminalised in 1986.
A lifetime of experiences such as these has partially served as a political motivation for the film. In it, Welby has sought to show that just below the surface – the myth that diversity is adored and everything is rainbow flags is not true. For many young gay men, especially those who are gender diverse, attitudes, acceptance, and treatment, even after 35 years of law reform, are still toxic. This is especially true for isolated LGBTQ+ youth living away from metropolitan hubs. Being thrown out of families, marginalised in hypermasculine sports, or told that being gay is not an issue anymore, are ongoing experiences.
Welby Ings was illiterate until the age of 15. Although he is now a professor and supervises doctoral candidates from around the world, to this day, he uses drawings as a vital means of creative thinking. A reference to this is in the film’s opening and closing sequences which appear as a drawing on water-stained paper.
In this film, the gay bashing, the alcoholism, the local boxing fights, the silenced rapes, the tentative outreach of the medical profession, and the transition from sex to love … to letting go, all happen. Such things are specific but universal. As a pushback against a climate where being gay is now seen as relatively normalised, Welby used recent, true incidents to peel back the veneer to expose what can lie just below the surface.
But Punch is also two, interwoven love stories; one between a father and his son and the other between two young, New Zealand gay men. These characters are flawed but despite their clumsy handling of relationships with each other, they are all in essence, good men.
Producer Robin Murphy met writer and director Welby Ings in 2016 through a mutual friend. Drawn in by his unique voice and original approach to filmmaking, the pair agreed to work together on the short film Sparrow. The success of working together on that project led to Murphy’s involvement in Punch.
When COVID reached New Zealand, it presented unique disruptions to the industry and filmmakers who, on Punch, held themselves to hygiene standards higher than those recommended by experts. Productions of this size, says Ings, could not afford for even one person in their newly-formed bubble to get sick. As such, Murphy eventually persuaded friend and mentor Catherine Fitzgerald to join the production team because the pressures of financing and producing a film was no longer a one-person job during the pandemic.
Fitzgerald was drawn to the film due to its timeless nature: “It’s a touching story of first and unexpected love set in a small, unforgiving community”. On the location of the shoot and the backdrop of the film, Fitzgerald compares the unchanging characteristics of the wild west coast to the “feral, repressed, and stuck-in-the-past qualities of the desperate small town these boys live in”. She continues: “The world in which Punch is set is as much a character as any cast member. It is at once timeless, expansive, and awe-inspiring.”
Producer Robin Murphy has worked in the New Zealand film industry for 40 years. She’s crewed in the art department, assistant directing on numerous feature films and television dramas, ranging from her costume work on the 1981 classic film Goodbye Pork Pie to a location manager The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Outrageous Fortune, Power Rangers, Sweet Tooth (pilot) and the yet-to-be-released UCP series, One of Us Is Lying. In 2017 she was location manager for Pork Pie, the remake of the 1981 classic. Since 2000, Robin has juggled her freelance work with producing short films and developing feature film scripts. She’s produced eight short films, including Run, which was awarded an honourable mention at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. In 2016 she joined forces with writer/director Ness Simons to form Fired Up Productions with whom she released two seasons of the popular web series Pot Luck, PUNCH is her third feature film, having produced Lowdown Dirty Criminals with director brother Paul Murphy, and alongside Ness Simons, she Executive Produced and distributed indie comedy Births, Deaths and Marriages, both films were released in 2020.
Catherine Fitzgerald, Onzm (Producer) founded Blueskin Films in 2002. The latest release, thriller, Coming Home in the Dark (dir James Ashcroft) premièred in the Midnight Section, Sundance 2021. Returning Home, a Chinese/NZ feature documentary is in post production. Blueskin Films has produced the acclaimed One Thousand Ropes, The Orator (both NZ’s nominees for Best Foreign Film) and Bellbird amongst its extensive international award-winning slate of features, shorts and documentaries which have featured worldwide, including the Berlinale, Venice, Cannes, Sundance, Toronto Film Festivals and the Academy Awards. Catherine has a record of films by women, Māori and Polynesian and other under-represented voices. Other recent releases include Bellbird and Helen Kelly. Short The Meek will be hitting the screens in 2021. She also Chairs the NZ Film Festival Trust and Playmarket, is a founding Trust member of the Screen Women’s Action Group and has consulted for the Berlinale for the NATIVe strand, and served on Generation, NETPAC and Adelaide Festival Juries. Her other governance roles include the founding Chair of WIFT NZ, NZ Film Commission Board, the Board of the Dunedin College of Education, and SPADA among others.
