Starring one cow and two elderly guitarists, Michael Bennett's first short film Cow was invited to screen at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. Since then he has written and/or directed a wide range of projects, from children's television (Kaitangata Twitch) to award-winning shows about Māori architecture (Whare Māori). His feature film work includes ensemble feature Matariki, and the script for Cliff Curtis comedy Jubilee.
In my head, writing and directing are two words for the same thing. As a writer every scene I work on plays as a movie projected inside my head. As a director I love the power of the image, but the most beautiful and perfect image is just pretty candyfloss if it’s not serving the story and the development of the characters. Michael Bennett in an interview with the New Zealand Writers Guild, November 2010
In 1994, Teina Pora was found guilty of the rape and murder of Susan Burdett. He has spent his adult life behind bars despite physical evidence leading to the conviction of someone else for the crimes, and concerns over the reliability of his confession. In this doco, made for Māori Television, Michael Bennett examines the case against Pora and a ground swell of belief in his innocence (a view shared by Burdett’s brother). This excerpt includes footage from Pora’s original police interview and a crime scene visit where he fails to identify Burdett’s house.
Web series The Factory is the largely light-hearted tale of one South Auckland family, and their love of music — though not everyone in this family agrees which type of music deserves loving the most. A $50,000 talent prize is up for grabs, and the Saumalu family are keen to compete, on behalf of the textile factory where their father and grandfather Tigi work. Only Tigi wants them to perform a traditional Samoan number. The kids would rather freestyle. The 20-part web series was first born as a hit stage musical from theatre group Kila Kokonut Kollective.
Tigi Saumalu (Ben Taufua) has worked at an Auckland textile factory for so many years, he is presented with a useless plastic key by his palangi boss to mark the occasion. But Tigi is more excited about getting his grandchildren to represent the factory in an upcoming talent contest. That way he can “pass on the old ways” — and the old Samoan songs — to them. Only the Saumalu children are busy freestyling to a very different sound... Web series The Factory began as a hit stage musical from South Auckland-based theatre and music group Kila Kokonut Krew.
Web series The Factory follows a South Auckland family as they prepare to conquer a local talent quest. In episode two the Saumalus get their first worried indication of their grandfather’s musical plans for them, after a summons to the factory where he works. Meanwhile news in the mail leaves older sister Losa worried if she'll ever pass her degree, and younger sister Moana starts hanging out with a music-loving Indian teen, whose newest role model is Che Guevara. The Factory is directed by Supergroove bassist and music video king Joe Lonie.
A knife-wielding duet is the highlight of this episode of web series The Factory. Tavita (Taofia Pelesasa) oldest sibling in the Saumalu family, sneaks out one night to earn some under the counter cash; he ends up showing off his musical chops, alongside Moka (Milly Grant). Meanwhile Mum Lily (Anapela Polataivao) starts to worry that the family’s devotion to their grandfather will result in serious musical embarrassment, once the talent quest kicks off. Polataivao was one of the creators of The Factory’s original incarnation, as a hit stage musical.
Web series The Factory is a tale of family and music, inspired by a stage show that became one of the hits of the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival, then travelled to Australia and the Edinburgh Festival. In the fourth episode, try-hard next door neighbour Api tells Losa she ought to be singing alongside him, in the upcoming talent quest. Losa responds by comparing his haircut to a toilet brush. Meanwhile Losa's mother Lily is somewhat surprised to arrive at a party, and find her oven out on the street.
Contest day has finally dawned; but will the competitors make it on stage in time? In this fifth episode of the PI-flavoured web series, it is the big day for the X-Factory contest, but as the first teams start performing, one of the Saumalus is missing in action: oldest sibling Tavita (Taofia Pelesasa) is caught up in some delicate yet insult-filled negotiations involving black market paua. The makers of The Factory auditioned talent in various South Auckland halls and markets; nearly half of the cast are first time actors.
In this episode of the 2014 web series, South Auckland family the Saumulus finally make it on stage to perform in a best-of-the-factories talent quest. Tensions rise before the family debut, with teenager Tavita late to arrive. The Saumalus sneak through, but one of the judges warns that their act needs an upgrade: “this is X Factory not the History Channel.” Later a fish spill threatens to expose Tavita’s after hours work, as events at the laundry heat up. The Factory was inspired by the Kila Kokonut Krew musical stage show.
