…and we keep the faith

NZTECHO   Winter 2016 – Wide Angle

Cinematographer and general scribe Waka Attewell sends us thoughts on a national cinema, from Otaki.


Remember that moment when you first put on a Walkman and hit the play button… wahoo!! It was like a new world arriving – a brighter, better place. A place where boundless happiness was possible… remember that first time it happened in the cinema? That movie that crashed into the back of your cranium. That movie so profound that it somehow managed to bypass your optical nerve – inserted straight into your soul… well actually, not so much profound, but a 7-year-old did wet his pants from laughing so much in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. You took the track through the park and across the river. Small town New Zealand. A shilling every Saturday matinee would open a new world. One week we were cowboys, the next knights in armour made from Weetbix packets jammed on our heads, a slit to see and chicken feather up on top.

Later, you then get involved in the whole mystery of filmmaking for the love of something that you, at first, can’t quite reach… you hear the expression at film society ‘wonderful cinema’ and you know what it means, but you sort of don’t either… that indefinable thing that just is. You know it when you see it. Yet ‘cinema’ was still this thing that gets done somewhere else… on the far reaches of the planet; you haven’t yet heard the expression ‘national cinema’ and when you do it feels frightening in its possibilities… and then, being from NZ, we assign a government-backed bureaucracy of non-film people to administer the funds, then they get their hands on controlling the scripts… good on ya kiwi…. But like a ‘cargo cult’ you still desire this mystical Hollywood thing to arrive.

The next beat of that story is when it all comes true and you get to work for what you believe is the ultimate of the Holy Grail… ‘they have arrived’… and then you can’t believe what crap looks like when it’s being made with so much wealth. This is raw and takes the edge off. A dagger to the heart. You learn pretty quickly that it is how you deal with disappointment is what actually runs this business. But the desire for ‘national cinema’ burns deep – the desire for something authentic.

But earlier in the story I’d taken my mother along to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not so much to simply watch but more to bear witness with me… I was after answers and the movie offered up more questions every time I viewed it (this was the third for me). Cinerama in Wellington.

Am I thick or something? My fifth-form college brain was not making sense here. The mainstream critics in the USA hated it… it was different. The layers of the story, the jump cuts from before mankind to man in space, the symmetry … ew, this is what making movies is about… making movies? – whatever it was I wanted it… and it took me another 20 years to finally work out what Space Odyssey was actually about… I had to finally read the Arthur C Clarke novel and a Swedish thesis to discover the inner simplicity I was missing.

But, actually, I felt more like the cork in the tide, I haven’t exactly felt that I was in any way part of making the choices in this amazing film journey. The real beginning of this process began with the white-middle-class boy arriving at a place where great and profound thinking was happening in independent television. Arriving in the world of Maori from a high ground of colonial privilege. Knowledge, of a deeper nature – I had lucked a job at Pacific Films.

From the beginning making the decision to make my life as an artist (for want of a better word) was exciting and felt like it could go somewhere, more than just heading up the hill to teachers college or getting a drafting job at the railways… but I didn’t realise it was going to be a constant struggle… then that was an easy mistake to make in the 70s… jobs were falling from the rafters, choices were abound, music was the best thing that happened to radio and leaving home was about chasing that bliss of the new… what could go wrong?

Is it because you get jaded in this film business, when the rush of the new is quickly replaced by the grind of the ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ method of achieving as little as possible and spending as much as you can while the HOD is telling you that they are giving him grief about his budget. I once heard a production manager telling an assistant that is was her job to spend the budget, not try and save it (see what I wrote there by assuming and assigning gender roles?).

But somehow we keep the faith… why is that?

Our local movies did reasonably well, they were yet to join the flash-and-burn mentality over a single weekend, they stayed around a bit and got found by the people that they were made for… six prints would slowly make their way about the countryside… why would you hit the weekend market with 50 prints? This would become the pattern of all movies when the blockbuster mentality hit these shores.

National cinema supported and built a business… the default clause was supporting the cinema business with TV commercials and corporate work.

Today national cinema still just has a tentative grip on the movie business… that is if we make it without a budget, if we bypass the commission, if we beg… get just enough to stay afloat – after all we’re in for the long haul eh? (we convince ourselves). This is while Hollywood sees the less-is-more fiscal reasoning with the idea that less production but bigger budgets get you the bigger bang – or in some cases the bigger flop… national cinema?… bugger off!

It’s not so much about the art and craft but more about the bums on as many seats in as short a time as possible… market the be-Jesus out of crap concepts – yep, they will come. But even now not so many. There is a generation that perceive (and rightfully so) of cinema being irrelevant.

