Low budget – the new normal?

Low budget – the new normal?

IN FOCUS NZTECHO Autumn 2020 Issue 84

Waka Attewell

 

Who are we? We work at the front end of this business.

It’s morning. We arrive in the dark to empty paddocks, dark sound stages, obscure locations – nothing yet exists; we park up the trucks, erect the ‘easy ups’ – boil the urn, unload the camera’s. The pre-light crew have been working all night, they depart – some have described this process as ‘not work for sissies or the faint hearted’. A little later actors will stand-speak-move-sit-walk, open and close set doors, all of this activity for and in front of the camera. They speak the lines that are written on a script.

You might think the script is the movie, but to some who live in this ‘before-it-exists-world’ the script is merely those black bits on the page, a code of possibilities. Some have been heard to whisper that between those lines, in the white bits, is where the movie actually resides, that’s the thing that doesn’t yet be until we make it, that’s the bit what we do; but we keep those lofty ideals of creation and artistic prowess to ourselves.

…it’s still only 5:37am.

At $50.00 a day it sort of broke even, low-budget. We carpooled. Begged and borrowed equipment, mixed the old gear with the new. It felt inventive yet handmade. Craft? It felt like it used to be when there wasn’t much gear or infrastructure. It was in the summer break. Some of us had other work we could do in the weekends, others were financially supported by partners. This financial dexterity is at the core of freelance, and we wouldn’t give it up for the world.

A few years before I’d made the decision that it wasn’t my job to fix productions (as had sometimes been the need), as, at times, other issues were wrecked in the ‘fixing’ process. Putting that conceit behind had been a bit of a breakthrough not due in a small part with a growing cultural awareness. Perhaps a hangover from the years where the film industry pioneers from the tax break 80’s felt they somehow arrogantly ruled?

We did still expect support from the Film Commission, supporting New Zealand production being within their mandate. But, alas, support and great ideas can be the two strangers searching for the lost platoon in the misty forest where most encounters end in a firefight with loses on both sides. The inclusion of the successful ‘cargo cult’ and the attitudes of extreme wealth that come with it has been a slow but relentless creep through the last 40 years of the film and TV business. You first notice the extremes in the hierarchy, mainly a robust and direct way of communicating, which infiltrates and reaches into all corners and aspects of the industry. It becomes contagious.

During all this growth the low budget movie has been the bastion of the experimental, political, comedic and enthusiastic film maker. Perhaps artistic endeavour vs control of the industry is really the thing at stake here, not the survival of our business but the survival of our national cinema culture?

The low budget feature had a major upside, being nearly all self-funded from independent investors there were no studio or funding body pushing the shoot at breakneck speed, in that, ‘time is money’ way that film shoots operate. Instead performance and inventiveness and a bold style ruled this little perfectly-formed-flick. And then it occurred to me. It was the first time in many decades that I’d worked on a film set where we shot the movie not the schedule, the production changed my life and was one of the best experiences… because, actually, by shooting the movie we made the schedule work for us; a journey of looking in through the window and then entering a familiar room. We had perhaps been here before, before we knew too much and the deal didn’t rule the entire process?

It’s a delicate process this realm of the arts and the deal. The nature of the business forces completion with each other; we suffer with the ‘imposter syndrome’, those dark nights of doubt when we fear we might be found out? That reoccurring 3:00am nightmare when the weight of the work crumbles. The levity of the craft, living those freelance horrors, living from invoice to invoice, having enough to pay the rent.

It’s not that we have the need to rant and rave about art or want to shift the planet on an axis or be famous, we just want to be able to pay the bills and not feel abandoned. We like being ‘workers’. We are that community and we are loyal, the worst that could happen is low budget becomes the ‘new normal’ – nah that’ll never happen.

The self-funded, low budget, no-budget film making has long been bastion of the political, experimental; those little films that could, made on the weekends with the mates (Bad Taste), made on the streets during the riots (Patu) – an insight mainstream misses for the simple fact of being mainstream – shorts financed by an Uncle or family or investor-patron-of-the-arts. A proving ground to show the NZFC you are worthy of funding? …but alas low budget seems to have jumped the ditch into mainstream expectations. Large projects aside, they seem to have become the realm of the offshore production. Low budget seems to have become the only way of local stories and local production… low end of production has just got even more ‘Low’.

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Is this the new normal for the start of the new decade?

