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!

Continue reading “Geoff Murphy: a life on film”

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NZ Film An Illustrated History – a review

th02PJ58TK                   patu

NZ TECHO  Spring 2011

 

A book shop. I fold my body in from the winter blast; in pride of place is New Zealand FILM – it’s bold and brassy, I go straight to the index. Oh – um err, oh well… I must be amongst the ‘W’s. With an eclectic mix of contributors, the vibrant cover – images are from films by directors of note – says ‘come on in’. The first three images are easy to pick, the last took a bit of research.

Good thing I had the book of New Zealand Film – An Illustrated History to refer to! It’s a New Zealand history book and I’m looking for the ‘national cinema’ bits. You know the sort of thing? Our films. About us. Bruno Lawrence and the black-and-white still on the back cover suggests a time before time – already I feel there is a sense of ‘from here to there’ and I haven’t left  the shop.

It’s a brave soul who speaks the history of anything, as history is an interpretation and a shifting concept. I continue to marvel at the way that the unorthodox becomes orthodox… just give it time. That’s what history has – a lot of time on its hands.

Roger Horrocks’ intro is great stuff – the struggle to make films started more than a 100 years ago, did you know that? Every film student should read this on day one of their course, and then again when they graduate.

The 29th November 1895 is a good place to start this film journey: The very first moving pictures exhibited on Auckland’s Queen Street. Then the wars, travelling cameras shooting local stuff, the beginning of government involvement with the first film censor (1916), the call for a British film quota as the Americans started their domination (1929), regular New Zealand news reels from an Australia Company in 1930’s and the beginnings of the NFU (National Film Unit) in Miramar (1936).

It’s a great read about beginnings, failings and evolving trends. By the middle of the book I’m starting to recognise people and by chapter five we get into Pacific Films and very familiar territory – Morrow Productions and independent films as TV begins. Peach Wymss Astor Productions and TV commercials bring a bit of discipline to the business as a way to establish a cash flow. This is a rich tapestry.

Chapter six anchors the film business in the land, becoming a viable industry with a future. It’s a familiar room – the next two chapters should also be compulsory reading for any film student… It’s got great cross-reference and speaks openly about the tax break years when feature films made money for their investors even when they weren’t released… I’m enjoying the detail. In a country where the right wing are now using the term ‘Maorification’ – what of Maori film history? Suffice to say Maori get a mention, they stare out from the bush in Hollywood expectation of a ‘native’ in an exotic land. In the 50s Maori are assimilated into Pakeha culture as the films of the day suggest the old ways have past and Maori are becoming more Pakeha… After all it’s a history book and the conquering side make it Their History eh, e hoa?

By the time you hit chapter ten Jackson is making box office successes in that matinee style… Kind of like we remember from when we were kids. But New Zealand history? The bookend is the story of Boy and its success in local cinema. Boy’s inability to travel far from the shore is worn like a badge of courage rather than seen as a failure… And between the lines of a marvellous well-researched and written book sits a question: Should we be seeking the blockbuster or looking at our own backyard, making ‘national cinema’? A nerdy kid farted and burped his way into our cinema consciousness… then he took over Hollywood. Who could have known? The Jackson Effect is a perfect chapter for a perfect time, sitting alone. It had to be mentioned, and the large-budget picture is leading the way in computer-generated movies. It’s not about us, really… But it did happen in a country where recently the Actors ask to be included in the wealth, and instead a starstruck Government ignored its own workers to strike a deal that will cost the taxpayer $35m. We wont be writing about that just yet, though…

It takes a bit of time to take the sting off the truth, and besides some of us still have careers to look after? It’s least revealing of the last  30 years, but then again that’s still raw and immediate. You get that with history. The movie business will shift once again (as it seems to do every five years).

Editor Diane Pivac does a great job of setting out the way we do things in this country: a pattern of independence, then government involvement, then crash, and restructure… the pattern repeats up to this day (yet no mention of the recent NZFC ‘review’…) .There’s the assumption that the arrival of Hollywood is a necessity in a country’s movie making development. The wealth of it all secured against a low wage society… Is this what we actually wanted? Ours is an industry where bureaucrats secure careers in arts management with salaries and overseas travel perks, and yet talent still comes from the trenches, where filmmakers camp in their sleeping bags on the floor while ‘arts managers’ lounge in US$400-a-night hotel rooms at Cannes and AFM…
This is the sort of book you might read in one sitting. It’s a great history and nicely handled – even a retired NZFC bureaucrat gets a wee turn – it’s about us folk, how the film business works in a small country and where we fit in the greater world of cinema.

We reclaim recent talent, Jane Campion, Geoff Murphy, Taika Waititi and Len Lye gracing the cover, and this book does it with enormous pride. In a sense it places them back home on the paepae… A profound history and a sense of the journey, beginnings and endings, the pioneers, the delusional and the successes. This book will sit well in the tertiary sector.

