Low budget – the new normal?

Low budget – the new normal?

IN FOCUS NZTECHO Autumn 2020 Issue 84

Waka Attewell


Who are we? We work at the front end of this business.

It’s morning. We arrive in the dark to empty paddocks, dark sound stages, obscure locations – nothing yet exists; we park up the trucks, erect the ‘easy ups’ – boil the urn, unload the camera’s. The pre-light crew have been working all night, they depart – some have described this process as ‘not work for sissies or the faint hearted’. A little later actors will stand-speak-move-sit-walk, open and close set doors, all of this activity for and in front of the camera. They speak the lines that are written on a script.

You might think the script is the movie, but to some who live in this ‘before-it-exists-world’ the script is merely those black bits on the page, a code of possibilities. Some have been heard to whisper that between those lines, in the white bits, is where the movie actually resides, that’s the thing that doesn’t yet be until we make it, that’s the bit what we do; but we keep those lofty ideals of creation and artistic prowess to ourselves.

…it’s still only 5:37am.

At $50.00 a day it sort of broke even, low-budget. We carpooled. Begged and borrowed equipment, mixed the old gear with the new. It felt inventive yet handmade. Craft? It felt like it used to be when there wasn’t much gear or infrastructure. It was in the summer break. Some of us had other work we could do in the weekends, others were financially supported by partners. This financial dexterity is at the core of freelance, and we wouldn’t give it up for the world.

A few years before I’d made the decision that it wasn’t my job to fix productions (as had sometimes been the need), as, at times, other issues were wrecked in the ‘fixing’ process. Putting that conceit behind had been a bit of a breakthrough not due in a small part with a growing cultural awareness. Perhaps a hangover from the years where the film industry pioneers from the tax break 80’s felt they somehow arrogantly ruled?

We did still expect support from the Film Commission, supporting New Zealand production being within their mandate. But, alas, support and great ideas can be the two strangers searching for the lost platoon in the misty forest where most encounters end in a firefight with loses on both sides. The inclusion of the successful ‘cargo cult’ and the attitudes of extreme wealth that come with it has been a slow but relentless creep through the last 40 years of the film and TV business. You first notice the extremes in the hierarchy, mainly a robust and direct way of communicating, which infiltrates and reaches into all corners and aspects of the industry. It becomes contagious.

During all this growth the low budget movie has been the bastion of the experimental, political, comedic and enthusiastic film maker. Perhaps artistic endeavour vs control of the industry is really the thing at stake here, not the survival of our business but the survival of our national cinema culture?

The low budget feature had a major upside, being nearly all self-funded from independent investors there were no studio or funding body pushing the shoot at breakneck speed, in that, ‘time is money’ way that film shoots operate. Instead performance and inventiveness and a bold style ruled this little perfectly-formed-flick. And then it occurred to me. It was the first time in many decades that I’d worked on a film set where we shot the movie not the schedule, the production changed my life and was one of the best experiences… because, actually, by shooting the movie we made the schedule work for us; a journey of looking in through the window and then entering a familiar room. We had perhaps been here before, before we knew too much and the deal didn’t rule the entire process?

It’s a delicate process this realm of the arts and the deal. The nature of the business forces completion with each other; we suffer with the ‘imposter syndrome’, those dark nights of doubt when we fear we might be found out? That reoccurring 3:00am nightmare when the weight of the work crumbles. The levity of the craft, living those freelance horrors, living from invoice to invoice, having enough to pay the rent.

It’s not that we have the need to rant and rave about art or want to shift the planet on an axis or be famous, we just want to be able to pay the bills and not feel abandoned. We like being ‘workers’. We are that community and we are loyal, the worst that could happen is low budget becomes the ‘new normal’ – nah that’ll never happen.

The self-funded, low budget, no-budget film making has long been bastion of the political, experimental; those little films that could, made on the weekends with the mates (Bad Taste), made on the streets during the riots (Patu) – an insight mainstream misses for the simple fact of being mainstream – shorts financed by an Uncle or family or investor-patron-of-the-arts. A proving ground to show the NZFC you are worthy of funding? …but alas low budget seems to have jumped the ditch into mainstream expectations. Large projects aside, they seem to have become the realm of the offshore production. Low budget seems to have become the only way of local stories and local production… low end of production has just got even more ‘Low’.


Is this the new normal for the start of the new decade?

You might need to look the other way and accept the fact that arts policy is being made somewhere up in the lofty heights of the food chain. The first you will know about these decisions is when the producer tells you what the going rate is, you know when you get told what your rate will be.

“Sorry,” they say. “There is no negotiation; my hands are tied.”

And the expectation quickly becomes ‘it’s better than nothing’ – this seems to be the new normal. You might get a bit of understanding banter… ‘Yes, I know it’s hard’, the production manager says, and then you spend all of your meagre wages on the nanny because both you and your partner are working to make ends meet.

Is this the dying echo of neo-liberal arts funding where the funding sector are doing what is normal for a bureaucracy and saving themselves first.

Meanwhile out in the world of early morning starts and truck stops, living from invoice to invoice, while the demands of the film business are slowly choking us as we try to maintain a vital local working infrastructure. Yet, in reality, the gaze is all about offshoring the industry because that is what the business of the industry demands. This is the result of a successful cargo cult manoeuvre.

– It’s not about supporting the artist it’s about the business of the deal.

The big question being ‘Is the NZFC fully funding local production?’ – And – is this low budget (under living wage threshold for crew). Is $1.2 million the new normal?

As one of my post-production colleagues said the other day ‘Is this just a sad case that’s worse than ‘the Mexican’s with cell-phones era?”

