We don’t speak its name…

NZTECHO Summer 2017 Summer Issue 75 In Focus

Our man in Ōtaki Waka Attewell was invited to speak at the recent 30th anniversary of the Guild knees-up in Queenstown. Here’s a few of his musings on what it all means.

Freelance cinematograher Waka Attewell

You are not required to think that any production is a great idea or care whether it’s possible to carve out three films and a sequel from a long book or the fact that a soppy romance novel set in and around a-lonely-wind-swept lighthouse is great cinema.

It’s here and it’s now and the simple fact that the phone rang at all, fills your mind with hope and delight. You never thought you’d hear that sound ever again… and, for the first time in months, your heart is a bit glad. You’re immediately tempted to pick up the phone and tell the bank manager he’s an agent of the neo-liberal cabal, but instead you ring him to share the good news about the mortgage not being an issue for a few more months.

Employment is everything.

Without question, (oh god yes!)  employment-is-everything!

This is freelance.

During the last few weeks the Guild has been celebrating the thirty years of its existence. We’ve also tweaked the name. I’ve been to two of the celebratory events. A couple of times the conversation has headed down the ‘why do we need the guild?’ road. It got me to thinking of a good answer, since I was asked to speak in the form of wisdom and reflection at the Queenstown event.

Witty repartee and really funny anecdotes… gulp.

Suffice to say I was a bit nervous over the prospect of filling in for Albol so I tended to over-prepare. I dragged out all the old notes I’d started years ago when writing a-tell-all book on the New Zealand film and TV business. I’d forgotten how much I’d forgotten.

Twenty-one pages of notes came down to two great punchlines. I thought at least one would get a laugh and the other I’d have up my sleeve in case the first was really in need of a companion.

They went in this order: ‘Sign it or Fuck OFF!’ and ‘hit him in the face, that’s what I pay him for.’

The setup line was ‘So why do we need a guild anyway?’

There’s tension on the set, the star is about to enter and deliver some amazing bullshit to make this all worthwhile. I mean, the set has been rebuilt after the last attempt and at great expense demolished to be re-build again. Three hours go by and we wait another ten, and then nearly — but alas — a young AD, with a radio flapping on hip, comes running (yes running) through the door, only to announce that there are ‘issues.’ Finally it’s now seventeen hours and four of the stunt performers have been in rubber since 4:00am. IT finally arrives and a light foam loofah is painted green to be the sword one day, thanks to the magic of CGI. The rubber stunt person, with seventeen hours on the floor, stands opposite The Star (now known as He-whose-shit-doesn’t-stink) and does a test tap around about the place of the face, but not too close, a feather tap perhaps upon a fragile gossamer… OWW!

Oh heck! Drama ensues, with threats of ‘fire that imbecile.’ ‘How could you?’ can be heard through a cluster-fuck of make-up technicians and concerned management, and there’s a small and quick meeting about the AD department before the magic words are called. Roll camera is heard almost as a whisper and the cluster clears, the stunt performer steps forward and The Star is asked to stand on the mark!

The rock-star is reluctant. But there’s a BOOMING demand from above: ‘Hit your mark please!!!’ The loofah strikes at terminal velocity onto the directed place: the face. AND CUT – that’s a wrap for today.

Job done on day three of week three. Seventeen hours and a total of three shots achieved. Some crew might make it home before the next call time most will sleep in their cars.

I guess you had to be there.


The book doesn’t name names. If you were there you’ll remember the moment; if you weren’t there you’ll remember who told you.

I’ve decided to title the book ‘He’s Queer and I’m Driving.’ It’s a line from the original ‘Goodbye Pork Pie’, and there’s a slight whiff of ironic metaphor about the title. It’s that moment in the movie when the blonde hitchhiker is making up her mind whether to get in the mini with the two guys, and it sort of sums up the era and the reluctant chap I once was.

