Lee Tamahori worked his way up the filmmaking ranks, before debuting as a feature director with 1994's Once Were Warriors. This portrait of a Māori family in turmoil became the most successful movie in Kiwi history, and was seen around the world. Since then Tamahori has worked mainly in Hollywood, where he has directed everything from episodes of The Sopranos to James Bond blockbuster Die Another Day.

It didn't change the nature of the society, but I said from the get-go, 'If one woman gets out of an abusive relationship because of this picture, I'll be a happy man.' Lee Tamahori on Once Were Warriors, in an interview on website The Hollywood Interview

Screenography

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Came a Hot Friday

1984, First Assistant Director - Film

“The funniest, liveliest, most exuberant film ever made in New Zealand”. So said critic Nicholas Reid, a year after Came a Hot Friday became 1985's biggest local movie hit. Reid may still be on the money. Though Billy T’s loony Mexican-Māori cowboy is beloved by fans, he is but one eccentric here among many — as two scheming conmen hit town, to encounter bookies, boozers, country hicks, nasty crim Marshall Napier, and Prince Tui Teka playing saxophone. Until the arrival of The Piano in 1993, Ian Mune and Dean Parker’s award-loaded adaptation remained NZ's third biggest local hit.

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Once Were Warriors

1994, Director - Film

Once Were Warriors was an internationally successful film that honestly opened the eyes of cinema goers to an unexamined aspect of modern New Zealand life. Director Lee Tamahori's visceral and hard hitting depiction of gang and domestic violence amongst an urban Māori whānau, was adapted from the best-selling Alan Duff novel by screenwriter Riwia Brown. Produced by Robin Scholes, the film provided career-defining roles for Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen as Jake the Mus and Beth Heke. It is NZ most watched local release (besting Boy by bums on seats measure).

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Goodbye Pork Pie

1981, Boom Operator - Film

Geoff Murphy's second feature was a low-budget smash, definitively proving that New Zealanders could make blockbusters too. Young rascal Gerry steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John, who wants his wife back; and a hitchhiker named Shirl. Soon they are driving to Invercargill to find her, with the cops in hot pursuit. Eluding the police with hair-raising driving, verve and trickery, it's not long before the "Blondini gang" are hailed as folk heroes, onscreen and off.

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The Power of Music (Te Kaha o Te Waiata)

1988, Director - Short Film

Auckland reggae band Herbs could have released their new album in the comfortable confines of an Auckland nightclub. Instead, they chose to travel to Ruatoria — a troubled and divided East Coast town where turmoil surrounding a Rastafarian sect had resulted in assaults, kidnappings and firebombed churches. Lee Tamahori and John Day's documentary captures an emotional experience for band and locals as they meet at Mangahanea marae in an attempt to shift the focus from disunity to harmony. This footage also yielded the memorable Sensitive to a Smile music video.

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The Silent One

1984, First Assistant Director - Film

The Silent One is a mythological children's drama about the friendship between a deaf mute boy, Jonasi, and a rare white turtle. The boy's differences lead to suspicion from his Rarotongan village. When the village suffers drought and a devastating storm, the boy and turtle (also considered an ill omen) are blamed and ostracised. Adapted by Ian Mune from a Joy Cowley story, the beloved film was the first New Zealand dramatic feature to be directed by a woman (Yvonne Mackay). In the excerpt here, Jonasi is excluded from a boar hunt and first meets the turtle.

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Utu

1983, First Assistant Director - Film

It's the 1870s, and Māori leader Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) is fed up by brutal land grabs. He leads a bloody rebellion against the colonial Government, provoking threatened frontiersmen, disgruntled natives, lusty wahine, bible-bashing priests, and kupapa alike to consider the nature of ‘utu’ (retribution). Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about Geoff Murphy’s ambitious follow up to Goodbye Pork Pie: “[He] has an instinct for popular entertainment. He has a deracinated kind of hip lyricism. And they fuse quite miraculously in this epic ...”

