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.

 

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…and we keep the faith

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NZTECHO   Winter 2016 – Wide Angle

Cinematographer and general scribe Waka Attewell sends us thoughts on a national cinema, from Otaki.

 

Remember that moment when you first put on a Walkman and hit the play button… wahoo!! It was like a new world arriving – a brighter, better place. A place where boundless happiness was possible… remember that first time it happened in the cinema? That movie that crashed into the back of your cranium. That movie so profound that it somehow managed to bypass your optical nerve – inserted straight into your soul… well actually, not so much profound, but a 7-year-old did wet his pants from laughing so much in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. You took the track through the park and across the river. Small town New Zealand. A shilling every Saturday matinee would open a new world. One week we were cowboys, the next knights in armour made from Weetbix packets jammed on our heads, a slit to see and chicken feather up on top.

Later, you then get involved in the whole mystery of filmmaking for the love of something that you, at first, can’t quite reach… you hear the expression at film society ‘wonderful cinema’ and you know what it means, but you sort of don’t either… that indefinable thing that just is. You know it when you see it. Yet ‘cinema’ was still this thing that gets done somewhere else… on the far reaches of the planet; you haven’t yet heard the expression ‘national cinema’ and when you do it feels frightening in its possibilities… and then, being from NZ, we assign a government-backed bureaucracy of non-film people to administer the funds, then they get their hands on controlling the scripts… good on ya kiwi…. But like a ‘cargo cult’ you still desire this mystical Hollywood thing to arrive.

The next beat of that story is when it all comes true and you get to work for what you believe is the ultimate of the Holy Grail… ‘they have arrived’… and then you can’t believe what crap looks like when it’s being made with so much wealth. This is raw and takes the edge off. A dagger to the heart. You learn pretty quickly that it is how you deal with disappointment is what actually runs this business. But the desire for ‘national cinema’ burns deep – the desire for something authentic.

But earlier in the story I’d taken my mother along to 2001: A Space Odyssey, not so much to simply watch but more to bear witness with me… I was after answers and the movie offered up more questions every time I viewed it (this was the third for me). Cinerama in Wellington.

Am I thick or something? My fifth-form college brain was not making sense here. The mainstream critics in the USA hated it… it was different. The layers of the story, the jump cuts from before mankind to man in space, the symmetry … ew, this is what making movies is about… making movies? – whatever it was I wanted it… and it took me another 20 years to finally work out what Space Odyssey was actually about… I had to finally read the Arthur C Clarke novel and a Swedish thesis to discover the inner simplicity I was missing.

But, actually, I felt more like the cork in the tide, I haven’t exactly felt that I was in any way part of making the choices in this amazing film journey. The real beginning of this process began with the white-middle-class boy arriving at a place where great and profound thinking was happening in independent television. Arriving in the world of Maori from a high ground of colonial privilege. Knowledge, of a deeper nature – I had lucked a job at Pacific Films.

From the beginning making the decision to make my life as an artist (for want of a better word) was exciting and felt like it could go somewhere, more than just heading up the hill to teachers college or getting a drafting job at the railways… but I didn’t realise it was going to be a constant struggle… then that was an easy mistake to make in the 70s… jobs were falling from the rafters, choices were abound, music was the best thing that happened to radio and leaving home was about chasing that bliss of the new… what could go wrong?

Is it because you get jaded in this film business, when the rush of the new is quickly replaced by the grind of the ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ method of achieving as little as possible and spending as much as you can while the HOD is telling you that they are giving him grief about his budget. I once heard a production manager telling an assistant that is was her job to spend the budget, not try and save it (see what I wrote there by assuming and assigning gender roles?).

But somehow we keep the faith… why is that?

Our local movies did reasonably well, they were yet to join the flash-and-burn mentality over a single weekend, they stayed around a bit and got found by the people that they were made for… six prints would slowly make their way about the countryside… why would you hit the weekend market with 50 prints? This would become the pattern of all movies when the blockbuster mentality hit these shores.

National cinema supported and built a business… the default clause was supporting the cinema business with TV commercials and corporate work.

