One of New Zealand's best known film actors, Sam Neill possesses a blend of everyman ordinariness, charm and good looks that have made him an international leading man. His resume of more than 60 features includes leading roles in landmark New Zealand movies, from a man alone on the run in breakout feature Sleeping Dogs to an axe-weilding settler in The Piano.
I'd like to think I'm able to suggest ambiguities and complexities in the people I play, because I think all of us have hidden aspects or contradictory qualities. Sam Neill, in a July 2007 Dominion Post interview
An epic documentary chronicling the extraordinary, unbelievable life of pioneer Kiwi filmmaker Colin McKenzie. Or is it? The first clue that none of this story is true is that the film begins (the opening 10 minutes is excerpted here) with Peter Jackson leading the viewer down a garden path. Much that is absurd and unlikely follows, leading to a curiously emotional climax. The screening of Forgotten Silver memorably stirred up NZ audiences, and it screened at international film festivals such as Cannes and Venice, where it won a special critics' prize.
Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been mute since she was six. She travels from Scotland with her daughter (Anna Paquin) and her grand piano to colonial New Zealand for an arranged marriage. When her husband, a stoic settler (Sam Neill) sells the piano to Baines (Harvey Keitel), Ada and Baines come to a secret agreement. She can win her piano back key by key by playing for him, as he acts out his desire for her. Jane Campion's Oscar-winning tale of sexual emancipation in the mud and bush is the only NZ film to have won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.
Smith (Sam Neill), is devastated when his wife runs off with his best friend, Bullen (Ian Mune). He takes off to the Coromandel. Meanwhile, New Zealand is at war with itself and the government has enlisted an anti-terrorist force to viciously crack down on its opponents. Smith is framed as a revolutionary and arrested, but escapes. Bullen, now a guerrilla, hides him and tries to persuade the reluctant Smith to join the revolution. Directed by Roger Donaldson, the adaptation of CK Stead's novel Smith's Dream, heralded the new wave of New Zealand feature films.
This short documentary about freestyle skiing was directed for the NZ Tourist and Publicity Department by Sam Neill (who would shortly achieve fame as an actor). This was one of several docos directed by Neill while at the National Film Unit; other subjects included the Red Mole theatre troupe and architect Ian Athfield. The skiers put on daring displays of their 'art' in locations including Mount Hutt, Queenstown and Tongariro National Park. 70s snow-styles (and beards) abound. The film was translated into French, Japanese, Italian, German and Spanish.
Made by Turkish director Tolga Örnek, this acclaimed film’s subject is the 1915 Gallipoli campaign in World War I. A point of difference is that it is narrated by people representing both sides of the catastrophic battle. Dramatisations, restored film, interviews with experts, and poignant reading from letters and diaries (Sam Neill and Jeremy Irons for the ANZAC and British forces and Zafer Ergin for the Turks) personalises the experience of the carnage. Urban Cinefile described the international co-production as a "potent and magnificent documentary".
This documentary looks at the life and work of New Zealand's most celebrated painter, Colin McCahon. The first excerpt looks at McCahon's beginnings in Timaru and Dunedin, and his explorations of modernist techniques in paintings that reconceived 'the promised land' in an endemic landscape. The second excerpt covers McCahon's time in Muriwai in the 60s and 70s, and the influence of the environment and Māori spirituality on his work. Sam Neill reads from McCahon's letters and writings. Directed by Paul Swadel, it won best documentary at the 2005 Qantas Awards.
Before he achieved worldwide fame as an actor, Sam Neill directed documentary films for the National Film Unit. This film examines the philosophy, early achievements and frustrations of one of New Zealand's most innovative architects, Ian Athfield. Athfield won an international competition in 1975 to design housing for 140,000 squatters in Manila, in the Philippines, yet struggled to gain recognition back home. This film culminates in Athfield's trip to the Philippines to pursue the project. Shooter John Toon later memorably shot feature film Rain.
Actor and filmmaker Sam Neill weaves portions of his own biography into an insightful, idiosyncratic and liberally illustrated analysis of New Zealand cinema — from its crude beginnings to the full flowering of technical and artistic achievement seen in the breakthrough films of Peter Jackson, Lee Tamahori, and Jane Campion. Made as part of the BFI's Century of Cinema series, it screened at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival to wide acclaim; The New York Times' Janet Maslin rated it a highlight of the series. It won Best Documentary at the 1996 TV Awards.
