Hang ‘em out to dry

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  May 2010

 

I’ve planted a couple of hectares of maize on the lower paddock down by the lake – it sprouted beautifully within the required 10 days – then the local clan of pukekos started pulling it out, row upon row. To them it’s a game – they started at the end of the row and methodically pull out every plant – two steps – pull – leave discarded on the dry dirt – this is not food gathering but idle play and, to put it mildly, “Its bloody annoying”.

The local Stock and Station guy got straight to the point, “shoot two of them and hang ’em on the fence.”

I immediately saw a rural image – an etching I’d seen before.

“But isn’t it against the law?” I enquired.

He held my eye with a steely stare, “…and your point is?”

Apparently a farmer with sentimental leanings is frowned upon around here… we’ve got cows to fed and milk to make, this is commerce not conservation – and just as I was about to form the thought and articulate that they are ‘such a beautiful bird’ he saved me from myself and the indignity of liberal banality.

“They’re a pest!”

I knew the conversation was over.

I then realised I was in the company of men – rural men.

I thought this sort of stuff would be good content for a rural type TV programme – you know how it goes – a ‘fish out of water’ – man from the city discovers the rural world, a ‘man alone’ struggles with the land and the concept of ‘when you have live stock you also have dead stock’ as the ‘Cocky’ up the road pointed out to me one day as we gazed out over my distant paddocks “…and you seem to have one of the latter”.

I followed his stare to a bloated ewe. “She’ll be a bit whiffy,” he said as he fired up the quad and left me with it. And yes it was, you quickly learn to dig the hole up wind of the rotting carcass, but that usually dawns upon you only after the fifth or sixth gagging experience of down wind.

I wrote up the 57 page prop for a TV series and sent it around a few folk… I got a couple of nibbles and then I got a meeting.

I flew to Auckland and met with the Producer of TV programmes… I’ve known this guy for many years, a man from my side of the tracks. We greeted each other with a ‘man hug’ (as is your wont in AK) at the prearranged café, a fashionable brassiere in fact; sunglasses and latte, delicate and expensive food, under done with a ‘just so’ jus.

He liked the idea a lot… we talked more and with growing arm waving about the various episodes and the commercial potential, we even got thinking about the sequel – then he fell silent… and still – he held me with his steely eye. It cut through the enthusiasm.

“…um,” he started.

My heart raced.

And said, “Do you happen to have a really dumb version of this proposal?”

My eyes must have pleaded ‘why’ as I was lost for words.

“It’s just… well its just the programmers at TV will expect a…” his shoulders slumped forward as he couldn’t finish the sentence – he was momentarily choking on the self doubt.

I made to speak, but he quickly recovered and put me out of my misery.“…and while you’re at it you might want to see if there’s a part for a Blonde celebrity or some ‘sporty type guy’ with abs?” he held my eye, I could see the pain in his as he could probably see the hurt in mine, then he concluded without flinching. “No preferably both ‘Blonde’ and ‘Sporty’ and maybe some up-and-coming Comedian”.

I could see this man of past greatness and insight had been reduced to a beggar – He swiftly bought the meeting to a close by paying the bill and I made it back to the farm that night. Flying in above Feilding and into Palmerston North, over all that patch work of green. I gave the TV series little thought. Instead, the moment in a couple of weeks time, and how exciting my first harvest of maize was going to be, the machinery, the noise, the green prosperity flowing into the trucks – in the company of men – that’ll show those Pukeko who’s boss. When I do the figures later on I’ll work it out that I have earned less than minimum wage, but life could be worse.

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Something happened that night

ONFILM  April 2010

Waka Attewell looks back in anguish at his stint as a professional crash scene voyeur, during a gig chronicling the heroes who mop up the ‘collateral damage’ of New Zealand’s drinking culture.

It’s just past 4:00am. The grey of dawn is hinting somewhere in the distant cloud, while the sodium light slashes at the occasional Auckland drizzle. Thankfully the city is now quiet.

Deep in their own thoughts the various crews drift back to the motel and, in a ritual that’s been repeated for the past five weeks, stow the equipment in their rooms – you know the drill: putting batteries on charge, sorting tapes ready for the next night’s onslaught.

