As well as a written oeuvre, Peter Wells has an extensive screen résumé as writer and director. He has explored his interest in gay and historical themes in a number of acclaimed drama and documentary films since the 1980s; among them pioneering TV dramas A Death in the Family and Jewel’s Darl, Georgina Beyer documentary Georgie Girl, and lavish movie melodrama Desperate Remedies (co-directed with Stewart Main).
When I was a kid I was constantly dreaming of other places apart from where I lived … in some ways I treated aesthetics as an anaesthetic to help me cope with lots of things. Peter Wells in his 2001 documentary Pansy
The birth of television in the 1960s meant that suddenly protests and civil unrest could be broadcast directly into Kiwi homes. This episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television looks at many of those events — involving everything from the Vietnam War and the Springbok tour, to Bastion Point and the Homosexual Law Reform Act. It also examines how being televised altered their impact. Interviews with both protestors and reporters provide a unique insight into what it was like to be living through extraordinary periods of New Zealand history.
From early teleplay The Evening Paper to the edgy Outrageous Fortune, this episode of 50 Years of New Zealand Television talks drama and comedy. Key players, from actors to executives, recall a host of signposts in the development of storytelling on Kiwi TV screens. John Clarke recalls 1970s sitcom Buck's House; Paul Maunder remembers the drama that likely helped introduce the DPB; and TV executive John McRae recalls worries about the projected cost of global hit Hunter's Gold, and mentioning the word 'placenta' on the first episode of Shortland Street.
When TV began in New Zealand in 1960, posh English accents on screen were de rigueur. As veteran broadcaster Judy Callingham recalls in this sixth episode of Kiwi TV history: "every trace of a New Zealand vowel was knocked out of you." But as ties to Mother England weakened, Kiwis began to feel proud of their identity and culture. John Clarke invented farming comedy legend Fred Dagg, while Karyn Hay showed a Kiwi accent could be cool on Radio with Pictures. Sam Neill and director Geoff Murphy add their thoughts on the changing ways that Kiwis saw themselves.
Near the end of his life, renowned English composer Edward Elgar composed some of the greatest music of his career. This film examines the idea that Elgar's deeply emotional Cello Concerto in E Minor was provoked by memories of his first great love, Helen Weaver, who emigrated downunder after their relationship ended. After learning that Weaver's son had been killed fighting in France, Elgar was moved to write a war requiem. The award-nominated film mixed interviews, dramatisations, and a performance of the concerto by cellist Lynn Harrell and the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
This TV documentary sees director Peter Wells look at his life “through pansy-tinted glasses”. Motivated by the anniversary of his brother’s 1989 death (from AIDS) Wells’ film charts his path to becoming a pioneering gay filmmaker and writer: including growing up in conservative Port Chevalier in the 50s and 60s, bathos, baking, and deciding to come out when he was drafted to fight in Vietnam. As befits an artist whose credits include Desperate Remedies, the treatment is distinctive: a mix of doco, (aptly) flowery home movie, and quiet reflection.
Georgina Beyer was the first transgendered person in the world to be elected to national office. Co-directed by Annie Goldson and Peter Wells, this internationally lauded documentary, tells the story of Beyer's extraordinary, inspiring journey from sex worker to member of Parliament for rural Wairarapa, and handshakes with the Queen. Born George Bertrand, Beyer grew up on a Taranaki farm, before spreading her wings on Auckland's cabaret circuit. Subsequent events led her to the town of Carterton, where she became involved in local body, and then national politics.
Biographer Michael King takes us through the life of pioneering writer Frank Sargeson: from puritanical parents to self-discovery in London, through to decades encouraging an emerging tide of New Zealand writers. The documentary’s most priceless moments are the tales told when four of those writers return to Sargeson’s fabled fibrolite bach, in Takapuna. Kevin Ireland calls it an “oasis, this marvellous place where books ruled supreme”. Sargeson’s purposefuly minimalistic writing style, the doco argues, helped NZ literature find its own voice.
This debut feature from director Niki Caro follows a Tokyo woman and her fiance who elope to New Zealand. A stunted beginning to their sexual relationship is overcome in a cave on an isolated West Coast beach. Shortly afterwards he drowns. She returns to a suffocating Tokyo before being drawn back to the cave. The restrained study of eroticism and grief was based on a short story by Peter Wells (itself inspired by a true story). Desire was selected for Critics' Week at Cannes (1998), and won best film at 1999's NZ Film Awards and a special jury prize for Caro.
