“I always knew I was going to make movies. I didn’t want to do anything else, and I knew I wasn’t going to do anything else.”
My peer group consisted of Vincent Ward, David Coulson and Maria French. Murray Freeth was also there doing animation, although he was a year ahead. Vincent, David and myself worked fairly closely together through that time and built an intense relationship. With Vincent in particular that relationship continued after art school – I was first assistant director on his first feature film, Vigil, and I also co-produced a fairly ambitious production called Map of the Human Heart that we did together in 1992.
I was pretty young when I got to art school – I had just turned 18 – and I did the interim year, which was extraordinary. I loved people like Doris Lusk and Bill Sutton and Tom Taylor. It was a brilliant school at that time in terms of its painting tradition, but I knew that I was a crap painter, although I had a good technical sense. At school I had excelled at things like applied maths and physics, and I was always looking for a genuine creative endeavour that would combine particular aspects of my brain.
Probably the best way to describe the social scene is to say I don’t remember much – they were hazy years. The film, theatre design and animation students were in an annex building off-campus on Ilam road. We were apart from the painting and sculpture students, who of course in terms of numbers dominated the art school. That created a certain separation.
I guess the landmark moment for me was when Vincent and I formed a creative partnership and received permission from Janet Frame to adapt her novel A State of Siege. This was in Vincent’s graduation year (he had failed the previous year!) and my honours year. A few weeks into the year at Ilam we disappeared to Wellington to shoot the film and returned three-quarters of the way through the year to edit in Christchurch. So you can imagine there were long periods of separation, not only being at the little two-storey annex but not even physically being in Christchurch for a good part of the last two years at art school.
Our group was very much at the vanguard of creating the film department. We were incredibly ambitious and got funding from outside sources and worked with outsiders from the art school. For A State of Siege, for instance, we got funding from the Arts Council, as it was known then, and from some private sources and set out to make a 50-minute drama. We brought in a lot of professionals from the industry, people like film director Geoff Murphy, and the great director of photography Alun Bollinger who went on to do Vigil and has had a continued involvement right through to River Queen with Vincent Ward.
At the end of art school, I got a Eurorail pass and took A State of Siege under my arm and sold it to a lot of countries in Europe. I then got a fellowship to train at 20th Century Fox in LA, which included some part time courses at UCLA – it was like a post-graduate programme for me.
I always knew I was going to make movies. I didn’t want to do anything else, and I knew I wasn’t going to do anything else. And now, approaching 30 years later, I have made 24 feature films and worked for companies like Mirimax, Mel Gibson’s Icon and Working Title, the pre-eminent British production house.
I am intrigued to come across people like Glenn Standring and David Rittey who have come through art school. It kind of feels good that there is that continuum. Without sounding too misty-eyed, it was an extraordinary time. I feel fortunate that we happened to be a group of highly motivated, talented people who were there at a time when it was embryonic- not too structured. We could do our own thing, which fostered that quality of self-determination that is needed in this industry – almost merciless self-determination.
My time at art school coincided with a really exciting time internationally for filmmaking and locally the beginnings of an industry with people like Roger Donaldson and the New Zealand Film Commission emerging. And Vincent and I were lucky enough to be the ‘golden boys’ who had made a film like that when we were 21. I think in a broader sense I do look back to people like Doris and Tom and Bill, who in their very idiosyncratic, sometimes cantankerous ways really fuelled our imaginations… Especially someone like Vincent, who was much more the painter than I ever dreamed of being. We were heavily influenced in positive and negative ways; often you need those forces of friction and discontent as much as simulation and a sense of being nurtured.