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Geoff Murphy, Iconoclastic Filmmaker

When Geoff Murphy died last week, he left a film industry very different from the one that he entered in the 1970s. In those days it couldn’t be called an industry – just a bunch of mates trying to make movies. Geoff was at the forefront of the renaissance and deserves the accolades bestowed later in life: a lifetime achievement award at the Moa New Zealand Film Awards, one of twenty Arts Foundation “arts icons”, New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2014 Queen’s New Year Honours.

Colourful, irreverent, his anti-authoritarianism was a badge of honour to the end, his signature gesture an up-thrust middle finger to the establishment. I remember, a decade ago, sitting with him on the porch of his man-cave in Holloway Road as, a roll-your-own stuck to his lip (Diane wouldn’t let him smoke inside) he carved miniature cannons for his model warships and railed against the mendacious moguls of Hollywood and bumbling bureaucrats of Wellington.

A budding teaching career didn’t have a hope when he discovered jazz, drugs and Bruno Lawrence. They created BLERTA – Bruno Lawrence’s Electric Revelation and Traveling Apparition. A bunch of hippy musos, partners, their kids and assorted hangers-on toured the country in their bus jolting the locals awake with a crazy mix of theatre, jazz, rock, pyrotechnics and psychedelics. And film. They were experimenting with film in their concerts and from this grew their first films – Wild Man and Dagg Day Afternoon.

Some of the BLERTA crew – including Alun Bollinger, Martyn Sanderson, Bruno and Geoff – put their 60s principles into practice scraping together enough to buy some land at Waimarama and establishing a commune focussed around making music and movies.

With no money and no gear, they built their own. He and Andy Grant built the first camera crane in the country. His very kiwi ability to find creative solutions to problems stood him in good stead all his career.

In 1981 I remember coming out of a screening of Goodbye Pork Pie with a silly grin on my face. It was this tongue-in-cheek road movie that established Geoff as New Zealand’s pre-eminent action director and Alun Bollinger as a highly-rated cinematographer. The film somehow captured the zeitgeist of the time and New Zealanders took it to their hearts. To Geoff’s surprise it set box-office records that took years to surpass.

His next film, Utu, is regarded by many as his best. Quentin Tarantino possesses an intimate knowledge of New Zealand cinema and Utu is his favourite. However, the cut that was released had been “improved” by the producers and Geoff was not happy. When, in 2013, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision (the NZ Film Archive) was restoring Utu, Geoff was given the chance to recreate his director’s cut. He leapt at the opportunity. The result was released as Utu Redux. More recently Tarantino was putting together a season of screenings of his favourite films. He rang Geoff to ask for permission to screen Utu and explained that he needed a 35ml print. Geoff insisted he screen the Redux version and when he realized that they could only access a 16ml print of Redux, and Quentin would have to screen the original version, Geoff withdrew permission.

After Quiet Earth Geoff headed to Hollywood to work on action block-busters like Young Guns II, Freejack, Under Seige II and The Last Outlaw. Despite mixing with Hollywood royalty, Geoff, ever the outlaw himself, refused to be impressed by fame. His battered Toyota station-wagon stood out among the Ferraris and Bentleys in the studio carpark.

By this time he had left both his wife Pat and long-time lover Diane and married film-maker Merata Mita. Their son Hepi remembers growing up in Hollywood: “Mickey O’Rourke used to hang out on our couch. One day Mick Jagger rang and invited us down to stay on Mustique, his Caribbean island, so off we went. Dad and Mick got on like a house on fire.”

When Peter Jackson invited Murphy to be second unit director on the Rings trilogy, he returned to Wellington where he moved in with old flame Diane Kearns. A solid unit, they were together till the end.

In 2009 I had the privilege of working with Geoff on Tales of Mystery and Imagination, a genre-bending music film based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe with music by Lucien Johnson.

In 2014 his last film was released: Spooked, a cyber-thriller starring Cliff Curtis.

Despite his time in Hollywood, he was very clear about both the difference between Hollywood and New Zealand films, and his identity as primarily a New Zealand film-maker telling “our stories”.

He is survived by his brothers John and Roy, and a number of children, several of whom are in the screen industry – Robin (production manager and producer), Paul (director – Second Hand Wedding, Lovebirds), Matt (director – Pork Pie – the remake), Linus, Miles (director – commercials and short films), Heperi (director – Te Taki A Merata Mita – How Mum Decolonised The Screen), Rafer, Richard, Rhys, Awatea, and step children Joe and Paul Kearns.

 

Howard Taylor
President

8 December 2018

Stray film still

Stray Director Dustin Feneley to Share at Rialto Film Talk

Film Talk at Rialto Cinemas is where filmmakers and film fans meet. After each Film Talk screening, members of the creative team will join a moderator from the Directors & Editors Guild to discuss their work.

On October 3, Film Talk will screen Stray, finishing with an audience Q&A with director Dustin Feneley.

