The Car Collection

Minis, Mark IIs, and stretched Morris Minors  

When NZ On Screen asked me to write something about cars on Kiwi film and television, they were under the delusion that I gave a f**k about them. It is true that I fronted a car show that ran for two years, but as any true car enthusiast would have known, I was faking it. I wasn't even intended for the role of front man; I was merely auditioning some other presenters, Aaron Slight among others, and getting into discussions with real car experts in order to see how they were on screen. When the network saw the tapes they said “yes we like him”, meaning me, not the auditionees. So my fraudulent credentials are merely the result of a car show accident. However I did have a huge amount of respect for the drivers and owners of some extraordinary vehicles. 

When I think back on cars I have worked in or used, a few really stick out. Peter Jackson’s stretch Morris Minor pulling out of the lane beside Wellington's St James Theatre in Meet the Feebles is a favourite. It contained Bletch the walrus and was a brilliant sight gag. That car was always in danger of splitting apart in the middle, like a collapsed bridge. 

NZ On Screen sent me a lot of links to certain programmes and movies, most of which I hadn’t seen. I liked Mark II. I owned and restored a Mark I Cortina, and the Zephyr was the first car I ever did the ton in. I always thought Mitch Manuel was a terrific actor in that. Like many great Polynesian actors he was woefully underused. A mate of mine had a project in which the main character was called 'Hemi Two Barrel'. I won’t explain it, you need to be a petrolhead…one day, eh Mitch.  

I remember getting a call from a producer who needed some advice for a series on famous New Zealand crimes. My head hung in shame, thinking he merely wanted the names of brown actors to fill the only roles Māori and Polynesians were permitted to play back then, both on-screen and off it seemed. But it wasn't that at all; he needed more Valiants. It seemed nearly every offence they were filming involved the classic Chrysler. Who knew? A whole branch of forensic profiling had been ignored. 

I was adamant that the outrageous Mr Gormsby drove an old Wolsley, the poor man’s Rover. Like the character, it had the imperturbability of a slow tank. 

Mr Wrong was about a haunted car, a beautiful old Jag. I played Mr Wright and was involved in one of the car stunts in the movie. I am chasing Heather Bolton who has been taken hostage by Dave Letch in the haunted car. We're racing through Featherston towards a train crossing. Heather drives her car through the crossing just missing the speeding train; I'm following and miss my chance, swerving off the road and into a ditch as the train rushes past. Peter Zivkovic (Goodbye Pork Pie) was my stunt driver. 

Safety regulations back then were, well, not even regulations — especially when compared to the present. Now an actor can’t even drive a car while being filmed and acting at the same time, without everyone being 'liable'. An actor being instructed to turn his head and look out the window while driving could be deemed 'acting', and so is at risk. Even when I protested that the cast member couldn’t act for shit, it made no difference. Things will relax as people test the new laws, but no one wants to go first. Back in the Mr Wrong days the stunt was real: [director] Gaylene Preston, bless her, wanted the crash happening and me climbing out of the car in the same shot. That meant Peter fanged the car full tilt at the train crossing while I crouched at his feet under the dashboard, trying not to get in the way of the brake pedal. I couldn’t see anything, but heard shitloads. When Peter swerved and smashed into the ditch, he ducked down and I crawled out of the car. I stagger off shell- shocked, watching Heather’s car disappearing into the darkness. Thrilling.  

Smash Palace has to be up there, and is one of Bruno Lawrence’s great performances. Al Shaw is a racing driver and he takes a Formula 1 car for a practice run on an isolated country road, pursued by a hapless cop. Bruno Lawrence was a complex and hugely charismatic guy, almost intimidatingly so: a kind of New Zealand Steve McQueen, without the vanity. Male stars of the 70s and 80s were not necessarily pretty, nor even particularly buff: Warren Oates, Jack Nicholson and Bruno were like the cars of the time: masculine juggernauts, wheels with balls. Bruno died along with the muscle cars, far too early. He never really smashed Hollywood, he may not even have tried to, or wanted to. Another great talent trapped by New Zealand, like an insect in Kauri gum.

I love the chase scene in Shaker Run through Wellington in the 80s. Life in Welly back then was a lot slower. They probably didn’t even need to close the streets to make it look empty. Just shoot on a Sunday and add a few vehicles so it didn’t look to deserted. The movie was formula but the stunts were Formula 1. Leif Garrett, Lisa Harrow and the wonderful Cliff Robertson sped through the NZ countryside fast enough to stay ahead of the 80s tax breaks closing.  

I am looking forward to the remake of Goodbye Pork Pie more than I did the opening of the original. I so wanted the part of Jerry, which Kelly Johnson played. I remember auditioning and thinking I'd done well, but it wasn’t to be. Kelly was terrific, better than I could have ever been, but I dutifully watched it with a cheerfully disguised resentment and jealousy. I really like Dean O’Gorman who takes the Tony Barry role, and James Rolleston, who plays Jerry.  

I imagine the stunts are much harder to do now with the new safety laws. I can’t imagine [Pork Pie director] Matt Murphy being allowed to be director and part-time stunt driver, like his father was. I hope James Rolleston recovers from his injuries, and though I know nothing of the causes of his accident, I wonder if the exaltation of speed and freedom those movies strive for fuels the adrenaline that causes young men to drive too fast, with incalculable consequences. I don’t wonder actually, I know it does. Cars, for me, meant freedom; movies were an escape, a windscreen with a narrative. When I get the chance I drive along directionless. The road is a strip of film,  the soundtrack is on the radio and the lead actor is in the driving seat. Crazy shit really, but that’s why those movies will still get made again and again.

I actually support the new safety laws, I just wish it was the 'employers' who were liable, not 'everyone'. After all, they call the shots. Jesus, I don’t even have a car now. I use Uber, or hire one when I need to. But I sometimes dream of owning one again and blatt up to Auckland or even further north.  And in that dream, I am driving a Valiant.

- Danny Mulheron's CV as an actor includes Heidi the hippo in Meet the Feebles and dodgy priest Phineas O'Doodle in Away Laughing. Since bringing Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby to TV screens in 2005, Mulheron has directed more than a dozen productions, among them mini-series Hillary, 1981 tour tele-movie Rage, and cannibal comedy Fresh Meat.