David Coulson (b.1955, Auckland)

Editor of numerous feature films including North Country (2005), Whale Rider (2002), Broken English (1996) and Kitchen Sink (1989).

DipFA (Film), 1974–76

Interviewed by Tracy McCaw
October 2007

“I arrived at art school with virtually no practical experience”

I majored in film or, as it was then known, moving image. In the first year (non-specialist) my tutors were Dick Lovell-Smith (painting), Don Peebles (design), Doris Lusk (drawing), Lawrence Shustak (photography) and Marty Mendelsberg (sculpture). In the remaining two specialist years, my tutor was Maurice Askew.

My peer group of students in film were Vincent Ward (who became a director), Maria French (who became an editor) and Timothy White (who became a producer). The department was very new at the time, and we were all pretty much feeling our way.

The social scene at art school was great, with lots of mingling between the disciplines. Friendships formed during the first year continued as we moved on through the school. We would also quite often call on other students to appear in, or assist in crewing, our film exercises.

The international artists in film that we were most aware of at the time were probably the French New Wave directors and the Germans were also very big back then. Maurice Askew did put us through a pretty comprehensive film history programme during which we studied the work and influences of the major directors, and the key movements in cinema. In terms of contemporary New Zealanders, we were definitely aware of the work of Roger Donaldson, Ian Mune, John O'Shea, Tony Williams, Geoff Steven and Paul Maunder. Also, of course, the earlier work of pioneer kiwi film-maker Rudall Hayward. It was an interesting time in terms of the evolution of New Zealand cinema – the 'second wave', starting with Sleeping Dogs and Solo was getting under way, and the New Zealand Film Commission was just being set up.

At art school I learnt a vast amount – too much to quantify – but I guess fundamentally I learnt about engaging fully in the creative process. It should be stated that I originally planned to study law, and in fact had filled out my pre-enrolment papers for that faculty. However, for whatever reason – I can only remember a general sense of foreboding – I was unable to physically post the papers off. Eventually my father, himself an artist, persuaded me to think about what I really wanted to do, and I realised that in fact I felt far more attracted to the idea of working in films. A brief investigation revealed that you could in fact study film at the fledgling moving image course at the Ilam art school. So I filled out the papers instead for fine arts, and to my astonishment was accepted!

I arrived at art school with virtually no practical experience – I can only assume I was accepted due to my passing bursary history of art – and was thus very much on the back foot compared with my peers, many of whom were exceptionally talented to my eye, from the get-go. However as time passed I gained in confidence, and spent less time looking around and trusted more in my own instincts.

My reason for attending art school in the first place was that it was the only place in New Zealand at that time that had anything like a formalised course where you could study and learn film. My intention was to then graduate and join the National Film Unit as a trainee director. However, as things transpired I ended up working for Television One in Lower Hutt as an assistant film editor. As much as anything, this was to further my interest in editing, which was probably the most important area of the film-making process that was most neglected at the art school.

Since that time (1977) I have been fortunate to work in my chosen field as a film editor both in New Zealand and internationally in countries as diverse as Germany, South Africa, England, France and the United States. But I frequently think back with fondness to those three years out at the Ilam campus, where I gradually discovered what I was really going to become, and am forever grateful that I was accepted for study at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts.