Geoff Murphy arguably helped usher in a new age of appreciation for New Zealand cinema, when he consecutively directed three classics of the Kiwi film renaissance. Although he styled himself as a straight-talking rebel, Murphy's gifts for action and comedy won him a wide audience, and ensured a run of work amidst the conformity of Hollywood. He showed a keen eye for capturing Kiwi culture on screen.
Murphy was a teacher in Wellington when the film bug bit. After a kickstart from friend Derek Morton, he began working on unfinished short film The Magic Hammer, based on a musical Murphy had written for one of his primary school classes. By now he was hanging out at a local jazz club alongside a group of people "with ardent, and often misguided artistic ambitions" — among them future collaborators Bruno Lawrence, Alun Bollinger and John Charles. Pooling resources, they collaborated on films in the mid 60s, including Hurry Hurry Faster Faster, in which Murphy acted.
Using old film stock and borrowed equipment, the trio created the half-hour long Tank Busters. Murphy played one of a group of student robbers. It was screened by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, who were likely unaware their resources had helped it get made. When the magic bus of Blerta (the Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) set off on its first tour, Murphy was aboard — as trumpeter, filmmaker and explosives expert. The Blerta philosophy was to avoid boredom through creative activity, a philosophy "pursued with great vigour".
Soon Murphy, Bollinger, Bruno and their families were saving money by living communally at Waimarama, in Hawke's Bay. It was there that Murphy directed the half-hour long Uenuku, one of the earliest dramas made completely in te reo. He also honed his directing skills on several slapstick Percy The Policeman shorts. State television refused to show it, worried about negative portrayals of the police.
Madcap TV series Blerta (1975) showcased the eclectic talents of the Blerta collective, and their robustly Kiwi sense of humour. Excerpts from Blerta, Percy and Dagg Day Afternoon can be seen here. Costa Botes writes about Blerta here.
Showing his gift for creativity amidst adversity, Murphy headed to the West Coast to cobble together comic colonial tale Wild Man. At 73 minutes long, it is often regarded as his feature debut. The semi-improvised film was partly funded by money from the Blerta TV series. The budget was around $25,000, plus $30,000 more to blow the print up to 35mm. When Wild Man was unleashed on a double bill with Fred Dagg short Dagg Day Afternoon, audiences were enthused.
Murphy's eclectic abilities helped keep the wolf from door over the years. He cooked up explosions and fake AK-47 rifles for Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs, and rented out a homebuilt camera crane (built with Andy Grant) when they were as rare as hen's teeth. Murphy also helped other filmmakers get early projects off the ground, from Vincent Ward's A State of Siege, to co-writing Gaylene Preston's first feature Mr Wrong. There were also varied acting roles along the way — including teleplay The Pumice Land, and this first episode of Pukemanu.
After Wild Man, Geoff Murphy began developing a script called Meatballs with Ian Mune. A Canadian film with the same title forced a name change to Goodbye Pork Pie. Although Sleeping Dogs had won respectable audiences, Pork Pie marked our first local blockbuster — partly, as Murphy noted, because "it was a celebration of New Zealandness". The film mixed Mini Cooper hijinks, flawed but recognisably Kiwi characters, and a spirit of rebellion. Refuting claims by some that it was an attack on the police, Murphy argued that it was "more an attack on the law. Just about everything you want to do in this country is illegal or you need a permit to do it."
Pork Pie sold to 32 countries, and disproved the longheld belief that Kiwi films couldn't make a profit. Murphy "visited almost every town the film would play in", to drum up support in advance from local cinemas and media. Murphy talks in this video interview about his work on Pork Pie's distribution and publicity — and that famous line of dialogue about taking the car to Invercargill.
He followed Pork Pie with one of his favourite films: ambitious, freewheeling period Western Utu (1983). The film follows Te Wheke (newcomer Anzac Wallace), a warrior seeking revenge for the massacre of his village. Mining action, comedy and empathy for both its Māori and Pākehā characters, it was the first historical epic directed by a local since Rudall Hayward's Rewi's Last Stand, four decades before.
The character of Te Wheke was based on Māori leaders as varied as Te Rauparaha, Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti; Murphy argued that the character was "true to Māori leaders of the period and even draws on some in the present day". Murphy deliberately set out "to draw a parallel between the conflicts of today's New Zealand and those of the last century", telling Rolling Stone "that same violence is here today; it's just that the nature of it has changed." (he also mentioned having problems finding funders for a film about the 1981 rugby tour: "they're scared shitless of it".)