Today national cinema still just has a tentative grip on the movie business… that is if we make it without a budget, if we bypass the commission, if we beg… get just enough to stay afloat – after all we’re in for the long haul eh? (we convince ourselves). This is while Hollywood sees the less-is-more fiscal reasoning with the idea that less production but bigger budgets get you the bigger bang – or in some cases the bigger flop… national cinema?… bugger off!

It’s not so much about the art and craft but more about the bums on as many seats in as short a time as possible… market the be-Jesus out of crap concepts – yep, they will come. But even now not so many. There is a generation that perceive (and rightfully so) of cinema being irrelevant.

Maybe keeping the faith has its soul still entrenched somewhere in the 80s idealism? – especially when fiscal demands outweighed the need to tell a slightly more accurate story… you might say we were early adopters of a certain politic – left-wing… possibly ethics-based business? I mean I tried mentioning Greenpeace and global warming in 1991. All you got was the blank look of ‘why bother with those troublemakers…’ Save the planet? Wasn’t that what Joni Mitchell did? (Insert gay whale joke here.) Besides, they’d have you believe there’s good money to be made flogging fruit juice with artificial sweetener… there’s nothing wrong with those chemicals… we have the science right here in the small print. Just relax and join the neoliberal revolution… oh, is that what it’s called?… take your fee first before you pay the crew… do I have to be an arsehole with it?

I couldn’t do it.

Risk? The other day a colleague rang to speak about the recent movie The Great Maiden’s Blush: ‘that is not how movies should be made’; ‘they don’t know what they are doing’; ‘the script was badly written’; ‘why make a movie with babies – they are just blobs with no personality?’; ‘too much story, not enough plot’… he never used the word ‘different’…. Also, a person of the new generation rang to exclaim ‘brilliance’ and ‘bliss’ and an ‘emotionally satisfying journey’; ‘something we haven’t seen before’… she said ‘we have raised the bar as film makers’…. She celebrated the challenge that there was more than what film school had to offer. We spoke about following your heart and taking a risk.

It seems today you’re a radical by simply having stood still… never shifting the moral compass. It still might lead to something better … and then out of the blue, a no-budget feature film… A couple of meetings and a read of a script, a meet and greet… I am next on the crew. National cinema or authentic. Whatever. The best thing in 44 years… I’m glad I never lost the faith.

Is this success…?

NZTECHO  Autumn 2015 Issue 64 Point of View

Cinematographer Waka Attewell had financial insight early on in the TV and film industry. He built a studio, ran a production company making TVCs and brought property, he even invested in trees. So why then is paying the mortgage still a struggle?

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Cinematographer Waka Attewell has been around long enough to know the turns and roundabouts of the TV and film industry. Waka assisted by Dave Benge c 1983.

Am I the right guy to be giving advice around having financial security in the TV and film industry?  Well, I’ve traded out of the two dark holes the financial industry blessed us with, so perhaps I am. You see, for me, coping financially hasn’t been so much as putting money aside for a rainy day but, rather, investing in a few concerns outside the film industry.

However, while a bit of forward thinking can see you through the rough patches, it’s actually about first finding that balance between work and life. There’s an old saying that goes ‘find the thing you really love and you’ll never have to work another day’. In other words, find that delicate balance between a career and having a life in this thing called ‘the film and TV biz’ (which I still believe is about the highest end of the creative spectrum that you can get.)  So sure, there are high rewards, but the downside can also be very low. Mental health issues in people in the TV and film industry can be way beyond normal levels if compared to other industries. In no small part is this due to increasingly stressful work and economic conditions. It helps to be a little mad to contemplate a life in the ‘film and TV biz’!

Continue reading “Is this success…?”

Compliance, compliance, compliance

Waka mountain.jpg

ONFILM  May 2012

Cinematographer Waka Attewell is always happy to comply, especially when he’s halfway up a mountain.

 

It’s Vancouver in the mid-1990s and I’m DP on a feature film. We’re in that awkward time between day and night, it’s called “blink”, and I want to get a few wide shots while there’s still light in the sky.

I step onto the roadway to take a light reading, safe in the fact that the roads are closed in all directions for two blocks. Suddenly there’s a guy in my face holding a bright red stop sign, shadowing my every move.

