Sam Neill has acted in forgotten Kiwi TV dramas (The City of No) and classic Kiwi movies (Sleeping Dogs, The Piano, Hunt for the Wilderpeople). His career has taken him from the UK (Reilly: Ace of Spies) to Hawaii (Jurassic Park) to dodgy Melbourne nightclubs (Death in Brunswick). As Neill turns 70, this collection celebrates his range, modesty and style — and the fact he was directing films before winning acting fame. In these backgrounders, friends Ian Mune and Roger Donaldson raise a glass to a talented, self-deprecating actor and fan of good music and pinot noir.
Smith (Sam Neill, in his breakthrough screen role) is devastated when his wife runs off with his best friend Bullen (Ian Mune). Smith escapes to the Coromandel. Meanwhile, the government enlists an anti-terrorist force to crack down on its opponents. Bullen, now a guerrilla, asks Smith to join the revolution. Directed by Roger Donaldson, this adaptation of CK Stead's novel Smith's Dream heralded a new wave of Kiwi cinema; it was one of the only local films of the 1970s to win a big local audience. This excerpt includes a much talked about scene: a baton charge by government forces.
Taika Waititi's fourth feature is the tale of a city kid and a grumpy uncle on the run. Raised on hip hop and state care, Ricky (Shopping's Julian Dennison) goes bush with his foster uncle (Sam Neill). The authorities are on their tail. Wilderpeople is based on Barry Crump book Wild Pork and Watercress. Keen to recapture the style of classic screen yarns like Came a Hot Friday, Waititi's aim was a funny, accessible adventure. The result began winning acclaim when it debuted at North America's Sundance Film Festival, before becoming Aotearoa's biggest ever local hit.
Sam Neill weaves portions of autobiography into an idiosyncratic, acclaimed yet controversial analysis of Kiwi cinema — from its crude beginnings, to the dark flowering of achievement seen in the breakthrough films of Peter Jackson, Lee Tamahori, and Jane Campion. Directed by Neill and Judy Rymer, as one of 18 films commissioned for the British Film Institute's Century of Cinema series, the award-winning documentary debuted at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. The New York Times' Janet Maslin rated it a series highlight. The opening sequence looks at the role of the road in Kiwi film.
Sam Neill moved from directing at the National Film Unit, to becoming one of New Zealand's most internationally successful actors. His resume of 60+ features includes lead roles in a number of local movies, from a man alone in breakout feature Sleeping Dogs to an unusual reverend in Dean Spanley.
Ada (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. An especially big hit in Europe, Jane Campion's Oscar-winning tale of sexual emancipation in the bush is the only NZ film to have won the top award at the Cannes Film Festival.
This first episode of this 2013 crime drama begins with a meth-fuelled bank heist gone very wrong. Harry is a Samoan-Kiwi detective (played by Oscar Kightley, a million miles away from Morningside) pursuing justice in South Auckland. Sam Neill, in his first role on a Kiwi TV series, plays Harry’s detective buddy. Off the case, Harry struggles with his teen daughter in the wake of his wife’s suicide. The Chris Dudman-directed series screened for a season on TV3. Broadcaster John Campbell tweeted: “Not remotely suitable for kids. But nor are many excellent things.”
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.
It's Wellington in the 1970s and Bob (Jeremy Stephens) is having a midlife crisis. Square-peg Graham (Bill Johnson, who later played Mr Wilberforce in Under the Mountain) tries to convince Bob to quit his bohemian lifestyle (and his lover/muse Carol) and return to his wife Jean. But is Graham really acting in his mate's best interests? Featuring a young Sam Neill as the epitome of handsome, unfettered youth (flared jeans, bushy beard) this early, well-received TV drama was one of several produced by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation to tackle 'difficult' contemporary issues.
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.
In 1979, Red Mole was arguably New Zealand's best-known alternative theatre troupe. During two seasons in New York they wowed audiences with their Dada-influenced shows. The Villager wrote: "All possible elements of theatre and spectacle are employed by the skilful members of the group." In this 49 minute film, Red Mole take a surreal journey through actual and imaginary New Zealand. Sam Neill had done time as a travelling actor in schools before directing this for the National Film Unit. He collaborated again with editor Judy Rymer on NZ screen history Cinema of Unease.
One night in a West Coast pub, Melanie (Australian actor Rachel Blake) meets a handsome stranger (Sam Neill) and accepts his invitation to go back to his place. When they board his boat she discovers it 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 thriller, Melanie's feelings change from anger and fear — to desire.
