Though Michael Heath helped create a run of pioneering examples of the Kiwi cinema of unease, his contributions to our culture defy easy categorisation. His scripts include many films which have made a comfortable home between genres: children’s vampire tale Moonrise/Grampire, nostalgic Ronald Hugh Morrieson chiller The Scarecrow, Heath’s work with director Tony Williams, and his acclaimed song-cycle A Small Life.
He has rebelled against constraints on self-expression ...The products of his personal resistance movement are plays and scripts which are surreal, or strange, or deeply moving, or funny, or all of those. Writer Merrill Coke, in a 1987 Listener profile
In the early stages of World War I, New Zealand artist Edith Collier joined a group of women artists who left London to capture Ireland on canvas. Their destination: Bunmahon, a poverty-stricken fishing village on Ireland’s southern coast. Michael Heath’s second documentary on Collier sees him visiting Bunmahon with cameraman Stephen Latty. Guided by Collier’s paintings and sketches, they talk to locals about her visit, and life in Ireland 100 years ago. They also capture persuasive evidence of their own, attesting to the area’s often melancholy beauty.
David Blyth's first film, 1976’s Circadian Rhythms, was an attempt to "slip past the conscious mind", and inside the head of a car crash victim. Blyth’s latest movie explores the world of another victim - this time a young woman (Kate O'Rourke) engaging in submission games with an unexplained male, who is haunted by her dark family history, and someone claiming to be her daughter. Fellow cinema provocateur Ken Russell (The Devils) praised Blyth’s "gorgeous images and repulsive dream-surgery into the recesses of female consciousness".
This documentary looks at the life of neglected painter Edith Collier. Whanganui-bred Collier left for London in her late 20s to study art; her painting flourished, experimenting with modernism alongside fellow expat Frances Hodgkins. She returned home after World War I to family duty, and ridicule for her art (her disgusted father set fire to her nudes). Interviews with her biographer and family, and shots of her work, make for a poignant biography of a (curtailed) artistic life. Listener reviewer Helene Wong called it “affecting viewing, with a sense of discovery”.
Little known in its homeland, but an award-winner overseas, director Michael Heath's tragic portrait of mother and child confronts "intense emotion without flinching" (as Lawrence McDonald wrote). Largely bypassing dialogue in favour of a more elemental approach, the filmmakers combine sound and song (courtesy of composer David Downes and singer Mahinārangi Tocker) with lyrical imagery of the family revelling in their rural backblock (shot by Stephen Latty). There is added poignancy in the fact that Tocker — playing the mother who loses her boy — herself passed away in 2008.
While visiting family down under, American teen Lonny catches up with his grandfather, a man with an infectious giggle, a thirst for adventure — and two vampire-sized incisors. Released locally as Grampire, this family-friendly adventure combines local names (among them future Pluto singer Milan Borich) with a winning turn as nice guy vampire by American Al Lewis (cult series The Munsters). Director David Blyth was won over by Michael Heath’s script because it reversed convention, and “was a plea for children to be allowed to keep and develop their imaginations”.
Director Greg Stitt's 50min short sees actor Mark Hadlow playing Kevin: a pie cart worker obsessed with the singer Mario Lanza. Kevin's idolatry turns into an identity crisis as operatic-scale fantasising clashes with his meek disposition. Further complications arise from a friendship with his brash punk neighbour, and from stage fright ahead of a fundraiser for Kev's Lanza fan club (Lanza also had a noteworthy teenage fan club in Heavenly Creatures). Will Kev get his Susan Boyle moment? The black comedy was written with Scarecrow scribe Michael Heath.
Although The Tumbleweeds toured beyond Otago only occasionally, they provided many New Zealanders with their first exposure to country music. Almost 40 years into the band's career, Stephen Latty (Opera in the Outback) got some of their songs and memories down for this half-hour film. The band describe influences, costumes, and their own mid-tour double wedding. Country music expert Garth Gibson praises the "quite famous harmony sound" of sisters Myra and Nola Hewitt. Then The Tumbleweeds hit the road for Gore's Gold Guitar Awards, to perform 'Maple on the Hill'.
