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. ”

 

 

Do we know how to blow the whistle?

Do we know how to blow the whistle?

NZTECHO IN FOCUS ISSUE 83 SUMMER 2019

 

Waka Attewell talks safety.

What would happen if you were witness to something that required intervention for safety and you perceived yourself as ‘just a lowly crew’ – it’s not my place to comment? I’m a freelancer and they won’t employ me again? – What if the issue you witnessed was so extreme that you had the compunction to become a ‘whistle blower’?

What would you do?
Who would you call?

Over the years I can count the near misses on one hand – but that’s still five too many.
Gung-ho and ripping yarns after work over a beer, stories like lying across the skids of
a helicopter on a couple of planks, and driving too fast on the tracking vehicle and then
there was the time we hung off a frozen waterfall… and, and well you get it. But surviving the wild west was probably more about good luck rather than good management eh? – We don’t do that shit no more. Yeah nah, we have the bluebook and now we get fed properly and have adequate turn around and reasonable hours? Really?

We used to slap each other on the back and laugh at the ‘race to the bottom’ joke as if we hadn’t heard it before… hilarious eh. I’ve had a couple of conversations this year with crew that have felt that we have pushed the edges of ‘reasonable behaviour’ in a few areas. Mainly (as it transpires) on our local productions where the budgets are really tight. Damage to property and people being put in jeopardy. Have we regressed as a few
have proffered? Have we actually hit the proverbial bottom… did we win the race?

Perhaps $4mil for a local movie and a 29 day shoot is not enough money to do the job properly, to do the job without cutting those corners?

The call sheet arrives for the next day. It’s our daily contract with the work and the producers, it has stuff in it like how many pages of screenplay are expected to be shot, where we are working and what the hazards might be. Special requirements could be things like alerts for water and weather hazards or simply where the crew park their cars.

Perhaps we can be treating this document more like the addition to the deal – perhaps  an extension of the contract? After all we are just hired guns and we work in the film
factory… and at the end of the day it’s not really that special or that important. It’s a job eh and you don’t want to get hurt at work or hurt anyone else while you are doing
your work.

There is a bit of slapdash tradition about the place, it’s sort of ingrained in the culture – ‘it’s just one quick shot’ – it’s a bit risky but it won’t take that long, just one take should do it? – But maybe all this is just leading to the proverbial ‘accident waiting to happen?’ Already fatigue while driving has its share of victims, ACC pays for the funeral but the production company can’t be sued.

The health and safety stuff is on the back page of the call sheet next to the mud-maps for the parking and it’s not just about those two much photo-copied pages of how to approach a helicopter by not walking into the tail-rotor either.

Like most of us we just read the call time and quickly scan the first setup and head to the pub promising ourselves we’ll read the rest later. How do we get more involved in this process?

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So when the safety guys say ‘not on my watch’ why are the producers thinking that a renegotiation is an option? And I’m talking stuff that is beyond working kids over their six hours – I’m talking stuff that could do real harm, like kid actors putting their heads under water in a hot pool.

Work conditions are maybe getting seriously challenged in this country. There’s pressure out there to ‘make hay’ in this freelance world while the opportunity is there which are creating more extreme conditions, exacerbated with costs going up and budgets staying the same. The USA has had their Sarah Jones incident (Midnight Rider) when the camera assistant was killed on a shoot because the location manager and safety department had been ignored. A splitter crew, with the director, defied protocol and filmed on the railway bridge anyway. The train they didn’t see coming hit the crew.

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Does the blue book still have the cut through and just because we are not a union does it give the producers permission to renegotiate on the hoof? Purposes of safety are not a negotiation, they are in the bluebook for a good reason.

If I wanted to be blunt, our world is certainly divided into a time before Cave Creek and a time after Pike River and now we live in a time of this Whaakari/White Island adventure tourism debate that is just beginning.

There a very good reason that we have swing drivers for our trucks and there are rules around working with child actors. Those meal breaks were a hard fought piece of diplomacy, not to mention negotiating the ‘turn-around time’; there’s also a really good reason why we have the bluebook and why all those many hours of intervention and discussion are not up for grabs.

When the bluebook is treated as the beginning point of a negotiation it is a sign to
leave the job – somethings are just not up for negotiation. Some off-shore productions might think because this isn’t steeped in endless legalese that the bluebook has little veracity… this is not the case and the guild should know about this if anyone thinks differently.