Films revolving around the freedom of asserting one’s identity, and dealing with the right to a way of life, are quite liberating. Ings places his story in Pirau, a small seaside town in New Zealand. Viewing the town’s worldview through a sharp socio-political lens, the film begins exploring the lives of two classmates, Jim and Whetu, and the price they must pay for asserting their true identity.
Punch is contemporary film about love, loyalty and liberation. Jim (Jordan Oosterhof) is a seventeen-year old boxer in a small town. He is a golden boy, preparing for a fight that will elevate him to an early professional status. All bets are on his climb to success. But his father Stan (Tim Roth) is a demanding coach and a notorious alcoholic.
But Stan has given everything to see his son gain professional status and escape the brutality of his small world. As Jim begins to rethink why he is fighting his life tangles with Whetu (Conan Hayes), a tough, gay Maori boy who spends his days in an old shack down by the beach. With his mongrel dog Moimoi he cobbles together a fragile glamour and dreams of leaving town to become a musician.
In a world that pretends that being gay is accepted, this film peels back the veneer of tolerance to show just what exists under the surface. Away from the rainbow flags and Pride parades, Jim and Whetu must navigate isolation, hypocrisy, the brutality of small town boxing … and an anonymous queer bashing that no one will talk about. As Jim stumbles towards discovering what it really is to be a gay man, he is forced to see that strength has little to do with heroism.
It is available in the US on a few platforms including Peacock and Apple TV
It took 14 years to develop for Welby’s dream to be realised
“In 1997 my partner who came from a well-known boxing family died in a hospice and because of a difficult relationship with his father, he wouldn’t let him come to say goodbye. I began asking what might a love story between a father and his son look like if his son was gay, a brilliant boxer – but walked away from his father’s devotion to the dream of his success. I wanted to make a film about repairing love. The feature film also weaves together a number of subplots, some of which are autobiographical, others which are based on the struggles I see young takatāpui (gay) men facing today.”
Writer-Director Welby Ings’ Vision
“Punch has been in development for a long time and I have never let go of the determination to bring it into the light. It sits in the context of recent films like Moonlight, where sexuality and bullying in a coming-of-age narrative are used to explore the vulnerability and beauty of the human condition.
Although it is Jim’s story, this is really the story of anybody who has fought to find their place in the world, even when this means losing the things that keep you safe.
Punch looks at love in an unusual way. It is essentially two connected love stories; one between a father and his son and the other between two young men. Jim, Stan, and Whetu are all flawed but despite their clumsy handling of relationships with each other, they are all good men.
We feel for them and we want their lives to go in the right direction. When Whetu and Jim show us that they are free, that they have become strong and sensitive but separate men, our struggles with them and our hopes for them reach an unpredicted kind of triumph.”
The film, like Welby’s other work, was not inspired by the work of other directors.
“I don’t have a television and I rarely watch movies. I am inspired by paintings and by listening to people’s recollections.”
“I don’t begin by writing a screenplay. For several years I spent time in and around boxing culture, drawing things like the weight of fatigue, the assertion of commitment, and the investment in dreams. Drawing as an ideation process underpins all of my films. It helps me to think beyond words. This seems like a logical thing to me because I see cinema as ‘talking pictures’. The drawings are not pictures of what will happen, instead, they are pools of thinking and feeling from where ideas surface. All of my films accrue hundreds of drawings as thought. They are quick studies on rough paper in pencil, ink, and washes of instant coffee.”
“Film is far more challenging for me intellectually and creatively than academic research,” he says. “Beyond crafting a narrative that will subtly manipulate an audience and the rigorous research that goes into presenting high levels of authenticity in the work, I also have to solve very abstract problems like ‘What is the sound of hope dying?’, ‘What is a crowd scene when viewed through a the eyes of somebody who is suddenly punch-drunk?’ … or ‘How does one film a black sand beach, as a metaphor for resistance?’. These are deeply intellectual and creative challenges that I relish.”
Ings, who struggled with school, was bullied, and expelled, says there is nothing heroic about his journey. He says it was a teacher who helped him find his inner enthusiasm. “She said, ‘You don’t have to be like those other boys. Those guys, in 10 years’ time, are going to be living three doors down from their parents and you’re not. “When everybody else is going to their parties … I’m sitting at home drawing a new film, or I’m building a house, or designing a car. That gives me joy.”
Ings says a childhood of being undermined and overlooked made him angry but he used the emotion to become constructive.
