Peter Wells fell in love with film early. He recalls "laughing, screaming, yelling" to an old Mickey Mouse cartoon aged four.
Wells has written of his belief that New Zealand's distance from the rest of the world encouraged a strong love affair with cinema — and also fuelled a cinema of our own "which is potent, rich and expressive. Mix isolation and the power of dream, and you end up with something extraordinary."
Wells began acting as a nine-year-old; on stage, he first grew to appreciate the interaction of a fantasy world with everyday life. At university "there was nothing like film studies", but he continued to devour all the films he could. After completing a history degree he spent five years overseas. In London, a viewing of Rainer Werner Fassbinder melodrama The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant made him realise "it was possible to become a filmmaker"; he also began writing short fiction, all of it "drenched in" New Zealand.
Back in Auckland, now proofreading at the NZ Herald, Wells would finish his night shift in time to catch a film crew shooting car film Queen Street. In Film in Aotearoa New Zealand, he describes this moment as "a fantastically empowering experience". The mystery of film "collapsed as if someone had pulled a curtain away".
Annoyed by the linear storytelling approach of pioneering Antipodean gay feature Squeeze, Wells set about making something provocative, and less reliant on dialogue: experimental short Foolish Things (1980). After debuting alongside early shorts by Gregor Nicholas and Shereen Maloney, Foolish Things won awards in Europe, and screenings in Australia. Wells began to develop a "feeling of solidarity" with these and other emerging filmmakers; the film also launched the first of a series of gay-themed projects made in collaboration with his then partner, future director Stewart Main.
In 1985, the two worked on two short dramas for TV's About Face. This groundbreaking anthology series came about partly due to Wells. He had banded together with other independent filmmakers to form the New Film Group, partly from a feeling that short films were as valid — perhaps more valid — than feature films. The NFG pressured the powers that be to devote more funding to short films.
About Face love story Jewel's Darl, directed by Wells and nominated for three NZ Television awards, launched a number of careers — for Anne Kennedy, writer of the original short story; future politician Georgina Beyer, who starred; and novice director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano). In later years Georgie Girl, a documentary on Beyer, co-directed by Wells and Annie Goldson, would win two awards at gay film festivals in the United States. For About Face, Wells also wrote the humorous, semi auto-biographical My First Suit, directed by Main.
The following year, Wells and Main caught the zeitgeist with their teleplay A Death In The Family, based on the loss of a friend to AIDS. In the year that the homosexual law reform bill was working its way into law, it was a hot button topic. The film was hailed locally, screened around the world, and took away an American Film and Video Association Award.
Two other notable films by Wells demonstrate his fascination with architecture. The Newest City On The Globe (1986, about Napier) and The Mighty Civic (1988, about the beloved Auckland theatre of his childhood). Both mix straight history with colourful flights of cinematic fancy. Wells wrote about the Civic in this piece for NZ On Screen's sister website, AudioCulture.
Aside from coming onboard to help write the script for Garth Maxwell drama When Love Comes, Wells' only feature film to date is 1993's Desperate Remedies, which he wrote and directed with Stewart Main. Starring Jennifer Ward-Lealand and shot by Leon Narbey, this deliberately melodramatic take on our colonial beginnings offered a flamboyant, expressionistic alternative to the man alone machismo that had dominated Kiwi film.
After being selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Desperate Remedies quickly sold to more than 25 countries. Screen International called it "an exuberant Victorian bodice ripper", while Variety's David Stratton found it "a feast for the eyes and eyes". Stratton described a Cannes screening where many hooted "cheerfully at the pic's wild extravagancies and gay abandon". Reviewers for The Dominion and North and South both praised it for staking out new ground from Kiwi realist traditions.
Since Desperate Remedies, Wells has concentrated on writing for the page. His short stories, novels and non-fiction works have won wide praise. But he has not entirely abandoned drama. In 1996 he collaborated with theatre director Colin McColl on Ricordi!, an operatic dramatization of Katherine Mansfield's Wellington stories, commissioned for the NZ International Festival of the Arts.
There have also been a number of autobiographical works: 2001 television documentary Pansy, which charts his path to becoming a writer and filmmaker, was accompanied by book Long Loop Home. In it Wells addresses coming out after being drafted to fight in Vietnam, and his relationship with his brother, who died from AIDS in 1989.
Wells has also written evocatively about his love affair with cinema in 2005 essay On Going to the Movies, and becoming a director in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. His screen projects are analysed by American David Gerstner in a chapter of book New Zealand Filmmakers.
Two short stories from Wells' awardwinning 1991 collection Dangerous Desires have been filmed: Of Memory & Desire, the tale of a Japanese couple travelling around New Zealand, was adapted by Niki Caro for her first feature Memory and Desire in 1997. Soon after, working from a Wells script, Stewart Main directed 60s coming of age tale One of Them! as an hour long TV film; Wells also wrote a novella of the same name.
Wells' 2003 novel Iridescence was a runner up in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and a finalist for the 2005 Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize. In 2009 another writing award allowed him to complete biography The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso, which was nominated for the NZ Post Award. He was also a founder of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, with novelist Stephanie Johnson.
In 2006 Peter Wells was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to literature and film. Wells wrote the introduction for NZ On Screen's 2014 LGBT Collection.
Peter Wells, ‘Glamour on the Slopes: Or the Films We Wanted to Live’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Peter Wells, On Going to the Movies (Wellington: Four Winds Press, 2005)
Roger Robinson, 'Wells, Peter' (Profile), New Zealand Book Council website. Accessed 25 January 2014
David Stratton, 'Desperate Remedies' (Review) - Variety, 7 June 1993
'Miramax buy North American rights to movie' - NZfilm, No 50 October 1993, Page 4