Many stories, but there’s only one call sheet and one production diary and master file. If a child dies from meningococcal disease by putting their head underwater for a film shoot what are we going to do? – And – ‘their parents agreed to the risk’ is not the correct answer. When you work with kids the hours are not a negotiation neither is putting their lives at risk and ACC is not something to hide behind.

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Chain of command – the 1st AD is working for the producer, they are in control of the production schedule… that schedule has to consider things like hours worked when children are involved – it’s the law of the land.

Road closure for shooting – yes I know it would be cheaper if all we had to do is just slow the traffic and give everyone Hi-Viz-jackets – i.e. not close the road – but we close roads to make it safe… it’s a work space and we want everyone to get through the day (or night) safely and when the sign says don’t put your head under the water meningococcal alert and you arrive into the carpark and the producers are negotiating with the childrens’ parents… who you gonna call?

So like the safety rules on the back perhaps we get the crew rep to put on the call sheet a
list of things that are not up for renegotiation, a reminder to the management let’s say?

Like a shopping list that we can refer to? Have it laminated and nailed up in every work truck.

And when you break the rules, or pressure the production, the crew tend to talk so we know who those producers are.

Let’s not work in that industry eh?

There is a reason we use swing drivers and when the signs at the beach say unsafe for swimming this is not a negotiation, and why are we still using polystyrene in our set building?

So when I get phone calls from crew who are worried when they see the producers in the carpark renegotiating health and safety issues, I’m going to write about it in this magazine… we are TECHO’s but not a union.

The management will be the first to tell you that but that doesn’t give them the right to renegotiate those things that are not up for negotiation.

You know who you are.

 

If you do ever feel a situation on set is unsafe, talk to your HOD,
Crew Rep or Safety Officer immediately. If the situation continues,
please contact Kelly (EO) at the Guild.

Just feel the weave, not the width

NZTECHO IN FOCUS ISSUE 82 SPRING 2019

 

Waka Attewell on judging at the New Zealand Cinematographers Society

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so with your mystical ways; of darkness and brooding-imagery, your crashing surf and distant horizons; misty windows and time-lapse mountain sunrise; that just so time of day before the storm then that pensive calm.

We will delve within this, get to the bottom of it. We will delve within the craft of lens selection, camera choices pertaining to budget and artistic imperative and to explore the mysteries of that lesser defined post-production choices.

The jury are in.

Here in the dark and we have only just begun and already we are committing the cardinal sin… we are watching the movie – sucked within the beauty of it, wrestling with the narrative, relishing the journey… and then, from the darkness, someone speaks – SNAP OUT OF IT!

The voice is god like – here within the church of surround sound and perfectly wracked pictures – a ‘movie theatre’ – the flicks – the pitches… our tasks are explained again to us.

We are not here for the whole – our day has a purpose and its focus is for that precise detail, a moment in time, possibly that moment when the light transmutes through the lens and strikes the sensor, behold that texture within the weave… angels cry out! That moment when the ‘now’ is captured forever in ‘time’.

But what will become obvious is it’s not so much about passing judgement but we are here to bear witness. This ‘Craft’ business is a pesky task at the best of times and now a deeper purpose is our mission so with all our unconscious bias, prejudice, and personal preferences hopefully put aside we should see the next two days out – damn I love this business – may the anonymous blind tasting begin; feel the width not the texture… stare deep within the loom, see the individual threads for their beauty and form?

The excitement of being on a judging panel is not to be belittled, but there are rules to adhere, benefits from the enormity of the process – awash within the forms of light and shade, texture, depth and meaning, and for a brief moment the weight of the egregiousness of the funding process melts into the background and the immediate tasks fall upon us.

Craft and skill abound.

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The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips. DoP: Tim Flower

 

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Vai. DoP: Drew Sturge

Two judging panels. Drama, current affairs and news, documentary, feature film, TV series, tele-features, TVC’s and internet, web series, soap, comedy, a melting pot of New Zealand’s unconscious bias all in one room 160 movies of various forms and genre, two days.

Kick’er in the guts Trev!

