Mark McNeill has long been interested in human nature and science. So much so, that after studying psychology, zoology and town planning at Auckland University, he was offered a PhD fellowship at Cambridge University, in the field of cognitive psychology. But after having a rethink about his life, McNeill decided to swap lab rooms for clapperboards.
Since then McNeill has been the brains behind some of New Zealand’s most popular documentary series.
While in London on his OE, McNeill managed to score a job as a runner on a TV series about mental illness, presented by doctor turned director Jonathon Miller. McNeill's background in psychology saw him swiftly promoted to do research instead. First time out of the gate, he was observing talented people "making a big, high end international series. I learnt a lot just being there". The Madness series led on to a research job on BBC science show Horizon.
McNeill's directing break came in the early 1990s with series First Hand, where aspiring filmmakers were picked to produce their own half-hour documentary for TVNZ. The catch was that the participants had to do almost everything themselves — from directing, to sound operating, to editing. For one of his episodes McNeill spent a month in Somalia, capturing images of starvation and conflict which were also used on both Kiwi current affairs slot Frontline and England's Channel 4. The experience taught McNeill a lot about filmmaking.“Now when I ask a cameraman to do something, I know what’s involved and how hard it can be.”
Factual storytelling became his focus and he went on to write, direct and produce documentaries for TVNZ and TV3, including Bullies, the 70-minute long early Aotearoa documentary Who Was Here Before Us? and Memories.
He also wrote and directed nine episodes of award-winner Epitaph, which told local history through gravestones. “It’s a fantastic idea,” he explains, in this video interview for NZ On Screen. ”I’m really surprised that Greenstone hasn’t sold it as a format. Because you have stories from history, they already have great in-built narratives.”
In 2000, McNeill wrote and directed documentary Kiwi Flatmates,which explored a Kiwi entrepreneur’s failed attempt to set up a ‘big brother’ type venture for a global online audience. “Flatmates did a 67% share in its timeslot — which I’m extremely proud of — you just don’t get those shares now. It was a nutty reality one-off: mad but exhilarating.”
Next McNeill took a slightly different direction — turning his hand to the story of a son’s emotional journey retracing his father’s footsteps as an escaped WWII prisoner of war. Il Magoirre - My Father’s War in Italy was named Best Documentary at the 2002 Qantas Media Awards. The judges called it “an incredibly moving story that works on a variety of levels ... at times a detective story, an historical document and most importantly a testament to the human spirit.”
McNeill's curiosity about the world we live in has long been a focus in his work. His documentaries explore our modern-day society and the challenges within it. His work has explored the lives of Lotto winners (First Division) Kiwi blokes (TV series Blokes – the Kiwi Bloke Revealed) students (series School Rules) and even sexuality (The Viagra Generation).
Three-parter Hidden in the Numbers — in which Te Radar used statistics to examine changes in New Zealand culture — was a finalist at the 2007 NZ Screen Awards, including a nomination for Best Factual Series. It won for Rupert MacKenzie's direction.
In 2009, McNeill struck the winning formula with The Politically Incorrect Parenting Show. Fronted by psychologist Nigel Latta, it became the most watched show in New Zealand each week it was on air, and the most successful TV One programme that year. But the series wasn’t without its difficulties.
“When I first showed the first series to the programmer at TVNZ it was a horrible viewing. She played the opening and rewound it three times — two minutes in, she said this isn’t the series I commissioned.” Luckily, the programmer kept watching. The hit series would spawn Politically Incorrect spin-off shows on teenagers and grown-ups.
McNeill's collaboration with Nigel Latta continued with visits to Antarctica, Nigel Blows Stuff Up and 2016’s The Hard Stuff with Nigel Latta, which looked at contemporary issues facing New Zealand society. TV Guide readers voted it their favourite documentary series.
In 2010, McNeill produced and co-directed I Am the River for Māori Television. The film was judged the best New Zealand Feature Documentary at the Documentary Edge Festival; McNeill and his colleague Luigi Cutore were nominated as best directors. “I loved working on that,” says McNeill. “I really want to make programmes that people talk about the next day. I’d probably drive a better car if I stuck to repeatable series – but I like doing new things.”
Research has long been a key focus of McNeill’s work. His documentaries often put a spotlight on social and health issues, none more so than the four-part series Why Am I? - The Science of Us which offered television's first in-depth look at the world famous Dunedin Longitudinal Study. The series won him plaudits from both the science community and the television world. It sold to over 60 international networks, including the BBC and PBS in the United States.
“I’d be grateful if I ever got to work on something as meaningful or significant as that again. It was a difficult series to make. Things that actually work are often fiendishly difficult to make. I don’t think I enjoyed it the most, but it was the most fascinating thing I’ve made.”
McNeill doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects. Why Are We Fat?, his 2017 documentary series on the global obesity epidemic became one of the most watched documentaries on Qantas flights, and was acquired for Amazon Prime.
In 2017 McNeill and Carthew Neal became the first New Zealand producers to be commissioned by US giant Netflix to make an original series. Dark Tourist follows presenter David Farrier to unusual and macabre tourism destinations around the world. “I wanted to be where TV was going," says McNeill. "People are watching Netflix and I wanted to be part of that.”
Being able to weave both his love of science and his love of television into a career hasn't always been easy, but when asked whether he made the right decision to turn down that PhD at Cambridge, McNeill believes he made the right call. Judging by reception to his work, it seems viewers agree with him.
Profile written by Zara Potts
Published on 23 July 2018
"Mark McNeill: On making documentaries, and more...' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 16 June 2015. Accessed 23 July 2018
Razor Films website. Accessed 23 July 2018
James Croot, 'Why Am I? sheds light on the internationally renowned 'Dunedin Study' Stuff website. Loaded 29 May 2016. Accessed 23 July 2018
Dani McDonald, 'Netflix picks up David Farrier’s upcoming doco series Dark Tourist' – Stuff website. Loaded 21 June 2018. Accessed 23 July 2018