You might need to look the other way and accept the fact that arts policy is being made somewhere up in the lofty heights of the food chain. The first you will know about these decisions is when the producer tells you what the going rate is, you know when you get told what your rate will be.

“Sorry,” they say. “There is no negotiation; my hands are tied.”

And the expectation quickly becomes ‘it’s better than nothing’ – this seems to be the new normal. You might get a bit of understanding banter… ‘Yes, I know it’s hard’, the production manager says, and then you spend all of your meagre wages on the nanny because both you and your partner are working to make ends meet.

Is this the dying echo of neo-liberal arts funding where the funding sector are doing what is normal for a bureaucracy and saving themselves first.

Meanwhile out in the world of early morning starts and truck stops, living from invoice to invoice, while the demands of the film business are slowly choking us as we try to maintain a vital local working infrastructure. Yet, in reality, the gaze is all about offshoring the industry because that is what the business of the industry demands. This is the result of a successful cargo cult manoeuvre.

– It’s not about supporting the artist it’s about the business of the deal.

The big question being ‘Is the NZFC fully funding local production?’ – And – is this low budget (under living wage threshold for crew). Is $1.2 million the new normal?

As one of my post-production colleagues said the other day ‘Is this just a sad case that’s worse than ‘the Mexican’s with cell-phones era?”

Low Budget has a website, its official – it’s a NZFC website and it’s a real thing. Not just the slang term off the streets, it has an official title and status. It puts in mind that time when the HMS Escalator pulled away from the wharf a few years back. It set the benchmark for budget cap with the promise of fame and fortune for the few that were on the bridge… but let’s keep in mind success and fame are all relative. Did the leg up system work? Remember the title sequence? – A wobbly shot of a… um err, um an escalator, with disembodied legs stepping onto the bottom step; is that a hesitant stepping, is that a bold step, stride forth with hope step? …. on the nose step?

Is the low budget feature film the quintessential expression of this struggling society of the kiwi battler? The suffer-for-your-art-syndrome of the kiwi way?

To produce the smallest and most profound movie still takes a certain minimum amount of equipment, the expectation is a certain level of ‘production value’ for it to cut through the noise of the internet, perhaps the ultimate still being that magic-red-carpet ride to LAX?

A little New Zealand film that ‘made it’?

But, as John O’Shea said – With a local film we should be more concerned with what they think about it in Taihape or Tolaga Bay or Timaru than Hollywood; John might be correct here. National cinema is where it all begins, there is no jumping the queue?

The powers that administer the funds might say things like you can’t have art without business… you could look them in the eye and ask them to explain? Ask them to explain how the deal will put bread in your pocket and send your kids to school with lunch? – ask them how they manage from invoice to invoice, and what is it they actually produce here? Go on this is your film industry too, but never ask an arts administrator about their weekly wage.

Are our lower rates just another way that we are feeding the internet monster of increased demands of the social media companies? Is this the dying death-roll of the cinema shark in the swamp in a world where the sunset is only relevant after it has been through an instagram filter, where crew are all checking their phones between takes? Just checking that the ‘making of’ feed to the ODT might include me, to make my existence more important by being in the back of shot related to a celebrity or influencer for the Netflix channel? – Oh, the glamour of the business? Yet your weekly rates are still less than 5 years ago?

Has this been the case where ‘low budget’ is now the new normal in the New Zealand Feature Film Industry; where working for less than a ‘living wage’ is something that has been imposed upon us? Are we looking at a situation that looks more like control than support?

I was reminded the other day about the Mune speech (2000) regarding the formation and result of the New Zealand Film Commission. Ian has always said it was bad timing to make that speech but I’m not sure such things can ever be timed well, as, for the simple fact, a bureaucracy has a function of self-preservation that is so pernicious that it will throw itself off the cliff before admitting it is wrong or out of touch; or for that matter change because of the times or openly change policy even though it would’ve realised behind closed doors that revolution is nigh.

A commission that loses their creative way so chooses instead to ‘control’ the industry and we are, as Mune said in 2000, still obsessed with the deal rather than the film; it would appear that there are no deals now just low end toil.

When ‘low budget’ is the answer then the question has to be ‘is this now the new normal?’ – And – ‘is this what we have become as the New Zealand Film Industry?

20 years ago there was a movement afoot to ‘get back our film industry’ – Ian Mune willingly fronted the brief but somewhat bloody revolution, some of us stood near enough to be hit by the lightening and collateral damage and we learned to never question an out-of-touch bureaucracy as their survival is more important that their tasks or mandate.