We so desired the Hollywood way, and wished it upon ourselves with more hope than you could muster and then more after that. We needed someone, anyone, from overseas to tell us we were great…

So next time you have a contract thrust in front of your face and are given the old tomato of ‘sign it, or eFF off’ – think of the Bank Manager and the great art (not to mention fantastic working conditions) you’ll be missing out on if you don’t sign and (before you follow your heart to the nearest WINZ office) remember we all thought it was a great idea to invite them here in the first place. After all, someone has to earn the trickle down that we are entitled to, don’t they?

BTW – I never did have to answer the question ‘why do we need a guild’ after I’d used the two punchlines a couple of times in passing conversations… and the after-dinner speech in Queenstown. You had to have been there and, for legal reasons, if anyone asks I made the whole thing up… I did, I really did.












A Moving Document

NZTECHO Winter 2017 Issue 73 Wide Angle

Wellington cinematographer and resident sage of Ōtaki Waka Attewell has been musing on the recent relocation of the Treaty of Waitangi, and what meaning we can take from its new housing.

The film and TV business used to be just about that thing in the corner of your living room and the cinema down the road. Now there’s multi-media, which also includes museum and institutional installations.

That’s where Story Inc. has made their distinctive mark on the communication industry; recently they have inherited and completed the troubled project of installing the Treaty of Waitangi into the National Library foyer in Wellington (it’s in that white building opposite parliament, just up from the Court buildings on Molesworth Street.)

It’s taken 136 years for the Crown to apologize for Parihaka, Māori are 380% more likely to be convicted of a crime, 200% more likely to die from suicide – if the heart disease doesn’t get them first. Maori earn, on average, 18% less in wages, 34% leave school without qualifications, and Māori didn’t beat their children until told to do so by the early missionaries.

These issues and more would’ve been on the minds of Steve LaHood and James McLean when installing their recent work, and foremost in that they were certainly aware that the Treaty is still causing and continues to cause robust discussion.

This state of being when it comes to the Treaty will never change from exactly that. Somehow you get the feeling some of those who signed it in 1840 knew that this would be the case. There was a prophesy spoken that 200 years would pass before the real impact of the signing was known, and James thinks that possibly this public display of the founding document might be part of that healing.

Reconstruction of Treaty
Above: Reconstruction of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, Marcus King.Source: Archives New Zealand
The Treaty of Waitangi
  Te Tiriti o Waitangi – The Treaty of Waitangi. Source: Archives New Zealand.

How did Steve and James go about the thinking? (I love the way these guys do all the thinking before the camera comes out of the box) They decided that the mere telling of the history would be dull, and they asked themselves the question: What is going to make this liberating? This isn’t just about the past, so how do we make this about the future?

What is State, who is The Crown? Where does Sovereignty reside? What is nationhood and national pride? Where does democracy sit when it comes to the law of the land and governance? Does the concept of lore have a place in our present society? What’s colonialism? And is this recent display of the Treaty just another blunder down the path of tokenism, in that it’ll keep the commentators quiet? A bit like we-can-make-Māori-language-relevant for-a-week-because-we-thought-of-it-so-therefore-it-now-exists. See it has a government department and look at the bright colour poster?

The Treaty is a document that’s evocative of hope, anger and sometimes sane constitutional debate; the founding scratch to begin all discussion in a new country, an accommodation deal at its least worthy, the beginning of something more than just more punitive colonial rule… There was a moment after everyone had had their say in the project that Steve and James said that they had to lose control for the next part of the project to occur. People had to let go and then just make it happen.

‘What to do about the Treaty’ has been one of those hospital-pass questions that the new Minister of Internal Affairs has to wrestle with. And then what to do with the actual document became the new headache a few years back… This installation of it has been one of those failed projects that we’ve all heard about around Wellington for some time, so why involve Story Inc. in that level of a bureaucratic nightmare? ‘Well it does’, says James, ‘have more than a slight whiff of ‘important work’ going for it’.


Since the Treaty of Waitangi was signed it has survived a fierce fire when the Government office up north burned (rescued when thrown out the window onto the lawn); it survived a shipwreck when the government was moved from north to south when all other documents were lost, (for the simple fact that someone forgot to load it in with the other government papers) and it has been used as a door-stop (during WW11 when evacuated from Wellington during fears of a bombing from the Japanese) on hot summer days in Masterton. Besides that, the tin box it was stored in was not rat proof or water proof (hence the damage.). And then it was lost for a few years when no one knew (or apparently cared) where it was.