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The Governor - The Reverend Traitor (Episode One)

1977, Boom Operator - Television

The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ televison's first historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. In ‘Episode One: The Reverend Traitor', Grey arrives to colonial troubles: flag-pole chopping Hōne Heke, missionary Henry Williams, and rebellious Te Rauparaha.

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Battletruck

1982, Boom Operator - Film

In a lawless fuel wars future, marauders roam the wasteland looking for oil. Their malevolent leader Straker threatens his daughter Corlie; she’s rescued by loner Hunter and they harbour with eco-sensitive folk in the Clearwater Commune ... but not for long: there will be blood on the Central Otago plains! Following in the exhaust of Mad Max, the cult film was made during the 80s tax-break feature surge, with US director (Harley Cokliss) and leads flocking south during a Hollywood writers’ strike, and Kiwis as crew (“artists with chainsaws”) and supporting cast.

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The Quiet Earth

1985, First Assistant Director - Film

In director Geoff Murphy's cult sci-fi feature a global energy project has malfunctioned and scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakes to find himself the only living being left on earth. At first he lives out his fantasies, helping himself to cars and clothes, before the implications of being 'man alone' sink in, along with his own culpability in the disaster. As this awareness sends him to the brink of madness, he discovers two other survivors. One of them is a woman. Los Angeles Daily News gushed: “quite simply the best science-fiction film of the 80s”.

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Sensitive to a Smile

1987, Director - Music video

Herbs visited sometimes-troubled town Ruatoria in 1987 bringing music and aroha, and leaving with a mini-documentary and this evocative music video. A beautiful video for a beautiful song (about beautiful people). Lee Tamahori, of Once Were Warriors fame, was co-director, and the clip won Best Music Video at the 1987 New Zealand Music Awards.

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1990 Commonwealth Games promo - Join Together

1990, Director - Television

This epic Lee Tamahori-directed promo for the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games imagines the stirrings of Games spirit in the mud of the Western Front, 1917. Behind the lines, soldiers from various 'British Empire' nations (Bruno Lawrence, Tony Barry and a young Joel Tobeck) lay bets to see who is the fastest. After racing they pledge to "do this again sometime eh brother" (referring no doubt to the shared joy of competition, as opposed to 1,115,597 Commonwealth war dead). The first Commonwealth Games were held in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada), in 1930. 

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Savage Islands

1983, First Assistant Director - Film

This pirates of the South Seas tale stars Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive) as rogue Bully Hayes, who helps a missionary save his kidnapped-by-savages wife. Produced by Kiwis Rob Whitehouse and Lloyd Phillips (12 Monkeys, Inglorious Basterds), the film was made in the 80s ‘tax-break’ feature surge and filmed in Fiji and New Zealand (with an NZ crew and supporting cast). John Hughes (Breakfast Club) and David Odell (Dark Crystal) scripted the old-fashioned swashbuckler from a Phillips story. It was released by Paramount in the US as Nate and Hayes.

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Utu Redux

2013, First Assistant Director - Film

In 1983 director Geoff Murphy stormed out of the scrub of the nascent Kiwi film industry with a quadruple-barreled shotgun take on the great NZ colonial epic. The New Zealand wars-set tale of a Māori leader (Anzac Wallace) and his bloody path to redress 'imbalance', was the second NZ film officially selected for Cannes, and local cinema’s then second biggest hit (after Goodbye Pork Pie). A producer-driven recut was later shown in the US. This 2013 redux — led by cinematographer Graeme Cowley, with Murphy and editor Mike Horton — is Utu “enhanced and restored”.

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Among the Cinders

1983, First Assistant Director - Film

Author Maurice Shadbolt went before the cameras to play father to the main character, in this adaptation of his acclaimed coming of age novel. Teen Nick (Paul O’Shea) is estranged from his family, and blaming himself for his Māori mate's climbing death. He runs away to his straight talking grandfather (Derek Hardwick) — who takes him bush — and loses his virginity to Sally (a first film role for Rebecca Gibney). Produced by Pacific Films legend John O’Shea, the NZ-German co-production was directed by Rolf Hädrich (Stop Train 349). The film debuted in NZ on television. 