Punch is Welby Ings’ first feature film as a director, and his collaborative directorial style was noted by cast and crew alike
Producer Robin Murphy commented: “Welby is a genuine collaborator and really cares about the team around him. He has a strong sense of the story he’s creating and the ability to take others along on the journey with him. He gives equal respect and attention to the youngest and newest members of the crew, as he does with the veterans and experienced creators he’s working alongside”
Ings was proud of the lack of hierarchy on set, and his impression from cast and crew was that goodwill was high and everyone genuinely enjoyed working on the film, even though it was tough at times:
“Sometimes through adversity, a particular type of beauty surfaces. It’s both the beauty of the film and also the beauty of the experience of making something against the odds. We were up against it. We were battling covid, I wanted to shoot at a time when New Zealand’s beautiful cloudy skies could form a backdrop to the film’s world, so we were also dodging rainstorms and sandstorms all the way through.”
When asked what it was like working with Ings’, actor Conan Hayes (Whetu) stated: “Working with Welby is beautiful. He is someone who lives in his art. Every detail is thought out. He’s great at giving us direction, feeding us, reminding us where we are in the story. I can trust him.”
Jordan Oosterhof (Jim) painted a similar picture “Welby knows what he wants. It’s personal for him. I’ve noticed all day, between takes, he’s always humming and I can tell how happy he is. Working with him and being around him has been an honour for me.”
When it came to casting the role of Stan, Ings wanted someone who could capture the nuance of an alcoholic father. He wanted to avoid a cliched ‘boozy Kiwi dad’ and when the script was sent to an agent in the UK, acclaimed actor Tim Roth was quick to accept the role to the delight of Punch’s production team.
Ings and Roth met over Zoom and immediately got on well. They continued with weekly video chats until Roth came out to New Zealand in the middle of an international pandemic. Ings stated, “he has a great love of New Zealand.” Roth agreed: “It’s the safest place on the planet and I’m a fan of the Prime Minister. It was just a question of saying yes and it was all very simple to me”.
Speaking on his talents as an actor and colleague (especially working with debut actor Jordan Oosterhof), Ings commented: “He never once compromised Jordan’s mana. He would jokingly say to him, prior to each take, “don’t fuck this up!”. Jordan knew he was proud of him”. He continued: “As an actor, Tim is challenging, he takes the role seriously, but I like actors who question things. He has views but as a man, he lives generously in the world.”
With the casting of Jim and Whetu, Ings sought to challenge the cliché of gay men’s relationships built on the idea of a ‘masculine’ dominant and passive ‘feminine’ partner. With Casting Directors Amanda Rees and Donogh Rees on board, a large number of actors were auditioned and Ings sat in on every audition.
Whetu is physically and emotionally strong (probably the strongest man in the film). Although he does not have Jim’s formal boxing prowess, it is quickly apparent that if crossed in a street fight, Whetu would be the victorious party. Ings sought an actor who could take Whetu’s apparent ‘androgyny’ and make it the sign of strength that it is.
Ings felt that the moment Conan Hayes walked into the room, he ‘recognised’ him from the film. Wearing black fingernail polish, his interpretation was distinctive because he completely inhabited the character. At the end of the audition, when he was asked to sing unaccompanied, he stunned the room. Hayes sings live in the film – and this scene was shot in one take. He worked with Dr. Robert Pouwhare to refine a Tūhoe dialect – and he also learned the delicate and intricate skill of weaving kete – so he could completely inhabit Whetu. Hayes also worked with the talented costume designer Sara Beale on some of the garments he wears in the film.
On taking on the role of Whetu and the gravity of the Takatāpui narrative, Hayes said: “Punch is important for right now, especially in the New Zealand context. I’m proud to be a part of this story and to show Takatāpui stories on screen. I know this work is serving a purpose and that’s serving my own drive. Anyone who is loved and wants to be loved will enjoy this film. I think New Zealand men need to see it.”
The casting of Jim required an actor who could inhabit a young character loaded with testosterone who was also intelligent and vulnerable. Jordan Oosterhof fits this completely and is said by Ings to have an instinctive sensitivity and a serious commitment. In the film, like many sons of alcoholic dads, he has to become the father of his father.
Oosterhof did three months of boxing training going from three to five days a week to be ‘fight ready’ before shoot day. This was something he loved, which he’d never done before – the unexpected upskilling being something he loves about acting.
On working with his co-star Hayes, Oosterhof said the friendship budded both on and off set: “We get on like a house on fire, it’s great. Every day has been very comfortable. We’ve had to do some challenging scenes together and he’s made me feel really comfortable.”