I’m doing the sorting in the solitude of my own room. This morning I’m not in so much of a hurry to join the others for the usual ‘drinkies’; for me the line between real and not so real has just gone from clear to blurred, as I delicately clean droplets of someone’s arterial blood off the camera…

I finally make it to the producer’s suite and throw alcohol on top of the adrenalin and hope that sleep will be of the numbed variety, without dreams of the immediate. Three quick drinks later I feel reasonably landed so I throw another two on top to make sure. Outside the drizzle nags at the comfort and the chain-smokers hover too close to the edge of the room, but staying dry is their privilege – they deserve it.

Gamboling about the room, the arm-waving producer (who is a few bevies ahead of us) announces, “We’re making great Television!” Kicking open the ranch-slider, he bellows this fact into the dawn.

At the moment, though, I’m not feeling the glow of this greatness – I’m looking across the room at one of the sound recordists and thinking he’ll be the first needing to see a shrink. Then I look at the others and think that maybe everyone present is due for a visit to the bin.

After all, cutting drunk, dying people out of car wrecks is what other people do for a living – not us, not me – not until now, that is.

***

A month or so before this moment I’m high up in the hills of Colorado, working on a screenplay. At 7,000 feet the air is thin; it seems to clears the thought process. The story we’re working on is based on real events that included me so I’m the driving force behind the detail.

I’m enjoying making the real events fulfill the screenplay’s fictional requirements, and mostly I’m enjoying clarifying the purpose of the exercise (truth is, my writing buddy is doing the hard yards, while I’m doing the ‘collaboration’ thing). It’s wonderfully fulfilling and immensely creative, though I’m becoming a little bit perturbed at the way the real people are weakened when they are morphed into screen characters and their conversation is suddenly dialogue inside a movie – I’ll have to get on top of the ‘real’ versus ‘unreal’ aspects of the writing process before the next draft.

It’s been a few weeks now and the Amex card is getting to the limit… Oh well, what’s new, it’s been like this for the past 25 years; something always happens, it’s the way of the freelance world.” (Doesn’t stop you from feeling sick in the weak moments, though.)

Then, on cue, the phone rings – it’s about a job back in New Zealand on what’s to be the country’s first ‘reality’ TV show (though that term has not yet made its way into the mainstream), and the amount offering is exactly the amount owing on my Amex.

Three days later I was on a plane home.

***

As the firemen cut the back out of the car I can get partway in for a medium shot of the ambulance guy, who’s lit by the many torches and flashing lights.

I’m staying clear of the professionals when suddenly he looks up and straight at me – “Can you hold this?” He hands me the IV bag; I grab it with my left hand, have to move closer to do so. I’m still shooting but much to my surprise I’m now also part of the rescue.

I have a wee moment of feeling of more value and that’s when the spray of arterial blood spurts outwards; I feel it hit me as the jaws of life lift the whole roof off. The street lights wash the scene with sodium orange; I have the presence of mind to reach back with the index finger of my right hand and close the iris down slightly as the image errs on the edge of being over exposed.

As soon as the opportunity presents itself I hand the iv to the nearest cop, freeing myself of life saving tasks and falling safely back into the detachment granted by the viewfinder.

Later, walking into the darkness, I give my hunched posture the alibi of a tape and battery change. It’s been a long five weeks – just one more week and the contract will be finished… My tears drip onto the cover of the unopened note book still lying in the bottom of my backpack. No time for notes; no need; all I’ve seen and heard is already etched forever.

***

I’m a one-man band, doing both sound and pictures. The radio mic is sown and gaffer-taped into the Fire Chief’s tunic – all I have to do is turn the microphone on while it’s still hanging on the peg.

A call out happens like this… The lights quietly glow a brief moment before the gentle warble of the siren starts. The firemen don’t rush, but they always beat me to the waiting engine. The chief throws his jacket and helmet on and is now transmitting to the Panasonic 520 that’s already running (it’ll continuously run until the operation is over – the timecode will give a clue as to how to find the sync with the three hard-mounted cameras). As I jump into the middle back seat, I drop a battery into the previously rigged floor mount and it rolls the three pre-rigged pencil cameras in the cab. I always put my seat belt on.