Continue reading “Compliance, compliance, compliance”

My Year of the Hobby

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Spring 2011

 

A distant village nestles up against the hills – smoke from cooking fires curl against the morning light. A craftsman begins his daily task. The forge is hot, the metal glowing red, he beats the iron with slow rhythm whilst turning the work and forming the blade. The apprentice looks on with awe. The village goes about its day. Come weeks end the Blacksmith will be rewarded for his skill – the village folk appreciate and nurture him, he is needed.

PHEW busy year! Drinking like a lizard, laying bricks in Beirut – work-work-work, I love this business – it fills my life with joy, hope and possibilities and you might think wealth? Bugger – Nothing in the bank. Alas – deals, minimal rates, minimal gear, double bunking – cost of living through the roof and much less offering in the commercial sector.

The year kicked off well – then I’m told at the end of the shoot, by the first-time-producer, “There’s not enough to pay you,” the lost puppy look made the news even more risible. I make to say this is my livelihood but I’m struck speechless – the ‘first-time-producer’ can’t make a $110,000 (NZFC) budget work for the shooting crew. I guess I’ll just have to await the big movie call when the ‘first-time-director’ is famous.

It’s become a bit of a tradition in my village where you do the work and you get paid – um, err… but not this time or the time before or the one after that? You could try the argument that ‘experience counts for something?’ – yet the government tells us we’re a low wage society and can’t do much about that. I guess they mean be proud of this fact and wear the badge with honour, after all Hollywood comes here to take advantage of this ‘low wage’ society and a gigs a gig eh? Ever felt like you’re being used? Yes I know you need the job so working 14 hours x 6 days a week and doing more than what you are paid is what it takes – ambition is blind until the boss’s best friend’s daughter gets the promotion ahead of you when she’s only been in the biz 6 months… yep, not fair. Oh and then you sign that contract that has you working 7 days a week where the OT is cancelled out every Monday morning… choices? Not many.

The arts managers, funding bureaucrats and advertising executives take their weekly wage while the film and TV grunts in the trenches support the delivery of product… not to mention the scripts we read and the late night mentoring (read unpaid).

But what would you expect in a country where the star struck government does a deal with a Hollywood studio at the expense of the local workers? Share the wealth? I mean that’s so yesterday and socialist and if you don’t like it go get another job – there’s plenty of film school graduates. Experience? What’s that? By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, the government has recently rewritten immigration policy inviting all comers. This can only mean less work for locals… this used to happen in the 80’s – the ruse went like this – bring a movie onshore, employ a NZ crew then fire them in the first week, the replacement crew are already pre-booked and making their way to Heathrow; now you don’t even need the pretence of local employment the crews arrive here as a complete unit and its now out of Mumbai – the paperwork reads Co-Pro – tidy – but OSH issues aside apparently you might even be lucky and get paid?

 ***

 The phone rings – TVC: a 3 day shoot – some real money! The call has a BUT attached – as in: before the TVC there’s a couple of freebies – music clip and a website promo both, all up, should take about 3 days? I hear myself saying ‘OK’. Then after a few weeks the TVC becomes a real job – miracle? I’m told (i.e. no negotiation) we now work a 12 hour day, the budget won’t work unless we do. ‘So what happened to the Blue book and the Pink book?’ – ‘Oh this is government work’. I again hear myself saying ‘OK’.

A few days go by: ‘I reckon we can shoot this TVC in a half day now that we have the 12 hour shooting day – 6 hours should do it? – (stunned silence) – ‘I should also point out we don’t pay commercial rates anymore’. Should I mention the five people hanging around the monitor, that nearly out number the crew? Should I mention the battle fought over the 8 hr day by our ancestors? Should I put my head down and just shut up?

The arts managers, bureaucrats and producers vet the business and choose the content and the way we work – (this fits nicely into the corporate ideal) only problem being is we’re now down that slippery slide again – lets call it what it is – low-wage-work in a low-wage-business in a low-wage-society… some call it ‘business as usual’. Feel like you’re being used?

My career is now my hobby but diversify I must – live TV – Sports – pictures – live to air – you cant stuff it up – hell! – experience must count for something? …minimum wage? Bugger.

This TV and film making hobby could make an old hand a bit grumpy, I might have to go back being a Blacksmith.

