Active in New Zealand’s film industry since the 1960s, Pat Robins later became increasingly aware of the need to add a female perspective to local stories on screen. Since then she has directed a number of short films and TV productions.
Brought up mostly in Wellington (aside from “five years in the country”), Robins attended St Mary’s College. At 20, she married film maker Geoff Murphy. Actor/musician Bruno Lawrence and composer John Charles, two of Murphy’s key collaborators, married her sisters Veronica and Judy. It was Robins who introduced Murphy to future Goodbye Pork Pie cinematographer Alun Bollinger.
In 1970 Robins played the wife of the main character television docudrama Time Out, also starring Bruno Lawrence, who won the Feltex best acting award despite using — to other thespians’ annoyance — his own Kiwi accent. In this period Robins was helping out in various roles on some of Geoff Murphy’s early films, including wardrobe and catering, and acting in this early short. She was also helping keep the family above water through driving taxis and bar work.
In late 1971 she, Murphy and their children were part of the first tour by Blerta, the legendary music and performance extravaganza first initiated by Bruno Lawrence. According to Robins, Lawrence said “let’s get on a bus, get on the road and take the family with us. Who’s in?”
“It was a bit startling,” Robins told website B-Side Stories. “This colourful bus would roll into town and people would say, how are we going to get rid of these hippies?” She says Blerta was part of a wider attitudinal change — helping show that local artists could stay and create quality art and music, instead of having to go overseas as had often happened previously. Asked what she learnt from the Blerta experience, she answered drily: “Don’t make schnitzel for 50 people.”
In October 1972, the Murphys joined the Bollinger and Sanderson families, and settled in the Hawke’s Bay settlement of Waimarama. Their joint property later became the base for further Blerta tours — plus scenes from a madcap 1976 Blerta TV series.
In the late 70s and early 80s, local feature films began to be made in ever increasing numbers. Robins worked in production manager and wardrobe roles on classics like Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu, and Mr Wrong. But she was also realising there was room for other points of view in terms of the stories being told. “It was being on the fringes and watching others make movies. After a while you get to think, there are other stories out there: women’s stories. And let’s tell them from a woman’s perspective.”
Robins’ directorial debut was the 1985 short film Instincts, written by Helen Bollinger and funded by the Arts Council. It explored the gender politics and division of household labour of the 1970s and the female experience of free love, which Pat described as “bloody nice for the blokes” but a different story for the women. “It was the best fun. I thought, wow, why wasn’t I doing this before?”
Two years later, Robins directed half-hour drama O’Reilly’s Luck, on a $16,000 Arts Council grant. Based on an outline by her son Paul, Robins wrote the screenplay with Tama Poata and Gaylene Preston. The film revolves around a young Māori woman, a talented snooker player who literally finds herself playing for the family farm. Newcomer Poina Te Hiko played the lead role with Bruno Lawrence as her gambling father, along with a cast and crew comprised of Robins’ extended family and friends. The film reflected Robins belief that “real people are actually much more interesting” than the glamorous and powerful characters often seen on television.
The strength of O’Reilly’s Luck won Robins an offer to direct an episode for Canadian/New Zealand anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre. Robins’ episode, 'The Lake', involved a man returning to the lake where his childhood sweetheart died long before.
Robins’ 1992 tele-play Matrons of Honour explores the daring subject of relationships in the twilight of one’s life. Dorothy McKegg plays a woman who finds romance in her 60s, then wonders if it was worth it. The film was scripted by Sue McCauley. Robins revisited the subject of old age in short film Dying Light, (2000), the story of a strong-willed elderly woman struggling with dementia. The film was invited to a number of international festivals.
Robins has continued to work on screen projects for others, usually as script supervisor (aka continuity). Her gigs as script supervisor include The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shopping, and quake series Hope and Wire, directed by frequent collaborator Gaylene Preston.
In 2014 Robins raised $10,000 on website Boosted to fund her Moa-nominated short film Food For Thought, based on Sue McCauley short story Assassin Bug. In typical Robins style, the crew included all five of her children and the subject matter was dear to her heart: the everyday lives of women, and the humour and tenacity they use to get by in a man’s world.
“Worldwide, only 8 percent of film directors are women, she argues. “That’s another reason why more women should be out there telling their stories.”
Profile written and researched by Julie Hill
Pubilshed on 10 November 2015
Nick Bollinger, ’Bruno did his thing’ -The Listener, 8 July 2013
Talia Carlisle, ‘Robins’ next short film turning into real family affair’ (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 24 July 2014
Laurie Foon, ‘Pat Robins - great films from a great grandmother’ (Interview) B-Side Stories website Loaded 16 July 2014. Accessed 10 November 2014
Douglas Jenkin, ‘Reel People’ (Interview) - The Listener, 19 August 1989, page 29
Deborah Shephard, ‘A Decent Sense of Outrage: Gaylene Preston - Film Director’ Deborah Shephard Books website. Accessed 10 November 2014
‘Short film about dementia’ Alzheimer's NSW Library website. Loaded 19 July 2013. Accessed 10 November 2014