The driver hits the accelerator, the chief hits the siren, and then the radio chat starts: car vs truck; car vs amco barrier; car vs car; car vs fire…

***

Tonight a cop car speeds by us. Then another. We first come across a car wreck that’s not our gig, so we drive on through. (On closer inspection the wreck is a cop car, upside down in the front yard of a suburban house – maybe I can hear the trapped cops talking on the radio. The car has taken out three fences and its busted light is still weakly flashing on the lawn. The Samoan family that lives there looks on wide-eyed in their powder blue and pink pyjamas and dressing gowns.)

Further down the road we can already see the ambulance leaving a scene that is many minutes old – this is our gig. We’re the clean up crew – the first crew are already spent and exhausted. A white car sits bent in the middle of the intersection – the personal plate reads BONNY[1] – apparently she dies later that night, as does the Tongan guy still sitting upright and ignored in his car; he seems alert and aware, but the ambulance gal knows something that I don’t. In silhouette I can see the blood pouring silently from his nose… I film him – I want to move closer but my legs won’t work.

In the final cut of the TV episode BONNY doesn’t rate a mention and her car merely becomes a cutaway (with the number plate blurred out), while the Tongan guy is just shown in profile. Nonetheless these images still haunt me and in my darkest moments they tear at the walls. I still wonder who ‘Bonny’ was and who is missing her.

Although we’re regularly invited to swoon at the ‘greatness’ of the TV we were making, it’s hard to see the greatness in other people’s misery.

***

The last night of the last shift and the lights come up from their low ebb and the warble sounds… It’s car vs truck – a drunk couple has gone under the tray of a parked truck on a suburban street somewhere in South Auckland. When we get there the car isn’t jammed but has bounced out and is across the road – the ambulance crew stabalise the unconscious couple while my fire crew chew the roof off with the jaw-of-life. The cops lift the stretchers – the ambulance seems under staffed, so I continue filming but also grab a corner.

The broken couple have an ambulance each but end up at the same hospital and two days later, once sober and patched up, they’ll sneak their broken bones away without signing out. Lucky beyond belief, the cops never find out who they were – in the footwell on the drivers side is an unopened stubby Tui beer bottle. I direct the fire chief to hold it up as if he was doing a TV commercial – he suggests we send the footage to Doug Myers. The shot makes the final cut but the sound mix masks the Myers name (of course it does); they also put a blurry dot over the beer label. After all you have to look after the hand that feeds and the advertising dollar speaks louder than anything else when it comes to how this TV thing works.

***

I never watched the finished shows, though from what I could see in the cutting room they had too much music and too much sardonic opinion informed by too little thinking.

It quickly became clear the reality TV format was more than just the brief fad we thought it was going to be; in fact it’s undeniably become the way of the future. The combination of low-cost production and high-ratings is impossible to ignore – and it’s what the viewers want, because they keep tuning in – who am I to say it’s good or bad?

Even though at the time I got the feeling we were already on shaky ground, and reaching down to the lowest place was not the reason I got into this TV business, I don’t regret shooting the cop-fire-ambulance show – hey, it paid the rent for the next four months.

But I am disappointed it didn’t make a jot of difference to the drunk-driving culture of this country, despite more than 90% of all the callouts on the show being alcohol-related. All those raw nerve ends, all that reality (or should that be ‘reality’?) just seemed to get lost in the noise of the numbing bombardment of fictional and non-fiction images from around the planet.

Seems like more sometimes just lessens us all.

[1] Name changed.

Mune – an autobiography

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)   February 2010

 

Ian Mune is the darling naughty boy of Stage, Movies and TV – he’s bad in that best possible way – he’s bad because he cares. And we love him more for it.

I had the pleasure a few days ago of sitting in a café with him under Mt Taupiri – breakfast – the owner recognised him and we get 3 Neenish tarts for the moment of notoriety… though she had to ask his name… “I know who you are but I can’t remember it,” she said.