A plethora of Cinematographers gather in Auckland for a weekend of judging and voting a look beneath the veneer of the craft – analysis of that ‘painting with light’ moment, that instance between that exposure and this choice of angle, and that twinkling ¾ backlight flash of brilliance – a new way to look across distant tundra through the quintessential New Zealand misty window, that meaningful look from the lonely bach on the lonely coastline on the rugged New Zealand shoreline… not depression but just aloneness and thought… in that give the Composer something to do in this movie moment also. Or not?

The aspects surrounding the rules and other discerning choices of judgemental behaviour were quickly explained like you would to a group of people that didn’t have the time to read the fine print and then the clipboards were handed out, oh yes there will be ‘forms’ to fill in.

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Antarctic Waters. DoP: James Muir

The perils of ‘group think’ were pointed out and then mentioned again and then we were given a lunch menu as a pre-reward to the tasks ahead. We shuffled off to the assigned theatre-big-screen – pencil-poised – black coffee close at hand, within the first 30 mins I have eraser bleeding all over the form as I correct and rub-out and correct again and again. Having done this before I am totally confident in the robust process.

Fade to black.

Straight up there’s the student work. Overtly colourful and earnest with great potential and perfectly formed cliche, sub-text is sorely wasted on the youth and yet again proven useless as the placenta is thrown, still warm, upon the dinner table, with more meaningful close ups than a Elizabeth Moss web series.

It’s soon after this that I’m accused of being cynical?

Really? I was hoping to bring a sense of ‘witness’ to the room, a sort of discerning poetry of the situation. It is, after all, a special task that stands before us. I am privileged to be amongst this company of fine technicians.

Cynical – that isn’t intended, in fact very far from it.

Oh New Zealand you haunt me with your mystical gaze through dripping-misty-windows. Old; distant tundra and aging glass distorted with time – you said you loved me forever. That low budget look that we’ve perfected out of desperate need and necessity, there you are my sweet mistress of hope.

Next up we are comparing homelessness and the suffering on the streets with the despair of opulence and a group middle class women agonise over a face lift or a bum job, and then compare that with the burns scars of the state ward who tried to take his own life; depth of field and lens choice aside you have to appreciate the challenge here? The bogey-snot-nose in the backlight as a homeless guy cries in despair and rage, the camera chases him to get a closer look at the agony of hopelessness – the light flitting off the BMW as the driver looks the other way (perhaps at a bargain frock in the high street window?), the drone tracking the speed of it all… Rolex,-reckless, vibrant – life in the fast lane of the world of TVC and now robber-baron-owned media completes with ‘best suffering’ category, no social solution required… it all melds into one.

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Mortal Engines. DoP Simon Raby NZCS
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Daffodls. DoP: Mathew Knight

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so with your new platform neutral demands of funding bodies, where the crown finally chooses what we get to see on our screens; where the robber-baron owned media is now posing as legitimate, where advertising even more so drives the demand, is this democracy?

How does the crown fit into this space and is there room yet for the treaty? – it’s all here before us in one room in one movie, in one moment in time… the images become of each other, the thoughts blend into one desperate gasp of whom we are – how we have become this country of half-truth and breathtaking beauty; if you get the light just perfect you can’t see the toxin with the waterways, chose the right tide and the right time of day to hide the depleted fish stocks within, the green paddocks and those Holsteins foreground with the perfect mountain just so… a dichotomy of conflicts there in a single frame…now judge that?

Forget the $15million gigs where you try to compare with the $1,500.00 soaps. The high end confronts the wreckage of the low end of the business. How’s that the case? Yet lower budgets equal better scripts.

Has anyone noticed?

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Bellbird. DoP: Grant McKinnon

This industry that forces you to think in the same moment about what’s in Harvey Weinstein’s underwear draw and how you might get a less intrusive (if that is possible) angle of this family of five living in their car and what might be the best camera kit to follow the privileged climate change student to Parliament… and this industry that then forces you to actually do something about the issues after the hype of the protest – when everyone has gone home to their sheltered worlds where they think a lively
facebook chat is going to make a difference… and then it’s just us and the homeless guy discussing mental illness and how he was abandoned by the system, or the whaling expert who can adeptly discuss 1769 and the arrival of greed, or the truth about that fashion label that exploits child-labour.

Oh New Zealand you haunt me so. Cynical? – Nah – I just know even more why I do this and I’ll be back next year.

Contracts, insurance … you thought it was about being fair?