Low Budget has a website, its official – it’s a NZFC website and it’s a real thing. Not just the slang term off the streets, it has an official title and status. It puts in mind that time when the HMS Escalator pulled away from the wharf a few years back. It set the benchmark for budget cap with the promise of fame and fortune for the few that were on the bridge… but let’s keep in mind success and fame are all relative. Did the leg up system work? Remember the title sequence? – A wobbly shot of a… um err, um an escalator, with disembodied legs stepping onto the bottom step; is that a hesitant stepping, is that a bold step, stride forth with hope step? …. on the nose step?

Is the low budget feature film the quintessential expression of this struggling society of the kiwi battler? The suffer-for-your-art-syndrome of the kiwi way?

To produce the smallest and most profound movie still takes a certain minimum amount of equipment, the expectation is a certain level of ‘production value’ for it to cut through the noise of the internet, perhaps the ultimate still being that magic-red-carpet ride to LAX?

A little New Zealand film that ‘made it’?

But, as John O’Shea said – With a local film we should be more concerned with what they think about it in Taihape or Tolaga Bay or Timaru than Hollywood; John might be correct here. National cinema is where it all begins, there is no jumping the queue?

The powers that administer the funds might say things like you can’t have art without business… you could look them in the eye and ask them to explain? Ask them to explain how the deal will put bread in your pocket and send your kids to school with lunch? – ask them how they manage from invoice to invoice, and what is it they actually produce here? Go on this is your film industry too, but never ask an arts administrator about their weekly wage.

Are our lower rates just another way that we are feeding the internet monster of increased demands of the social media companies? Is this the dying death-roll of the cinema shark in the swamp in a world where the sunset is only relevant after it has been through an instagram filter, where crew are all checking their phones between takes? Just checking that the ‘making of’ feed to the ODT might include me, to make my existence more important by being in the back of shot related to a celebrity or influencer for the Netflix channel? – Oh, the glamour of the business? Yet your weekly rates are still less than 5 years ago?

Has this been the case where ‘low budget’ is now the new normal in the New Zealand Feature Film Industry; where working for less than a ‘living wage’ is something that has been imposed upon us? Are we looking at a situation that looks more like control than support?

I was reminded the other day about the Mune speech (2000) regarding the formation and result of the New Zealand Film Commission. Ian has always said it was bad timing to make that speech but I’m not sure such things can ever be timed well, as, for the simple fact, a bureaucracy has a function of self-preservation that is so pernicious that it will throw itself off the cliff before admitting it is wrong or out of touch; or for that matter change because of the times or openly change policy even though it would’ve realised behind closed doors that revolution is nigh.

A commission that loses their creative way so chooses instead to ‘control’ the industry and we are, as Mune said in 2000, still obsessed with the deal rather than the film; it would appear that there are no deals now just low end toil.

When ‘low budget’ is the answer then the question has to be ‘is this now the new normal?’ – And – ‘is this what we have become as the New Zealand Film Industry?

20 years ago there was a movement afoot to ‘get back our film industry’ – Ian Mune willingly fronted the brief but somewhat bloody revolution, some of us stood near enough to be hit by the lightening and collateral damage and we learned to never question an out-of-touch bureaucracy as their survival is more important that their tasks or mandate.

Yet those words of warning from 20 years ago might still be relevant today and be the thing that needs further discussion?

Meanwhile, in a camera rental carpark somewhere in Wellington I dropped by the other day, the first AC was fitting the truck with shelves for the new movie about to be shot in town. He steps down from the toil and wipes his brow. ‘Well it’s better than nothing, eh?”

Embrace the cinema of poverty as a rite of passage.

Precariat has a new cohort?

                                                                                                                             Photos: Waka Attewell. NZCS

Ian Mune writes in his autobiography of the years leading up to 2000 and the first 20 years of the NZFC (Abridged from Rudall Hayward Lifetime Achievement Award speech).

“TV began to make New Zealand drama Pukemanu, Close To Home, The Governor, Moynihan. History shows us a corporate mind-set and subsequent control of artistic thinking quickly took over that golden era. Business started making artistic decisions as to what we watched on the TV. The NZFC is announced 5 years after the corporatisation of TV with a clear brief to support this burgeoning new movie industry. Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace and Vigil soon followed. 20 years down the track, we are looking at an industry in confusion… So what went wrong? In short, the control mentality has won the day. The Film Commission, unsatisfied with its wobbly attempts to support the industry, chose to lead it. Control. The first weapon and last – ditch defence of the truly terrified… We have become a marketer-oriented industry where the deal is more important than the movie… The people who are in control… who are even now dictating what stories the story-tellers may tell, are neither film-makers nor story-tellers. They are not leaders they are followers – of the market… And because they believe that a singular market-oriented paradigm imposed upon the story-tellers from above will work, they will sacrifice the very thing they are duty-bound to foster – the clear, passionate voice of the New Zealand artist. ”



Do we know how to blow the whistle?

Do we know how to blow the whistle?



Waka Attewell talks safety.

What would happen if you were witness to something that required intervention for safety and you perceived yourself as ‘just a lowly crew’ – it’s not my place to comment? I’m a freelancer and they won’t employ me again? – What if the issue you witnessed was so extreme that you had the compunction to become a ‘whistle blower’?

What would you do?
Who would you call?

Over the years I can count the near misses on one hand – but that’s still five too many.
Gung-ho and ripping yarns after work over a beer, stories like lying across the skids of
a helicopter on a couple of planks, and driving too fast on the tracking vehicle and then
there was the time we hung off a frozen waterfall… and, and well you get it. But surviving the wild west was probably more about good luck rather than good management eh? – We don’t do that shit no more. Yeah nah, we have the bluebook and now we get fed properly and have adequate turn around and reasonable hours? Really?