Ian smiled and said his name – she then banged him on the arm, “yeah I know that”. We all know him, we grew up with him, that was him larger than life.

I have to declare my hand. I still think Moynihan is the best NZ TV ever!

Recently a brick arrived in the mail – a book – the word is out – one of our clan has written it – you can’t miss it he’s on the cover. Once described as ‘a face like an unmade bed…’ – it’s actually quite a beautiful face and though the years have wearied the exterior the mind and the wit is still as sharp as a tack… and those eyes have seen a bit… quite a bit in fact.

Opinion and the ownership of it is an interesting subject. Orthodox thinking and toeing the line – Mune says why bother. It’s like you get one go at this life and this is it! I asked him once ‘what do you think happens after you die?’ … he said that ‘all the pain of this life would be finally gone’. Good answer under the circumstances as we were probably both drunk and probably both a wee bit depressed and did I mention the NZFC which always gets a bit of a hiding under these circumstances?

He writes very well, he writes particularly well about the roller coaster ride of a man who chooses to be an artist in a time when the notion is not even seen as a viable option – 1960’s New Zealand where to be a grey bureaucrat was where ambition came to live and die, it was expected… being a painter, or an actor or god preserve being both! What was he thinking? …and what about his wife and the young kids – he must be mad!

The ‘Rockwell-esK’ picture of the rural New Zealand that we can now only dream of is a gritty introduction to a complex life. Ian paints a picture of a man in a vortex as he tries to tame the beast of the creative soul – then we’re with him on the road hitching in winter from one despair to the next, sleeping rough under bushes just out of Levin, midnight flits on unpaid rent… and billowing Wellington wallpaper. Ian writes with a brutally-astute honesty and doesn’t seem to be holding back on beating himself up… brown and white and the state of thinking from a small colonial country… I like this stuff – it reads like a book – it reads like a living history, our history – our people – our mate telling it from the heart.

Pg 66: ‘play yourself – I then realise I don’t know who that is – so I play someone playing me…’ – this is the Mune we know and love… we never knew ‘til now that he knew what we always did.

It seems that a few of us have been in the inner Mune sanctum forever and continue to ‘bags’ him for the sometimes flawed character he is… he’s that actor-writer-director that could – and we knew it was going to be dangerous, that’s why we hang around – to get closer.

The book is out for Christmas. The first thing you do is go to the back pages (index) and look up your own name; we’re performers and entertainers – our ego’s got us where we have ended up… not so much a cork on the tide but a determined paddle against the current. This is very much so for Ian more than most.

I was there for some of it (his life so far that is) – I was sometimes on the edges of it – and then sometimes closer to the centre than I cared to be – a life? It fits neatly into 328 pages… it doesn’t meander – and neither does the Mune. The preface has an apology to those missing in action and the details cut to the floor due to lack of space – but even so we get enough of this very busy life. His life. I could have done with more.

We’re all in it – in the sense that its about being a ‘Kiwi’ bloke – it starts on the stage as that kid that got a reaction – that first addictive moment when they laughed; they laughed with the actor because of the action and because of the timing… all this was to do with a prop (a pea) that did what it was supposed to (or was it a fluke?) – but as they say ‘the rest is history’.

Ian Mune one of the original old hands – a guy who started when there wasn’t a professional Theatre and the Film Business was trying to re-invent itself – both had to be built nearly from scratch – dreams and hard work and sacrifice – you could call him a Pioneer, a Legend… or as the trades now refer to those from that era – Veterans – John O’Shea always used to stutter mmmmmmaaaakes me sound like a ffffuuuucking old car when they call me that.

It goes from there to here and back – Wales and the World – more rough and tumble – theatre in the extreme – celebration and disappointments – a family displaced over 4 months of travel and young kids who don’t recognise their Father – a family trying to find itself again… this is a ripping yarn… a page turner. I like this stuff…

…in the epilogue he refers to ‘a friend gone feral’ – a mutual friend to be exact – it’s probably the constant burden of those damn mental health issues that have create this rift – no ones to blame – no one at fault – I’ve intervened twice now and put the pieces back together… there’s still hope. This book might just do the trick. It’s a great read.

