Ainsley Gardiner fell in love with film while growing up in Whakatane on a diet of "movies, mostly really bad Hollywood movies". She thinks that diet helped give her an idea what makes a film "really good". It also fuelled a desire to work in the industry.
In 1995 Gardiner took the Avalon Film and TV production course, which included work placement with producer Larry Parr, then running company Kahukura Productions. Though initially she wanted to write and direct, "there was a role for a producer, and it just naturally developed from there". Thanks to Parr, Gardiner went on to made her feature film debut with the low budget Kombi Nation (2003), which saw her making movies on the run across Europe, alongside director Grant Lahood. By then she had already produced some short films, including the offbeat The Hole (1998).
During her six years working with Larry Parr, Gardiner also co-produced 26-part series Lovebites, a serio-comic tale of Wellington 20-somethings inspired by big screen comedy Hopeless.
Gardiner had got to know actor Taika Waititi, who showed her some scripts, and told her of his aspirations to direct. Gardiner and Waititi would go on to work together on three award-winning shorts, and two features, one of which would become the biggest film yet released on local soil.
Waititi's Two Cars, One Night (2003), produced by Gardiner and Catherine Fitzgerald, became the first Kiwi short to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film. Soon after making it, Gardiner formed company Whenua Films (initially Alo Films) with actor/producer Cliff Curtis. The production company was founded to encourage the telling of indigenous stories. In 2005, Whenua Films received a two-year producer overhead fund from the New Zealand Film Commission. According to Curtis, Gardiner has "an astounding capacity and capability, the amount of work that she does", and can provide worthy input on both the creative and financial fronts.
The partnership of Gardiner, Waititi and Curtis began with a short film, World War II tale Tama Tū, which was invited to more than 40 festivals around the globe. Then came Waititi's feature film debut as a director, geek romance Eagle vs Shark, which was shot in five weeks. Gardiner described it as a tale of "two people who don't quite fit". Their follow-up movie would be "far better resourced and way more relaxed", even though the cast included 12 children, most of whom hadn't acted before.
Boy revolves around an 11-year-old East Coast boy trying to make sense of his world. Though the shot may have been more relaxed, it was no walk in the park. Gardiner and fellow producers Curtis and Emanuel Michael had to deal with extensive location work in the Bay of Plenty, and a director who was also on screen in one of the main roles.
Within four weeks of its 2010 release, Boy had grossed $4 million, pushing it ahead of Sione's Wedding as the most successful Kiwi comedy released on home soil. It went on to beat The World's Fastest Indian to take the number one spot for a local film by overall box office haul (at least until Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople overtook it in 2016).
Later Gardiner teamed with upcoming producer Mina Mathieson for road movie The Pā Boys, which marked the feature debut of Māori director Himiona Grace. The film follows a Wellington three-piece band touring the East Coast and Northland, grappling with groupies and identity crises en route to Te Rerenga Wairua.
Whenua Films also ran a Film Commission Short Film executive producer 'pod', which allowed the company to oversee production of a number of short films through the Commission's Short Film Fund. Among the shorts executive-produced by Whenua were Sima Urale's Coffee & Allah (Venice film Festival 2007), Hawaikii (Berlin 2007), directed by cameraman Mike Jonathan, and Mt Zion director Tearepa Kahi's Taua (Edinburgh 2007, Clermont-Ferrand 2008).
In 2007 Gardiner and Kahi appeared as co-presenters of Iti Pounamu. The Māori Television series showcased critically-acclaimed Kiwi short films, and saw Gardiner interviewing those who made them.
Two years later she wrote and directed Mokopuna, a short film about a part-Māori girl who struggles to embrace her roots. The film took away the award for best short film at Canadian indigenous film festival Dreamspeakers.
In 2017 Gardiner joined the team of all female directors and writers behind anthology feature Waru, which tackles child abuse. She described the collaboration to website Flicks: "When we came together, we worked fast, we tackled big issues, we argued robustly, we compromised and we made excellent decisions."
Earlier 2014 Gardiner was one of the producers on variety show Happy Hour , featuring Temuera Morrison and Boy's Cohen Holloway. She was an executive producer on acclaimed movie Fantail, written by and starring Sophie Henderson.
Whenua Films website (broken link). Accessed 23 January 2014
Rebecca Barry Hill, 'The Woman behind Boy' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 22 March 2010
Nick Grant, 'INTERVIEW - The constant Gardiner' - Onfilm, May 2006
Liam Maguren, "I Hope The Film Gets People Talking." Get to Know the Wahine Behind 'Waru' (Interview) Flicks website. Loaded 17 October 2017. Accessed 17 October 2017
'TBI Q&I: Ainsley Gardiner' (Interview) The Big Idea website. Loaded 25 March 2010. Accessed 30 June 2016