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Making Utu

1982, Subject - Television

This documentary sees director Gaylene Preston go behind the scenes during the making of Geoff Murphy's Utu — his ambitious 'puha western' set during the 1870s land wars. “It’s like football innit? You set up the event and cover it …” says Murphy, preparing to shoot a battle scene. In this excerpt, the film’s insistence on cultural respect is conveyed: Merata Mita discusses the beauty of ta moko as Anzac Wallace is transformed into Te Wheke in the make-up chair, and Martyn Sanderson reflects on having his head remade to be blown off: “What’s the time Mr Wolf?”.

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E Tipu E Rea - Thunderbox

1989, Director - Television

A teenage boy's unorthodox relationship with his father (Wi Kuki Kaa) is explored as he learns about the guises of hypocrisy in this E Tipu E Rea edition, written by Bruce Stewart and starring Faifua Amiga as Thunderbox Junior. After establishing a reputation as one of New Zealand's most original commercials directors this was Lee (Once Were Warriors) Tamahori's first attempt at the helm of longer drama. "You tend to get a bit of experience making people laugh when you direct commercials [...]. One thing I'm sure of is that people like to laugh at themselves."

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Bridge to Nowhere

1986, First Assistant Director - Film

Fresh from the larger than life comedy of Came a Hot Friday, Ian Mune made an abrupt turn to horror with this, his second feature as director. Friday alumni Phillip Gordon joins a brat pack of young Kiwi actors; going bush, they meet gun-totting cattleman Bruno Lawrence and a young woman. He is not happy. In this clip the group begin to crack under the strain of being the hunted. Originally written by American Bill Baer, the film was pre-sold to a US investor. Mune was later told by his LA agent that having the dog die did not help its commercial chances in the US.

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Two Rivers Meet / Te Tutakinga O Nga Awa E Rua

1979, Camera Assistant - Short Film

This 1979 film looks at the meeting of the 'two rivers' (Māori and Pākehā, oral and written) of the Aotearoa literary tradition. Rowley Habib is a guide as hui take place and readings of contemporary Māori poetry are set to images of Māori life, from Parihaka and land march photos to Bastion Point, urban scenes and a Black Power hangi. Poets include Mana Cracknell, Peter Croucher, Robin Kora, (a young) Keri Hulme, Brian King, Apirana Taylor, Katarina Mataira, Don Selwyn, Henare Dewes, Rangi Faith, Dinah Rawiri, Haare Williams, Hone Tuwhare, and Arapera Blank.

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Middle Age Spread

1979, Sound - Film

A rare and early case of a Kiwi play being adapted for the big screen, Middle Age Spread asks whether adultery is inevitable (or whether the adulterers will inevitably be found out). Grant Tilly stars as a philandering teacher fearing a future of stress, decay and marital dissatisfaction. Roger Hall's acclaimed middle-aged comedy was adapted in the first flush of the Kiwi film renaissance, and marks the feature debut of many talents: director John Reid, cinematographer Alun Bollinger, writer Keith Aberdein, editor Mike Horton, and composer Stephen McCurdy.

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The Governor

1977, Boom Operator - Television

The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.

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XXX 2: The Next Level

2005, Director

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The Sopranos

2000, Director

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Next

2007, Director

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Skin Deep

1978, Boom Operator

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The Patriarch

2014, Director

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Along Came A Spider

2001, Director

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The Edge (American film)

1997, Director

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Mulholland Falls

1996, Director

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The Ray Bradbury Theatre

1990 - 1992, Director

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Once Were Warriors - Where are They Now

2014, Subject

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Die Another Day

2002, Director

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The Devil's Double

2011, Director