When Love Comes features Rena Owen as a once were famous singing star who returns to NZ, in need of reinvention. Staying with a close gay friend (Simon Prast), she is reenergised after meeting a wastral songwriter (Dean O'Gorman) and two loved up young musos (Sophia Hawthorne and Nancy Brunning, the former in her big screen debut). Invited to a slew of North American festivals — including Sundance and Toronto — Garth Maxwell's sun and song-lashed tale won stateside praise for its "energetic direction" (The Hollywood Reporter) and impassioned performances.
One of Them! was one of two dramas (alongside Niki Caro movie Memory and Desire) inspired by short stories collected in Peter Wells' 1991 book Dangerous Desires. It was made for TV One as a Montana Sunday drama. Set in Auckland, 1965, One of Them! follows Lemmy and Jamie, two teenage boys coming to terms with their sexuality. In the dark days before gay liberation, bullying and intimidation was rife, and while the boys flaunt their sissyness, their internalised homophobia wreaks havoc on their emotional lives — until they can admit to being "one of them".
Directed by Annie Goldson (Brother Number One), this 1995 TV documentary explores the story of Cecil Holmes, who won Cold War notoriety in 1948 when he was smeared as a communist agent, while working as a director for the National Film Unit. This excerpt — the opening 10 minutes — revisits the infamous snatching of Holmes' satchel outside Parliament, his Palmerston North upbringing, war service, and the founding of the Government's National Film Unit. There are excerpts from a 1980 interview where Holmes describes his inspirations (including UK film Night Mail).
This stylishly high camp melodrama from directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells won acclaim, after debuting at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. In the imaginary 19th-century town of Hope, draper Dorothea Brooks (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is desperate to save her sister from the clutches of opium, sex and the dastardly Fraser. She begs hunky migrant Lawrence Hayes to help; but complications ensue. Inspired partly by 1930s and 40s Hollywood melodramas, Desperate Remedies was sumptously shot by Leon Narbey (Whale Rider). Richard King writes about the film here.
In this short Peter Wells makes a personal "Postcard from New Zealand" for a series for Channel Four (UK). Looking for a "Kiwi Greek god" to showcase their "Gay Lynn" garden they enlist Richard, 3rd place getter in Mr Gay Auckland. While posing Richard tells them about his costume for the Sydney Mardi Gras. "Skirt in the shape of Rangitoto, a hat like Auckland's Harbour Bridge: Dame Edna would've loved it". Richard models the costume which also features budgie smugglers with 'NZ' sequined into them, a Southern Cross singlet, and ugg-glove sheep puppets.
The Mighty Civic offered a delirious and colourful celebration of Auckland's grandest old movie palace, made at a time when the building's future was under threat. The film uses a mixture of stylised sequences, archive footage, personal memories and poetic narration to evoke the spirit of the theatre in its heyday. Director Peter Wells' film galvanised public support, and ultimately the building was saved and refurbished, to remain the crown jewel of Queen Street's cinema district. This clip features the first 10 minutes of the hour long film. Costa Botes writes about the film here.
Peter Wells and Stewart Main’s acclaimed drama screened in primetime and was ground-breaking in featuring AIDS. Wells' script is based on the death of one of his friends — one of the first New Zealanders to die from the disease — but the living are the focus, as Wells creates an intimate “strange and foreign land” occupied by those close to someone who is dying. Andy’s friends confront both their own mortality and the deadly new disease stalking their community, while his conservative family grapples with never having come to terms with his sexuality. The excerpt features the opening 10 minutes.
"I mean to say, shouldn't I be in love with a fella or something?" Mandy, a man who dresses as a woman, talks about his relationship with Jewel (Georgina Beyer), a transsexual. Jewel's Darl concentrates on the fine details of their relationship: tea and biscuits in bed, Jewel's belief in staying strong against other people's mockery, plus Mandy's memories of a troubled childhood and the day their romance began. The acclaimed drama was inspired by Anne Kennedy's first published short story, winner of the 1983 Katherine Mansfield Award.
"I do hope your pimples don't let you down on the big night." 14-year old Steve is caught between creatures he does not fully understand: two parents with very different ideas about the suit he should wear to his first school dance. Meanwhile everywhere he seems to look, images of men are taking control of his imagination. In Stewart Main's comical coming of age story Steve escapes his parents' good wishes, to discover his true desires. They aren't quite what his no-nonsense father had in mind.
When the takahē was rediscovered in the Murchison mountains in 1948, it made world headlines as a back from extinction story. This documentary checks in on the big flightless birds three decades later, with their future under threat (by deer, stoats and breeding failure). Doctor Geoffrey Orbell recalls the 1948 expedition. Project Takahē was the first Wild South documentary made by TVNZ’s Natural History Unit (later NHNZ). The images of takahē – blue, green and red, plodding in the snowy tussock – marked the first time most New Zealanders had seen the bird in the wild.