We used to slap each other on the back and laugh at the ‘race to the bottom’ joke as if we hadn’t heard it before… hilarious eh. I’ve had a couple of conversations this year with crew that have felt that we have pushed the edges of ‘reasonable behaviour’ in a few areas. Mainly (as it transpires) on our local productions where the budgets are really tight. Damage to property and people being put in jeopardy. Have we regressed as a few
have proffered? Have we actually hit the proverbial bottom… did we win the race?

Perhaps $4mil for a local movie and a 29 day shoot is not enough money to do the job properly, to do the job without cutting those corners?

The call sheet arrives for the next day. It’s our daily contract with the work and the producers, it has stuff in it like how many pages of screenplay are expected to be shot, where we are working and what the hazards might be. Special requirements could be things like alerts for water and weather hazards or simply where the crew park their cars.

Perhaps we can be treating this document more like the addition to the deal – perhaps  an extension of the contract? After all we are just hired guns and we work in the film
factory… and at the end of the day it’s not really that special or that important. It’s a job eh and you don’t want to get hurt at work or hurt anyone else while you are doing
your work.

There is a bit of slapdash tradition about the place, it’s sort of ingrained in the culture – ‘it’s just one quick shot’ – it’s a bit risky but it won’t take that long, just one take should do it? – But maybe all this is just leading to the proverbial ‘accident waiting to happen?’ Already fatigue while driving has its share of victims, ACC pays for the funeral but the production company can’t be sued.

The health and safety stuff is on the back page of the call sheet next to the mud-maps for the parking and it’s not just about those two much photo-copied pages of how to approach a helicopter by not walking into the tail-rotor either.

Like most of us we just read the call time and quickly scan the first setup and head to the pub promising ourselves we’ll read the rest later. How do we get more involved in this process?


So when the safety guys say ‘not on my watch’ why are the producers thinking that a renegotiation is an option? And I’m talking stuff that is beyond working kids over their six hours – I’m talking stuff that could do real harm, like kid actors putting their heads under water in a hot pool.

Work conditions are maybe getting seriously challenged in this country. There’s pressure out there to ‘make hay’ in this freelance world while the opportunity is there which are creating more extreme conditions, exacerbated with costs going up and budgets staying the same. The USA has had their Sarah Jones incident (Midnight Rider) when the camera assistant was killed on a shoot because the location manager and safety department had been ignored. A splitter crew, with the director, defied protocol and filmed on the railway bridge anyway. The train they didn’t see coming hit the crew.


Does the blue book still have the cut through and just because we are not a union does it give the producers permission to renegotiate on the hoof? Purposes of safety are not a negotiation, they are in the bluebook for a good reason.

If I wanted to be blunt, our world is certainly divided into a time before Cave Creek and a time after Pike River and now we live in a time of this Whaakari/White Island adventure tourism debate that is just beginning.

There a very good reason that we have swing drivers for our trucks and there are rules around working with child actors. Those meal breaks were a hard fought piece of diplomacy, not to mention negotiating the ‘turn-around time’; there’s also a really good reason why we have the bluebook and why all those many hours of intervention and discussion are not up for grabs.

When the bluebook is treated as the beginning point of a negotiation it is a sign to
leave the job – somethings are just not up for negotiation. Some off-shore productions might think because this isn’t steeped in endless legalese that the bluebook has little veracity… this is not the case and the guild should know about this if anyone thinks differently.

Many stories, but there’s only one call sheet and one production diary and master file. If a child dies from meningococcal disease by putting their head underwater for a film shoot what are we going to do? – And – ‘their parents agreed to the risk’ is not the correct answer. When you work with kids the hours are not a negotiation neither is putting their lives at risk and ACC is not something to hide behind.

IMG_3252 - Tārua

Chain of command – the 1st AD is working for the producer, they are in control of the production schedule… that schedule has to consider things like hours worked when children are involved – it’s the law of the land.

Road closure for shooting – yes I know it would be cheaper if all we had to do is just slow the traffic and give everyone Hi-Viz-jackets – i.e. not close the road – but we close roads to make it safe… it’s a work space and we want everyone to get through the day (or night) safely and when the sign says don’t put your head under the water meningococcal alert and you arrive into the carpark and the producers are negotiating with the childrens’ parents… who you gonna call?

So like the safety rules on the back perhaps we get the crew rep to put on the call sheet a
list of things that are not up for renegotiation, a reminder to the management let’s say?

Like a shopping list that we can refer to? Have it laminated and nailed up in every work truck.

And when you break the rules, or pressure the production, the crew tend to talk so we know who those producers are.

Let’s not work in that industry eh?

There is a reason we use swing drivers and when the signs at the beach say unsafe for swimming this is not a negotiation, and why are we still using polystyrene in our set building?

So when I get phone calls from crew who are worried when they see the producers in the carpark renegotiating health and safety issues, I’m going to write about it in this magazine… we are TECHO’s but not a union.

The management will be the first to tell you that but that doesn’t give them the right to renegotiate those things that are not up for negotiation.

You know who you are.


If you do ever feel a situation on set is unsafe, talk to your HOD,
Crew Rep or Safety Officer immediately. If the situation continues,
please contact Kelly (EO) at the Guild.

Just feel the weave, not the width



Waka Attewell on judging at the New Zealand Cinematographers Society

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so with your mystical ways; of darkness and brooding-imagery, your crashing surf and distant horizons; misty windows and time-lapse mountain sunrise; that just so time of day before the storm then that pensive calm.