As you come into the first room of the display there’s a Lenin-esque dankness about it, a funereal mood.

The first thing that struck me as I approached the glass case was how much the founding document of this nation is degraded and torn. How did we let this happen? I didn’t realise how much I cared.

Apparently the original ink is actually a form of rust – you might be surprised by the brightness and the colour. After all, old should be sepia shouldn’t it? That’s the convention. The curators thought of this and looked at the brown against brown of the treaty and have created a colour temperature that enhances the text – well, a trick of colour temperature and brightness (50 lux is top.) There is also a time limit as to how much light can fall upon the document per year as not to cause more damage.

One of the saving events was the need for the newly formed NZ Railways, around the 1860’s, when the system was expanding and a blue printing plate lithograph was used to create many copies of the railway plans. Fortunately someone used this machine to photograph the Treaty before the rats had a chew and so the missing bits of the treaty are now part of the background of the display. But more recently, and embarrassingly so, this Treaty keeps losing its bits, in that the original lithographic plates are now missing and no one has a clue as to when and where this happened.


There’s an interactive map in the middle of the space which shows the journey the various pages of the Treaty took when it spent months travelling about the country picking up signatures. Your eye immediately goes to your home town (a bit like you can pick the Z of New Zealand in a foreign newspaper.) Of course, all the Māori Chiefs didn’t travel and crowd into a white sail-cloth tent at Waitangi in 1840. The signing of the document took months and this is a particularly brilliant work as it’s a most complex part of the explanation… explanation?  Yes, at its core this is what this display is, an explanation and an ongoing thought to ponder.

Or perhaps it is another case of being made relevant because someone in government thought of it?

Is the Treaty installation at the National Library part of the ongoing repression of colonial rule or a celebration of something much deeper? As they say in governmental circles these days (when referring to difficult subjects) “where does the conversation begin?” Is it no mistake that in the video room, where you can leave a personal message, there have already been three incidences of pukana (the baring of the buttocks)? Hoons off the streets or real protest? The buttock will stay in the installation. No matter what you think, there is room for every accommodation here. It’s a powerful presentation and we must keep visiting.

It goes without saying New Zealand still suffers from institutionalised racism; the stats and poverty within Maoridom don’t go away. This is New Zealand, and an echo of this hangs from the walls of this fine display. It’s important work. There’s a living wall. We hear the people of Aotearoa speak a heart-felt truth.

If nothing else this installation gives us permission to contemplate the future.



Maoriland Film Festival

NZTECHO Autumn 2017 Wide Angle Issue 72

IMG_0791Raukawa Marae. Photo: Waka Attewell

Our wandering philosopher farmer and cinematographer Waka Attewell writes from Ōtaki. Home of the fabulous 4th annual Maoriland Film Festival.

In the early 1920s, Australian company Federated Feature Films proposed a New Zealand branch to produce feature films.

Otaki was suggested as a suitable place to establish a studio and the New Zealand Moving Picture Company was established.

At the end of films produced in Otaki was the text plate: “The home of Maoriland Films and the Los Angelos [sic] of New Zealand’s moving picture industry.”

However, the plan for Otaki to be the next Hollywood never quite panned out, and after six films Maoriland Films disappeared.

The word “Maoriland” was the name New Zealand was popularly known by from the 1880s to the beginning of World War I.

Nearly 100 years later, the name has been restored.

The aim of the Maoriland Film Festival is to use a native lens and iwi screens to bring the world’s best cinema stories, usually only seen at international film festivals, to Otaki and provide an opportunity to showcase homegrown talent.

Maoriland was modelled on Sundance, which was started 23 years ago by Robert Redford in a town the same size as Otaki.


What is an indigenous film festival? The quick answer might be the other point of view – the slow thinking version might go something like: to maintain our values and moral standing as a nation; to protect our language and be allowed to live where we want and not have our land stolen or developed without our knowledge or participation; and be able to feed and clothe our children whilst living within a colonial world of ‘Us vs Them’; to live harmoniously in a society dominated by another repressive culture… and I’m not talking about New Zealand here (though I could be.) I’m referring to Greenland.

