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!

Continue reading “Steve Locker-Lampson – Obituary”

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Beyond the shadowplay

ONFILM  December 2009

A devotion to ‘reportage’ can skew the story – see how it warps the weave by throwing a light up against the texture? Sure, it’s the shadows that create the interest but, let’s face it, it’s no way to explore truth, reckons Waka Attewell…

 

Having lost something is not the same as having it taken.

I’m walking across the rolling green in Raglan and the old women are telling the cameras that they have been wronged; they talk about the ancestors and the recently deceased, they talk about their people who are walking with us now. It’s a hard thing to imagine this manicured meadow was once a place of a larger community.

I’m a wee bit flustered as I’m here on a professional basis and the junior in the scheme of things. My job is to keep the film loaded in the camera – my life is ruled by 10 minute blocks and 25 frames per second.

I have to run to the van to get more film and a small man barks at me that there are club rules and etiquette I must adhere to whilst within these boundaries of sand trap and greens. The game’s a Scottish invention; they call it golf; it’s something to do with anger management.

My shirt’s undone down to the third button; that’s what’s attracted the ire of the club captain. He calls this place “my golf course” – I’m sure the presence of the old kuia out on the fairway is the cause of this personal claim to the property. I should be wearing a tie and stick to the paths, he says – this world of the golf club has rules that must be maintained, just as the government taking land and displacing an entire community is shrugged off as normal wartime practice… but he knows why we are here. The presence of the cameras is not of his making, nor will they point at him: he has told us this.

And then the old woman stops in the middle of the fairway and says, “This is the front door to the meeting house.” We stand in the open void of golfers swishing and yelling “fore”, yet apart from the odd near miss and fleeting glances, we are somehow invisible to them and somehow inappropriate.

I am here; I keep the camera safe; I keep it loaded with film. Meanwhile the old Mäori women are wailing laments for their ancestors, and I must also respect their needs. I must keep the film loaded and rolling. I’m loading like a madman and hoping the camera batteries don’t run flat. The club captain cares little for my dilemma and I briefly stick to the paths until I’m out of his sightline.

The job so far has been exasperating and complex – Mäori don’t trust our cameras or what we will do with the images, yet now we stand transfixed on the fairway and the moko-faced kuia wipes away tears. She explains the way her people and her family lived here until the Second World War, and then the bulldozers came one night; the next day it was an airfield.

My head is reeling with too much information and the camera is again running low on film (10 minutes and two cameras to load). Having lost something is not the same as having it taken – it rings in my ears – I hear the words again and again. I keep the cameras loaded and carry the gear. I’m 19 years old and this is 1974; my head is reeling with the responsibility – it’s almost too much.

We have now recorded this story and there’s no denying that the politics regarding fairness and truth are finally rolling off the hills. Later, back in Wellington and in the edit suite, the producers and the broadcasters will argue its worth and whether it compromises the rest of the series. Back in Kelburn, my flatmates couldn’t give a damn about where I’ve been or what I’ve seen.

An orthodox broadcaster will try and use the argument of balanced reporting to hide behind, but not this time – John O’Shea makes sure of that. The hurt and these truths are played in their entirety a few months later in the Tāngata whenua series. In a nation of one channel and two peoples, Sunday night TV will never be the same.

The footage appearing on the TV will spark the return of the land – it’s not news or current affairs but a documentary that tells a story without overt judgment or bias. A story not complete but enough – it involves people and families. But then, this is the 1970s and this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day; in fact, this might be the first time.

This was a time before the truth is captive to the law and the lawyers. You could sign a deal on the back of an envelope and it would be binding; everyone knew what was up and people honoured their word and expected it from others.

These days I throw myself at the feet of the larger purpose and adjust myself so I stay sane. Back then, I’m just 19 years old and looking at a new world and a new way of thinking and hoping it’s not all true…

The grieving is different – especially if that grieving involves a few hundred years and many generations. These are the stories of our land and our people. I never knew and suddenly I’m understanding the back foot. This is where we live.

There’s a story Charles Dickens once wrote that might not have been published had his editor been of orthodox leanings or had bought into the politics of the day… A small boy asks for more food; he asks for more food so as to live and grow to his potential; so he can live beyond the needs of the ‘capitalists’. It’s a big ask and steeped in complex social issues; a seemingly simple act that has become such an integral part of our literature we don’t think too much more of it. But back then, in 1837, it was possibly as big as a moon landing – kids were sent into slavery, kept skinny to sweep chimneys, and the publishing of this fact went against the grain.

Where are the stories today in which we’re asking for more?

There would be room for a government official in this story of hurt and betrayal and rules and regulations. I’d have him looking over the fence at the filming of the old kuia and at the golfers and I’d direct him to be ‘not too sure of what to do’. Then, speaking directly to the camera, he would explain the rules of golf and the law of the land regarding land issues and how everything in this particular case was done within the law.

He might answer a few questions from an unseen voice off to the left; he might tire of our presence and tell us it’s nothing to do with him or us.

He will conclude that the golfers have rights too and his time for us is up. He will dismiss us with a glance into the lens… only in the end credits you will see he’s an actor.

Barry Barclay always said we have to reach beyond the commentary and the reportage – that this is where the real work lies. I’m only just starting to understand what he meant.

Charles Dickens must have also known this.

There are stories that go deeper, to the core – golf and the rules of gentlemen, an old kuia standing in an invisible doorway, a small tear for the past so the future will know the truth. You’ll find these stories unexpectedly – or do they find you? Their enormity takes on a life of their own.

This country is full of them. It’s something to do with our past. We should be doing something about it.

