Dearest Graeme

TAKE (NZ Director’s Guild Magazine)  April 2011

Graeme Tetley was one of New Zealand’s most respected scriptwriters. His work ranged from ghost stories(Mr Wrong) to impressionist coming of age tales (Vigil); through real-life tragedies (Out of the Blue) to domestic comedies (Ruby and Rata). – NZONSCREEN. 

Graeme Tetley died of a heart attack on March 13, 2011, aged 69.


Panel discussion with the creators of Out Of The Blue


Graeme and I sat downstairs at the SPADA conference and reminisced about the screenplay I had just resurrected after nearly 20 years to rewrite as a TV series. He thought for a moment and quoted back a pivotal scene, he was almost word perfect, he told me he also remembered the song I had included and hummed a few bars of it a bit later. He told me how much he had enjoyed the passion of cinema that my writing had invoked. We spoke for at least two hours – I didn’t go upstairs to the conference, I walked out of the hotel on clouds of renewed confidence.


You might call it the early days of the Film Commission though they seemed to have been around for ages… whatever they were they were firstly Bureaucrats and had certainly got their slippers under the bed.

I’d written a feature film screenplay; it was my first effort and this was the first draft – it was 172 pages long (120 was the then fashion, 102 was preferred).

It went into NZFC development process.

I’m Dyslexic which meant the writing process was like days of dentistry followed by torture akin to finger nails being slowly extracted – I was alone for months in an upstairs office… when it wasn’t going so well I felt sick, when it went better I didn’t feel sick but just a bit unwell.

The computer didn’t have a spell-check or a script writing programme… months later (at a NZFC development meeting) I realised that I’d spelt the word ‘draft’ on the cover as ‘darft’ and at that darft meeting the length and the spelling became the focus… I pointed out that I knew all this, it was a minor detail that could be fixed later… you know when the grownups got involved, lets get on with the story and the structure? …but no this was not to be – page 9 was an issue of two spelling mistakes followed by a long debate about swearing in a script that the board was going to be reading… hell! – the script was set in a prison.

I’d heard about Graeme Tetley (the industry talked in hushed tones of deep respect regarding ‘Vigil’) – I asked if he could be considered the script editor and mentor? – ‘out of the question!’ – Tetley only worked on real movies – I left the ‘darft’ meeting crushed and none the wiser about what they thought of my work or story other than I had just outed myself as a failed dyslexic writer.

My business partner said he would organise some script assessment (whatever) while I said I would go home and put an axe through the computer, I thought I would break my fingers for good measure!

I got on with the core business of making TV commercials, the company had suffered from my writing folly and not much had come through the door in six months. TVC’s it was – smiling family scenes – corporate husbands coming home to perfect families to eat turkey that popped out plastic erections – cars that drove smoothly across the tundra as brown folk started to appear as background extra’s -creeping on bareback horses out of the countryside, smiling and waving at the latest Japanese model – 2 page scripts with little chance of analysis or scrutiny.

An envelope arrived. 18 x A4 pages. Graeme Tetley’s return address was on the back fold… my heart raced and sank at the same time… here was the brick that was going to tell me to never be seen around a writing desk ever again… 18 pages of reasons to never make another movie. It would finally put me out of my misery.

I didn’t open it for days…

The covering letter was surprisingly-deeply-personal and revealing of the Writer – it welcomed me to the fraternity of strugglers (those rare people that were prepared to start on the blank page) – it spoke of doubt and truth and form and structure – Graeme mentioned the ‘Writers journey’ which included me – he invited me to his house for a face to face – we sat about drinking coffee and talking ‘story’ – we spoke about the respect we had for the ‘cinema’ and how the audience had to be treated with intelligence – but we mostly spoke about the passion and the commitment to a really difficult art… we spoke to the poetry of the words and the images – in those fantastic three hours there wasn’t a mention of spelling or script length.

Graeme Tetley the Writers’ writer – New Zealand’s best.


Photo credit. Graeme Tetley at the Panel discussion with the creators of Out Of The Blue at the Cameo @ The Paramount at the Paramount Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand.  (c) Robert Catto   all rights reserved