Maybe keeping the faith has its soul still entrenched somewhere in the 80s idealism? – especially when fiscal demands outweighed the need to tell a slightly more accurate story… you might say we were early adopters of a certain politic – left-wing… possibly ethics-based business? I mean I tried mentioning Greenpeace and global warming in 1991. All you got was the blank look of ‘why bother with those troublemakers…’ Save the planet? Wasn’t that what Joni Mitchell did? (Insert gay whale joke here.) Besides, they’d have you believe there’s good money to be made flogging fruit juice with artificial sweetener… there’s nothing wrong with those chemicals… we have the science right here in the small print. Just relax and join the neoliberal revolution… oh, is that what it’s called?… take your fee first before you pay the crew… do I have to be an arsehole with it?

I couldn’t do it.

Risk? The other day a colleague rang to speak about the recent movie The Great Maiden’s Blush: ‘that is not how movies should be made’; ‘they don’t know what they are doing’; ‘the script was badly written’; ‘why make a movie with babies – they are just blobs with no personality?’; ‘too much story, not enough plot’… he never used the word ‘different’…. Also, a person of the new generation rang to exclaim ‘brilliance’ and ‘bliss’ and an ‘emotionally satisfying journey’; ‘something we haven’t seen before’… she said ‘we have raised the bar as film makers’…. She celebrated the challenge that there was more than what film school had to offer. We spoke about following your heart and taking a risk.

It seems today you’re a radical by simply having stood still… never shifting the moral compass. It still might lead to something better … and then out of the blue, a no-budget feature film… A couple of meetings and a read of a script, a meet and greet… I am next on the crew. National cinema or authentic. Whatever. The best thing in 44 years… I’m glad I never lost the faith.


Geoff Murphy: a life on film

Geoff Murphy Stuff pic

NZTECHO   Summer 2015

Waka Attewell reviews and reminisces as he reads Geoff Murphy’s autobiography.


There’s this pub conversation that we’ve been having for more than thirty years that goes something like this: ‘How would you get Pork Pie made today?’ followed by ‘How would you get a Maori film through the Film Commission?’ and ‘Would they (they) let you make Utu today?’ These are uniquely NZ national cinema related and could only occur amongst those folk who care and seriously believe that ‘national cinema’ is a worthy and vital pursuit. So if you can’t get Geoff Murphy to come out to the pub and have that conversation then buy his book instead!

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If this is success…?

NZTECHO  Summer 2015 

Cinematographer Waka Attewell had financial insight early on in the TV and film industry. He built a studio, ran a production company making TVCs and brought property, he even invested in trees. So why then is paying the mortgage still a struggle?


Am I the right guy to be giving advice around having financial security in the TV and film industry?  Well, I’ve traded out of the two dark holes the financial industry blessed us with, so perhaps I am. You see, for me, coping financially hasn’t been so much as putting money aside for a rainy day but, rather, investing in a few concerns outside the film industry.

However, while a bit of forward thinking can see you through the rough patches, it’s actually about first finding that balance between work and life. There’s an old saying that goes ‘find the thing you really love and you’ll never have to work another day’. In other words, find that delicate balance between a career and having a life in this thing called ‘the film and TV biz’ (which I still believe is about the highest end of the creative spectrum that you can get.)  So sure, there are high rewards, but the downside can also be very low. Mental health issues in people in the TV and film industry can be way beyond normal levels if compared to other industries. In no small part is this due to increasingly stressful work and economic conditions. It helps to be a little mad to contemplate a life in the ‘film and TV biz’!

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Steve Locker-Lampson – Obituary

ONFILM  November 2012

Steve Locker Lampson.jpg


1972, I was the new guy straight out of school. Pacific Films was definitely the place to be if you wanted to make movies. NZBC and NFU didn’t look like an option, the independent John O’Shea made movies and so did the independent folks he employed.

The first day I saw Steve Locker-Lampson, tall handsome and with that confident booming voice, he was asking the receptionist if he could have a meeting with John… no come to think of it, he was ‘telling’ the receptionist that he was going to have a meeting with John and the way he said it implied that she was going to organise it… NOW!

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Compliance, compliance, compliance

Waka mountain.jpg

ONFILM  May 2012

Cinematographer Waka Attewell is always happy to comply, especially when he’s halfway up a mountain.


It’s Vancouver in the mid-1990s and I’m DP on a feature film. We’re in that awkward time between day and night, it’s called “blink”, and I want to get a few wide shots while there’s still light in the sky.

I step onto the roadway to take a light reading, safe in the fact that the roads are closed in all directions for two blocks. Suddenly there’s a guy in my face holding a bright red stop sign, shadowing my every move.

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The Treatment


NZTECHO  Issue 51  Summer 2011

Leon Narbey’s master work is rescued and rises – a phoenix from the ashes. Waka Attewell considers meaning,  art and what happens when our cinema history is bought and sold.