We will delve within this, get to the bottom of it. We will delve within the craft of lens selection, camera choices pertaining to budget and artistic imperative and to explore the mysteries of that lesser defined post-production choices.

The jury are in.

Here in the dark and we have only just begun and already we are committing the cardinal sin… we are watching the movie – sucked within the beauty of it, wrestling with the narrative, relishing the journey… and then, from the darkness, someone speaks – SNAP OUT OF IT!

The voice is god like – here within the church of surround sound and perfectly wracked pictures – a ‘movie theatre’ – the flicks – the pitches… our tasks are explained again to us.

We are not here for the whole – our day has a purpose and its focus is for that precise detail, a moment in time, possibly that moment when the light transmutes through the lens and strikes the sensor, behold that texture within the weave… angels cry out! That moment when the ‘now’ is captured forever in ‘time’.

But what will become obvious is it’s not so much about passing judgement but we are here to bear witness. This ‘Craft’ business is a pesky task at the best of times and now a deeper purpose is our mission so with all our unconscious bias, prejudice, and personal preferences hopefully put aside we should see the next two days out – damn I love this business – may the anonymous blind tasting begin; feel the width not the texture… stare deep within the loom, see the individual threads for their beauty and form?

The excitement of being on a judging panel is not to be belittled, but there are rules to adhere, benefits from the enormity of the process – awash within the forms of light and shade, texture, depth and meaning, and for a brief moment the weight of the egregiousness of the funding process melts into the background and the immediate tasks fall upon us.

Craft and skill abound.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips. DoP: Tim Flower


Vai. DoP: Drew Sturge

Two judging panels. Drama, current affairs and news, documentary, feature film, TV series, tele-features, TVC’s and internet, web series, soap, comedy, a melting pot of New Zealand’s unconscious bias all in one room 160 movies of various forms and genre, two days.

Kick’er in the guts Trev!

A plethora of Cinematographers gather in Auckland for a weekend of judging and voting a look beneath the veneer of the craft – analysis of that ‘painting with light’ moment, that instance between that exposure and this choice of angle, and that twinkling ¾ backlight flash of brilliance – a new way to look across distant tundra through the quintessential New Zealand misty window, that meaningful look from the lonely bach on the lonely coastline on the rugged New Zealand shoreline… not depression but just aloneness and thought… in that give the Composer something to do in this movie moment also. Or not?

The aspects surrounding the rules and other discerning choices of judgemental behaviour were quickly explained like you would to a group of people that didn’t have the time to read the fine print and then the clipboards were handed out, oh yes there will be ‘forms’ to fill in.

Antarctic Waters. DoP: James Muir

The perils of ‘group think’ were pointed out and then mentioned again and then we were given a lunch menu as a pre-reward to the tasks ahead. We shuffled off to the assigned theatre-big-screen – pencil-poised – black coffee close at hand, within the first 30 mins I have eraser bleeding all over the form as I correct and rub-out and correct again and again. Having done this before I am totally confident in the robust process.

Fade to black.

Straight up there’s the student work. Overtly colourful and earnest with great potential and perfectly formed cliche, sub-text is sorely wasted on the youth and yet again proven useless as the placenta is thrown, still warm, upon the dinner table, with more meaningful close ups than a Elizabeth Moss web series.

It’s soon after this that I’m accused of being cynical?

Really? I was hoping to bring a sense of ‘witness’ to the room, a sort of discerning poetry of the situation. It is, after all, a special task that stands before us. I am privileged to be amongst this company of fine technicians.

Cynical – that isn’t intended, in fact very far from it.

Oh New Zealand you haunt me with your mystical gaze through dripping-misty-windows. Old; distant tundra and aging glass distorted with time – you said you loved me forever. That low budget look that we’ve perfected out of desperate need and necessity, there you are my sweet mistress of hope.

Next up we are comparing homelessness and the suffering on the streets with the despair of opulence and a group middle class women agonise over a face lift or a bum job, and then compare that with the burns scars of the state ward who tried to take his own life; depth of field and lens choice aside you have to appreciate the challenge here? The bogey-snot-nose in the backlight as a homeless guy cries in despair and rage, the camera chases him to get a closer look at the agony of hopelessness – the light flitting off the BMW as the driver looks the other way (perhaps at a bargain frock in the high street window?), the drone tracking the speed of it all… Rolex,-reckless, vibrant – life in the fast lane of the world of TVC and now robber-baron-owned media completes with ‘best suffering’ category, no social solution required… it all melds into one.

Mortal Engines. DoP Simon Raby NZCS
Daffodls. DoP: Mathew Knight

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so with your new platform neutral demands of funding bodies, where the crown finally chooses what we get to see on our screens; where the robber-baron owned media is now posing as legitimate, where advertising even more so drives the demand, is this democracy?

How does the crown fit into this space and is there room yet for the treaty? – it’s all here before us in one room in one movie, in one moment in time… the images become of each other, the thoughts blend into one desperate gasp of whom we are – how we have become this country of half-truth and breathtaking beauty; if you get the light just perfect you can’t see the toxin with the waterways, chose the right tide and the right time of day to hide the depleted fish stocks within, the green paddocks and those Holsteins foreground with the perfect mountain just so… a dichotomy of conflicts there in a single frame…now judge that?

Forget the $15million gigs where you try to compare with the $1,500.00 soaps. The high end confronts the wreckage of the low end of the business. How’s that the case? Yet lower budgets equal better scripts.

Has anyone noticed?