NZTECHO IN FOCUS WINTER 2019 ISSUE 81

Our man in Otaki gets serious.

 

Being a senior technician apparently puts you into that sagely-wise bracket and for this reason sometimes other technicians phone for advice. Perhaps this is because some of us have lived through the ‘sign it or fuck off era’ and the ‘race to the bottom’ disorder that some will try and convince you is perfectly sound way to conduct a production when you  find yourself agreeing to a rate that is on par with your rate 20 years ago.

Sometimes I get asked if I think the guild could help, and then you usually find yourself explaining why the guild can’t actually be a union.

….guys, guys, what, really?

It’s that go fast-go-silly time of day and the producers have just reiterated ‘no overtime’, the safety guy looks at the set up and has said ‘not on his watch’ and ‘not in those waders in that surf’ and so the sensible ones on the crew put on their wetsuits. Plastic around the camera as a splash proof housing and a running sea not actually that suitable
for the desired shot… but, a shoot is a shoot, and in the realm of just reluctantly following orders a wave catches the whole she-bang and the focus-puller’s monitor takes an unprotected swim. Bugger.

A $2.5K insurance claim to end the day – should be simple – I wonder when they can get a replacement? That’ll be a wrap, see you tomorrow bright and early.

As it transpired the damaged monitor was personal kit and didn’t figure (apparently) in the rental insurance or the general insurance or the ‘is this fair’ category or we’ll-see-the-guy-right and pay up department.

A low budget shoot is just that. Fiscally challenged, as in, the money is short and we are expected to head into these situations with hope and a love for making great stuff (did I mention the race to the bottom?).

But an assumption just because it’s a low budget doesn’t assume that they are fair players and the word comes back from the production office is you should’ve insured it yourself… we are not paying even the excess. Really?

You know technically they are correct and possibly the technician should’ve had adequate insurance and well… with all that in consideration what might be fair? I don’t know. But insurance is a much more expensive outlay these days.

Possibly what is fair is a subjective notion that has something to do with is the producer a fair dealer or someone that just does things by the book?

$2.5K is a fair whack of the entire fee to do the picture and you can now see how this dilemma has arrived in the inbox of a few senior technicians with a WTF in the subject line.

Well perhaps the answer comes in two parts.

The first part is the guild is not a union with the workers arguing from the shop floor (though we do have an elected crew representative), and secondly how does, ‘is it fair?’ rate in the dying throes of the free market capitalism world of film producing.

So let’s ‘unpack’ what is fair and what is not?

Now that’s a hard one to debate.

We sit around cafés and bars not so much talking about focal depth or third act structure, but, mostly we discuss who’s a good production company,  which actually means who’s a good producer, the conversation will always skew towards the neoliberal discussion (for old time sake) and capitalism (to appear worldly and business like) – attitude and fairness are always top of the list when discussing gig and it doesn’t take much for an incident of perceived ‘unfairness’ to get about the hood.

There would appear to be two different versions of fair? What could’ve happened and what should’ve happened and what should the technician have done to protect themselves?

But being a freelance technician also includes that added hazard (you know that unsaid thing?) of ‘don’t be awkward’ and don’t create a fuss… sign the contract and wear the bits you don’t agreewith? Seeming to be difficult is a hard reputation to live down when your existence depends on being employed by being compliant with the wants and
needs of the employer.

In Memory of Geoffrey Peter Murphy 12 October 1938 – 3 Dec 2018

NZTECHO Summer 2018 Issue 79

 

Waka Attewell pays tribute to Geoff Murphy

On a Geoff Murphy shoot every part of everyday is going to be guaranteed a ‘shit I love this job’ moment.

Charging horses, blowing shit up, car stunts, more blowing shit up, tracking vehicles festooned with high speed cameras, guys in armour on horseback, slo-mo and dangerous. Orc’s for Africa! And the perfect director, Geoff Murphy, with a fag and smile and the next idea which would start with the words ‘what if the…..” It was always outrageous and audacious, with a let’s give it a go attitude… and then we’d blow some
more shit up because we could.