There was a moment that happened during a conference in Hawaii when Māori film director Barry Barclay took a delegation of indigenous folk as support up on stage with him… the Indigenous people were white skinned and from Wales. Yep, I did the same double take as many of us white privileged do when told that story. Is this simply due to our isolation and lack of recent history taught in our schools or perhaps we lack a certain worldliness?

Did you know that Denmark had governmental control (in an annex sort of way) over Greenland? I didn’t either until I watched the film ‘SUME: The sound of a revolution’ at a Maoriland Film Festival.

The rock group SUME was formed in a Danish university, its members were both Greenlandic and Danish. The young folk go to Denmark for their education. The group toured Greenland over 30 years ago and it seems their songs and music moved a nation. The Danish government eventual handed Greenland back their self-determination, and the Greenlandic people of that generation attribute the touring of that musical group with contributing to this hard-fought decision. All the Greenlandic folk have the LP, they know all the songs. SUME were a modern rock group, their songs were protest songs.

IMG_0789Raukawa Marae. Photo: Waka Attewell

I now know that Greenland is a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark since 1979.

The Maoriland Film Festival is where the ‘Us vs Them’ is mostly turned on its head. It’s like spending 5 days in a Barry Barclay [RIP] (Ngati, Feathers of Peace, Te Rua) conversation, where he once again explains the term ‘the camera on the shore’ and why he gave our world 4th Cinema.

Part of me is still searching for the enlightening moment that comes when you explore the unknown, a journey that started with the Maoritanga TV series in the early ‘70’s, when I realised that I lived in a country that might possibly be made from two peoples that were, in fact, refugees. Māori refugees in their own land… and, though the people who were my ancestors had little choice in their journey to this land, it is still a story of invasion, oppression and disassociation not unique to NZ.

Come and sit with us in Ōtaki and contemplate why you might put the camera on the shore?

This is Year Four of the festival’s existence, and the 2600 films submitted have been culled down to the 121 best. Phew – good luck with getting around them all, eh? But, heck, I’m going to give it a go. Maoriland is already part of a worldwide circuit of festivals, conference and competition, modelled on the Sundance Festival, which started 23 years ago in a small town about the size of Ōtaki.

Ōtaki – a town of three parts, beach, village, state-highway, and, beyond that, the racecourse.

A couple of things struck me when I moved to Ōtaki 20 or so years ago. The first was how close the main road to the beach shot by the meeting house in the village. When and how did that happen?

Was it a colonial thing or just a practical thing that has evolved over the last 150 years? And the next thing was never stay in the pub after the third jug gets bought; it’s a small town in the New Zealand rural sector and that racial stuff about Māori lies just beneath thin skin.    It usually starts with a slight against someone from the Wananga getting a   ‘f–king taxpayer handout’ (the Māori University is within staggering distance of the pub, some folk who live in Ōtaki still have to ask what all those buildings are) The town is mostly surrounded by the dairy farming industry and there are some who still don’t know there is a film festival — and this is four years later — but, meanwhile down at the supermarket, you might just as well catch a buzz of excitement when you overhear a group discussing this year’s programme and the favourites of the year before.

MaorilandOtaki main street. Photo: Waka Attewell

Slow thinking, environmental thinking, justice, colonialism… the indigenous ways of our planet… aroha, small town NZ. This is Maoriland. Global thinking.

I have Scottish ancestors (I really should make that film one day) and I am inspired by this festival. My ancestors were cleansed from the island of South Uist, the English government of the day having ruled that their land was more important as pasture for the wealthy landed-gentry than as a tribal people’s homeland. They deemed (as an act of law) that the tribal way of life was somewhat unsophisticated and, so therefore, worthy of taking.

History, ah, we love history – ‘it’s just one frigging thing after another.’ This is our history and our world, and this is who we are.





In a world…

NZTECHO Summer 2016 Wide Angle Issue 71

Waka Attewell NZCS attends this year’s first ever NZCS Awards ceremony in Auckland and finds much to celebrate and wonders whether we are finally asking ourselves the right questions.