Bellbird. DoP: Grant McKinnon

This industry that forces you to think in the same moment about what’s in Harvey Weinstein’s underwear draw and how you might get a less intrusive (if that is possible) angle of this family of five living in their car and what might be the best camera kit to follow the privileged climate change student to Parliament… and this industry that then forces you to actually do something about the issues after the hype of the protest – when everyone has gone home to their sheltered worlds where they think a lively
facebook chat is going to make a difference… and then it’s just us and the homeless guy discussing mental illness and how he was abandoned by the system, or the whaling expert who can adeptly discuss 1769 and the arrival of greed, or the truth about that fashion label that exploits child-labour.

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so. Cynical? – Nah – I just know even more why I do this and I’ll be back next year.

Contracts, insurance … you thought it was about being fair?


Our man in Otaki gets serious.


Being a senior technician apparently puts you into that sagely-wise bracket and for this reason sometimes other technicians phone for advice. Perhaps this is because some of us have lived through the ‘sign it or fuck off era’ and the ‘race to the bottom’ disorder that some will try and convince you is perfectly sound way to conduct a production when you  find yourself agreeing to a rate that is on par with your rate 20 years ago.

Sometimes I get asked if I think the guild could help, and then you usually find yourself explaining why the guild can’t actually be a union.

….guys, guys, what, really?

It’s that go fast-go-silly time of day and the producers have just reiterated ‘no overtime’, the safety guy looks at the set up and has said ‘not on his watch’ and ‘not in those waders in that surf’ and so the sensible ones on the crew put on their wetsuits. Plastic around the camera as a splash proof housing and a running sea not actually that suitable
for the desired shot… but, a shoot is a shoot, and in the realm of just reluctantly following orders a wave catches the whole she-bang and the focus-puller’s monitor takes an unprotected swim. Bugger.

A $2.5K insurance claim to end the day – should be simple – I wonder when they can get a replacement? That’ll be a wrap, see you tomorrow bright and early.

As it transpired the damaged monitor was personal kit and didn’t figure (apparently) in the rental insurance or the general insurance or the ‘is this fair’ category or we’ll-see-the-guy-right and pay up department.

A low budget shoot is just that. Fiscally challenged, as in, the money is short and we are expected to head into these situations with hope and a love for making great stuff (did I mention the race to the bottom?).

But an assumption just because it’s a low budget doesn’t assume that they are fair players and the word comes back from the production office is you should’ve insured it yourself… we are not paying even the excess. Really?

You know technically they are correct and possibly the technician should’ve had adequate insurance and well… with all that in consideration what might be fair? I don’t know. But insurance is a much more expensive outlay these days.

Possibly what is fair is a subjective notion that has something to do with is the producer a fair dealer or someone that just does things by the book?

$2.5K is a fair whack of the entire fee to do the picture and you can now see how this dilemma has arrived in the inbox of a few senior technicians with a WTF in the subject line.

Well perhaps the answer comes in two parts.

The first part is the guild is not a union with the workers arguing from the shop floor (though we do have an elected crew representative), and secondly how does, ‘is it fair?’ rate in the dying throes of the free market capitalism world of film producing.

So let’s ‘unpack’ what is fair and what is not?

Now that’s a hard one to debate.

We sit around cafés and bars not so much talking about focal depth or third act structure, but, mostly we discuss who’s a good production company,  which actually means who’s a good producer, the conversation will always skew towards the neoliberal discussion (for old time sake) and capitalism (to appear worldly and business like) – attitude and fairness are always top of the list when discussing gig and it doesn’t take much for an incident of perceived ‘unfairness’ to get about the hood.

There would appear to be two different versions of fair? What could’ve happened and what should’ve happened and what should the technician have done to protect themselves?

But being a freelance technician also includes that added hazard (you know that unsaid thing?) of ‘don’t be awkward’ and don’t create a fuss… sign the contract and wear the bits you don’t agreewith? Seeming to be difficult is a hard reputation to live down when your existence depends on being employed by being compliant with the wants and
needs of the employer.

Through the Proscenium Arch

Through the Proscenium Arch



Waka Attewell is taken by The Undertow


That well-worn cliché goes something like ‘it’s not so much the destination but the journey.’ Are we nearly there yet? This journey started about 1974 and The Undertow project is the next step on this infinite voyage of discovering why New Zealand is like it is.

I could start with an opening line ‘we shot a feature film in two days’, though I would have to mention that the rehearsal took the best part of eight months and the writing
close to twenty years (but actually probably closer to fifty).

Three years ago The Undertow was already a fully formed theatrical production still working in a rehearsal space – it is a production of Te Rākau Hua O Te Wao Tapu Trust Theatre Company – they are one of the original Māori theatre entities from the 80’s and Artistic Director-Actor Jim Moriarty is still firmly ensconced at the helm.

Jim and I go way back, together on our first ever feature film (The Lie of the Land, 1983). It was about colonial land issues, set at the end of WW1, in a time when returning Māori soldiers were treated differently to their Pakeha colleagues. There was a scene where his character jumps through a window into a farm kitchen. Jim does his own stunt. There’s an explosion of shattered glass, he holds a shotgun, his eyes are wild and the performance riveting and passionate. He spits the dialogue out between gasps; he doesn’t blink


I’m looking through the camera and the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. We’re both now in our sixties and here I am again looking through a camera at those unblinking eyes and the passion and commitment hasn’t diminished.

Land issues, colonialism, theft, the crown, the treaty…

I’ve been invited into a small room in Massey University to watch a rehearsal run; a room designed to accommodate perhaps about thirty people and there are at least fifty
in here already and still more are coming. Outside the nor’easter moans across Wellington. It’s hot and I’m now jammed onto a windowsill with four scripts
balanced across my knees.

