There's a certain charm that so many films from New Zealand have, and the award-winning We Were Dangerous from SXSW is no different. The film is a period dramedy following a trio of friends, young women sent to an institution for delinquent girls on an isolated island in 1954. They're under the watch of a strict, religious matron, who herself is a victim of the period's racism and misogyny. The story is a mix of sharp humor, social commentary, and moving drama, all in a balance that works beautifully.

The film was directed by Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu, who won the special Jury Award for Filmmaking at this year's SXSW. It was written by Maddie Dai.

We chatted with these filmmakers (along with a quick hello from producer Morgan Waru) to learn about how the project came together and its biggest challenges.

Take the journey alongside these characters and their creators. Enjoy!

How the Team from 'We Were Dangerous' Shot Their Big Finale in 45 Minutes'We Were Dangerous'Courtesy of SXSW

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I think the tone of this film is so well done. It strikes a balance between a period setting and modern conflicts and characters. I would love to know how you all set about finding that balance.

Maddie Dai: I guess it's just maybe a little bit of a hallmark of storytelling in New Zealand. Digging around in complicated subjects doesn't overshadow the comedic or human or lighthearted characters at the center of the story.

And I guess in and amongst the fact that we're exploring some pretty dark aspects of New Zealand's past, although it's fictional, always, we wanted it to be about teenage girls who were spirited and funny and witty and indifferent and rude and entertaining and enthusiastic. So I guess they just naturally helped bring levity in spite of the topic, which felt, I guess, real to how life is often.

Jos, do you want to tap in?

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Just to add on to what Maddie said, I think, yeah, it was quite a deliberate choice, and I think audiences don't necessarily want to feel like they're being told off or they're getting in trouble for something maybe that their ancestors did. And so I think comedy is a really lovely way to invite people in and it makes it feel accessible for the audiences.

While they're not looking, you can stab them with the drama, but we talked a lot about, like what Maddie said, these girls are going through some pretty extreme things, and there's some pretty heavy things in there, but also there is the light, and it feels quite special being able to find these moments of joy or friendship and sisterhood in some of these darker things that are happening to them.

You need the dark and the light. You can't have one without the other.

NFS: I'd also love to know about casting. Everybody is so good in this film, and I love seeing some familiar faces here.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: We cast Nellie first, Erana James. I watched her in The Wilds, and what cinched it for me—it sounds really bad. I mean this in a non-dodgy way, but there was a scene that she did where she pretended to give oral sex to an oyster, and it was amazing, and she was being so playful and relaxed, and it was almost like she wasn't acting.

And that's when I knew, I was like, "That's what I'm looking for. That quality of performance for Nellie."

Nathalie [Morris], who plays Lou, also was phenomenal. And what got it for me is I asked her to improvise coming out to her parents and she didn't do it. She really turned it on its head, the improvisation. She actually made it really funny and awkward. And again, that's what I was looking for. I think she's got one of the hardest roles to play because I need the audience to like her and find her likable, but then we need to turn that on its head later in the film, when she betrays her friends essentially—that needs to feel shocking to us.

So that was Nat, and Manaia [Hall], who plays Daisy, was the hardest to cast. It took the longest. We auditioned up and down the country. She self-taped on her cell phone, and she was amazing. So we asked her to come to Auckland to meet us, and it was only then that she told her parents that she had been auditioning for this film and recording with us online, and she never told her parents until she needed them to drive her to Auckland.

She was amazing. She was the only one I remember out of everyone that we called. She walked into the audition room, and came behind the camera, and just sat right next to me on the couch, and started talking. And I was like, "Wow, this kid has so much confidence, and she's so green." But I love that about her. She's completely unaware. She never acted in her life. Same with all the other girls. So all the girls that make up the school, they're all just local kids from Christchurch from where we filmed it.

And Rima Te Wiata is an icon in New Zealand, and it was hers from the second I read the script. Rima doesn't know this, I still made her audition.

Maddie Dai: She probably knew because she did lots of the read-throughs.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: I know she did.

NFS: We love to learn from people's creative problem-solving. If there's one example that stands out and how you approached it, we would love to know that.

Maddie Dai: I can think of mine, I can think of many.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Because I was like, "Fuck."

NFS: I know it's all—

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: All horror film.

Maddie Dai: I would say my big personal one was the narrator, and Jos' too, but that's really one I foisted upon her.

Just speaking of people who are untrained—I know that if you do go to screenwriting school, one of the first things you learn is that using narrations is a cop-out for people who don't know how to put exposition in more clever ways.

My intention was always, because I didn't know anything, to sort of have it be a little bit of a fable-like quality and a commentary on the stories from New Zealand history that have been pushed so far to the fringes we've lost them, but it was hard for heaps of reasons. And in terms of creative problem solving, it actually was someone from outside our core team who saw a cut of it and suggested that the matron, we had tried a few things, but that the matron be the narrator.