It’s the mark of a good movie when you’re still thinking about it a week later – it’s the mark of a great movie when you are still thinking about it after more than 20 years. When you can still recall the details… the cricket in the small box, the two Chinamen’s interior story of digging for an elusive fortune, their isolation, the sense of the advancing world, their previous life, surveyors scribing order into the wilderness, the camera that hung like poetry in the landscape.

Leon Narbey’s Illustrious Energy (1987) is that movie. I first saw Illustrious Energy on the big screen in the 80s when it was briefly released. It got me thinking ‘art’ and ‘history’ are an interesting combination. The outstanding beauty of it threw me for a moment and then I relaxed into the experience and let it wash through me. The unease I felt could have been because it was about us… about something dark in our past, but whatever it was there was simply something raw and compelling about its perfection. There are still moments etched on the back of my retina.

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My Year of the Hobby

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Spring 2011


A distant village nestles up against the hills – smoke from cooking fires curl against the morning light. A craftsman begins his daily task. The forge is hot, the metal glowing red, he beats the iron with slow rhythm whilst turning the work and forming the blade. The apprentice looks on with awe. The village goes about its day. Come weeks end the Blacksmith will be rewarded for his skill – the village folk appreciate and nurture him, he is needed.

PHEW busy year! Drinking like a lizard, laying bricks in Beirut – work-work-work, I love this business – it fills my life with joy, hope and possibilities and you might think wealth? Bugger – Nothing in the bank. Alas – deals, minimal rates, minimal gear, double bunking – cost of living through the roof and much less offering in the commercial sector.

The year kicked off well – then I’m told at the end of the shoot, by the first-time-producer, “There’s not enough to pay you,” the lost puppy look made the news even more risible. I make to say this is my livelihood but I’m struck speechless – the ‘first-time-producer’ can’t make a $110,000 (NZFC) budget work for the shooting crew. I guess I’ll just have to await the big movie call when the ‘first-time-director’ is famous.

It’s become a bit of a tradition in my village where you do the work and you get paid – um, err… but not this time or the time before or the one after that? You could try the argument that ‘experience counts for something?’ – yet the government tells us we’re a low wage society and can’t do much about that. I guess they mean be proud of this fact and wear the badge with honour, after all Hollywood comes here to take advantage of this ‘low wage’ society and a gigs a gig eh? Ever felt like you’re being used? Yes I know you need the job so working 14 hours x 6 days a week and doing more than what you are paid is what it takes – ambition is blind until the boss’s best friend’s daughter gets the promotion ahead of you when she’s only been in the biz 6 months… yep, not fair. Oh and then you sign that contract that has you working 7 days a week where the OT is cancelled out every Monday morning… choices? Not many.

The arts managers, funding bureaucrats and advertising executives take their weekly wage while the film and TV grunts in the trenches support the delivery of product… not to mention the scripts we read and the late night mentoring (read unpaid).

But what would you expect in a country where the star struck government does a deal with a Hollywood studio at the expense of the local workers? Share the wealth? I mean that’s so yesterday and socialist and if you don’t like it go get another job – there’s plenty of film school graduates. Experience? What’s that? By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, the government has recently rewritten immigration policy inviting all comers. This can only mean less work for locals… this used to happen in the 80’s – the ruse went like this – bring a movie onshore, employ a NZ crew then fire them in the first week, the replacement crew are already pre-booked and making their way to Heathrow; now you don’t even need the pretence of local employment the crews arrive here as a complete unit and its now out of Mumbai – the paperwork reads Co-Pro – tidy – but OSH issues aside apparently you might even be lucky and get paid?


 The phone rings – TVC: a 3 day shoot – some real money! The call has a BUT attached – as in: before the TVC there’s a couple of freebies – music clip and a website promo both, all up, should take about 3 days? I hear myself saying ‘OK’. Then after a few weeks the TVC becomes a real job – miracle? I’m told (i.e. no negotiation) we now work a 12 hour day, the budget won’t work unless we do. ‘So what happened to the Blue book and the Pink book?’ – ‘Oh this is government work’. I again hear myself saying ‘OK’.

A few days go by: ‘I reckon we can shoot this TVC in a half day now that we have the 12 hour shooting day – 6 hours should do it? – (stunned silence) – ‘I should also point out we don’t pay commercial rates anymore’. Should I mention the five people hanging around the monitor, that nearly out number the crew? Should I mention the battle fought over the 8 hr day by our ancestors? Should I put my head down and just shut up?

The arts managers, bureaucrats and producers vet the business and choose the content and the way we work – (this fits nicely into the corporate ideal) only problem being is we’re now down that slippery slide again – lets call it what it is – low-wage-work in a low-wage-business in a low-wage-society… some call it ‘business as usual’. Feel like you’re being used?

My career is now my hobby but diversify I must – live TV – Sports – pictures – live to air – you cant stuff it up – hell! – experience must count for something? …minimum wage? Bugger.

This TV and film making hobby could make an old hand a bit grumpy, I might have to go back being a Blacksmith.