Then, from somewhere suspended in time, ethereal haunting music starts and the rehearsal is underway and that transformation into that special world begins as an
ensemble cast of thirty-seven weave themselves through the complexities of a quartet of plays.

A pioneer looking for a new start in a new land on a small kāinga on the Owhiro Coastline and the New Zealand company concocting devious land purchases, then a
jump forwards thirty years …there’s a love story, an extended family of second generation settlers, the church, the crown, two brothers, war, colonial politics, a land grab, Pakeha and Māori… then we are in WW1, somewhere in no-man’s land, in the mud, amongst the horror of Passchendaele, a war hospital is revealed at the core to this story
– characters jump time and place; there is no past or present, just time, perhaps we dwell in the future?

It’s a mixture of song and dance but not a musical. It’s prose and poetry but not purely theatre nor opera. The narrative is complex but simple in its emotional journey. The
balance is perfect. The rehearsal run takes all afternoon and into the evening, five hours and forty-three minutes of intense drama. I’m fried by the emotional experience. My head is full of possibilities — and what about that sob that erupted from my chest a few hours back? My mind is racing, I’m looking for a reason to run away from any
involvement… it’s too big, too passionate, the stakes are too high.


If there is ever mention of New Zealand history in the 1840s, most of us have a fairly good picture of events. That list would probably include the Treaty of Waitangi, early missionaries, early settlers, New Zealand Company and perhaps Hobson? Yet mention of 1869 might offer a few moments of thought — and, then, if the Second Taranaki Land War was mentioned it might beg the question ‘there were two Taranaki Wars? When was the first?’

Dig deeper and you will discover both wars were about the land.

The real keepers of the history are hidden under the silence of the vanquished. The invaders who conquered will publish accounts that have a certain skew; education
may hide the facts in amongst their need to claim victories – exaggeration and falsehoods remain unchallenged – today you might call this unconscious bias or simply just history… no matter what it is we call it, we can’t keep addressing our colonial past as a one sided story.

Te Rākau are addressing this through their work and are on a quest to balance the books.

Over the next few weeks, and after a second rehearsal to explore further possibilities, I already know that mere coverage of the drama wouldn’t do the plays justice. Perhaps something like reaching through the proscenium and looking for the movie within
the material? But what is the best way to capturing the momentum of live performance? There’s nothing already existing that I can find to support this approach, so I might have to admit to myself that this could be a risky venture, possibly experimental?

At the last minute enough cash to shoot the dress rehearsal and shoot a pickup day (after the one month season) is secured, meaning the project was at least in the can. Fifty
or so hours of images across nine cameras and sixteen audio tracks. Professor Paul Spoonley, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey, knew of Helen Pearse-Otene’s work and
liked the concept and the epic proportions of The UNDERTOW, therefore they helped us through the ‘proof of concept’ phase as we wrestled with the material into a likely way forwards.


After nearly two years I can now sit with colleagues as they watch the offline edit for the first time and proclaim that this is some of the best writing they have been witness to. They tell me that Helen Pearse-Otene is an inspiration and New Zealand history needs her to keep writing.

At the beginning of the long involved post-production process I was asked ‘What the story was about?’ That logline thing, you know, boil it down into a simple few lines. I found that the mention of props from 1840 becoming artefacts in 2019 helped, a willow
tree planted in 1869 becomes a property issue in 2019 when a developer wants to remove it.

An ensemble cast with an ancestral line to hang the structure upon seemed like a fitting way to describe the passage of time, a story not so much about whom we have become
but why we have become who we are as a nation.

This, in short, is historical drama told on an epic scale.

The Ragged, Dog and Bone, Publicworks and Landeaters are the four plays that make up The Undertow quartet. They ran as a one month season at Te Papa in January 2017.

From the footage gained during the theatrical run and the two day shooting period, this has created a feature film and a four part TV series for release at the end of 2019.
The movie will travel with the Tuia Encounters 250 event (a Culture and Heritage initiative) during October, November and December, when the replica of the Endeavour will tour the coastline of New Zealand. Colonialism began with Captain
Cook’s arrival 250 years ago.


In Memory of Geoffrey Peter Murphy 12 October 1938 – 3 Dec 2018

NZTECHO Summer 2018 Issue 79


Waka Attewell pays tribute to Geoff Murphy

On a Geoff Murphy shoot every part of everyday is going to be guaranteed a ‘shit I love this job’ moment.

Charging horses, blowing shit up, car stunts, more blowing shit up, tracking vehicles festooned with high speed cameras, guys in armour on horseback, slo-mo and dangerous. Orc’s for Africa! And the perfect director, Geoff Murphy, with a fag and smile and the next idea which would start with the words ‘what if the…..” It was always outrageous and audacious, with a let’s give it a go attitude… and then we’d blow some
more shit up because we could.


It was his 60th birthday (2nd unit LOTR) and I hadn’t seen him since LA a few months before… there he was shambling across the Twizel tundra, running his hand through his hair, and my heart swelled when he said ‘good to see you, I heard you’d be joining us’ – then I swear we finished the last conversation that we hadn’t quite finished the last time we met. It was like we’d always have this ongoing conversation that we’d pick up every few years. We always did politics first and then established who the ‘bastards’ were that we might be fighting, then we’d list the immediate tasks. Big horse action, big stunt action, Orcs all over the place (or it may’ve been), kids running over the hill, hanging the miniature, pacing out the special effects, rigging the motion control… always thought through and well planned. I needed to have his approval, I would seek this out, and I wanted to make it work for Geoff and this was so for everyone on the crew.