This 2014 web series follows a South Auckland family who set their sights on winning a best-of-the-factories talent quest. In the seventh episode the Saumalus have just snuck through to the next round of the quest, but patriarch Tigi doesn’t seem to have heeded the judge's advice to come back with something from “this century”. Factory boss Keith makes a shock announcement about the factory’s future: the sale of the factory threatens half the workforce. As discussions continue on how to respond to the news, Tavita gets the Romeo and Juliet blues.
In the eighth episode of this tale of family, factory and music, the Saumalus protest the sale of Murdoch Textiles and expeted loss of jobs. Indian-Kiwi student Dev (Shaan Kesha) enlists Moana in his plan to break into the boss’s office and make the workers' voices heard. Even if Dev’s blundering scheme doesn’t impress Moana, it does enable subtle marketing use of the show’s sponsorship from Telecom (now Spark) — “what’s your phone number again? 027 SHITFORBRAINS?”.
In the ninth episode of this web series, Dev (Shaan Kesha) tries to make up for his protests over the factory's impending sale to Chinese buyers: including a spraypainted message in the boss's office, calling him a 'ballbag'. Uni accounting studies pay dividends, as Dev persuades factory boss Keith (Cameron Rhodes) to call the sale of Murdoch Textiles off. There are even more surprising developments to come, after Moana introduces Dev to a Saumalu family dinner. Actor Rhodes was also seen in acclaimed 2014 horror film Housebound.
This 2014 web series follows a South Auckland family chasing a talent quest title. In this 10th episode (out of 20) the Saumalu family debates Moana’s shock announcement that she is getting engaged to Indian-Kiwi Dev. The head-girl and student DJ are a South Auckland Romeo and Juliet. Dad Kavana wants to send Moana home for some ‘Fa’a Samoa’ (‘Samoan way’) education. Meanwhile Moana finds out that Dev is already engaged, and decides to move things to the next level. The series was based on the hit stage show that debuted at the 2013 Auckland Arts Festival.
This first episode of the the ground-breaking Māori Television series looks at the influence of the idea of 'the village' on Māori architecture. Architect Rau Hoskins is guide as he ranges from traditional designs, such as Rotorua's Whakarewarewa thermal village, to Rua Kenana's extraordinary circular meeting house — with its club and diamonds decor — built on an Urewera mountainside. Hoskins ends at 26m high Tapu Te Ranga Marae in Wellington, made from recycled car packing cases. The episode won Best Information Programme at the 2011 Aotearoa Film and TV Awards.
This episode of the the ground-breaking Māori Television series looks at the place of the wharenui in Māori architecture. Rau Hoskins explores the origins and meaning of the structure, and looks at some iconic examples: a replica pataka being built in Hamilton Gardens; te hau ki turanga (the oldest surviving example of a wharenui) controversially taken by colonial forces, now displayed at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; and Ngākau Māhaki at Auckland's Unitec — designed by master carver Lyonel Grant and replete with dashboard lights from 70s Holdens.
Iaheto Ah Hi's play Tautai involved an urban car thief emulating his Tokelauan fishing ancestors — only instead of hunting sharks, he hunted cars. Twelve years and 27 drafts after first seeing the play, director Michael Bennett and co-writer Gavin Strawhan intertwined Tautai's story with seven other characters, each impacted by one moment of violence. Praising the "excellent ensemble" and Don McGlashan score, Herald reviewer Peter Calder argued that Matariki delivers "a touching series of intersecting stories about the fragility of life and the redeeming power of love".
Kaitangata Twitch follows the adventures of 12-year-old Meredith (Te Waimarie Kessell) who faces mysterious happenings on Kaitangata island. Meredith is the only one who can apprehend the island's 'twitch' and prevent tragedy repeating. The Māori Television series was adapted from a Margaret Mahy story by long-time collaborator, director Yvonne Mackay, and was filmed in Mahy's Governors Bay hometown. Newcomer Kessell stars alongside Charles Mesure and George Henare (in a Qantas-winning turn). Twitch sold to ABC Australia and won international awards.