For those soldiers lost in action you are actually here, if not by name you’re there between the pages and lines. You’re in the white bits that haven’t been written yet. You’re behind the pictures, holding the reflector or panning the lamp… That’s you – you made it all happen. Personally I think Don’t Let It Get You was the moment that kicked it all off again but then again Sleeping Dogs is what we all remember. I guess my version of film history has little more unease? The index? Not in the ‘A’s either… oh well, life’s like that, eh?

Pushing peas about the plate

Pushing Peas Illustrator Ian Michael David.jpgONFILM  April 2009

Like the rest of us, Waka Attewell has been doing some pondering about the recently announced review of the New Zealand Film Commission. Unlike most, he’s also prepared to share his thoughts…

 

I can finally feel the ground shifting – at last, a review of the New Zealand Film Commission. It’s a breath of fresh air – if a review is what Culture & Heritage minister Chris Finlayson actually wants? (Don’t you have to have a ‘witch hunt’ and a ‘stoning’ and then an ‘enquiry’ before you have a ‘review’?)

Though you could be forgiven for being a wee bit suspicious of the decision to appoint Peter Jackson – the highest paid director on the planet – as the head of our review. It feels a bit like turning up to the PTA meeting to find Helen Clark is now on the board and she says “just treat me as normal”.

To some it’s a perfect choice, but there’s mutterings in the ranks that it might be a smoke screen?

My heart sinks at the thought of a ‘white wash’ as I dribble down my straight jacket – a single strand of spit hangs like a doubt.

A series of images form, mostly the faces of past ineptitude: I relive the years of international markets and those patronizing, grinning faces during those humiliating script meetings; memories of work diligently submitted to the bureaucratic void only to be told there’s a spelling mistake on page nine of my screenplay (an observation presented as a moment of revelation and insight); those courses they invented to tell us what we already knew that we dutifully attended and then pretended the keynote was insightful, all the while knowing full well the roll call of attendance was what would really make us eligible for the funding that would be eked out – if we supplied the correctly ordered paperwork; then later being told there was now more paperwork but that the escalating compliance requirements “weren’t personal”.

 

Who can make New Zealand movies? New Zealanders can, just like the Brits can make British films, the Spaniards Spanish films, and so on – you get the idea – it’s called ‘National Cinema’. The inhabitants of Hollywood sometimes try to get in on the act and mostly fail. And while everyone can make Hollywood movies (have you rented lately?), not everyone can be uniquely Inuit or Mäori or Bogan or Italian, with the unique perspective this entails. Hollywood is BIG BUSINESS: its wants and needs are attuned to the success of the ‘Blockbuster’, and its mere presence is capable of swamping a local film industry.

Who knows, this review might just come down to two simple concepts and choices: ‘Blockbuster’ versus ‘National Cinema’. One is the road to wealth and success and celebrity, loitering on red carpets and with leggy blondes. The other is… well… um… an expensive hobby and a rocky road to the poor house. And now you want me to choose? Hold that thought, and I’ll get right back to it.

Hell, I’ve done my fair share of work for the Yank invasion, and loved it – I’ve worked with the likes of Jon Voight, Tyne Daley and Shelley Duvall (to name a few), I’ve hung out in seedy bars with Eddie Albert Jnr and Harry Dean Stanton – and even without the celebrity bonding, the work was both creatively and fiscally rewarding. But let’s be clear about what this sort of work is: it’s ‘service work’ – it serves a larger purpose and that larger purpose is Hollywood and its endless appetite for ‘Blockbuster’ movies that fit into the multiplex system and sell lots of merchandise and popcorn. It’s HUGE business and its got a local franchise that we’ve even given a pet name: Wellywood.

‘National Cinema’, meanwhile, is about here and about us, it’s grounded in the earth – we stand with it and upon it – it’s our stories, who we are and where we’re going.

Beyond that, though, defining ‘National Cinema’ is a tricky business, and I’m certainly not going to – but that’s the beauty of it; hell, it might be about the mist, but then again it might be about a love affair between a colonial solider and a Mäori slave, or a deeply compassionate story about a guy in a crib who shoots up the remote community he lives in.

Thirty years down the track with the NZFC, we still don’t have a real clue about what we were trying to achieve – have we all been pretenders in this? We have tried to fulfill their brief with meaning and yet the voice of ‘National Cinema’ is still as muffled as ever. And maybe it’s just as well – somewhere down in the depths of those murky waters there just may be a magical fish swimming about, avoiding all our efforts to capture it. Chances are that if it were finally hooked and reeled in, the NZFC would convene a seminar to study it, during which it would writhe for the briefest of moments, gasping and staring bug eyed at the curious onlookers before being gutted, filleted, skinned, stuffed and mounted, in order that it could be admired by visitors to the boardroom,

So, a review? How might that work? Maybe Peter Jackson is capable of two miracles? The second would be steering this review to a worthwhile ‘outcome’ – the world-first of a bureaucracy that sticks to and serves the needs of its constituents (i.e. the NZ film community) instead of focusing on its own survival – while the first, of course, was that while we’ve been bitching and pushing each other out of the way and cursing the management of the NZFC, just over there (through the tunnel and through the cutting) – Peter has been busy achieving the apparently impossible. Now, from the distant shores of New Zealand, he controls a large chunk of Hollywood; he is creating and making buckets of money with maybe more output than our entire meat and wool industry; he is a one-man global phenomena.