Whatever was planned still had a string and rubber band methodology, our ‘son’ had returned and the flash world of Hollywood hadn’t dulled that handmade craft thinking of Geoff’s… analogue attitude with new world thinking in a digital world. Like who would’ve thought of a simple in-camera glass shot to achieve the burning of the king when everyone else was thinking CGI? Hardly even computer enhanced in the final cut.

Geoff was the master.

A yellow mini pulls up beside a young lone female hitch hiker: ‘Get in’ – she doesn’t think that’s a good idea – ‘It’s alright’, says Gerry, ‘He’s queer and I’m driving’ – this is the Murphy world where blokes were blokes and sheila’s had a lot to say and authority was shunned because they got in the way of getting stuff done and having fun. PC and Rules? What were those?

Goodbye Pork Pie would became the first local film to gain blockbuster status as it spoke directly to the kiwi zeitgeist, with edgy flawed characters that were stamped out from of our own rawness. A road movie, yet a journey that could only end in a no exit road, and we devotees to our pure Nu Zilandness were more than happy with the quest’s inevitable doomed destination. It summed up our K-1- double U– one to a tee. Land locked on an island with nowhere to go but, hell, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey attitude.

I first came across the subversive Geoff Murphy film world in the mid 70’s on Percy the Policeman after the Blerta bus pulled up and kids and wives and hippies from the Waimarama commune spilled forth into our Pacific Films lives.

I had the job of protecting the relatively new camera equipment from the falling sets, the prat falls, the odd bang of gun powder and the hastily planned and executed car stunts. The shoot also achieved some pretty spectacular rope action, using all the main actors, meticulously planned over a two floor drop and every stunt pre-tested, usually
by Geoff himself. Health and safety? Heck no!

Geoff at the helm doing every job there was to be done. Writer, director, set builder, special effects… Suffice to say Percy (the Policeman) was a loveable idiot and Burglar Bill (Bruno Lawrence) was naughty, very naughty indeed; a commissioned kid’s show that was completed and delivered, as per contract, but never went to air because it was deemed um err, well, a bit naughty. At its heart it was a kids show about ‘US’ and ‘THEM’. The representation of authority didn’t get the sort of run that the programmers at TV felt was fair, and I guess the Muldoon Government (looming large over the whole country) might have put the TV management of the time in a position of ‘hell what shit will rain on us from the PM if we screen this?’

The shock of the new way of working with the all-in approach to doing everything. This was the 70’s and work and family were separate, but Geoff thought that this state was what was wrong with modern society and hence the bus and the travel, where everyone travelled together and lived together, worked and played together. It was anarchic, inclusive, opinionated and collaborative, but all of the communal ways that Geoff worked was offset by being continuously surrounded with kids. Before we’d met Geoff, people around Wellington had already been speaking of the ‘Magic Hammer’, a film Geoff did when he was a school teacher, and the pupils of that time will still say that making that movie with their teacher was still the best year of their lives.

After Goodbye Pork Pie came UTU. Ambitious and audacious, a big idea done big, which was finally returned to the director’s cut Utu-redux decades later and then, to follow that up, a high concept movie The Quiet Earth, a big movie conceived and done here, in Nu Zeeland, with production value and great ideas… perfect. Geoff was saying “See it can be done”.

But what did success look like in the world of Geoffrey Murphy? Success was never losing who you were or selling out the ‘to the man’, telling the story from the position of truth and integrity, being loyal.

Perhaps, in summing up his professional life, you could say focused, ambitious, opinionated and determined – beholden to no one, and always suitably messy. Of course, this self-determined independent characteristic was expected in the LA scene but, at the end of the day, not tolerated. The absolute truth of the matter was that Geoff was never going to kowtow to neurotic Hollywood executives anyway.

He started from nothing in the local film scene by forging his own pathway and built an arts movie making commune in Hawkes Bay, which, in the beginning, created strain over putting food on the table for an ever-growing family. Yet self-belief, and determined focus, saw Geoff becoming one New Zealand’s top movie directors within a decade.

It would fair to say he ran out of road after The Quiet Earth in New Zealand and Hollywood seemed like the best option. Young Guns2 and Under Seige2 both functioned well in the box office, but the process of arguing with the producers didn’t make Geoff a perfect fit for their world or them for his, though if part of the exercise had been proof he could make it in Hollywood then he certainly had made it.

Micky Rourke would drop around to the LA house, not because this is what celebrities do but because they were friends. Geoff subverted the Hollywood way by being who he was. It was about the movies, the story and the work, not the bullshit. A man who could name drop some of the big names of Hollywood and the rock world. Helen Mirren and Mick
Jagger. But he didn’t play that game. But his proud kids might let slip over a beer or you might find out in passing that he’d just been hanging out with Mick Jagger on his private Island, as Mick had invited the family in for the week.

Even Geoff has described his personal life as occasionally tumultuous. His 22-year marriage to Pat dissolved after a long affair with Diane, who took him back. But he also had previously abandoned both women to pursue and marry Merata Mita, with whom he has a son. And, from his memoir: ‘the stress of directing overseas and the constant separation do strain relationships’.

Geoff could’ve been an engineer, or a historian, or just settled on being a musician, but he chose the hard road to an almost non-existent movie business and created a path that only a pioneer could follow. If you wanted to name the justly considered New Zealand movie classics then Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth would be my picks and, if my opinion counts, then the re-cut of UTU – redux is still his best movie. This list alone represents the career of a great man, yet 6 kids, 20 grandkids and 3 great grandkids also reads like a great life.

