Producer Rachel Gardner studied at the London School of Economics, then worked as a journalist at the Financial Times. After returning downunder in 2002 she moved into producing, starting with award-winning documentary Colin McCahon: I Am. Her work on hit show The Lion Man would result in an invitation to become head of drama at company Great Southern Film and Television. Gardner has worked with partner Angela Littlejohn on a run of short films, plus features Apron Strings, Show of Hands and Slow West. In 2014 she joined See-Saw, the Anglo-Australian company behind Slow West and Lion.
...it’s all about the material. The script is the one thing you have the most control over as a producer, and which is most important in securing cast and finance. Rachel Gardner, in the July 2004 issue of SPADA News
You can’t choose your family. This 2011 short film explores the father-daughter dynamic between free-spirited Bird (Peter Hawes) and uptight Blessing (Dra McKay). When Bird nearly burns down the house, Blessing packs him off to the Golden Falls retirement home. Hippy Bird chaffs against the home’s confinements, and forces Blessing to reconsider what freedom and kindness might mean with regard to kin. Bird was co-directed by acclaimed advertising director Steve Ayson (The French Doors) and Jane Shearer (Nature’s Way); the pair co-wrote with Gregory King (Song of Good).
In the 2000s mockumentary realism (led by The Office) was making its mark in television comedy. Series The Pretender gave Kiwi politics the embedded camera treatment, with expat comedian Bob Maclaren playing overconfident property developer-turned-MP Dennis Plant. The first episode of the second series sees Plant cause political chaos, with the launch of his Future New Zealand party. This season was nominated for three Qantas TV awards in 2009, including best comedy. The show was created by Peter Cox (Insider’s Guide to Happiness) and Great Southern TV’s Philip Smith.
In Samoan-born director Sima Urale's first feature, two mothers from very different Aotearoa cultures find the courage to confront the secrets of the past, in order to set their sons free. Hard-working Lorna runs an old-fashioned cake shop and lives with her unemployed son. For Anita, star of an Indian cooking show, things come to a head when her son decides to meet her estranged sister Tara, who runs a no-frills curry house. Apron Strings debuted in the Discovery Section of the 2008 Toronto Film Festival. It won four Qantas awards, including for actors Jennifer Ludlam and Scott Wills.
The second feature film directed by writer Anthony McCarten (Ladies' Night) is a small tale with some big themes. Set in a New Plymouth car yard, the film chronicles an endurance contest in which a car will be awarded to the person who manages to keep their hands on it the longest. As night falls, solo mother Jess (Melanie Lynskey) finds herself fending off the attentions of an obstinate competitor (Craig Hall), with a much harsher vision of the world than hers. Inspired by similar real-life contests, McCarten based the film on his novel Endurance.
Ricky is shy and has an overbearing father. He and Telly, an extrovert misfit, slip out into the night and commandeer Ricky's father's fishing boat. They cast off and head out into the freedom of the fog. Peter Salmon's Fog highlights oppression, boredom and sex: the cultural trinity of the New Zealand small town. Shot in Ngawi, an isolated fishing village on the Wairarapa coastline, the crush of this world is palpable. Fog was selected for Critics' Week at Cannes; it also scored Chelsie Preston Crayford a gong for Best Actor in a Short Film at the NZ Film Awards.
No Opportunity Wasted was a reality show devised by Phil Keoghan, Emmy Award-winning Kiwi host of The Amazing Race. In the show Keoghan ambushed contestants and gave them a limited time (three days) and limited resources (usually $3000) to ditch the excuses and "live life now". Challenges included swimming with sharks, building a giant community playground, and a NZ tough guy competition (that included future Olympic champion rower Eric Murray). The New Zealand edition followed on from the inaugural series that screened on Discovery Channel in the US in 2004.
Set in gritty backstreets somewhere in downtown Auckland, this short film follows the vicissitudes of Evan, a teenager whose life changes when he skips school and meets a beautiful and troubled stranger. Directed by Michael Duignan (A New Way Home) and produced by Rachel Gardner (Apron Strings, A Show of Hands), Truant is a convincing portrayal of that potent mixture of curiosity and desperation peculiar to adolescence. Truant screened at a number of festivals including the prestigious short film festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and the London Film Festival.
In this mockumentary series, hapless property developer turned politican Dennis Plant (played by Bob Maclaren) campaigns to win a fictional Queenstown seat, then later launches party Future New Zealand. Made by Great Southern, the first season screened on TV3. A second season on TV One coincided with the 2008 election; it was thrice nominated at the 2009 Qantas NZ Film and TV Awards (Best Comedy, plus Actor and Supporting Actor, for Maclaren and Andrew King respectively). Reality met fiction when Plant's 2008 election blog appeared on the NZ Herald website.
Lion Man Craig Busch, and his unlikely colleagues — African lions and white Bengal tigers — were a ratings and international sales success across three TV seasons. The Lion Man went behind the scenes at his Zion Wildlife Gardens animal park. In this first episode of the Great Southern TV show, Busch talks about his introduction to working with the big cats — and the scars that are part of the job. There's also a peek at the making of an award-winning Sky TV promo that featured his lions. Busch, and the park, were later to be the centre of regular controversy.
This documentary looks at the life and work of New Zealand's most celebrated painter, Colin McCahon. The first excerpt looks at McCahon's beginnings in Timaru and Dunedin, and his explorations of modernist techniques in paintings that reconceived 'the promised land' in an endemic landscape. The second excerpt covers McCahon's time in Muriwai in the 60s and 70s, and the influence of the environment and Māori spirituality on his work. Sam Neill reads from McCahon's letters and writings. Directed by Paul Swadel, it won best documentary at the 2005 Qantas Awards.
Craig Busch aka The Lion Man is a self-taught big cat handler who has brought Barbary lions and white Bengal tigers to New Zealand. With both species extinct in the wild, Busch launched a breeding programme to add to limited numbers remaining in captivity. Great Southern Television produced three series following the often controversial Busch and his giant feline charges, from the early days of his Zion Wildlife Gardens park near Whangarei (later relaunched as The Kingdom of Zion). An international sales success, the show has played in more than 120 countries.