Numero Bruno is a warts and all biography of widely popular actor, musician and counter-cultural hero Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's intense, charismatic screen presence was key to ground-breaking Kiwi films, Smash Palace, The Quiet Earth and Utu. Directed by Steve La Hood (the veteran director’s TV swansong), this documentary features interviews with family and friends, and liberal excerpts from Lawrence's film and musical work, including performances by 70s alternative Aotearoa icons Blerta and clips showcasing his seminal collaborations with Geoff Murphy.
This documentary is a portrait of Wellington art-dealer Peter McLeavey, who spent over 40 years running his influential Cuba Street gallery. In the Leon Narbey-shot film, McLeavey talks about his life: a roving North Island railway childhood, an early love of art, discovering his New Zealand identity while living in London, and returning home to run over 500 plus exhibitions, initially from his flat — including key showcases of artists such as Toss Woollaston, Gordon Walters, and Colin McCahon.
Maurice Gee's classic novel about aliens running amok under Auckland has rarely gone out of print, since its debut in 1979. First adapted as a memorable 80s TV series, this movie retooling sees teenage twins Theo and Rachel stumbling across shape-shifting creatures that are hiding beneath Auckland's extinct volcanoes. American showbiz magazine Variety praised Black Sheep director Jonathan King's "solid helming", and the excellent acting of Sam Neill as the mysterious Mr Jones. Oliver Driver plays lead villain Mr Wilberforce, under four hours of make-up.
Sam Neill narrates this doco plotting the career of one of NZ’s most successful rock bands: from formation by Mike Chunn, Phil Judd and Tim Finn at Auckland University in 1971 to demise in 1984 when Neil Finn walked away. The major players talk freely about good times and bad — art rock, the wayward genius of Judd (with a rare interview), Noel Crombie’s spoon playing and costume design, hard times in England and the punk backlash, the big pop hits after Neil joined, Tim’s solo album, an obsession with paper darts, and the pre-gig ritual of One For One.
One night at the pub Melanie (Rachel Blake) meets a handsome stranger (Sam Neill) and accepts his invitation to go back to his place. When they board his boat she finds out that this is further than she thought (a shack on a deserted island). Once they arrive he treats her like a princess - however it slowly dawns on her that she's been kidnapped. Terrified, she also knows that he's her only way off the island. As events play out in Gaylene Preston's twisted fairytale, Melanie's feelings change from anger and fear - to desire.
A 1978 documentary that follows the attempt by three young people to be the first windsurfers to cross Cook Strait. Directed and narrated by Sam Neill (soon to be famous as an actor) for the National Film Unit. The skeptical Cook Strait pilot John Cataldo asks them: "do you wanna have a crack?" "Yeah, bloody oath" one of the surfers replies. They face the Strait's infamous winds, tides, swells, sharks and exhaustion. Some stunning helicopter shots include a windsurfer clipping through whitecaps with a pod of dolphins in its wake.
Cowboys of Culture is director Geoff Steven's personal perspective on the Kiwi cinema renaissance of the 1970s. It traces the development of the local film industry from the ‘she'll be right' days when filming permits were unknown, and all that was needed to get a picture up were a Bolex camera, enthusiasm and ingenuity. Raw they might have been, but the films (Wild Man, Sleeping Dogs, Goodbye Pork Pie Smash Palace) represented a vital new cultural force. The film features interviews with the major players, and clips from their movies.
Made by Philip McDonald (Such a Stupid Way to Die) for the National Water and Soil Conservation Authority, this film explores the impact of people on New Zealand’s water cycle. Prescient shots of irrigation, industrial waste and run-off from dairy farming show Godzone’s 1972 waterways to be far short of 100% pure — the closing national anthem played over polluted rivers underlines the point. A mid-20s Sam Neill (then working at the National Film Unit) cameos as an eau-so-suave drinker in a scene showing the disconnection between water use and where it comes from.
This 1974 primer on proper phone manner marks one of the earliest films directed by Sam Neill. Actor turned scriptwriter John Banas plays a polite eccentric calling a company about his telepathic machine, only to face rude behaviour at every turn. Among those failing to bring the nice are two future Gliding On actors: a mullet-haired Ross Jolly, and Grant Tilly, who would rather be eating his sponge finger. Also known as Telephone Etiquette, the film was made by the National Film Unit for the Post Office, back when telephone services were still under its command.