It’s been a bloody great journey, Geoff. You cut a path that no one else could see through the undergrowth so we could follow and discover the possibilities for ourselves. You expected the best from us by leading by example, you pushed us into places we didn’t think we could be by making us believe in ourselves. The bus is leaving for the next show. Thanks Geoffrey Peter Murphy. We couldn’t have got here without you.

Whatever it takes

NZTECHO In Focus Summer 2018 Issue 79

Our man in Otaki has been reading John Reid’s history
of John O’Shea and Pacific Films. Here’s his take.

Waka 1990 Te rua
 Te Rua camera crew at PalliserBay, 1990. Waka Attewell (DoP), John Mahaffie (camera operator), James Cowley (camera assistant) and Gerry Vasbenter (clapper loader)

Whatever it takes

I have an image from John O’Shea’s funeral. It was a big event at the Embassy Picture Theatre. This memory is not of the great witty and erudite speeches. It’s a picture of John Reid at the back of the casket, when the task of the long carry-out to the street and the waiting hearse. He was at the back, holding on like a man would hold a caber that he was about to toss, his shoulders taking the whole weight. At various times as the manoeuvring occurred around doorways he would’ve been taking on all the heavy lifting by himself. And yet again John Reid has done the heavy lifting in the seven year research and writing of this brilliant book ‘Whatever it takes’ – Pacific Films 1948 – 2000 – the life and work of John O’Shea.

The book might’ve been called ‘how we became who we are as a nation’. Through the local cinema O’Shea suggested a New Zealand that wasn’t quite there yet, but by holding the mirror up Broken Barrier became, to the surprise of the distributors, a box-office hit. They were queued around the block.

 John Reid and John O’Shea at Pacific Films in 1975.


 Producer John O’Shea busy at work in his on-set production office, Berlin 1990.

I was there from the 70’s onwards and I thought I knew this history but John O’Shea was about living in the future and where Pacific was heading, not where it had been. So a lot of what I have read is new and revealing. Reid’s book catches this forward momentum brilliantly, the detail is exquisite. A business, a family and a deal here and a movie there. It’s a book about a very busy life. It’s captured a sort of New Zealand version of ‘From Easy Riders to Raging Bulls’ quality.

At the core of this story is what John O’Shea had told us, as he laid out our tasks in the Pacific Films tea room when he would discuss “What it was to become a Pakeha”.

Those early days of TV with the NZBC deals to make commissioned programs that went beyond the thinking of the day. We planned documentaries that might challenge the politic or open a can of worms. How the next production might be scuttled by the vagaries of the next commissioning editor at the NZBC or an experimental series like Shoreline that had its first season clumped together and was deliberately scheduled to screen at an unsuitable time slot in early evening in the height of summer so it was bound to fail. Or the way the Tangatawhenua series found Pacific Films and Barry Barclay, and as they say: the rest is history.

1948 – 2018. That’s 70 years.

Essentially the beginning was two men catching the train with limited funds (200 pounds) from Wellington to Mahia to make Broken Barrier. They gather a few locals around them and quickly coached them into how to push the dolly and hold the reflector – Roger Mirams and the less experienced O’Shea wrestling with the culture and the weather.

 At 2000 feet, filming Runaway. In the background, Ron Skully (sound), Michael Seresin, Barry Crump (boom swinger for the day) and Tony Williams watch John O’Shea lend a hand to a soaked Deidre McCarron. Jonathan Dennis Collection

The book captures the real passion of their work and gives us a snap shot of the post-world-war times of the entrenched racism that informed the way this country looked at itself.

If you walked from the Majestic movie theatre in Willis street to the Embassy you walk past 24,700 cinema seats. New Zealand was movie mad and had the highest number of
seats per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Seventy years doesn’t feel very long and in reading this book you marvel and appreciate how far we have come as a film and TV industry.

In the second half of the book my life catches up with the story when I joined Pacific Films fresh out of college in 1972. I didn’t have an appreciation of the history and, decades later, when it comes to Te Rua (the New Zealand shoot) I have more than a bit of
skin in the game. But in reading the details I was still discovering stuff I thought I knew. John Reid has done a fantastic job of researching all the moving parts and making the read a rollicking yarn… it’s a page turner.

At the core it’s about the inside workings of a man who was not only a deal maker but a profound thinker. And you can read how the moving parts of the deal are sometimes at odds with the movie or the idea.

Thankfully O’Shea was a hoarder and all the production records and private correspondence were there for Reid to find in archives.


Reid captures that moment through O’Shea’s eyes of the late 70’s when the lawyers and merchant bankers entered the film business as the new producers and the deal drove from the front of the bus. O’Shea was not so in agreement with this focus on the wealth
gathering part of this new way. And he was wary the of bureaucrat being in the funding body that was being created.

The creation of the NZFC, and then how later O’Shea was moved to one side. Rather than fight them on the home turf, he opened a Pacific Films office in Europe. O’Shea hated being called a veteran or a legend, as it suggested a man that was ready to be put out to pasture.

In the 70’s Pacific Films is winning Feltex awards with documentaries made by Tony Williams. William’s work proved to be very popular, “However, it negatively impacted with the new order at the NZBC” – “It was one thing to disagree about a programme, but quite another to go ahead anyway and produce it in such a way that clearly outshone the efforts of their adversary – especially if they wanted further funding”.

This is a book about how we got here, the divide of town, country and city, Māori and Pakeha. A nation in growth. John O’Shea wrestling with the authorities, his own staff and ideas and directions in a constantly changing landscape of this growing and evolving movie and TV business.

It’s an epic tale.

Great work John Reid.

 Roger Mirams and John O’Shea filming waist deep in water in Tahiti in 1953, Pacific Films Stills Collection, Ngā Taonga
Sound and Vision,