Utu proved a local hit. Overseas, many reviewers raved. Le Monde called it a "unique astonishing film" and "spectacular but intimate"; The Montreal Press praised Utu for combining the adventure and romance of old Westerns with a humanist approach to its Māori characters. In a rave review, legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael singled out "a feeling of exaltation and spirituality" hovering over the film, and praised Murphy's instinct for popular entertainment, plus his refusal to reduce the narrative to simple heroes and villains.
End of the world tale The Quiet Earth (1986), written and shot hurriedly to meet tax shelter demands, became another Kiwi classic. Adapted from the Craig Harrison novel, and originally a Sam Pillsbury project, the film featured an extended solo turn by Bruno Lawrence as one of the last men on earth. The Quiet Earth sold to around 80 countries, gained a cult following, and won Murphy attention in the United States.
He followed it with another movie shot on the road. Released on an impressive 69 local screens, Never Say Die was a light-hearted thriller about a couple on the run, with cameos from John Clarke and Murphy veteran Tony Barry. Again Murphy showed a keen eye for casting; this time he overcame opposition from his producers to give the main role to the relatively-untried Temuera Morrison.
By now Murphy had embarked on an extended period of international wandering. After playing a racist farmer in Mauri, directed by his then partner Merata Mita, he got his first non-Kiwi project off the ground: heading to Hungary for 1989 TV movie Red King, White Knight, a spy thriller featuring an Emmy-nominated performance by Max Von Sydow.
Over the next decade Murphy worked largely in the United States. He brought style and pace to bratpack western Young Guns II and Steven Seagal train thriller Under Siege 2. Mostly he directed cable and TV movies, including thriller Blindside, the pilot for a Magnificent Seven series, and Mickey Rourke western The Last Outlaw. In his autobiography A Life on Film, Murphy recalls other projects that never were — being offered Surf Nazis Must Die despite the lack of a script; developing the movie that became Predator, then being fired by star Arnold Schwarzenegger after describing Arnie as Conan the Librarian; and failing to win interest from the NZ Film Commission in a second "Puha Western".
Murphy also made significant contributions as a second unit director to a number of big-budget productions, including US-shot disaster movie Dante's Peak, directed by Roger Donaldson, and The Lord of the Rings.
In 2001 Murphy put together Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta — The Return Trip), which collects together skits, shorts, and music from the Blerta archives. He followed it with his first drama on home soil in 14 years: conspiracy thriller Spooked (2004), which proved a box office disappointment. Starring Cliff Curtis as an investigative reporter on the trail of a mysterious payment, the story was inspired by a real-life Auckland computer dealer who got caught up in a legal battle over bank records found on old computer equipment.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination showed that Murphy was still innovating. Picked for the 2009 NZ International Film Festival, it was built around music inspired by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Working on an Apple Mac at home, Murphy mixed concert footage, CGI, and interviews. The project reminded Murphy of his early years with Blerta.
From 2013 Murphy was suddenly getting his due. Recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at the year's end Moa NZ Film awards, he was made an NZOM in the 2014 New Year Honours. In 2013 he was honoured as one of New Zealand's 20 greatest living artists, as an Arts Foundation Arts Icon — the same month a restored, shortened version of his 80s classic Utu won acclaim when it debuted at the NZ Film Festival.
Geoff Murphy passed away on 3 December 2018.
- NZ On Screen's collection of Murphy's work includes written pieces by cinematographer Alun Bollinger, early colleague Derek Morton, director Roger Donaldson and writer Dominic Corry. Aside from 2015 autobiography A Life On Film, Murphy wrote in detail about Goodbye Pork Pie for a chapter of book Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. He was also the subject of a short book by academic Jonathan Rayner, which is collected in book New Zealand Filmmakers. Goodbye Pork Pie gets 40 pages in 1994's Shadows on the Wall.
Profile updated on 4 December 2018
Geoff Murphy, A Life in Film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers,2015)
Geoff Murphy, The End of the Beginning’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Helen Brown, 'Mr Pork Pie - rebel of the silver screen' (Interview) - Evening Post, 15 August 1981
Pauline Kael, 'Mirrors' (Review of Utu) - The New Yorker, 15 October 1984
Malcolm McSporrran and Redmer Yska, "The First (and Last?) Great New Zealand Movie - Rolling Stone (Australia), page 63, 1983
Rebecca Thomson, "Once upon a midnight dreary' (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 16 July 2009, page 17
Utu Press Kit