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It was his 60th birthday (2nd unit LOTR) and I hadn’t seen him since LA a few months before… there he was shambling across the Twizel tundra, running his hand through his hair, and my heart swelled when he said ‘good to see you, I heard you’d be joining us’ – then I swear we finished the last conversation that we hadn’t quite finished the last time we met. It was like we’d always have this ongoing conversation that we’d pick up every few years. We always did politics first and then established who the ‘bastards’ were that we might be fighting, then we’d list the immediate tasks. Big horse action, big stunt action, Orcs all over the place (or it may’ve been), kids running over the hill, hanging the miniature, pacing out the special effects, rigging the motion control… always thought through and well planned. I needed to have his approval, I would seek this out, and I wanted to make it work for Geoff and this was so for everyone on the crew.

Whatever was planned still had a string and rubber band methodology, our ‘son’ had returned and the flash world of Hollywood hadn’t dulled that handmade craft thinking of Geoff’s… analogue attitude with new world thinking in a digital world. Like who would’ve thought of a simple in-camera glass shot to achieve the burning of the king when everyone else was thinking CGI? Hardly even computer enhanced in the final cut.

Geoff was the master.

A yellow mini pulls up beside a young lone female hitch hiker: ‘Get in’ – she doesn’t think that’s a good idea – ‘It’s alright’, says Gerry, ‘He’s queer and I’m driving’ – this is the Murphy world where blokes were blokes and sheila’s had a lot to say and authority was shunned because they got in the way of getting stuff done and having fun. PC and Rules? What were those?

Goodbye Pork Pie would became the first local film to gain blockbuster status as it spoke directly to the kiwi zeitgeist, with edgy flawed characters that were stamped out from of our own rawness. A road movie, yet a journey that could only end in a no exit road, and we devotees to our pure Nu Zilandness were more than happy with the quest’s inevitable doomed destination. It summed up our K-1- double U– one to a tee. Land locked on an island with nowhere to go but, hell, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey attitude.

I first came across the subversive Geoff Murphy film world in the mid 70’s on Percy the Policeman after the Blerta bus pulled up and kids and wives and hippies from the Waimarama commune spilled forth into our Pacific Films lives.

I had the job of protecting the relatively new camera equipment from the falling sets, the prat falls, the odd bang of gun powder and the hastily planned and executed car stunts. The shoot also achieved some pretty spectacular rope action, using all the main actors, meticulously planned over a two floor drop and every stunt pre-tested, usually
by Geoff himself. Health and safety? Heck no!

Geoff at the helm doing every job there was to be done. Writer, director, set builder, special effects… Suffice to say Percy (the Policeman) was a loveable idiot and Burglar Bill (Bruno Lawrence) was naughty, very naughty indeed; a commissioned kid’s show that was completed and delivered, as per contract, but never went to air because it was deemed um err, well, a bit naughty. At its heart it was a kids show about ‘US’ and ‘THEM’. The representation of authority didn’t get the sort of run that the programmers at TV felt was fair, and I guess the Muldoon Government (looming large over the whole country) might have put the TV management of the time in a position of ‘hell what shit will rain on us from the PM if we screen this?’

The shock of the new way of working with the all-in approach to doing everything. This was the 70’s and work and family were separate, but Geoff thought that this state was what was wrong with modern society and hence the bus and the travel, where everyone travelled together and lived together, worked and played together. It was anarchic, inclusive, opinionated and collaborative, but all of the communal ways that Geoff worked was offset by being continuously surrounded with kids. Before we’d met Geoff, people around Wellington had already been speaking of the ‘Magic Hammer’, a film Geoff did when he was a school teacher, and the pupils of that time will still say that making that movie with their teacher was still the best year of their lives.

After Goodbye Pork Pie came UTU. Ambitious and audacious, a big idea done big, which was finally returned to the director’s cut Utu-redux decades later and then, to follow that up, a high concept movie The Quiet Earth, a big movie conceived and done here, in Nu Zeeland, with production value and great ideas… perfect. Geoff was saying “See it can be done”.

But what did success look like in the world of Geoffrey Murphy? Success was never losing who you were or selling out the ‘to the man’, telling the story from the position of truth and integrity, being loyal.

Perhaps, in summing up his professional life, you could say focused, ambitious, opinionated and determined – beholden to no one, and always suitably messy. Of course, this self-determined independent characteristic was expected in the LA scene but, at the end of the day, not tolerated. The absolute truth of the matter was that Geoff was never going to kowtow to neurotic Hollywood executives anyway.