Yet those words of warning from 20 years ago might still be relevant today and be the thing that needs further discussion?

Meanwhile, in a camera rental carpark somewhere in Wellington I dropped by the other day, the first AC was fitting the truck with shelves for the new movie about to be shot in town. He steps down from the toil and wipes his brow. ‘Well it’s better than nothing, eh?”

Embrace the cinema of poverty as a rite of passage.

Precariat has a new cohort?

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                                                                                                                             Photos: Waka Attewell. NZCS

Ian Mune writes in his autobiography of the years leading up to 2000 and the first 20 years of the NZFC (Abridged from Rudall Hayward Lifetime Achievement Award speech).

“TV began to make New Zealand drama Pukemanu, Close To Home, The Governor, Moynihan. History shows us a corporate mind-set and subsequent control of artistic thinking quickly took over that golden era. Business started making artistic decisions as to what we watched on the TV. The NZFC is announced 5 years after the corporatisation of TV with a clear brief to support this burgeoning new movie industry. Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace and Vigil soon followed. 20 years down the track, we are looking at an industry in confusion… So what went wrong? In short, the control mentality has won the day. The Film Commission, unsatisfied with its wobbly attempts to support the industry, chose to lead it. Control. The first weapon and last – ditch defence of the truly terrified… We have become a marketer-oriented industry where the deal is more important than the movie… The people who are in control… who are even now dictating what stories the story-tellers may tell, are neither film-makers nor story-tellers. They are not leaders they are followers – of the market… And because they believe that a singular market-oriented paradigm imposed upon the story-tellers from above will work, they will sacrifice the very thing they are duty-bound to foster – the clear, passionate voice of the New Zealand artist. ”

 

 

Whatever it takes

NZTECHO In Focus Summer 2018 Issue 79

Our man in Otaki has been reading John Reid’s history
of John O’Shea and Pacific Films. Here’s his take.

Waka 1990 Te rua
 Te Rua camera crew at PalliserBay, 1990. Waka Attewell (DoP), John Mahaffie (camera operator), James Cowley (camera assistant) and Gerry Vasbenter (clapper loader)

Whatever it takes

I have an image from John O’Shea’s funeral. It was a big event at the Embassy Picture Theatre. This memory is not of the great witty and erudite speeches. It’s a picture of John Reid at the back of the casket, when the task of the long carry-out to the street and the waiting hearse. He was at the back, holding on like a man would hold a caber that he was about to toss, his shoulders taking the whole weight. At various times as the manoeuvring occurred around doorways he would’ve been taking on all the heavy lifting by himself. And yet again John Reid has done the heavy lifting in the seven year research and writing of this brilliant book ‘Whatever it takes’ – Pacific Films 1948 – 2000 – the life and work of John O’Shea.

The book might’ve been called ‘how we became who we are as a nation’. Through the local cinema O’Shea suggested a New Zealand that wasn’t quite there yet, but by holding the mirror up Broken Barrier became, to the surprise of the distributors, a box-office hit. They were queued around the block.

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 John Reid and John O’Shea at Pacific Films in 1975.

 

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 Producer John O’Shea busy at work in his on-set production office, Berlin 1990.

I was there from the 70’s onwards and I thought I knew this history but John O’Shea was about living in the future and where Pacific was heading, not where it had been. So a lot of what I have read is new and revealing. Reid’s book catches this forward momentum brilliantly, the detail is exquisite. A business, a family and a deal here and a movie there. It’s a book about a very busy life. It’s captured a sort of New Zealand version of ‘From Easy Riders to Raging Bulls’ quality.

At the core of this story is what John O’Shea had told us, as he laid out our tasks in the Pacific Films tea room when he would discuss “What it was to become a Pakeha”.

Those early days of TV with the NZBC deals to make commissioned programs that went beyond the thinking of the day. We planned documentaries that might challenge the politic or open a can of worms. How the next production might be scuttled by the vagaries of the next commissioning editor at the NZBC or an experimental series like Shoreline that had its first season clumped together and was deliberately scheduled to screen at an unsuitable time slot in early evening in the height of summer so it was bound to fail. Or the way the Tangatawhenua series found Pacific Films and Barry Barclay, and as they say: the rest is history.

1948 – 2018. That’s 70 years.

