Cut to the Chase
By Michelle Jana Chan. Photographs by Simon Devitt.
Michael Seresin’s holiday getaway could not be further from where he lives in London. Not that he is often in the British capital either, ‘I can’t really say there’s an average amount of time I’m at home; maybe a few months a year but sometimes less,’ he tells me. ‘This year I’ve spent a third of my time on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And last month was Andy Serkis’s The Jungle Book. Every year is different’
Seresin is a cinematographer in demand. After working as a cameraman on The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, he built up an impressive and diverse body of films, from Bugsy Malone and Midnight Express to Fame and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. His schedule means that visits to his house in the Marlborough region of New Zealand, the country where he was born and grew up but left more than 50 years ago, are relatively few and far between. ‘I have a very ambivalent attitude to New Zealand,’ he says. ‘It has youthful vigour but also a shallowness which I find quite frustrating.’
In spite of this complicated relationship with his native land, or perhaps because of that, in 1989 he bought 75 acres on the inner Queen Charlotte Sound on South Island. On this plot, dotted with cabins and campsites once used by holidaymakers, there was also an old house – among hills thickly forested with native tree ferns and manuka – with a waterfall cascading behind the property, which Seresin says can increase 50-fold from a trickle to a roaring cataract, depending on rainfall. Seresin used that old house for 10 years – ‘it was simple but I loved it’ – but then decided to embark on designing a new home. The need came about because he had bought some grazing land in the region, which he had deftly turned into a vineyard, Two more land acquisitions followed – which became the Tatou and Raupo Creek vineyards – and soon he had distributors flying halfway around the world to taste his wine.
‘I felt that if people were going to travel that far they should have a really lovely place to stay,’ he says, ‘I wanted something between the Bauhaus style and a Japanese aesthetic – that indoor-outdoor thing when it feels like trees are growing through the windows.’
Having decided on a coveted waterfront position on Onahau Bay, Seresin employed an Auckland architect, Pete Bossley, who came up with plans for a sensational, stilted, split-level house of recycled wood and glass – a kind of all-natural Fallingwater. ‘Light drove a lot of what we did,’ says Seresin, a man whose professional work is dominated by the same element. ‘That’s always been something important to me, I have strong memories of light and dark from a very early age.’
The best way to arrive at Waterfall Bay is by boat, a 10-minute ride by water taxi from the port of Picton. The house emerges, its wooden corners, graphic edges and watery reflections peeping through the trees. There are decks and terraces all around the building with fixed louvres for shade. Big-paned doors and glass windows slide open. Natural light floods the open-plan spaces. There are bleached Oregon-pine floors, and beams and supports made using the Australian hardwood jarrah, salvaged from ports and viaducts.
At the heart of the property is a large space for cooking, eating and reading (Seresin’s taste in literature includes Tom Wolfe, biographies of Enzo Ferrari, Tony Benn and David Lean, as well as plenty of poetry). Surrounding the large fireplace are three sofas: an Eileen Gray Lota, a Conran and a third, nameless, that serves as a daybed. The room is lit by a mid-century Castiglioni Arco lamp, and a Fortuny from the same era. There’s a table hewn from the keel of an old boat, upon which is a collection of Maori toki, chisel-like stone tools. The mantelpiece props up an antique Indian shrine and family photos. By the stairs there’s a white ceramic sculpture by New Zealander Raewyn Atkinson, made from moulds of food cans she found in explorer huts in Antarctica.
But Seresin speaks most tenderly about the Faema espresso machine, a restored Sixties model he calls a ‘beautiful beast’. ‘I base my morning ritual around it,’ Seresin says. ‘It needs to be switched on half an hour before being used. So I get up, turn it on, light the fire, take a swim, shower, pick a grapefruit off a tree to eat and then make my espresso.’
But after his go-slow morning, Seresin speeds up. Days are spent on the business of the vineyard, which now produces more than half a million bottles of biodynamic wine a year, something he is proud of. ‘I want to pick a bunch of grapes without having to wash it first. If you can grow grapes without chemicals, why not? Back at the house I’ll check on the buildings, source trees to cut down for firewood and visit the beehives. It’s not like spending 14 hours a day on a film set, but I do have to make sure everything’s working as the property is often unoccupied.’
Although it may not be for much longer. Seresin is opening up Waterfall Bay to rent, going beyond invitations to family, friends and guests of the vineyard. ‘It’s a place that really needs to be lived in,’ he says. There are three bedrooms and bathrooms: two are downstairs, more like studios than just places to sleep. ‘So you can be sociable but there’s a lot of privacy, too,’ he says. The wine cellar abuts these bedrooms.
Seresin’s own rooms are set apart from the rest of the house along a 10-metre suspended glass walkway. Furniture is a mix of Scandinavian and Conran – with a sheepskin rug on a stool. The light by the bed is by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin studio, and above hangs a large wooden heart made of driftwood. In the bathroom stands a big Japanese soak bath in teak. The art includes a framed poster from a movie he worked on, Birdy, and there’s a painting of Joseph, one of his six children. But it is the view of ferns, sea and sky that is the centrepiece.
Anyone coming to Waterfall Bay has the run of the whole house. The wine estate can provide a cook and a housekeeper can fill the fridge, or guests can be self-sufficient: picking salad leaves in the vegetable garden, citrus fruits from the trees, collecting cockles, clams and green-lipped mussels on the beach, and buying supplies at the local farmers’ market in Blenheim.
Days are spent immersed in nature. Swimming in the bay, picnicking on the shoreline or tramping along the 40km Queen Charlotte Track which passes behind the house. Moored in the bay is Seresin’s sailing boat, a Bridgedecker called Rukutere; in the boat shed is a vintage Riva Tritone Aperto that he bought on the Thames and had shipped here. Guests can putter about in a motor boat fishing for bream, kingfish or grouper and there are kayaks to explore the Sound; further out you can go spear-fishing or diving for scallops.
‘You do need imagination if you come here,’ Seresin says. ‘It’s your own little world, to get away from things, a real New Zealand experience.’