Requiem for a Charter

TAKE (Director’s Guild Magazine)  June 2009

 

The TV Charter (RIP) has felt like one of those mysterious things that some of us cared about but didn’t quite get the complete gist of. Was it an attempt to relive those old days of the late 60s, early 70s when TV meant something? The Charter is back in the news again, albeit for a final death throe: care about it?

As it transpires it always was going to have nothing to do with us independent filmmakers or, in fact, the community or, for that matter, address the relationship between ‘the people’ and the organisation sanctioned to speak on their behalf. It seems that the TVNZ management locked the ‘Charter’ in a desperate arm wrestle from the get-go. By the way did you read it? You can still find the one page document online – do yourself a favour it takes all of three minutes and, let’s face it, it doesn’t go very deep. It might have been written by a committee.

Was it a pathetic bi-product of the PC requirements of recent years and political meddling or was it a genuine attempt at the vague possibility that TVNZ had something to contribute to the larger community? But only if they were told to – the words taken ‘kicking and screaming’ spring to mind.

Bad legislation, bad politics and a bad concept – some of my colleagues have suggested that Marion Hobbs dropped the ball or was it a hospital pass from the get-go? I guess what we did discover was the simple fact that a ‘charter’ is not a quota and a ‘quota’ is not a charter and what we ended up with was something in between… as they say in politics it ‘fell between the gaps’ – hum?

An annual $15 million gift to TVNZ, not a lot in the greater scheme of things but a fairly good chunk if you come from the destitute side of the tracks. I mean, hell, $15m divided by $120k (average price for a documentary) is… um, well it’s more fingers and toes than I’ve got – since 2003, so that’s six years of 15 x 6 = 90, sheesh! 90 million. So what did we end up with? Police 10-7 and more Dream Home. Oh please!

I don’t know about you but when I first heard about the ‘Charter’ I immediately thought deeper purpose, synergy, assonance, maybe a bit of acid and salt on the open wound (possibly a world beyond Holmes), deep breathing at dawn over looking misty tundra and maybe just plainly more stuff about us, you know a more acute observation of the inner machinations of the nation and more participation of a community possibly something beyond Top Town or Location, Location, Location and well, dare I mention, Dancing with the Stars. And what about current affairs?

But, now it’s all over – ‘Did I miss something?’

I guess the big question is ‘did TVNZ embrace the opportunity?’

We’ll take the old document down to the cemetery and bury it next to the departed – Some of us will piss in the hole before we throw in the dirt, some may spit… and when buried and gone we’ll wait for the next badly thought through ‘big idea’ while we put on the ‘hair shirt’ and yet again ‘harden up’.

The good news is the $15mil still exists and is now available to everyone so stop moaning about the lack of hand-outs and just get on with the business that we have always been good at… our independent business always included community and mostly it doesn’t include how TVNZ thinks, never has (unless you’re in the business of how TVNZ thinks – good luck). So here’s to the next big thing! Bring it on whatever it is.

And you can be rest assured that for ever more if quota is ever again mentioned then the word ‘charter’ will be used to justify the non-inclusion in the discussion.

We had our chance and that was it – if you blinked you missed it and lets face it there wasn’t much to miss.

 

 

 

 

Reclaiming the tele

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  December 2007   The view.

 

What television needs is a people’s revolution, argues Waka Attewell…

When you run a restaurant one of the vital functions of the process is not to poison the punters; when you build a house you don’t expect it to leak; and when you watch free-to-air television you don’t expect to be bored rigid. So how did we end up giving our public television system away to a bunch of people who think that they know what we want to watch? Didn’t ‘we the people’ wrestle the Government away from newsprint and books years ago? So, then, what happened to television?

For the record – and if you don’t ask you don’t get – here’s my suggestion. Our state television system has been run into the ground with the likes of reality programmes, celebrity stuff, endless home improvement series, info-news and infotainment (add more to the list if you care that much). This has happened, I suspect, in pursuit of the commercial dollar that props up the bits in-between the boring programmes that hardly anyone watches. So in short, our tele isn’t worth much, so ‘we the people’ should take it off their hands and do something clever with it.