Go on, do the voice.

In a world… of too much rain, too much darkness … and not enough smoke (damn it, art department). In a world of endless ¾ backlight and moody shadows, god rays and rainbows.

Cut to: men gathering to feast and bellow their pride. Oh heck, not another awards show?

The weekend starts with cinematographer Tom Stern ASC, AFC, describing himself as a failed electrician. The guy that can name drop Conrad Hall and Clint in the same sentence. Yeah, that Clint. Regaling us with shaggy tales from the Hollywood front line, spiritual endeavours from the Russian tundra and art projects with heart and soul with European connections.

A man who lives in France and works in Hollywood… we immediately like him for his sensible choices. The chat conducted by Simon Riera is well mic’ed, well attended and most appreciated for the insights to the movie shooting process where Tom, beautifully, describes craft as a way of life.

I wonder what life would be like doing two Eastwood movies back to back? He speaks of luck and hard work. The lighting technician who got the call from Clint to tell him that he was shooting his next picture; a guy who hadn’t thought of being a DP. It pays to turn up early and pay attention to the details, eh? Opportunity – she’s our petulant mistress.

The men dispersed into the forest to gather their finery for the forthcoming feasting. A few of the rabble head next door and kick the tyres of the new 8K box from RED. Awe and wonderment and the question on everyone’s lips – 8k? When will enough be enough? At first, the men crowded down the end with the camera and then someone found the free beer and the decibel levels climbed – thank you Claude Dasan of Portsmouth.

Head-count: 84 plus 170 (+ or -) entries to the awards. It must be official. There are now more cinematographers in Auckland than there are train drivers. Partly due to this fact, and housing prices in the north, newly accredited James Cowley NZCS has even moved out of Auckland. Lookout Hawke’s Bay.

What could be more invigorating than being trapped in a room for nine hours with a bunch of men talking about themselves? I head into the fading light to find my suit and prepare.


It’s the inaugural awards for the Cinematographers Society. Suits aplenty and pomp ensues. Look at that – they all got dressed (up) for the occasion. It’s amazing what the threat of a photo opportunity will do. We jam into the lifts and make our way to the back corner of the hotel. Kubrick’s The Shining springs to mind. The music builds, the lights dim, the spotlight finds… finds… FINDS. Aw heck!  What’s this? Who invited her? Did someone bring his sister?

Luckily, Antonia Prebble is a great MC. The men finally grunt their appreciation as they tear at the food and guzzle the wine. If any fighting broke out it wasn’t around my fire… mainly due to the fact that the Grips had fallen for the old trick of ‘you wait for us at the Shakespeare and we’ll pick you up in the bus as we swing by’. Could’ve been the wine, could’ve been the company, probably the testosterone – whatever – the appreciation rose to a mini-climax as show time is made up and the main feasting occurs as scheduled. Old rule, always feed the crew on time.

The concept of the bronze and silver with the occasional gold (and occasional speech) sort of takes the urgency off the proceedings. I like this format for an awards show a lot.

Peter Parnham finally looks a little more settled and has stopped jumping from foot to foot. The evening progresses seamlessly. Thanks Peter and the NZCS organising committee – no small task indeed.

The room glows with appreciation, filling the stomach and corners of the venue… an appreciation of a three hour lighting set up of a car TVC, or that burger with the right amount of appetite appeal; the backlit music clip, documentary, TV drama, full on respect for that shot of the albatross that would’ve taken three months, possibly three years to get… An evening of respect and celebration.

Esteemed guests speak from across the Tasman. You know, the usual – underarm bowling joke, All Blacks, and sheep shagging innuendo – gosh, is that the time already?

…and then love fills the clearing, Weta Digital and a tribute to Andrew Lesnie RIP. A hush falls across the place. What respect. I love this business. I love these people.

A room full of egos, over-inflated importance and stories bold and sometimes true. A room full of plumbers and builders we are not; rumour had it there are Christians, Buddhists and even Freemasons present, bureaucrats and managers from the corporate world. What is this great backdrop trick that Rosco has done with the Murray Milne NZCS stills of Auckland? SoftDrop is amazing. Tom Swartz from Rosco was present, a great product folks.