I think a fresh set of eyes and an outsider and collaborators beyond your circle who you trust are so useful. And then that ended up being amazing. I think the matron is so useful in the way that she both believes she has an objective truth and is also highly unreliable and gets that truth wrong and at moments doesn't believe herself, moments desperately needs it to be true. So it ended up being, as soon as the solution was offered, it was like, "Yes, yes."

Yeah, that's mine. It's probably yours too.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Yeah, the narrator was the hardest nut to crack for this film. ... I think actually it's funny because you plan and you plan and you plan for a shoot, and you have a shot list, and then you get to the end of the day and you've got 12 more shots to do, but you've got only enough time for one of them.

And so what I do in that situation, internally I'm screaming, but I'm trying to be a swan, just gliding. And I'm like, "It's absolutely fine. We're going to do this instead."

So usually, you just have to kill your babies essentially—you know that expression—you have to throw it all out the window, and you have to trust your instinct and roll with that.

And it's so scary because it's the unknown, but I think why it works is because you've done all this planning and prep and everything inside out and upside down anyway, you've done as much as you can that you're safe enough to jump. You just have to jump.

And you usually go handheld, that's the solution. You're like, "Cool, so this thing's going to be handheld, and here we go."

NFS: Is there a sequence or scene that you're most proud of?

Maddie Dai: Well, I love the dancing partially, because I was nervous. I thought it could be really corny. We actually discussed that, Jo—we discussed, I remember in one of the meetings we had the two of us being you were like, "This is my worst-case scenario." ... There was one moment in high school I remember where, for some reason, we had put soap on the science room floor, and we were sliding around doing the moonwalk in our Catholic school uniform stockings.

So I feel like, I don't know, I [sort of] lived it, and then I ate so much sugar I spewed out the window.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: I think the dancing scene is one of my favorites definitely. It was also a really, really hard one to crack because I didn't want it to feel too trite. And I just kept coming back to that scene over and over again.

I remember reading it over and over and in the edit, reading it over and over, and I said no to so many pieces of music because I didn't want the music to be of the era. I wanted it to feel super cinematic and a bit of a ... I wanted it to feel rebellious, but I also wanted it to seem really beautiful that they were just in their bodies.

And so it took a lot in the edit. Actually, we've really solved that scene in the edit. It was getting there during the shoot and we got enough footage to make sure we could really build this moment.

And the other scene I'm really proud of is the [finale]. We had 45 minutes to shoot it, and that's the footage that we got. And it was wild.

It was one of the most fun times I've had on set. My DOP, Maria Ines Manchego, went handheld, and I ran behind her. And so we were running around that field with all the cast screaming and running around us. I was just like, "Shoot it, shoot it! Did you get it?"

NFS: That is wild. That is a tight little shoot for a scene.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: It really was, but it was fun. Again, it just felt super instinctual, that scene shooting it. All plans went out the window, and we just went as wild as the actors in that scene. It was fun.

NFS: You've given such good advice already, but for someone just starting their first screenplay or getting ready to shoot their first short, what advice would you give those people?

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: I would say just keep going. Your first draft is going to be shit. It just is. Probably your second draft too. Even if you're a skilled writer, your first draft, second draft are always going to be really shit.

And be brave and show people, I think people feel quite vulnerable when they've written something, but it's really important to share it with people that you trust and that you love and that you know have your back, that aren't going to be unkind.

You want people to be generous with their feedback, but you want to trust them. So you've got to be open to critique. It's going to sting a little, but that's okay. You just pick yourself up, and you keep going. And also I would say enter everything, every competition, just enter it. It's also really good because it gets you used to rejection, because you're probably going to enter a hundred, and you'll get into two of them.

Maddie Dai: Unless they're bankrupting you. I feel like we come from a place where it doesn't cost to enter, the government funds lots of things.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Yeah, enter the free stuff.

Maddie Dai: I look at some, and I'm like, "This must be a scam."

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Yeah, don't do the paid ones unless they're super, super legit. Sundance writers' lab, enter it, look at the top festivals and look at what labs they're doing and enter them because you get to meet incredible filmmakers. I've done a couple of labs myself, and they're just amazing and inspiring.

Maddie Dai: And you're forced to finish.

My advice... I would say that I remember there was a time where it was like I had done all I could. It felt like I'd written a bunch of scripts and sent 10,000 emails to agents who literally couldn't even muster a rejection email. And there was this gap. And I would read people's Wikipedia pages and be like, "Okay, how did they get into this big leap between me and making things?"

And that felt like a really demoralizing period. But I would just say that just keep knocking on the door and keep writing your scripts, and have many, have so many of them can't turn you away. And it feels like once that breakthrough happens and people start reading it or you get one or two allies or champions, you forget what that ... It was months of just being like, "What the hell is going on? Shouldn't this be easier?"

But I don't know, I just think that staying a bit resilient in those moments and just reminding yourself that it's a fun job. Once you get there, it's extremely fun.

Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu: Do what Maddie said; just keep sending your stuff out. That's what I've done. I've been rejected multiple times. But then the companies remember you, so they've come back to me and been like, "Hey, you know how you sent us all that stuff? We've got this. Would you be interested?"

You just don't know. You just have to be really brave, which is scary and vulnerable.