Lee Tamahori won acclaim with his first feature film in 1994, an adaptation of the Alan Duff novel Once Were Warriors. Tamahori had worked in the New Zealand film industry for more than a decade before Warriors made his name. Since then he has directed movies largely beyond New Zealand shores - including James Bond blockbuster Die Another Day, and thriller The Edge.
Tamahori was born in Wellington in 1950, the self-styled ‘hybrid' child of a European mother and Māori father. He began his career as a commercial artist and photographer. Tamahori joined the film industry in the late 1970s, initially getting in the door by working for nothing. He scored jobs as a boom operator for Television New Zealand, and on 1978 feature Skin Deep.
Tamahori went on to work as a boom operator on Kiwi classics Goodbye Pork Pie and Bad Blood, before Geoff Murphy offered him the chance to work as an assistant director on Utu. Tamahori worked alongside a number of top New Zealand directors in the first assistant director role, on films like The Silent One, The Quiet Earth and Came a Hot Friday.
Finding no luck getting directing jobs, in 1986 Tamahori co-founded long-running commercial production company Flying Fish. He went on to direct more than 100 commercials, including a number of award winners. His work includes memorable advertisements for Fernleaf butter, the bungy-jumping fisherman for Instant Kiwi and a star-studded Commonwealth Games commercial, set during World War One.
Working with the late John Day, he directed this 1988 documentary about a visit to Ruatoria by band Herbs. Tamahori's first venture into drama came in 1989, when he directed an episode of Māori-driven drama series E Tipu E Rea - Thunderbox. Thunderbox is a comic-tinged tale of a father and son trying to get along in the Pakeha world. Tamahori followed it with episodes of anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre.
His big break as a director came with Once Were Warriors (1994). The film went on to outgross Jurassic Park on its New Zealand release, and win audiences, acclaim and awards around the world. Shot in a style that mixes gritty realism with bold use of colour, Once Were Warriors examined a world of domestic violence and gangs for an urban Māori family. The movie's unflinching depictions of the former matched Tamahori's desire for films that evoke a response: films that "make you reel out of the theatre and you have to go to a bar and have a drink."
Publications in New Zealand (NZ Herald, More), Australia (The Melbourne Age, Sydney Sunday Telegraph) and the US (Time) judged Warriors one of the ten best films of the year. American critics fell over themselves praising the performances of central couple Temuera Morrison (who was compared more than once to Marlon Brando) and Rena Owen. American Roger Ebert praised Tamahori for the film's sweeping narrative momentum, and "creating a convincing sense of daily life in the household and the neighbourhood". Wrote Film Threat reviewer Paul Zimmerman: "as a first film for Lee Tamahori, Warriors is the most sure-handed stylistic debut of the year".
The film now ranks as the third highest grossing New Zealand title at the NZ box office (The World's Fastest Indian and Boy later overtook first position, though inflation-adjusted figures still put Warriors ahead).
This longtime fan of American film then left New Zealand to work in Hollywood. His debut feature in America was 50s crime thriller Mulholland Falls (1996), which saw Tamahori working alongside actors Nick Nolte, John Malkovich and legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Tamahori later argued that the film was damaged after he bowed to studio pressure to shorten it.
Since then, Tamahori's work has included David Mamet-scripted backwoods adventure The Edge (1997), starring Anthony Hopkins and a memorably angry bear, Next (2007), with Nicolas Cage, an episode of acclaimed drama The Sopranos, and the second most successful James Bond released till that date, Die Another Day (2002). The movie, whose attractions include melting ice-lairs, hovercraft battles and Halle Berry, marked the 40th anniversary of the Bond franchise.
In 2011 Tamahori directed The Devil's Double, a Sundance-selected adaptation of Latif Yahia's account of his time as a double for the son of Saddam Hussein. Tamahori went on to reunite with many of the Devil's Double team to develop revenge tale Emperor, which is now in post-production. Set in 16th century Italy, the film involves a revenge plot against emperor Charles V (Adrien Brody).
Tamahori also sought crowdfunding to help get a New Zealand project off the ground. Based on the novel Bulibasha by Witi Ihimaera, Mahana is about two families battling for supremacy in the shearing sheds, and on the sports field. The film went before the cameras in mid-2015, with Warriors star Temuera Morrison starring as patriach Tamihana, and Nancy Brunning playing his wife Ramona. Mahana debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2016, with a New Zealand release following in March.
Roger Ebert, 'Once Were Warriors' (Review) - Chicago Sun-Times, 3 March 1995
Wendy Mitchell, 'Lee Tamahori signs on for Corsan's Emperor'. Screendaily website. Loaded 13 February 2012. Accessed 9 October 2014
Alex Simon, 'Lee Tamahori: Along Came a Filmmaker' (Interview). The Hollywood Interview blog. Loaded 3 March 2008. Accessed 9 October 2014
'Warriors opens in New York, then throughout USA' - NZfilm, Number 53, May 1995
'Business Desk', 'New Lee Tamahori film to be crowd funded' - NZ Herald, 3 September 2014
'New Lee Tamahori Film Shoot Complete' (press release). Scoop website. Loaded 27 May 2015. Accessed 17 September 2015