A taonga in Māori culture is a treasured thing, whether tangible (eg. a letter, photo, or heirloom) or intangible (eg. a family story). This series uses taonga — whose protection is enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi — as a starting point to tell dramatic Māori stories from the last 150 years. Weaving documentary techniques with re-enactments, Taonga features the stories of Guide Sophia, Sir Maui Pomare and Penetito Hawea among others. It screened on Māori Television in 2006, and featured actors Ian Mune, Rawiri Paratene, Taungaroa Emile and Miriama McDowell.
This children's post-apocalyptic fantasy series follows a circus troupe, Maddigan's Fantasia on their quest to save the world's only remaining city, Solis. The show was created by children's writer Margaret Mahy, developed for television by writers Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang for South Pacific Pictures, who produced the 13 x 30min series for TV3. Award-winning and successfully exported, it marked a debut lead performance from Rose McIver (future Tinker Bell in US TV show Once Upon a Time) acting with Michael Hurst, Peter Daube, Tim Balme and Danielle Cormack.
After her husband is jailed, matriarch Cheryl West (Robyn Malcolm) decides the time has come to set her family on the straight and narrow. But can the Wests change old habits? So begins the six-series long saga of the Westie dynasty. Hugely popular at home (beloved by public, critics and awards-nights alike), and imitated overseas, Outrageous Fortune has been a flag-bearer for TV3 and contemporary NZ telly drama; the series proved — in all its grow-your-own glory — that genre TV in NZ could be so much more than overseas stories pasted to a local setting.
A taonga in Māori culture is a treasured thing, whether tangible (e.g. a letter, photo, or heirloom) or intangible (e.g. a family story). Produced by Greenstone Pictures and screening on Māori Television, the series wove documentary techniques with re-enactments to tell stories of taonga. This excerpt shows the wife (Miriama McDowell) of a soldier (Taungaroa Emile) away fighting during World War II receive a shocking telegram: "We deeply regret to inform you ...". Michael Bennett was nominated for a Qantas Award for best non-drama direction for this episode.
Henry Waghorn and his kindhearted son Henry run a chicken circus, although sometimes there are accidents. Then a smooth-tongued entrepreneur comes to visit, with secret plans to turn chickens into chicken legs. Egg and Bomb is a mini-epic of good versus bad which features explosions, chickens on roller skates, thwarted love and caffeine-related psychosis. This quirky animated short was directed by George Port, a former founder member of Peter Jackson's special effects powerhouse Weta.
Gladiator: the Norm Hewitt story is the story of former All Black hooker Norm Hewitt's battle with alcoholism and his journey to redemption. After disgracing himself, a tearful public apology became a personal "defining moment" for Hewitt: he reinvented himself as a youth worker and ambassador for Outward Bound. Directed by Michael Bennet, shot by Rewa Harre and based on the best-selling biography by Michael Laws the doco takes him to meet legendary youth worker Mama Teri on the streets of South Auckland, and chronicles Hewitt's life change.
One summer’s day, teenaged Jayde (Atarangi Manley) and Wiremu (Darcey-Ray Flavell-Hudson) tag along with their older siblings on a trip to a local swimming hole; young passions ignite by the Rotorua hot pool. Later, tragedy occurs and Jayde faces lost innocence and the ritual of tangi while bearing a secret. Michael Bennett’s short — cutting between Jayde’s experience of the day and its aftermath — was shot in his Te Arawa home environs. It won selection for the 2005 Berlin Film Festival; 'Mu' was an early role for Flavell-Hudson (Mt Zion, Ghost Chips ad fame).
With each chilling tale "of the unexplained and unexpected" introduced by Temuera Morrison Rod Serling-style, Mataku was described as a Māori Twilight Zone. The award-winning bilingual series explored dramatic tales steeped in the supernatural world of Māori. Mataku was produced by Māori writers, directors and actors; and was a strong international and domestic success. Tension mounts in the excerpt from episode nine from the second series: when a group of old mates reunite to go fishing one of them has a long-kept secret, and terror lurks in the deep.