He started from nothing in the local film scene by forging his own pathway and built an arts movie making commune in Hawkes Bay, which, in the beginning, created strain over putting food on the table for an ever-growing family. Yet self-belief, and determined focus, saw Geoff becoming one New Zealand’s top movie directors within a decade.

It would fair to say he ran out of road after The Quiet Earth in New Zealand and Hollywood seemed like the best option. Young Guns2 and Under Seige2 both functioned well in the box office, but the process of arguing with the producers didn’t make Geoff a perfect fit for their world or them for his, though if part of the exercise had been proof he could make it in Hollywood then he certainly had made it.

Micky Rourke would drop around to the LA house, not because this is what celebrities do but because they were friends. Geoff subverted the Hollywood way by being who he was. It was about the movies, the story and the work, not the bullshit. A man who could name drop some of the big names of Hollywood and the rock world. Helen Mirren and Mick
Jagger. But he didn’t play that game. But his proud kids might let slip over a beer or you might find out in passing that he’d just been hanging out with Mick Jagger on his private Island, as Mick had invited the family in for the week.

Even Geoff has described his personal life as occasionally tumultuous. His 22-year marriage to Pat dissolved after a long affair with Diane, who took him back. But he also had previously abandoned both women to pursue and marry Merata Mita, with whom he has a son. And, from his memoir: ‘the stress of directing overseas and the constant separation do strain relationships’.

Geoff could’ve been an engineer, or a historian, or just settled on being a musician, but he chose the hard road to an almost non-existent movie business and created a path that only a pioneer could follow. If you wanted to name the justly considered New Zealand movie classics then Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth would be my picks and, if my opinion counts, then the re-cut of UTU – redux is still his best movie. This list alone represents the career of a great man, yet 6 kids, 20 grandkids and 3 great grandkids also reads like a great life.

It’s been a bloody great journey, Geoff. You cut a path that no one else could see through the undergrowth so we could follow and discover the possibilities for ourselves. You expected the best from us by leading by example, you pushed us into places we didn’t think we could be by making us believe in ourselves. The bus is leaving for the next show. Thanks Geoffrey Peter Murphy. We couldn’t have got here without you.

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.

Dennis Thompson – Gentleman in Retirement

NZTECHO  Spring 2016 In Focus Issue 70

Waka Attewell talks with grip and gentleman Dennis Thompson about a life on – and off – the set.

Dennis Thompson

The conversation would’ve gone something like this –

‘So we want to start inside the house and track and pan around all the actors and then crane out into the front yard to the wide shot…’ the quick answer would’ve gone something like..

…that’s easy, we’ll just rip the whole end of the house out and rebuild it so it flaps like a cat door… oh and that’s after we’ve keyed the crane into the floor so the elemack dolly, on rubber wheels, can smoothly track onto it… with the operator and the focus puller… you know, we’ll fly the whole end of the house…’

Dennis Thompson still reckons this was the highlight of more than a 40 year career… the end shot of 1984 movie Constance.

He goes on to explain how they replaced most of the floors and cut trapdoors through the foundations where we wanted low angles. ‘..and the best part of it…’ His face lights up. ‘And we had the budget to do it… the production purchased the house for the movie, eh?’

In a time before the off-the-shelf gadget item came the era of ‘let’s make it’ – three days to rig a single shot for the end of the movie.

No worries.

Everyone on the crew owned the shot and everyone pitched in.

A time when the whole crew came to rushes, Dennis laments. In searching for the photo of that rig I have uncovered the fact that it seems that every working grip in NZ was there that night, that’s how we did it… still do.

The other day I met up with a newly retired Dennis Thompson in a café in Mangawhai; I discovered a few unlikely beats to a very busy and interesting life. He gave me a potted history, and I was all impressed once again. The first time I was really impressed with Dennis was when, in the throes of a job that was not going that great, he not so much supplied the grip equipment but entrepreneured it!

Beautifully appointed and managed would be a fair observation… besides encoding the Pegasus crane for purposes to do with CGI I then asked him to build a switch for the Tyler aerial mount and it arrived a few days later… it had been thought through, it was mounted on a footplate and it fitted first go… perfect. I was treated like the client and he was there only for me and my wants and needs… yeah, yeah we’re talking grip stuff here.