Which kinda begs the question: why would Peter Jackson bother with sorting out a government department that spends less than his weekly lunch money if there wasn’t something in it for him?

I have to be cautious now, as I suggest that Peter will be totally hopeless for this review job for the simple fact that he’s not attached to our ‘National Cinema’ any more (plus, there might be a slight fiscal conflict of interest here), or I’ll be spending the rest of my life behind the pillar in the pub.

This is a serious time of debate – us ‘grunts’ here on the ground should be sorting this out, us folk on the paepae – but I’ll leave the detail of this part to the pub later, where some will be avoiding me (in case I get hit by lighting) and others will only acknowledge me when I’m standing behind the pillar. “There he is,” they’ll point, “the guy who used hopeless and Peter Jackson in the same sentence.”

The film business is all about being connected and who you know and not rocking the boat – unless you’re totally famous, then rocking the boat becomes an art form. Which brings me to another point: the Government is possibly star struck and just wants to rub shoulders with Peter… “Fix the Film Commission and years of shenanigans” – did they put it like that? Hell no! But hopefully this is about more than a photo op and a chance to feel the star dust. (“Take those brothel creepers off and feel the red carpet,” he says, “there’s nothing in it for me.”)

So why the PR coup, and why this chap from that other place [David Court, the head of Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School] to help sort out what most of us local practitioners already know?

Already know…? Well, I’m not going to blurt out the solution right here, am I – that would be too easy – I mean, what about the expense account, the flights between here and there and the endless meetings and drafts of the report and the media conferences where questions are not so much answered as alluded to? Hell no, I’m not going to miss out on any of that… and besides, I have a job to justify… and I’ve seen the odd flick in my time, so that makes me an expert. Hey, where’s my NZFC job? I can start yesterday. The broom sweeps clean.

 

So what went before us that we can hold up as a trophy? Goodbye Pork Pie – a classic ‘National Cinema’ piece, and I believe it made its money back. Peter’s own Heavenly Creatures. Then there’s Barry Barclay with Ngati and Te Rua and The Feathers of Peace, and Leon Narbey’s Illustrious Energy – important New Zealand films in my reckoning. Box office successes? No… but important? Yes!

These movies will earn their place in history; eventually they’ll be recognised as loud and vibrant voices in our ‘National Cinema’ canon.

And it’s hard not to push a bit of history around the plate while contemplating the notion that ‘National Cinema’ is vital to the wellbeing of a community. I believe it’s a vital and necessary vent – I come from a strong history of navel-gazers and outspoken activists – the big kahuna for me was the late John O’Shea, who was more intent on looking over the fence to the neighbours than heading to lands exotic… The interior of the Ureweras and the rugged coastline of Ngati Porou country was our true backlot, and the stories to be told were important to the holistic health of the nation. In the early days the Film Commission was our baby – but within a few years even John was gradually pushed away from the warmth and light of the fire we’d gathered around to tell stories in order to make room for the staff and managers so they could keep an eye on things and, well, you know how it goes, manage us.

Sorry but I’m making this ‘National Cinema’ sound like a bit of a chore, a worthy task that must be upheld in the most earnest way – that is not my intention.

Look, I might be completely wrong and Peter may want to re-engage with the local biz – and, since we’re obviously incapable of conducting our own review, maybe this Aussie bloke might already have the answer with the two tier financial system they have over there. Their system isn’t perfect but then what is? One tier is sort of a bank and the other isn’t; one heads down the ‘Blockbuster’ road and the other heads down the Rabbit Proof Fence track and the two may met somewhere in the twain. And that’s not to say that a RPF may not become a blockbuster but at least it had a gestation beyond “What will they think in the Midwest?” I mean, “What will they think in Taihape?” is still a valid reason to make a movie.

Though you have to wonder: if the Aussies do have the answer, why did they import the ex-NZFC CEO to fix their industry? – You might find Geoff Murphy behind that darkened pillar with me, but for different reasons. I’m just a beginner when it come to cheap shots – hell, he goes for the major neck wound when suggesting that, if the NZFC mandate was to make money, then we should be producing porn… “Porn makes money!” he barked out at a ‘review’ meeting some time back.

Peter Jackson has a colourful history with the NZFC – he broke the rules and Jim Booth, the Commission’s CEO, went out the door with the little guy and his little movie, which is now a part of our larger film history – RIP Jim. They’re shifting the furniture around the lifeboats again, could be a storm brewing.

Is this review merely a bit of a tidy up with obvious PR in place? Are we going to then have another 30 years of wandering in the wilderness in search of the lost platoon? How about we all put our submissions on the Onfilm website so we can see what everyone else is thinking? What use is secrecy and hidden agenda at time like this?

So when the review has spent their breath and done the final spellcheck, what is Peter going to recommend? That the NZFC gets a massive budget hike while it lowers staff numbers?

A PR coup can sometimes backfire.

 

(Illustration by Ian Michael David)