Opera in the Outback offers a wry, fly on the wall view of the lead-up to a most unusual event: the first concert by Kiri Te Kanawa in the Australian outback. Kiwi director Stephen Latty and writer Michael Heath realise the people are the story, from affable locals to those preparing for 9000 joyful, sometimes drunken arrivals. The inhabitants of Beltana — population roughly 12 — risk building a new racetrack for visitors less operatically inclined, while Australian National Railways send all the rolling stock they can. Some of the Kiwi film crew were awake for 52 hours, trying to capture it all.
Pre-dating Peter Jackson's arrival (Bad Taste) by three years, New Zealand's first horror movie sees Michael Hurst making his movie debut as he fights mutants (including Bruno Lawrence) on Waiheke Island. Hurst's character is out to avenge the mad scientist who forced him to kill his parents. A grand prize-winner at a French fantasy festival (with cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky on the jury), David Blyth's splatterfest marked the first of many horrors funded by the NZ Film Commission. It was also the first local showcase of the smoothly-flowing Steadicam camera.
After taking over the retirement home formerly run by her late mother, a young woman (Jackie Kerin) starts to worry that a pattern of unexplained deaths and strange visitations is repeating itself. Tony Williams’ cult feature began development as a black comedy about murderous Kiwi caterers, before morphing into this moody gothic mystery — the first horror film directed and written by Kiwis (though it was ultimately shot and set in Australia). Years after winning best film at fantasy festivals in Sitges (Spain) and Paris, fanboy Quentin Tarantino praised it as “mesmerising”.
Praising novel The Scarecrow, one critic argued that author Ronald Hugh Morrieson had melded genres together into “a brilliant, hallucinatory mixture distinctively his own". The movie adaptation is another unusual melding; a coming of age tale awash with comedy, nostalgia, and a touch of the gothic. Taranaki teen Ned (Jono Smith) is worried that the mysterious arrival in town (US acting legend John Carradine) has murderous designs on his sister. The masterful narration is by Martyn Sanderson. The result: the first Kiwi film to win official selection at the Cannes Film Festival.
Cannes is the town in France where Bergman meets bikinis, and the art of filmmaking meets the art of the deal. In 1975, a group of expat Kiwis managed to score interviews with some of the festival's emerging talents, indulging their own cinematic dreams in the process. Werner Herzog waxes lyrical on the trials and scars of directing; a boyish Steven Spielberg recalls the challenges of framing shots during Jaws; Martin Scorsese and Dustin Hoffman talk a gallon. Six years later interviewer Michael Heath's debut script The Scarecrow would be invited to Cannes.
Opening with an image of Orpheus floating on the water, this inspired doco climaxes with a contender for NZ's most eyeopening montage yet. Loaded with examples of the infinite ways the human voice can make music, the film sees host Julian Waring introducing choirs, opera, balladeers and protest singers. Along the way Michael Heath recreates a performance by Florence Foster Jenkins, a worryingly close cousin of Asian-New Zealand songbird Wing. The mash-up finale uses 2000 photographs to summarise two decades of music, in a scene that must have blown minds in the suburbs.
“A film developed from the imagination of New Zealand children” is how director Tony Williams describes this remarkable, sprawling mix of drama and documentary. It features a fictitious teacher (writer Michael Heath) working with a class of 11-year-olds from Petone to explore what freedom means to them. At times their notions might seem naive but the film remains firmly non-judgmental. The free-wheeling approach, most memorable in the Paekakariki beach fantasy scenes, makes for a “wonderfully idiosyncratic” (film historian Roger Horrocks) hymn to juvenile freedom.
Directed by Tony Williams, this documentary is a strong example of how to make engaging television out of a brief that might easily have been overly earnest. Nominally “a history of service clubs in New Zealand”, the footloose film explores a rich variety of organisations created to bring people together: from accordion players and air hostesses to flying saucer believers and Rotarians. The film celebrates a fundamental human need to ‘get together’. Poet Denis Glover provides sardonic commentary. It won the best programme of year Feltex Award.