Both actors were said by the crew to have “worked like Trojans” throughout production and with COVID restrictions meaning cast and crew had no social circle, they were all in a COVID-tight bubble, living and breathing their parts for months. It is therefore unsurprising that, when encouraged to improvise, they were both able to contribute significant and original lines and performances.
JORDAN OOSTERHOF (Jim) makes his feature film debut in Punch. Trained in the Meisner Technique under veteran teacher and actor Michael Saccente, he has worked across TV commercials, theatre, television, including Shortland Street and The Cul de Sac, and short film Best Friend.
CONAN HAYES (Whetu) is of New Zealand-Māori descent, and graduated from Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School in 2018. Since graduating, he has starred as the lead in the local web series Burbs, along with acting in Flat Three Productions’ web series Meme. Conan features in the US fantasy series Sweet Tooth on Netflix, other television credits include It’s TV Man and The Wilds, and his film credits include the short film Hush. Conan is also an extremely versatile stage actor and dancer, having performed in Rushes, The Visit and a lead-role in Once On This Island. Punch is his first feature film.
TIM ROTH (Stan) is an English actor and director who made his debut in the 1982 film Made in Britain. A mere two years later he was nominated for a BAFTA for his role as Myron in The Hit. Since then he has been a regular cast member of several Quentin Tarantino films including the director’s directorial debut Reservoir Dogs, and later Pulp Fiction. His role as Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy alongside Liam Neeson earned him a Best Supporting Role BAFTA, and both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination in the same category. He has worked with other notable directors such as Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Heneke. He has been involved in global franchises such as Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk and Planet of the Apes. From 2009 – 2011 he held the role of Cal Lightman in TV series Lie To Me.
Professor Welby Ings is a disobedient thinker
An internationally renowned speaker and educational reformer, he sees productive disobedience as behavior that pushes our thinking and action into new and unconsidered realms. Specifically, he questions our anxious micromanaging of thought and our preoccupation with tick-box assessment.
Welby’s previous short films Boy, Munted and Sparrow have played in over 80 film festivals and garnered numerous international awards. Like Welby’s other work, Punch is a visually rich, hard-hitting film. It examines the plight of a small town, adolescent boxer and his relationship with his alcoholic father and a young takatāpui musician. Away from the rainbow flags and Pride parades, the film looks at what really exists behind New Zealand’s comfortable myth of LGBT inclusion.
Welby Ings is an academic, teacher, and filmmaker who has made a distinctive mark in each discipline. As a director, writer, and designer, his short films Boy (2006), Munted (2011) and Sparrow (2016) enjoyed great success on the international festival circuit. His first feature Punch debuted at the 2022 New Zealand International Film Festival. Ings teaches Design at Auckland University of Technology and is the author of Disobedient Thinker, a bestselling book on his teaching philosophy.
In 2017, his best-selling book Disobedient Teaching became influential in the reconceptualization of New Zealand education. Although Professor Ings is an award-winning author, he is also a designer and director.
His interest in film as a story-telling medium has seen his three short films Boy, Munted, and Sparrow selected for numerous international film festivals including Cannes. Boy qualified for the 2006 Academy Awards.
Ings believes that scholarship is by its very nature, creative. He sees creativity as part of normal human thought. With designers, its quality lies in the fact that creativity is not used to prove ‘truth’.
He says “We don’t seek the truth when we design; we seek to find elegant and appropriate answers.” He does not see teaching as dissemination of knowledge, rather, it is creating an environment for learning. Effective learning, he says, involves ongoing, intelligent, disobedient acts that help to move knowledge beyond the constraints of formula.
Ings completed his PhD in 2005 on the structure and profiles of narrative music videos and television commercials. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (UK), a member of the Designers’ Institute of New Zealand, the New Zealand Screen Directors’ Guild. In 2002, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence and the NZ Government Award for Sustained Tertiary Teaching Excellence.
In 2013 he was awarded the inaugural AUT medal for his contribution to learning and research. Professor Ings takes his position as critic and conscience of society very seriously and isn’t afraid to deal with knowledge and issues that are underrepresented. His research and design have seen him tackle the history of the culture of male prostitution, homosexual law reform, mental health, and marginalized thinking. He reviews for a number of national and international funding agencies, including Creative New Zealand. His research also covers the historical metamorphosis of underground languages, methodological approaches to creative practice in higher research degree education, the reconceptualization of doctoral research, and the role and nature of storytelling as academic inquiry.