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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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)

Twenty one years ago – Starlight Hotel

ONFILM Views September 2008

The business and administration of script development has become a valid career choice, whilst film making is relegated to an expensive hobby that few can now afford, reckons Waka Attewell.

starlight-hotel-movie-poster-1988-1020384787

The other night the Film Archive ran the New Zealand movie Starlight Hotel (dir: Sam Pillsbury, circa 1987) – it was almost 21 years to the day that we were shooting it and it’s become increasingly difficult not to compare ‘then’ with ‘now’.

Back then, when there were no video splits, quick and honest communication was the lifeline of the production, the language of ‘cinema’ if you like. At the end of each take we described what had just been achieved (or not), and we discussed problems and solutions as the story evolved. It was an accurate, vital, vibrant vocabulary and to the point of what the movie was about – a language honed for our purposes.

The director watched the performance over the shoulder of the crew. Every night a complete crew crowded into a school hall or local cinema to watch the previous day’s work. All the work was projected on the big screen. I’ve begun to refer to these times as “the National Cinema era” – admittedly we borrowed from the Europeans and Americans but this was a time of our voice and our stories. Starlight Hotel was made in a time before we did those ‘how to’ script writing courses.

 

Today I’m looking out on a place I’m only just recognising as home, while down the road Hollywood’s got its slippers under the bed; we’ve recently invited them into the parlour and they’ve already helped themselves – be careful what you wish for? We’ve even given their invasion a ‘pet’ name – Wellywood. They appear to be throwing people and money at a problem to find out if a solution is required, as somewhere a faint echo of ‘National Cinema’ is still rattling around the Wellington hills.

I’d forgotten how enriching it was when we were left to our own devices and followed our instincts. We didn’t waste our passion searching erroneously for the third act turning point, or agonising over the second act hole because someone, who didn’t know any better than us, said there was one – I have a memory of “just doing it”…

We didn’t care that the ‘moving parts’ had special names or a deeper purpose, so there was no need for endless meetings to discuss how or why. We certainly had a nose for what ‘stunk’ – we instinctively got into a scene as late as possible and out of it as soon as we could…

And 21 years on it’s still dripping from the screen: Starlight Hotel is an example of cinema, our cinema.

 

In the early 1990s, Robert (“don’t call me Bob”) McKee (and, a few months later, Linda Seeger) came along to help us do it better – script gurus from the Hollywood system; the proverbial experts from that somewhere-else-place. We’d recently got whiff of a move to “up-skill” and “manage” the business, something we thought we had well in hand. But the bureaucrats didn’t have anything much to supervise or hold a yardstick to and, well, um, “manage”, so this script thing was a good way to define the subjective and really make their presence felt – you know, take the mystery out of things; get to the bottom of it.

Overnight the drive seemed to change from ‘story’ – the stuff you tell around a camp fire – to ‘structure’ – like, “put the punch-line at the end of the joke” kind of thing, “and if they don’t get it, explain it”… lock it down, take the breath out of it, hog-tie the bastard.

It felt like the visuals were abandoned in favour of a new dictum – things like design, wardrobe, make-up, editing, cinematography became just the stuff the crew did a bit later.

‘The script’ was redefined as an all-encompassing document; a document that fitted neatly into the office environment of tasks, meetings and analysis; a document, we were led to believe, that could predetermine box office success but only if you followed this path – “if you take the oath and praise the lord of Hollywood, all will be movie genius; send money soonest”…

During the McKee sessions I remember thinking he drew a rather long bow attributing design, wardrobe, camera moves, performance, choreography, and music score (as well as everything else) to the writer – hence adding enormous credence to the role of ‘the script’. The bureaucrats nodded and accepted the ruse in its completeness.

 

What does a bureaucracy run on? Paper.

As it transpired ‘the script’ was the only thing they could get their teeth into and hang on to, but only with the mere pretence of understanding what was actually required to make a movie or what ‘the script’ actually did. A clone/copy approach was adopted: something from elsewhere but dressed up to look like ‘National Cinema’ – our unique voice was no longer required as the question became “what is it like?”, meaning “what is it the same as?”

Most of these people had never made movies, let alone understood the moving parts – but they’d watched a few in their time. The key to this corralling of the process was simply the fact that ‘the script’ happened to require paper and paper is what makes a bureaucracy bounce and, most importantly, it gave them complete control. And, of course, they held the all-important key to the safe and we, the filmmakers, needed the cash to further the creative process while travelling to the markets trying to get projects up.

It’s hard to sell a script you have ceased to believe in and, by the time the various committees and readers had dragged themselves through the ninth draft, you were usually over the whole clumsy deal. The Film Commission flourished under this regime.

 

The fact the process is flawed has never been properly debated; previously any suggestion of debate has caused the funds to disappear from those that chose to initiate the discussion – possibly this small conflict of priorities still exists? The McKee sessions, which I can only assume became embodied in the development process, were a mixture of delightful bluff and extremely entertaining theatre. I enjoyed them, but anything to do with evolving a story or starting from the blank page was somewhat missing – McKee worked his magic from the high ground of hindsight. Perfect for the bureaucrats to embrace while we supplied the hard work, leaving them to analyse, report and create ‘make work schemes’. Within a short time I was hearing stuff like “I think a re-write of the third act” and “Your turning point into the second act” and the catch-all aside “Your movie doesn’t seem to be on the page.” On the page? What?!? Well, for good reason – it’s supposed to be up on the screen!