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)

Modern Times

TAKE (Director’s Guild Magazine)   August 2008  Waka’s World

 

Do directors today stand an artistic chance in our budget-driven, populist times, asks WAKA ATTEWELL …

There’s a moment after the slate is struck and before the word ‘action’ is called that hangs in the air. The crew leans forward over the precipice. It’s dangerous, they focus and like a coiled spring the machine waits. Producers hate this moment because it means that the film is running through the camera and nothing is happening – dead frames to discard later – the moment is frozen but the film is moving through the gate. Oh the expense! Some directors take forever in this void of great anticipation. And so they should: it’s a very personal, private moment as they choose either to roll the word, snap at it or maybe bark it out loud. Realistically, it’s probably the only thing they really have total control over. It’s their moment and theirs alone. Some whisper with their sexy morning voices. Others, really classy directors, use two words, putting ‘and’ before the ‘action’ (“aaaand action”). Some forget to say the “Go” command, creating a deathly silence as all heads turn waiting.

Discussing this business of directing with a film student recently, I mused over the different types of ‘director’. You know the sorts – the ones with visual skills but who are afraid of actors; relaxed directors who are great with a story but wouldn’t have a clue were to put the camera (or even what town they should be in); the ones that want to do everyone else’s job except their own and are not relaxed. (And I won’t mention the ones that don’t have a clue but are married to a producer so get the job.)

I always include myself in this line up by quickly adding all the different types of shows that I have directed, proving to the listener that we do in fact have an ongoing industry (although it might not currently look like it). I also point out that TV advertising is the cash cow and short films are the ghetto (and that’s even when you have a budget) and how I still lament the fact that I’ve never done an episode of Country Calendar.

This discussion got me thinking about the role of a modern film and TV director and how we are required to be even more varied and multifarious than back in the 1970s when this was all new and we sat at the feet of John O’Shea. Way back then a director, attired with scarf, beret and a pipe, was considered the author of the piece. If you didn’t know what to do next you blew smoke rings and the crew waited. We stayed away until we had the movie finished. Now it’s all about schedules and sinking-lid budgets and it seems it’s more like making sure the traffic is heading the right way and not scaring the horses too much. You’re not so much the author but the foreman. Just stick to the format and its pay-day Thursday. You can blow smoke rings in your own time (but, then, smoking isn’t the done thing anymore).

However, despite all this new pressure I still reckon the key to good directing is independent thought and flair, an appreciation of creative shenanigans and an impeccable knowledge of just about everything. And if you don’t know everything, then just pretend that you do. I encourage film students not to shoot the script or the schedule but the white bits on the page because they don’t exist yet and this is where you can build your career from (everyone else is doing the black bits – that’s their job). Break the rules and prove to me how clever and entertaining you can be! But I wonder if individual, unique and cutting-edge qualities are really required these days. Is it that production companies are merely looking for a bunch of ‘human doings’ pretending to be interesting ‘human beings’?

For instance, what is the role of directors of reality TV when the last thing you can be is real? After all, you can’t tell the truth can you? A celebrity falls ill while filming on a tropical island and nothing is shown in the final show. So, what’s not real about that? … Oh that’s right, it’s not in the script.

Yes we are all celebrities, yes we are all on a tropical island and yes we do live in our bikinis. You see, it’s all true but … Has the horror of truth evaded the thinking people of this country? Perhaps it has something to do with what I call the ‘Holmes factor’ (interchangeable with Campbell, Sainsbury or any other factual entertainment presenter). The deal is get your important issues relegated to The Paul Holmes Show and they will disappear within the week – processed and spat out. In short, sent to the ‘doesn’t matter what’s next department’; in old-fashion terms, you’re fish ‘n’ chip wrapper the next day.

I won’t mention that dancing programme and a fix so obvious that it defies logic (if there was any logic in the first place). I love the truthyisums (a lovely word coined by a US comedian to describe the wisdoms of George Dubya) of outrage that fall from the mouths of celebrities: “Ballroom dancing has saved my life”, “I want to win so I can pay off a previous fuck-up”, and so on. (You see, you made me mention it!)

Let’s face it, we inhabit a McMedia world, where Paris Hilton and George Dubya are given equal attention. The news is as likely to run with a Paris lead as it will run with the state of the crumbling world. So how does a new director looking for a gig and a career make great art? And how do you pay the rent whilst staying true to yourself? I’ve heard directors described as being like ‘traffic cops at the intersection of storytelling’. But I would like to think necessary qualities for a director include leadership, good moral fibre, and caring about the craft. A sort of ‘follow me men over the top, fix-bayonets and charge’ type role. And, “Trust me there really is money in the budget”. But most important, a director must have an opinion and does actually have something to say. But in world full of TV channels, I’m left wondering if leadership and comment are really required any more.

When the whole thing gets too much and I’m lost for an answer I can only reflect upon my own career. On my last directing gig I got to shoot it because I can do that also (it saves the budget). But then I noted the absence of a production manager, 1st AD, grip and gaffer (as in rigging camera inside an aircraft – four cameras in total). Oh well, I thought, with all my years of experience a few other tasks won’t hurt … and then on top of that make lunch, shoot the aerials and supply the transport (it saves the budget). But I did wonder whether things had become maybe a bit ‘low end’. And when I had to arm-wrestle the producer to get a sound operator (it saves the budget), I thought this is obviously the ‘modern way’ and maybe I was the problem. In short was I expecting too much!

After that gig, I arrived home and slept for a day. I then stood in front of the mirror and practiced the moment where I could pause before I said “aaaand action”. You know what, I discovered that you don’t need a crew to feel important and a contributor to the greater scheme of things. It works just fine when you are on your own and in the privacy of your own movie. I now have comfort that will keep me in my lonely old age … just me, myself and a crew of one. God, I miss being protected by the hubris of youth. Later that night I discover that it works when you sing it too – “aaand cut!”.