Cinema of Fun-ease: Exploring TOM Sainsbury’s nature trail thriller Loop Track

30 November 2023

Written by

Liam Maguren for Flicks

Tom Sainsbury writes, directs & stars in Aotearoa psychological thriller Loop Track.

Premiering at Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2023, Sainsbury guides us along the trail this film took to get made.

The Sweetshop

Tom Sainsbury’s been across all sorts of New Zealand content on various-sized screens. Whether it’s big-screen performances in films like Pork Pie and Nude Tuesday, small-screen roles on shows like Sextortion and Educators, or even smaller screen appearances on your phone as that Snapchat dude, you’re bound to have seen him.

His off-screen work rivals his on-screen credits, having directed a wealth of plays and written for beloved local series like Super City and Wellington Paranormal. In the cinema realm, Sainsbury and Chillbox Creative won 48hours—the country’s biggest filmmaking competition—in 2016 and in 2018.

“With that prize money, we could have made a really good short film but our ambitions were to make a feature,” Sainsbury tells me.

That feature film is Loop Track and it’s set to have its World Premiere at Auckland’s mighty Civic Theatre 21 July. Playing as part of Whānau Mārama: New Zealand International Film Festival 2023, this psychological thriller centres on a highly anxious man who attempts to calm his nerves the old-fashioned Kiwi way—by going on a four-day bush trail. Weighing this stress-swollen fellow down is the fact that he’s never done a proper hike before, is reluctantly forced to interact with other hikers, and is constantly plagued by the feeling he’s being followed.

My love is for thrills—thriller, horror, the darker side of humanity—that’s what comes through in our short films,” Sainsbury elaborates. “There’s this image that keeps coming back to me: you’re isolated, you can see someone in the distance, and you can work out that they’re a person but you can’t work out their features or their intentions. I like that as an idea.”

That idea’s perhaps most present in their viciously crafty 2019 short film Like Nobody’s Watching, which came 2nd in that year’s 48hours. As with their two 48hours-winning films, Sainsbury and Chillbox deliver “contrasting bursts of silliness and humour” alongside the “taut and tense” thrills in Loop Track, according to the NZIFF synopsis.

It goes on to promote Sainsbury as being “both faithful to the cinema of unease & committed to the genre thrills of watching people in peril.” I brought this up, wanting to know more from Sainsbury about the prevalence of the Cinema of Unease in the film and broadly in our country’s identity.

“When I started, it seemed like comedy was such a profound thing, especially with Taika Waititi,” he answered. “The sense of Cinema of Unease being in New Zealand fully fit with me but I think New Zealanders are a lot more funny than uneasy.”

Sainsbury also stars in the film as the anxious lead, and although he’s “definitely not going to be in [his] next two films,” he assures that he wasn’t burdened by being both in front of and behind the camera. “My character’s so reflective and quiet and observes everything, so it wasn’t like I had to drive any of the scenes. Most of the mutual scenes are driven by the other actors.

“Also, I had Gabriel Lunte—who edited the film—often on set and he was so good. I think if it had been another team, it wouldn’t have worked as well and I couldn’t have really pulled it off. But the team was there and, specifically, Gabe was there to keep an eye on things as well. It really helped. It was more of a collaborative directing than just me kind of owning it.”

At this stage, I was curious to know how Sainsbury learned filmmaking. “When I left uni, I was desperate to be in the industry. I did lots of 3rd ADing, continuity, things like that, so I was around sets a lot. It all kind of made sense. It’s quite logical.

“After years of that, I realised I fell into a trap of following the job & not really getting anywhere. I wasn’t making any projects that were mine. So I had to do that thing of stop working in cafes & in the cinema & just work on my scripts.”

All that work has guided him along this path—or trail, to be more apt—to crafting the script for Loop Track. But writing a feature is a trail of its own epic proportions of twists and turns.

As Sainsbury shares: “I was aiming for an 80-minute film so I would write an 80-minute script. And then the first edit was like two hours and 15 minutes—to the script. If I go through the script now and actually see what’s on the screen, it would be a very short script because the film’s 90 minutes now. The main thrust of the story’s the same, but more refined.

“From filming to editing, a huge amount was gone. I was hammering points—like a character point or a situation—three times when you only need to do it once. Audiences get it straight away. I think I was not being as respectful of their intelligence from the original draft to the filming.”

The challenges of making a feature also came with some lucky breaks, especially when it came to finding the perfect shooting locations. “We were thinking of filming outside of Auckland but, thankfully, managed to find a place. There was a drought so there was only one day of rain and the day it rained was perfect for the story. If it had been raining all the time, it would have been an absolute nightmare. We were blessed.

“When we made the discovery that there were lots of private camps—like Christian camps or school camps—that had bits of track and buildings we could use, as well as power we could access, that really opened up the possibilities.”

However, throughout my chat with Sainsbury, there was one blessing he seemed to champion above all else. “I had a team around me that really alleviated the pressure on me. For me, making the feature film was a dream. As I said before about having the team there, Gabe was so good at keeping in mind where we were character-wise and in the story.

“I was with pals, and it was beautiful.”

This Article was originally published on Flicks, 1 July 2023.