NZTECHO Spring 2016 In Focus Issue 70
Waka Attewell talks with grip and gentleman Dennis Thompson about a life on – and off – the set.
The conversation would’ve gone something like this –
‘So we want to start inside the house and track and pan around all the actors and then crane out into the front yard to the wide shot…’ the quick answer would’ve gone something like..
…that’s easy, we’ll just rip the whole end of the house out and rebuild it so it flaps like a cat door… oh and that’s after we’ve keyed the crane into the floor so the elemack dolly, on rubber wheels, can smoothly track onto it… with the operator and the focus puller… you know, we’ll fly the whole end of the house…’
Dennis Thompson still reckons this was the highlight of more than a 40 year career… the end shot of 1984 movie Constance.
He goes on to explain how they replaced most of the floors and cut trapdoors through the foundations where we wanted low angles. ‘..and the best part of it…’ His face lights up. ‘And we had the budget to do it… the production purchased the house for the movie, eh?’
In a time before the off-the-shelf gadget item came the era of ‘let’s make it’ – three days to rig a single shot for the end of the movie.
Everyone on the crew owned the shot and everyone pitched in.
A time when the whole crew came to rushes, Dennis laments. In searching for the photo of that rig I have uncovered the fact that it seems that every working grip in NZ was there that night, that’s how we did it… still do.
The other day I met up with a newly retired Dennis Thompson in a café in Mangawhai; I discovered a few unlikely beats to a very busy and interesting life. He gave me a potted history, and I was all impressed once again. The first time I was really impressed with Dennis was when, in the throes of a job that was not going that great, he not so much supplied the grip equipment but entrepreneured it!
Beautifully appointed and managed would be a fair observation… besides encoding the Pegasus crane for purposes to do with CGI I then asked him to build a switch for the Tyler aerial mount and it arrived a few days later… it had been thought through, it was mounted on a footplate and it fitted first go… perfect. I was treated like the client and he was there only for me and my wants and needs… yeah, yeah we’re talking grip stuff here.
In the 70’s, after answering an ad in the newspaper, he ended up operating a camera high above a race track when, during an electrical storm at Avondale race course, the whole metal tower is alive with the static. Dangerous and exciting stuff got his attention and he was hooked on the bigger possibilities. He’d heard about this movie called Sleeping Dogs and a bloke called Roger Donaldson (Aardvark films) who suggested some overseas experience would be much sought after, as NZ was about to invent itself as a film making country. On the strength of that suggestion Dennis ended up in Melbourne at the Swinburne Educational Institute, to study – he hoped – the production of the music clips but was told there’d be no future in that… he looks at me and rolls his eyes, saying – yeah, they obviously knew what was up eh?
He was encouraged by a series of someone knowing someone else which led him to film school in the back of nowhere – Thunder Bay on the Great Lake Superior in Canada. Yep, that’s what real ambition looks like, and always the one to non-conform, he combined with another film student to make an 18 minute film instead of two 9 minutes… the school reluctantly agreed. Their tutors were the master craftsmen of the Canadian industry and then one of them, a working DP, recognised the passion and commitment to the biz in a young and eager, Dennis. This DP needed a Grip/Gaffer in Toronto to help shoot some drama. Next thing Dennis is hard-wiring into the power grid in an apartment building and gripping in the serious realm, leaving him shattered and in the tears at the end of the first day as the work was so hard and stressful… yet he was hooked. Then, in the same breath, Dennis tells me he’d always considered himself having a wonderful series of lucky breaks in the film business. Lucky? Nah mate, he made his own luck.
It became obvious really early on, in Dennis’s words, when he saw the business as ‘work’ instead of the ‘glamour’ that destroys most who dare to jump on the band wagon. A wee bit later, still in Canada, a Ballet Movie showed him the details of the discipline that would see his career and life choice take off and he arrived back in New Zealand during the height of the tax-break years (circa 1982) as a jobbing grip through the boom of the 80’s.
Teaming up with freelancer grip Terry Fraser, and with a lease on a Chapman Dolly, this saw the arrival of the first incarnation of ‘Dolly Shop’ in 1992… and then the ebb and flow of the business. Who said it was going to be easy? We should celebrate those who can dig deep when the chips are down and when the industry hits one of those slumps. You know if it was easy everyone would be doing it.
But when the rough and tumble loses its upside (freedom and freelance does come at a cost), when you’ve invested your whole life into a passion and made it work and then you wake up one morning and the glow is somewhat tarnished on the truck grill and the bills are mounting up… it takes a special guy to chuck it all in and retrain as a school teacher… and that’s exactly what Dennis did. Brilliant. We have a word for this moment in life… middle-life-crisis? – nah mate none of that navel gazing crap. Dennis saw it as giving back… and he gave it a bloody good swerve.
Diane, Dennis’s wife joined us at the coffee, and she smiled and said ‘I knew he wasn’t up to it…’ But the why is not what you’d expect: it was the emotion and Dennis‘s soft side that was the undoing of the teacher… I mean, as Dennis said, you can’t have the teacher misting up and crying around a bunch of five year olds as they achieve the impossible, eh… they ran rings around me and my emotion got the better of me… so I went back to gripping.
But this time he had an idea that would see the other Grips in town as his first customers and Dennis would supply gadgets and equipment to them… the Dolly Shop became a great success doing just that.
The NZ Film and TV business is now old enough to think of itself as a series of eras. Dennis speaks fondly of the tax-break era… that moment that set up a lot of what we see the echo of today, people had the confidence to fill a truck up with grip and lighting equipment knowing that the next movie was around the corner… and if not a movie then maybe a big budget car commercial that might see you 30 days in the South island.
Tyler Aerial mounts, power pods, provide the service to the service industry… brilliant. The Auckland industry was now seriously competing with Jackson’s Wellington Empire. Xena was the life blood of the business and a saviour.
Retirement has already seen a trip to Vietnam and meeting up with a daughter in Singapore; along with a five acre block in Mangawhai. The next phase bodes well, eh? Dennis the good guy, everyone remembers the tall redhead guy… they call him a gentleman… this is something to be proud of and something special to take into retirement… isn’t it?
…being in business, remaining in business, thinking of the new thing… that intangible whatever to remain viable in a world of too much work and then not enough… and remaining one of the good guys… now that’s what you call a success and a life.
Dennis Thompson… a gentleman in retirement.