This 1978 National Film Unit documentary provides a potted history of non-British settler groups that came to New Zealand from Europe. Archive material and narration covers the colonials; then visits are paid to the German-descended Eggers, tobacco growers from Moutere, and newly arrived French bakers and Dutch dairy farmers. Aptly for a film directed by actor and vintner Sam Neill, the film drops in on an Italian play and the Babich family of Dalmatian winemakers. Neill worked at the NFU in his 20s, about the time of his breakout role in Sleeping Dogs (1977).
Escaping the city to camp themselves in rural Foxton, four 20-something idealists set about living off the land. But they bring their urban anxieties with them, and an act of violence forces the commune into isolation and extremism. Teasing tense drama from familiar settings — as if Pasolini took the reins of a Country Calendar special — this maverick Paul Maunder-directed NFU film shines a harsh light on the contradictions of the frontier spirit with stylistic daring. Rarely-seen (TVNZ never screened it), Landfall marked Sam Neill’s feature debut.
In 1979, Red Mole was New Zealand's best-known alternative theatre troupe. During two seasons in New York, they wowed audiences with their Dada-influenced shows. "All possible elements of theatre and spectacle are employed by the skilful members of the group." (The Villager). In this 16mm film directed for the National Film Unit by soon-to-be-famous actor Sam Neill, the group takes a surreal journey through actual and imaginary New Zealand. Neill would later collaborate with editor Judy Rymer on Cinema of Unease.
Director Sam Neill uses ‘Architect Man’ — a cartoon superhero trying to save Wellington’s buildings from mediocrity — to open this visual essay on contemporary Kiwi architecture. A montage of construction materials is followed by views on the high rise, woolshed, and Futuna Chapel. Renovation, DIY, prefabs and non-conformist design thinking are offered as hopes for the built environment’s future. Made by Neill when he was working at the National Film Unit, it was released in a shortened version (without the animation) in 1977, the same year he starred in movie Sleeping Dogs.
It's Wellington in the 70s and Bob (Jeremy Stephens) is in the midst of a midlife crisis. Square-peg Graham (Bill Johnson, of future 'Mr Wilberforce' fame) tries to convince Bob to quit his bohemian lifestyle (and his lover/muse Carol) and go back to his wife Jean. But is Graham really acting in his friend's best interest? Featuring a young Sam Neill as the epitome of handsome, unfettered youth (flared jeans, bushy beard) this early, well-received tele-drama was one of several produced by NZBC that tackled 'difficult' contemporary issues.
In this Kiwi-Aussie co-production Sam Neill confronts what ‘Anzac’ means, a century after NZ and Australian troops landed at Gallipoli as part of an invasion by British-led forces to capture the Turkish territory. Through the lens of his whānau’s war stories (including a visit to his grandfather's grave) Neill uncovers forgotten truths about the catastrophic campaign, and examines ways the Anzac myth has been manipulated. "I hate militarism, loathe nationalism but honour those who served.” The full doco screened to acclaim on Māori Television on Anzac Day 2015.
This offbeat father and son feature was written by Scotsman Alan Sharp, and mostly filmed in the UK by a Fijian-Brit Kiwi. Lawrence of Arabia legend Peter O'Toole plays a stiff upper lip Englishman whose frosty relationship with his son warms after hearing an extraordinary tale of reincarnation from Reverend Dean Spanley (Sam Neill). Based on an Edward Plunkett novella, Toa Fraser's second feature won praise for its cast, and mix of comedy and poignancy, "intertwined to the last" (The Age). Spanley won a host of Qantas awards; GQ rated it their film of the year.
This animated TV comedy series is a modern day fairytale following the adventures of five kids growing up in one of Auckland's grungier suburbs. With a fearless, un-PC wit and Simpsons-esque celebrity cameos, it managed to be primetime and family-friendly. The popular show was made by Firehorse Films, and developed from the brazen and poly-saturated comedy of theatre group Naked Samoans. Screening on TV3 for five series it won Best Comedy at the NZ Screen Awards three years running and a Qantas Award for Ant Sang's production design. "Morningside for life!"