Around about pudding time I am surprised by a great man hug from Lee Tamahori (Mahana, Once Were Warriors) and an even better man-hug from Louise Baker. We share banter about lesbians and cross-dressing… oh yeah, you had to have been there.

Tom Stern gives the second best speech of the evening. He warns of the technology:  holding up a 4K Hero in one hand a cell phone in the other. Yeah, I feel sick. Size is a relative thing – I mean what could go wrong? Everyone with a cell phone is now a cinematographer. As I said, 8K? When is enough, enough?

It was about now it occurred to me ‘was it still illegal to yell FIRE in a crowded cinema?’

But then the show kicks off again.

And the winner of the prestige, whoa, all-in-winner-takes-all award goes to New Zealand Cinematographer of the Year … drum roll … Ginny Loane. Oh no, a bloody girl!

How did that happen?

The men grunt their approval… but a standing ovation? Now, that’s just going too far!

Here’s the best speech of the evening:


Gin’s Speech (abridged):

It’s a privilege to accept this award.

I want to thank the wonderful Lee Tamahori for giving me the opportunity to work on Mahana.

I also want to acknowledge the wonderful actors and crew who made the film a total pleasure to work on.

As a woman cinematographer I have been lucky. I’ve had support and encouragement from some wonderful men in this room and I’m grateful for that.

I’m just one woman DP of only a handful in this country. It’s a problem … We need to do more.

If we want our industry to be more interesting and diverse, to reflect the actual society that we live in, then we have to make room for it.

It’s up to those of us in positions of privilege to take the risks and reach in and pull forward those people who may not fit the preconception of what a cinematographer looks like.

If we want more diversity, we DP’s have to start giving space to people who don’t remind us of ourselves. We have to challenge our own thinking and choices and take risks.

It starts here in this room.

(Spontaneous applause!)

I, and hopefully many other women, will take it as encouragement. Thank you.

(More applause!)



Michael David Hardcastle

1952 – 2016

NZTECHO Spring 2016 Issue 70

The tears are jumping on me at the strangest times… I know you’d think that all rather unnecessary under the circumstances and then you would’ve said something slightly spiritual but still self-effacing, yet very humorous.

I’m driving across the Auckland Harbour Bridge…tears, remembering that shot you told me about showing all the cars. Stacked up and floating…toxic drain on precious resources. I drive passed a marae and feel your devotion to kaitiakitanga… more tears.

Yesterday on a documentary shoot filming an economist about the human dilemma of wealth and inequality, moral issues and broken political agenda… the tears drip onto the viewfinder as I remember a conversation you and I had predicting these times and the demise of humanity – would’ve been around 1991 – in a time before the term global warming had made itself into the political arena of denial and stupidity… Mike you saw it coming. You knew already where the banking system was taking us as they foreclosed on the oyster farm… it was you who told me that banking trick of forced over capitalisation and debt collection, yet, despite all that disappointment and grief you found yourself again and a true love in Anne; then telling the inner truth with your film and documentary work never failed to inspire… picking yourself up and never compromised your beliefs.

I’d admired you even more.

Thank you for that love that only a true friend can share. You can only have one friend like that and that was you Mike.

But mostly thank you for showing me how to be a better person… I will miss you immensely.

Waka Attewell.

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?


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.


Geoff Murphy: a life on film

Geoff Murphy Stuff pic

NZTECHO   Summer 2015

Waka Attewell reviews and reminisces as he reads Geoff Murphy’s autobiography.


There’s this pub conversation that we’ve been having for more than thirty years that goes something like this: ‘How would you get Pork Pie made today?’ followed by ‘How would you get a Maori film through the Film Commission?’ and ‘Would they (they) let you make Utu today?’ These are uniquely NZ national cinema related and could only occur amongst those folk who care and seriously believe that ‘national cinema’ is a worthy and vital pursuit. So if you can’t get Geoff Murphy to come out to the pub and have that conversation then buy his book instead!

Continue reading “Geoff Murphy: a life on film”