Grahame 'Superfly' McLean jokes about having a "dangerously small knowledge" of many things.
But McLean's multi-faceted career personifies the early days of the Kiwi screen renaissance, when hard work and a gung ho attitude were an antidote to inexperience. McLean went on to make his own movies, and win and lose fortunes. He also gave early opportunities to a host of names that impressed him with their own "get up and go": among them scriptwriter Fran Walsh, gaffer Brett Mills, and future Film Commission head Don 'Scrubbs' Blakeney.
McLean "got into film from the theatre" after having already tried a number of occupations. In 1963 he began helping out in set construction for drama, ballet and opera productions. He enrolled at Victoria University in order to get involved with the drama club, and worked as a stage manager, and later helped reconfigure the stage, and exhibit artworks at Wellington's Downstage Theatre.
In 1973 McLean produced a James K Baxter memorial season at Victoria University (with sets designed by Colin McCahon). On the closing night John Barnett asked McLean if he would like to produce a television series. The Games Affair was the first independently-made drama series shown on NZ television.
The Games Affair, Hunter's Gold, Sleeping Dogs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt: McLean's 70s-era CV looks like a game of join the dots between early Kiwi classics. But the reality was that McLean had parallel careers. "You couldn't work full-time in the industry at the time," he says. "There just wasn't enough happening. It was tough going - it didn't pay much."
During the prep for The Games Affair (1974), McLean allocated half a week to the show, and the other half to restoring properties in Queenstown. TV project Hunter's Gold was a big-budget, location-heavy affair set in the days of the gold-rush, made in the days when hardly anyone knew about shooting on location. Some of the sets blew over in the wind, and McLean found himself constructing new ones, plus wrangling stagecoaches and 28 horses across locations that had been scheduled with little regard to geography.
By McLean's account, director Roger Donaldson "kicked the whole feature industry into gear with Sleeping Dogs". For McLean, the movie was a case of: "very few people very little money, and a huge number of deals. You did deals with everybody — with airlines, with car rental companies, sometimes equipment. You'd just go out and beg and borrow and steal".
It was on Sleeping Dogs that McLean began combining two jobs that are usually separate: production manager, in charge of daily arrangements on set, and first assistant director.
In the 80s McLean moved into producing and directing. His directorial debut was hour-long saloon car doco Shopping Cars on Bicycle Tires (1981), made for TVNZ. Two years later, McLean directed Flying Light (in a Sky of our Own). The film was based around microlight enthusiasts, and climaxed with world champion hang-glider Graeme Bird flying to Sweetwaters.
In the early 80s McLean produced one-off drama A Woman of Good Character for rising director David Blyth. Despairing of finding a location that could convincingly recreate 1800s Canterbury, McLean suggested an old piece of mining land he owned near Queenstown, whose stone cottage had been seen in Hunter's Gold. A Woman of Good Character lead actor Sarah Peirse later won a Feltex Award. With help from newbie scriptwriter Fran Walsh, McLean expanded the film to tele-movie length (as It's Lizzie to those Close), to expedite overseas sales.
In the mid 80s there was a rush to finish features, before the closure of tax breaks. McLean's plan was more ambitious than most: commanding two feature films — one of which lacked a script, thanks partly to a computer crash. Both were to be filmed back to back over one 10 week block. Conspiracy tale Should I Be Good? was inspired by the Mr Asia drug case, and many of McLean's cast played similar roles to real-life, including policemen, prostitutes, plus musicians Beaver, Hammond Gamble and Harry Lyon (Hello Sailor).
By contrast The Lie of the Land was a 20s era drama with a rare lead performance by Marshall Napier, and "bold and poetic cinematography" (Shot in New Zealand) by Waka Attewell. McLean's rare achievement of having managed to produce and direct two features without any local Government funding counted against him: the Film Commission refused to include the films in their marketing material. McLean later toured them himself, alongside Bad Taste.
In 1986 McLean won the rights to make TV show Worzel Gummidge Down Under, using writer Fran Walsh and key talents from the original British TV series. Later, after the director experienced cataract problems, McLean took over directing. He also launched long-running series Ray Bradbury Theatre, the first co-production between Canada and New Zealand.
Since then McLean has (narrowly) survived the stock market crash, set up a winery for cinematographer Michael Seresin, and worked on the restoration of Wellington's Embassy Theatre. He is currently building another house, in the Queenstown hills where he shot A Woman of Good Character.
‘Grahame McLean - from props to producing’ (Video Interview), NZ On Screen Website. Director Pat Cox, Interviewer John Barnett (Uploaded 30 August 2010) Accessed 29 August 2010
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer (Auckland:Random House, 2007)
Ian Pryor, Peter Jackson - From prince of splatter to lord of the rings (Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2003)