Stray is Feneley’s much-anticipated first feature and is editor Dione Chard’s first full-length film. Both are members of DEGNZ.

Come along if you missed the film at the New Zealand International Film Festival and to hear about the making of the film.

STRAY

Stray film poster

In a cold and remote landscape, two strangers struggle to repair their broken pasts. A young man is on parole after serving time for attempting to murder the man who killed his girlfriend in a hit and run. A woman is released from a psychiatric facility far from her homeland. These two damaged strangers cross paths in the mountains in winter and fall into a complex intimate relationship, putting to the test their capacity to trust and heal.

When: Wed 3 October 2018, 6pm
Where: Rialto Cinemas Newmarket, 167-169 Broadway, Newmarket, Auckland

Cost: $12 for film industry members – Book Tickets

View from the Top banner

Hopes and Dreams

Thanks to the New Zealand Film Commission, I was fortunate to attend the Cannes Film Festival 2018 where hopes and dreams are realized or not, and was reminded of where we Kiwis sit in the global film industry with our 5 – 15 films each year—somewhere towards the back unless someone has been good enough to put themselves in the front row.

The film industry remains dominated by two territories—North America and Europe. In 2016, 2,123 feature films were produced in Europe alone, in the US 789, while the total worldwide for that year for the top 10 markets was approximately 7,973. India with its massive output including Bollywood films tops the list with 1,903. China is clearly a major player now, too, with 944 films, but it is still grappling with how to be most effective with its money and create films with international appeal.

Although Europe is a conglomeration of cultures, in fact in film they have a shared sensibility. European films dominated European sales agents’ catalogues at Cannes, although films from South America, Africa, and the Middle East vie for space as Europe looks to other territories for the next great filmmakers. Saudi Arabia has recently thrown its film doors open and both the commercial and cultural film sectors are queuing to get in.

It’s this attraction for the new that’s possibly one reason New Zealand has been thrust aside at Cannes. In many respects we’ve already had our time in the Cote D’Azur sun. Vincent Ward, Jane Campion and a couple of others preceded Christine Jeffs with Rain, which was the last NZ film selected for Cannes in 2001. A more likely reason is that we just haven’t had a filmmaker and film with Cannes appeal. That doesn’t stop us from trying, though.

Each year thousands of films including those from NZ seek selection at Cannes. It’s hard to get in and when films do, the filmmakers, their film bodies or investors, and their sales agents celebrate. Director’s Fortnight, International Critics Week, Un Certain Regard and the most prestigious of all, Official Competition, are the sought after sections. Repeaters who are Cannes darlings often dominate official competition. This year it was Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s turn to take the top prize, the Palme d’Or, with his seventh Cannes selection.

While we all dream of a film in competition, what most Kiwi filmmakers attending Cannes are doing there is hoping to secure international sales and distribution for films that have yet to be made. A fantastic script, unknown but talented director, internationally renowned cast, commerciality, festival potential—all or a combinations of these things are what sales agents are after.

Some seek films that are bright, full of hope, comedic, or genre, and exhibiting clear commercial potential. Others are attracted to the darker side, the auteur vision, the arthouse film that could break out, although it’s definitely harder to find sales agents for such films these days even though it’s what many Europeans are still making.

We are in a sub-category of our own at Cannes, like our Australians and Canadians colleagues, with our English language peculiarities that are neither definitively US indie or European arthouse. UK sales agents although part of the European makeup are obviously more friendly to English language films, but certainly are more driven by commerciality than their European counterparts. The same for those from the US.

Elevated genre is one way for us to break out, whether it’s horror, drama or thriller, but you can’t go past a great script whatever type of film you are pitching. It’s a matter then of finding a sales agent who loves the script as much as you do. But you’ve got to get them to read it first. To do that you and your project will be put through the wringer, sometimes gently sometimes not, to see if it meets that particular sales agent’s yardstick. And the yardsticks do differ.

One key ingredient that gets films made and into the market it seems to me is passion—The passion of the writer, director and producer that’s going to see them go the hard yards across many years to get their film up. And the passion that the sales agent and distributor must have to take a film on—it’s a tough environment for them these days and you hear of as many bankruptcies or close downs as you do successes. One sales agent I know told me that from Berlin in February to Cannes in May this year, he knew of four sales agents that went bust.

Filmmaking ultimately though is about hopes and dreams, whether it’s arthouse, tent pole or something in between. Every filmmaker understands this no matter what genre or budget they are working with. The big question we all confront sooner or later is whether our hopes and dreams can be realized or they just remain pie in the sky. And Cannes can help you find the answer while delivering the spectacle that makes it the most glamorous film festival around.

I highly recommend that anyone who wants to make a film go to Cannes. It’s fun, sobering, hard work, overwhelming, and it will break you out of that isolationist world that we all mostly operate in. And I suggest you go soon. If Cannes doesn’t adapt to the changing screen world, it could end up as just a fond memory of what it used to be.

Tui Ruwhiu
Executive Director