Essentially the beginning was two men catching the train with limited funds (200 pounds) from Wellington to Mahia to make Broken Barrier. They gather a few locals around them and quickly coached them into how to push the dolly and hold the reflector – Roger Mirams and the less experienced O’Shea wrestling with the culture and the weather.

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 At 2000 feet, filming Runaway. In the background, Ron Skully (sound), Michael Seresin, Barry Crump (boom swinger for the day) and Tony Williams watch John O’Shea lend a hand to a soaked Deidre McCarron. Jonathan Dennis Collection

The book captures the real passion of their work and gives us a snap shot of the post-world-war times of the entrenched racism that informed the way this country looked at itself.

If you walked from the Majestic movie theatre in Willis street to the Embassy you walk past 24,700 cinema seats. New Zealand was movie mad and had the highest number of
seats per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Seventy years doesn’t feel very long and in reading this book you marvel and appreciate how far we have come as a film and TV industry.

In the second half of the book my life catches up with the story when I joined Pacific Films fresh out of college in 1972. I didn’t have an appreciation of the history and, decades later, when it comes to Te Rua (the New Zealand shoot) I have more than a bit of
skin in the game. But in reading the details I was still discovering stuff I thought I knew. John Reid has done a fantastic job of researching all the moving parts and making the read a rollicking yarn… it’s a page turner.

At the core it’s about the inside workings of a man who was not only a deal maker but a profound thinker. And you can read how the moving parts of the deal are sometimes at odds with the movie or the idea.

Thankfully O’Shea was a hoarder and all the production records and private correspondence were there for Reid to find in archives.

Brilliant.

Reid captures that moment through O’Shea’s eyes of the late 70’s when the lawyers and merchant bankers entered the film business as the new producers and the deal drove from the front of the bus. O’Shea was not so in agreement with this focus on the wealth
gathering part of this new way. And he was wary the of bureaucrat being in the funding body that was being created.

The creation of the NZFC, and then how later O’Shea was moved to one side. Rather than fight them on the home turf, he opened a Pacific Films office in Europe. O’Shea hated being called a veteran or a legend, as it suggested a man that was ready to be put out to pasture.

In the 70’s Pacific Films is winning Feltex awards with documentaries made by Tony Williams. William’s work proved to be very popular, “However, it negatively impacted with the new order at the NZBC” – “It was one thing to disagree about a programme, but quite another to go ahead anyway and produce it in such a way that clearly outshone the efforts of their adversary – especially if they wanted further funding”.

This is a book about how we got here, the divide of town, country and city, Māori and Pakeha. A nation in growth. John O’Shea wrestling with the authorities, his own staff and ideas and directions in a constantly changing landscape of this growing and evolving movie and TV business.

It’s an epic tale.

Great work John Reid.

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 Roger Mirams and John O’Shea filming waist deep in water in Tahiti in 1953, Pacific Films Stills Collection, Ngā Taonga
Sound and Vision,

About a Lost World

About a Lost World

IN FOCUS Winter 2018 Issue 77

Waka Attewell on the ways the camera can come between
the film maker and the subject.

 

It’s not reality TV nor a cooking show, not news or current affairs nor is it blockbuster. It’s made for the small screen and the big screen. It’s inside the weave of who we are as a nation – a certain  cohort will simply deem it non-commercial. The work is low budget and it’s made with  love and hope and sometimes other people’s spare change; we make it so it finds a life within the world’s festival circuit. This is national cinema.

A few days ago we wrapped on a documentary. Four years since we started ‘Rangi – The Carver’. He’s just had his 81st birthday. The family gathers. We had managed to get a camera and sound kit for this final day (it’ll cost us a bottle of wine from the supermarket when we drop it back).  Two fabulous interviews wedged into the backyard to start the day have us crying; it’s Sunday so best we get these in the can before the lawn mowers start.

Then Rangi arrives.

I actually just want to put the camera away and sit quietly with him… listen and just be. The movie making process keeps me from becoming part of the actual event, I’m here but I have that invisible wall the camera creates. I observe and wrestle with the imperfect world of location shooting… technical challenges – I stand back, move forward, look at the back of people’s heads for tell-tale clues that will give me insight to the immediate then, for a moment, the low autumn sun makes it impossible to get an image; living in the now, reacting to the instant; the cake, the singing of happy birthday and now there’s no wide shot available, or the option of doing it again. Then everything is corralled away from me around a just-too-highguard rail, I try not let this annoy me. The tradition of the song, the cutting of the cake… the kids gather for the sugar. Koro cuts out the first slice and smiles and the love flow outwards.