In the 70’s, after answering an ad in the newspaper, he ended up operating a camera high above a race track when, during an electrical storm at Avondale race course, the whole metal tower is alive with the static. Dangerous and exciting stuff got his attention and he was hooked on the bigger possibilities. He’d heard about this movie called Sleeping Dogs and a bloke called Roger Donaldson (Aardvark films) who suggested some overseas experience would be much sought after, as NZ was about to invent itself as a film making country. On the strength of that suggestion Dennis ended up in Melbourne at the Swinburne Educational Institute, to study – he hoped – the production of the music clips but was told there’d be no future in that… he looks at me and rolls his eyes, saying – yeah, they obviously knew what was up eh?

Not.

He was encouraged by a series of someone knowing someone else which led him to film school in the back of nowhere – Thunder Bay on the Great Lake Superior in Canada. Yep, that’s what real ambition looks like, and always the one to non-conform, he combined with another film student to make an 18 minute film instead of two 9 minutes… the school reluctantly agreed. Their tutors were the master craftsmen of the Canadian industry and then one of them, a working DP, recognised the passion and commitment to the biz in a young and eager, Dennis. This DP needed a Grip/Gaffer in Toronto to help shoot some drama. Next thing Dennis is hard-wiring into the power grid in an apartment building and gripping in the serious realm, leaving him shattered and in the tears at the end of the first day as the work was so hard and stressful… yet he was hooked. Then, in the same breath, Dennis tells me he’d always considered himself having a wonderful series of lucky breaks in the film business. Lucky? Nah mate, he made his own luck.

It became obvious really early on, in Dennis’s words, when he saw the business as ‘work’ instead of the ‘glamour’ that destroys most who dare to jump on the band wagon. A wee bit later, still in Canada, a Ballet Movie showed him the details of the discipline that would see his career and life choice take off and he arrived back in New Zealand during the height of the tax-break years (circa 1982) as a jobbing grip through the boom of the 80’s.

Teaming up with freelancer grip Terry Fraser, and with a lease on a Chapman Dolly, this saw the arrival of the first incarnation of ‘Dolly Shop’ in 1992… and then the ebb and flow of the business. Who said it was going to be easy? We should celebrate those who can dig deep when the chips are down and when the industry hits one of those slumps. You know if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

But when the rough and tumble loses its upside (freedom and freelance does come at a cost), when you’ve invested your whole life into a passion and made it work and then you wake up one morning and the glow is somewhat tarnished on the truck grill and the bills are mounting up… it takes a special guy to chuck it all in and retrain as a school teacher… and that’s exactly what Dennis did. Brilliant. We have a word for this moment in life… middle-life-crisis? – nah mate none of that navel gazing crap. Dennis saw it as giving back… and he gave it a bloody good swerve.

Diane, Dennis’s wife joined us at the coffee, and she smiled and said ‘I knew he wasn’t up to it…’ But the why is not what you’d expect: it was the emotion and Dennis‘s soft side that was the undoing of the teacher… I mean, as Dennis said, you can’t have the teacher misting up and crying around a bunch of five year olds as they achieve the impossible, eh… they ran rings around me and my emotion got the better of me… so I went back to gripping.

But this time he had an idea that would see the other Grips in town as his first customers and Dennis would supply gadgets and equipment to them… the Dolly Shop became a great success doing just that.

The NZ Film and TV business is now old enough to think of itself as a series of eras. Dennis speaks fondly of the tax-break era… that moment that set up a lot of what we see the echo of today, people had the confidence to fill a truck up with grip and lighting equipment knowing that the next movie was around the corner… and if not a movie then maybe a big budget car commercial that might see you 30 days in the South island.

Tyler Aerial mounts, power pods, provide the service to the service industry… brilliant. The Auckland industry was now seriously competing with Jackson’s Wellington Empire. Xena was the life blood of the business and a saviour.

Retirement has already seen a trip to Vietnam and meeting up with a daughter in Singapore; along with a five acre block in Mangawhai. The next phase bodes well, eh? Dennis the good guy, everyone remembers the tall redhead guy… they call him a gentleman… this is something to be proud of and something special to take into retirement… isn’t it?

…being in business, remaining in business, thinking of the new thing… that intangible whatever to remain viable in a world of too much work and then not enough… and remaining one of the good guys… now that’s what you call a success and a life.

Dennis Thompson… a gentleman in retirement.

Thanks Dennis.