Staying in sync with the requirements and tabling the right paper in the correct order became a total distraction to the story process. This script initiative gave the bureaucrats clearly defined parameters for the bag of rules they wrote – albeit with a stencil. I’m sure McKee mentioned at the end of his session that “this was not a template to affix to the process of movie making” but I think the bureaucrats were already talking amongst themselves and missed this important detail.

Mostly it created reams of paper, frigging mountains of it… and that was just the mountain I was creating to satisfy the beast – it seemed like the requirement was to stop writing stories and start writing proposals. Development hell followed – it then became apparent to me that ‘development’ used a different part of the brain, while those assigned to comment on the work used what they liked to see at the movies as the yardstick. But, alas, a movie watcher does not maketh a movie maker and development meetings were a waste of time, except, that is, for the person who was being paid to be a waste of time. It became about the anxiety of the ‘process’ rather than the ‘story’ – ‘development’ became a word that could send some people running for the hills.

 

I started to receive screenplays for consideration that had embraced this script management structure. The narrative flow was now in the dialogue (cringe), stage directions told the camera what to do (pointless), the story arrived like an express train in the first act and crashed predictably in the third act (per formula). They all had the same typeface, in the same computer format, and the characters followed an arc that bobbled at “the top of the second act” and then had “nemesis” imposed upon them, before it was all resolved and tidied away and the audience could thank you for not fucking up their Friday night at the “flicks” with a sad ending or one that might actually be about something.

I’m not saying the development process doesn’t have some merit (um, er) – I’m saying its clumsiness didn’t work for me and for a lot of others. I’ve watched in horror as colleagues joined the film bureaucracy (read development business) and ceased to be productive while quickly becoming defenders of the development rigor.

This is not a case of the guy standing outside the new “talkie” hoping they’ll “bring back the Nickelodeon” but a guy wondering why his career has slowly been relegated to a hobby.

‘National Cinema’ seems to be parked up in the paddock, the grass is growing up around the doors, the tyres are flat and the axle is broke, spiders have moved in. Lift the bonnet on this old wreck and you’ll bark your knuckles on every rusty bolt while you receive another invite to another commission-initiated lecture on “the inner workings of your engine” with the promise of “one spanner that fixes all” – and of course the guru is from that magical overseas place. But look for what’s really wrong and you’ll be told that the clunk you hear is a tick in the timing: “If you proceed through the next five years of our development – whilst, of course, believing – all will be resolved.”

Which brings me back to Starlight Hotel – in its review, the LA Times said it “creeps up on you” as a “movie” – “it’s one of the best” – it tells a story of the human condition.

I’m not saying “old-good” or “new-bad” but I’ve never thought a committee could write a story, just as I never thought a committee could make a movie. And there actually is no formula – never has been, never will be. Let’s get our cinema down into the mud again and start looking longingly through those misty windows at those distant hills with their brooding menace – I don’t think we’ve yet completely evolved within the strength of our isolation.

If progress is, in today’s terms, throwing people about in museum capsule rides whilst blasting them with computer-generated music in the guise of education, or learning the next new CGI technique to make it bigger and even bigger, or learning the next digital camera system (albeit the sixth in three years), or celebrating the new tax incentive to bring the ‘deal’ onshore, or watching low-resolution pictures on the internet, then so be it. Phew!

I’m having a breather and watering the horse and throwing a bit of oil on the armour whilst watching the kids galloping around the lawn on a hobby-horse made from a broomstick. And I’m thanking ‘the god of reason’ that the kids got bored with the online computerised colouring-in after a mere hour and went back to the real crayons. My heart is a wee bit glad and while that distant windmill is still holding the high ground of hubris, it still doesn’t stop some of us from having another tilt for old-time’s sake.

 

The bravery of the work in Starlight Hotel is still apparent – but if we had shot it today, in this PC world, the ‘rite of passage’ moment would have gone to the committee and we would have shot two, maybe three, versions of the end. We didn’t; in our movie he kisses her – the young girl, the young under-aged girl – on the mouth. It’s one of those moments at the end of a movie when the audience cry – they’ve been on the journey with us, with the story, with the magic… I remember filming it at 3am on a cold morning in Lyttelton 21 years ago, the last morning of the last day of the shoot. I was the only one that night who had the bliss of seeing this moment as a movie on the ground glass in the Arriflex BL IV viewfinder. I cried.

Some of us are not over this ‘National Cinema’ concept yet but we must find a way to move on from the fact that we unwittingly gifted the film industry to a bunch of bureaucrats who seem to be merely fiddling with the edges.

SPADA lost its ‘D’ for “director” and grew a ‘D’ for “development” – suddenly “the pitch” was the only way of the future – while the producers played the bureaucratic game to the best of their ability, and what did we end up with? ‘D’ for “dumb”.

What’s next?