Rumours were rife in the 1970s that the Prime Minister vetted the TV news before it was broadcast. Even if that wasn’t the case, it certainly felt like it was. But with all this conjecture and rumour, it suggested to us (the young filmmakers) that this large bulky item people were buying to add to their furniture was a really important thing. But in the last thirty years or so, where have we ended up? Who owns New Zealand television? Who should own it? And why is the Government still hanging around behind the bike sheds?

It’s all very well for Ian Fraser and Bill Ralston to say they did their best to change the direction of the runaway train (you have to wonder what the job description was, eh?), and then expect us to feel sorry for them when they storm out, resign, have a public hissy fit…then have to listen to them explaining how hard it is to work with a Board (read ‘committee’). Or, how the task is impossible when you have to run a commercial enterprise and then pay a dividend back to the Government – whilst still using taxpayer funds – and then make a profit on top of that. Phew, you might even find yourself agreeing with them when they put it like that. (Though I suspect it’s a cheap cost-saving contrivance when you become the TV news yourself. You have to admire their sense of fiscal responsibility there, don’t you?)

All this lack of meaningful television ‘Charter’ chat (and the struggles connected with it) suggests that not many TV executives know what this Charter thing is. I suspect it has something to do with ‘we the people’ because it popped out of a Parliamentary committee. And ‘we the people’ know this misery and cost-cutting stuff intimately – after all, we have to fed ourselves, pay taxes, clothe our kids, pay the bills…and then as a reward we get to watch boring TV. I reckon the Charter might be about having your ears on. It’s about being conscious that New Zealand exists south of the Bombay hills and north of the Sky Tower. That Otara and Ponsonby are not the only source of dysfunctional family drama available to the hardworking hacks of this country.

So when all the hand wringing, committees and long executive lunches – to discuss egos, TV news, more news opportunities and corporate branding…oh, and the odd TV programme – are factored out of the equation, what is there left to go wrong?

And for some reason this gets me thinking about this Rodney Hide fellow. Hide goes on Dancing with the Stars and is terrible at dancing and marginal at the entertainment business. But that doesn’t matter since we watch it in droves because this is the last and only highlight of free-to-air TV for the entire year. Rodney has a public epiphany when he realises something the whole country already knows: that Parliament is the problem. It’s not the separate parties or the policies or the debating or the bullying or the MMP – it’s the system.

You see what I mean: it’s a bit like TV. It’s not the TV – a box full of valves, wires and gizmos ­– it’s the way that it’s run. So, if they can’t run it, how do we get it back (if we ever had it in the first place) so ‘we the people’ can run it ourselves, um err, well run it properly?

I propose that filmmakers champion a revolution. TV One should be ‘gifted’ back to the people, then let the commercial boys slug it out on TV2. NZ On Air waits to fund the programmes ($86 million per annum). We wait to view it. Who knows, it might even rate. Here’s how it should happen. Divide the TV day into 48 half-hour slots (or 24 one-hour slots) and let anyone apply to have a go. Initially, if you apply you get a slot. No questions asked – we screen everything. Those programmes that are crap (voted by ‘we the people’) don’t come back. Those that are all right get a second go. Those that are good get automatic inclusion next week (the only rule would be that you can’t say “fuck” before 8:30 pm or after 5:00 am).

When there are too many good programmes to fill the slots, a selection committee sourced from a random ballot gets to choose. A new committee is picked by ballot every six months. TV executives and TV programmers aren’t eligible for the ballot, but they automatically go into the jury service system for the rest of their lives. No, that’s a bad idea. How about they get to star in their own reality TV show (which no one watches) for the rest of their lives?

If you don’t think this concept has a chance in hell, have a look at the community TV channel next time you’re in Los Angeles. Every half hour there’s a new show. There are no commercials. It’s barking mad, it’s nuts, you can see the sets wobbling, it’s original, it’s new, it’s bad, it’s good, you’ll scream out loud, and it belongs to the people not the TV experts. It’s the best thing since bread got sliced.

I say bring it on. Gift us TV One – all commercial free and free-to-air. Just leave the keys (and the funding) under the mat and we’ll take it from there, thanks.