NZ Film An Illustrated History – a review

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NZ TECHO  Spring 2011 Issue 50 The Treatment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He came from somewhere up in the Valley aka Talent Spotting

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  Winter 2011

 

A short film. A labour of love. Getting it up and shot has been an immense task for the young director – I reckon 40k has haemorrhaged from his bank account and it isn’t finished. His mates from film school came along for the ride… dead weight in the scheme of things – beaks at the end of the nest – there were 30 of them and only 5 working professionals. Enough said. The film got shot – we’ll leave it at that.

Self funded and the director is cutting it himself – but reason up and left the edit suite some time back and he’s struggling to get an edge on the knife… then in walks the guy from up the way, an Iconic player in the Film and TV business, a Master Editor of no nonsense reputation who calls it what it is.

He’s been known to walk to town. A recent injury makes him swagger but don’t read too much into it. A brave man would think he’s anything other than quietly confident – possibly arrogant? You’d be wise to keep your thoughts to yourself – ‘enlightened selfishness’ was a description a colleague once used. Whatever, you’re left in no doubt about the immediate.

We get down to work. Quietly at first, nothing to scare the horses. Suddenly the room is abuzz! Heaving and bucking – he barks orders from the back then leans forward stabbing his workers fingers at the screen, ‘take 20 frames off the incoming and swap shot three for five and take seven frames off the tail’. It’s coming alive before our eyes – the characters are not actors anymore, suddenly we have a movie morphing before us. The energy pours from the big man and he breaks out in a sweat, then falls back spent. We take a breather.

We talk through the reasons and where this thing is going and what they will think? “and don’t you forget it?” he might have used his finger to point though I couldn’t be sure.

We did two sessions. We let the cut sit over night so we come back with a modicum of fresh eyes. This is story telling at the greater end of the scale – the character’s now have purpose and a reason to be – nothing predictable, nothing by the book – this is dangerous stuff! The director is back at the controls – he tries to slip in a bit of ‘editing by the rules’ – BARP! – wrong! – ‘Leave that crap at the door sonny’. We make it shorter, we make it sing, it gets better and even shorter.

During the location mentoring I thought it had festival potential, though I worried especially about one of the story beats. I was insistent but not insistent enough; we didn’t shoot it – ‘OK, it’s his movie’ – no time anyway, and like most New Zealand movies we shoot the schedule and get out of there. I’m normally pretty good at being able to tell between good and the ordinary film making, but now sitting in the room is the ‘Top Man’ of New Zealand film editing. Respect! – what if he says its crap? So far so good. Yet I see some missing coverage coming up and now we’ve reached the hole – it hurts to put this one through the wringer – its not working and suddenly it is and in a flash we solve the unsolvable. Genius at work. The big man smiles and says ‘yep’ – I’d forgotten how good this gets. Correct process? – to hell with that! Hack the shit out of it, show it who’s boss! We kick it about the walls. Job done!

Meanwhile the SS Escalator shudders away from the jetty in that ‘youth know everything and wisdom is not required’ fashion – secretly a grown up checks the bung. Up on the helm Capt Talent strikes a pose, while in the engine room a few old hands keep the fires stoked knowing full well the life rafts will be launched when the money is all gone – none for them though – above the ever hopeful grunts, who dutifully supplied their trucks and shoe leather, will still be broke at the end of it and looking for TV commercials to pay the mortgage – the Administrators in Wellington take their regular weekly wage.

Then a late night phone call… something’s happened. The director and his mates have shot a few pickup. He’s re-cut that scene… that pivotal scene near the end, the hard won solution to the void. The Icon has watched and walked out citing ‘they don’t need him anymore’. The director is distraught – not being able to tell the good from the bad was mentioned as the Icon left – the ultimate disrespect for the edit was muttered – the kids intervened on protocol and the old fella’s having nothing of it.

Film making at its best and worst and being able to tell is the key. 40 weeks at film school then – HELL! the best lesson yet. Two days in the edit suite watching the master at work and then the swift kick in the gonads – nothing pretty. I had warned him; I feel sick for the kid… but then its all about picking yourself up isn’t it?

They’ve now put it back to nearly how it was… and you know what? that pickup actually works… they ask my opinion of the cut and just for good measure I take 8 frames off the incoming and ‘get that bastard out of there’ – shorter – fade to black – fade up and we’re into the dust settling slow curtain. It’s very good work – I can tell it is.