This 1973 TV drama is inspired by events which led to a major riot on the West Coast during the 1860s gold rush. After prospector Albert Hunt (Ron Burt) registers a gold claim near Ōkārito, he finds himself accompanied by hundreds of fellow miners — who refuse to let Hunt out of their sights, as he returns to the site via water-logged forests and beaches. The darkly poetic tale of what men can do after they smell gold was partly shot on location on the West Coast. The opening features Sam Neill and Close to Home veteran Tony Curran, among Hunt's fireside colleagues.
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.
In this experimental drama shot in 1975, four young idealists escape the city for rural Foxton, and set about living off the land. But an act of violence sends the commune into isolation and extremism. Teasing tense drama from rural settings, the 90 minute tale from maverick National Film Unit director Paul Maunder shines a harsh light on the contradictions of the frontier spirit. Although state television funded it, they found it too edgy to screen; instead Landfall debuted at the 1977 Wellington Film Festival. The cast includes Sam Neill as a Vietnam vet, and Mark ll director John Anderson.
Before turning to directing, Barry Barclay did more than five years training to become a priest. That experience surely percolates through his film Ashes, with its reflections on identity, spirituality and living (or feeling) apart from others. The film centres on the thoughts of four people: an artist, a woman struggling with her identity as a high achiever, an actor, and a priest. Are all of them acting, or only Sam Neill? The film features readings from Ash Wednesday, the poem written by TS Eliot after converting to anglicanism. Ashes screened on NZ television on 17 March 1975.
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.
Made by Philip McDonald (Such a Stupid Way to Die) for the National Water and Soil Conservation Authority, this award-winning short explores the impact of people on New Zealand’s water cycle. 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 young 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.
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.
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 documentary screened to acclaim on Māori Television on Anzac Day 2015.
Made by Turkish director Tolga Örnek, this acclaimed film looks at 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 (including Sam Neill and Jeremy Irons for the ANZAC and British forces, and Zafer Ergin for the Turks). Dramatisations, restored film, interviews with experts, and poignant readings from letters and diaries all help to personaliss the experience of the carnage. Urban Cinefile described the international co-production as a "potent and magnificent documentary".
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.
Sam Neill narrates this documentary plotting the career of one of Aotearoa's most successful bands: from formation by Mike Chunn, Phil Judd and Tim Finn at Auckland University in 1971 to their 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 (including 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.
Painter Grahame Sydney has been pigeonholed by some as a landscape artist, but this doumentary contends that his evocative depictions of his Central Otago surroundings are much more than just exercises in realism. Fellow locals, poet Brian Turner and actor Sam Neill discuss the emotional and artistic resonance his work holds for them. Sydney's portraits and figure studies are also examined. The production of one of his lithographs is followed from inception — as a sketch on a slab of Bavarian limestone brought to NZ over 200 years ago — to fully fledged print.
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 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 future winemaker 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, around the time of his breakout role in Sleeping Dogs (1977).
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.
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.
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.
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.
An affectionate documentary about painter Rita Angus. Angus was well known for her enigmatic self portraits, and this Gaylene Preston-directed documentary explores the relationship between the work and biography. It gathers together new material about Angus's life, as well as interviews with a group of friends who knew her, and a new generation of appreciators including biographer Jill Trevelyan. Many of her paintings are also featured, evocatively shot by Alun Bollinger; actress Loren Horsley captures an uncanny likeness as a young Angus.
Comedian (and rooster) Oscar Kightley fronts this 2013 beginner’s guide to the Chinese zodiac. His mission: to explore the 12 oriental star signs. As the Kiwi population heads towards one in six being of Asian origin, Kightley surveys a cavalcade of contemporary Kiwi personalities for their views on stargazing, from his Harry co-star Sam Neill to lawyer Mai Chen. This excerpt is a potted history of the oriental zodiac, aided by animation; then it's enter the dragon. Made for TV3’s Inside New Zealand documentary strand it was directed by bro’Town creator Elizabeth Mitchell.
This short black and white NFU 'drama' follows three young people on a road trip from Wellington. The trio are meant to be finding a seal colony, but in this early film from director Paul Maunder (Sons for the Return Home), the journey is the destination. The rambling adventure along the coast past Wainuiomata sees the trio discussing paua ashtrays, waning youth, marriage, the state of New Zealand television, and life in general. Future TV director John Anderson (road movie Mark ll) plays the husband, and Sam Neill edits. The music is by Tony Backhouse (The Crocodiles).