Today I’m also dealing with the audio issues – this is now common practice. The dilemma of a one-man-band, if I put the headphones on I walk into people whilst missing the flow of conversations. So much has shifted and swirled in this whanau since we started filming – 25 years ago was the first time within this family. Departures. Arrivals. Great grandchildren, those on the inner, those on the outer. Rangi is the centre of it all… he says little, he smiles. He is soon off to China – Rangi might send back a photo of an obscure temple with an echo of the ancestors or the edge of a jewel that will prove a connection to his work, he might again mention Taniwha and commerce in the same breath… I was witness to this once, it was a privilege.

This is not the story of a Carver, this is not the story of a lost craft or a man getting old; this is not the story of a young Māori man who 60 years ago wanted to be a doctor but was told he was to be the Carver, no questions – he became that Carver – The Carver – (an audience might ask whom ‘they’ are – it’ll be their problem not the film makers). Nor is this the story of a family relocated to the central North Island after a young nephew is left orphaned by a car wreck. Nor the artist who becomes a prison warden, nor is it about the teacher of many carvers who established the course out of Rotorua that is now many courses. These days the Polytechs and tertiary institutions feel they have the right to buy and sell these courses. IMG_3567IMG_3568

Rangi’s’ course is now owned by an outside institution, bought and sold at the whim of the tertiary cashflow. NZQA quantify it by marking the outcomes and the students pay the fees. This is the modern world of craft? A colonial world.
Is this film perhaps the story of a world we are losing… a story of an indigenous world – this is the same dwindling world of ‘Camera On the Shore’, ‘Kobi’, ‘Patu’, ‘Autumn Fires’, The Neglected Miracle’ …and this is my lost world; this lost worldliness has just not arrived, it has always been this way. 45 years ago the film and TV world felt like it was about a brave new truth, a deep seated purpose was ingrained in the work among a grey New Zealand landscape, every bit of work was hard fought for and the thinking was imbued within the needs and rites of a struggling humanity, a New Zealand trying to find itself? Find its culture? IMG_3569Production for the sake of cash-flow was a mere passing thought – not the commercial imperative it is now – the establishment of profound thinking was paramount …I came to the conclusion early that I was a racist, my family were racists, my extended family racist. The country was racist. I had to somehow break that cycle.

This will be my life’s work.

I now lament the path of the next generation of film makers and their rocky paths to redemption. Already crippled by the demands of a neoliberal world of student debt followed by the ever expanding layers of bureaucracy that must be waded through and all this before an idea has been formed, just add to that commercial demands and you have a perfect storm. Projects  become over baked and rules imposed upon them before the funds are released (and you call these the lucky ones?). It never will be easy, it wasn’t for my cohort either. This still appears to be the only path to ‘national cinema’ – possibly this is how it should be – it brings out the best in us – yeah right?

Meanwhile the NZFC announce the new Māori initiative – some of the 41 staff hoping that it’s more than ‘this should-keep-the-natives-quiet’ – let’s pretend we function in a country that doesn’t have skewed expectations and racist institutions; let’s look the other way and be grateful for handouts – all good intentions feel like thinly veiled assimilation – this is how re-colonisation works.

Gratefully we will apply and our completed work might explain the world of Māori living within this country – a sort of report as to how well ‘they’ are doing under the circumstances. We might be eligible for the funding, but there are rules to be imposed, we’ll gather up the crew and other numbers and deduce and account for the percentages – perhaps this will become a NatGeo type observation of the natives from that urban marae out west?

Yet despite all this our film will eventually somehow get completed.

Across town and in the city further north imperialism of the American kind is the job opportunities for youth wanting a career in the movie industry. The crown entity dangles a tax break for this international community – The NZFC proudly display these posters of past

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Photos: Robin Greenberg

Hollywood success on the walls of their boardroom. This is the reality today of the New Zealand film industry – a bit of international blockbuster, a bit Hollywood studio, local TV and some cultural imperative… this is who we now are.

The grandkids and the family look on. Rangi picks up the chisel for the first time in four years, his hand holding the weathered tool shakes just a little, and then, without pause or hesitation it steadies, he lets the mallet fall and the chisel forms a cut of the most delicate spiral into the wood. His wrist rolls over in perfect balance. This generous act might’ve been for the camera, it might’ve been for the family – it might’ve been for me? …it wasn’t about the carving.

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”

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?