Described as a "Māori Twilight Zone", Mataku was a series of half-hour dramatic narratives steeped in Māori experience with the "unexplained". Two South Pacific Pictures-produced series screened on TV3; a later series screened on TV One in 2005. Each episode was introduced by Temuera Morrison Rod Serling-style. The bi-lingual series was a strong international and domestic success; producer Carey Carter: "Our people are very spiritual ... and here we are ... turning it into stories so that the rest of the world can get a glimpse of that aspect of our culture."
In Michael Bennett's allegorical Cow, two old men (played by New Zealand screen legends Ian Mune and Martyn Sanderson) with Confucian beards are adrift in the ocean, a placid Friesian cow in tow. A surreal study on how quickly a minor event can evolve into something far more extreme, the film features no dialogue; rather, a guitar duet that escalates to a duel. It won Best Short Film Script at the NZ Film Awards and made land internationally: Cow was selected for festivals including Cannes (Critics' Week) and Valladolid.
With its mix of quirky characters, lush scenery, and medical drama, Mercy Peak proved to be a winning formula. Produced by John Laing for South Pacific Pictures, and starring a host of NZ acting talent (Tim Balme, Jeffrey Thomas, Renato Bartolomei, et al), Mercy Peak follows the highs and lows of Dr Nicky Somerville (Sara Wiseman), who leaves the big city after discovering her partner’s infidelity. Taking up her new role at the hospital in the tiny town of Bassett, Nicky soon learns that life is full of complexities no matter the population.
While playing at the beach with their grandmother, two children witness an Elvis impersonator walk out of the sea. They believe he's the "fishman" lover of a female taniwha, Hine Tai. Magic realist mayhem — and tragedy — ensues as the stranger stirs up the life of their whanau in the quiet fishing village. The fable, written by Briar Grace-Smith and directed by Peter Burger, received six nominations at 2002 NZ TV Awards, winning Best Drama, and Camera. It screened on TV3 and features the Bic Runga song 'All Fall Down'.
Billy Williams (Cliff Curtis) is enthusiastic and likable, but a bit hopeless. When the driving force behind the Waimatua School 75th Jubilee is killed in an accident, Billy takes over - determined to prove himself. Meanwhile, the arrival of ex-international rugby player Max Seddon (Kevin Smith) forces his wife Pauline (Theresa Healey) to question the choices she has made in her life. This affectionate comedy about small-town NZ life was the first feature directed by actor Michael Hurst, most well-known for his role on the TV series Hercules.
Over four seasons, Street Legal’s slick Kiwi take on urban crime and law genres racked up a stack of award nominations - including a 2003 NZ TV Award for best drama series. Although initially wary that the Auckland setting might alienate viewers, writer Greg McGee chose a Samoan lawyer (Jay Laga’aia) as his main character, to exploit the show’s inner-city Ponsonby setting (where cafe society bumps into Pacific Island immigrant culture). Other key characters included Silesi’s lawyer ex-girlfriend Joni, and her new partner Kees, an overstressed sergeant.
This series centred on a weekly TV current affairs programme in mid-90s Wellington. Katie Wolfe stars as stroppy journalist Amanda Robbins: lured back from Australia for her tabloid style in an effort to boost the show's ratings. Tackling timely storylines and shot ‘handheld’ in the NYPD Blue-inspired style, the TV3 series was well reviewed but faced its own ratings struggles (a later series screened on TV One). It was Gibson Group’s second foray into producing a TV drama series, after Shark in the Park. A pre-Lord of the Rings Fran Walsh was a series writer.
Skitz was a popular long-running sketch-based comedy that screened for four series. Populated with memorable characters and catch-phrases, and broad, take-no-prisoners humour, it won Best Entertainment Programme at the 1996 NZ TV and Film Awards. A particular favourite in its arsenal of regular characters was the Semisi family with their 'fresh off the boat' antics inspiring mirth and groans in equal measure. Skitz featured seasoned comedians such as Jackie Clarke, as well as new faces at the time, including Jemaine Clement offuture Flight of the Conchords fame.