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Obituary for NZ Writer Rex Pilgrim

Garth Maxwell and Rex Pilgrim

Garth Maxwell and Rex Pilgrim (right) during the shoot for When Love Comes. Photo credit Michele Fantl

By Garth Maxwell

I’m a filmmaker and director who has worked in New Zealand and Australia, and I was a close friend and collaborator with Rex Pilgrim, who died unexpectedly in Brisbane recently, in early September. I met Rex when he was working the accounts for James Wallace, who produced an early gay film of mine Beyond Gravity, and I found in Rex a sharp-witted, artistically minded activist spirit of just the kind I sought, for co-writing further projects. Subsequently Rex contributed to Jack Be Nimble, which made a savage splash as a covertly-queer dark fable of NZ horror, and to When Love Comes, written by myself, Rex, and Peter Wells, a film that looks at a creative cross-generational community of musicians and lovers, gay and straight.

Further efforts to make work together were frustrated by a range of issues, mainly the sheer cost of making films and especially the lower kinds of budgets available to gay-themed works, as compared to the ambition of Rex’s ideas, evidenced on a project we attempted set in Spain under Franco, called The Last Beat of My Heart. The film had a moment in the sun when Mark Ordesky, then a scout for New Line Cinema before he became a producer on Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, championed it, and we were talking to agents for some of Hollywood’s greatest including Daniel Day Lewis and indeed Madonna’s manager. But the moment passed, and the film never happened. Rex went on to do further drafts but it was not possible to regain that crazed overheated momentum, and I think the disappointment was something he felt acutely.

I miss him for his grasp of what could be made of the moment – the moment to say your piece – the moment to represent yourself and your own sexuality and culture – the moment to speak up and to use your own voice. For someone who was a lifelong reader and admirer of great writing, he had a special flair as an activist writer to say the difficult things, and to draw attention to the absurdity and the hypocrisy we pretended not to notice. His sense of humour was delightful, sharp, sometimes acid. The space left behind him will linger for a long long time, for there are few with as unique a footprint as my friend and cowriter Rex.

 

Peter Wells with Rex Pilgrim

Peter Wells with Rex Pilgrim, photo credit Michele Fantl

By Peter Wells

My name is Peter Wells and I am a NZ author and film-maker. I met Rex when I came back to NZ in the early 1980s and a friendship blossomed. I was attracted to his quick intelligence, his laugh and also a certain sardonic take on life. We went on to work together editing ‘Best Mates, an Anthology of Gay NZ Writing’ which appeared in 1997. We gathered up writing of gay male writers as far back as we could and as far forward as we could. We struck problems with a number of estates who refused permission. We returned the compliment by showing a blank page with the author’s name at the top. It said a lot. Auckland Museum refused to give us permission to use a beautiful archival photo of two men affectionately kissing on a boat. We went ahead and used it as a cover. As a reader said on Amazon’s Goodreads recently, ‘if you are into queer studies, this is an important book.’ I am retrospectively so proud of this book that Rex and I put together. Not only is it a beautiful object filled with illustrations but it is, in its own small way, a landmark publication.

So in this sad circumstance when someone’s life leaks away, the loss of his charm, his ability to laugh, to be pert and sharply to the point, I like to think that a part of Rex remains forever in this very beautiful and important book. He meant it, he told it, he edited it, he put it together and while he has so achingly gone, this book is a testament to his intelligence, his wit and his grit.