Actor Wi Kuki Kaa summed up his late friend Rory O’Shea simply when he said “I never met anyone who didn’t like or get on with Rory” .
If there are some things surviving colleagues can agree on, it’s that O’Shea was a good bloke, a damned fine cameraman, and that maybe he drank a bit more than was good for him.
Given his family background, that may have been ordained. Fellow cinematographer Waka Attewell explains: “Pacific Films sure did a robust impression of an Irish drinking culture. Add to that being the boss’s son and you may not have got out alive. Patrick, Rory and Cathy lived with higher than normal levels of expectation…”
All three O’Shea children followed father John into the family ‘business’. All three made an idiosyncratic mark, and lead successful careers; all passed away relatively young. While Patrick and Kathy headed to the UK, Waka says Rory stayed home and took on “a workload of epic proportions.”
For thirty years John O’Shea’s Pacific Films traded through thick and (more frequently) thin, cranking out a steady diet of corporate, educational and advertising films — in-between sporadic attempts at loftier works. The lasting cultural significance of John O’Shea’s legacy productions sometimes overshadows the human cost of making them.
“We all lived in the shadow of the great man and fawned at his feet when we needed his approval and recognition”, is Waka's view of O'Shea senior. “We learned the hard lessons - it was a ‘take no prisoners’ culture that affected none more than his middle born son Rory, who gave new meaning to the word ‘over-achiever’”.
Pacific Films was a crucible where many careers were forged. The company was a natural magnet for anyone with a yen to explore the possibilities of cinema. O’Shea was surrounded by young, ambitious, and talented cohorts from the start. If he wanted to win his father’s approval, he had competition.
After years of being shut out of local television, local production companies gained a rare foot in the door via the NZBC’s Survey, an omnibus slot opened up in the early 70s for independently-made documentaries. Survey was an outlet for the suppressed ambitions of scores of Kiwi film-makers and technicians. It would be no exaggeration to call it a kind of ‘big bang’, from which the Kiwi ‘film renaissance’ of the late 1970s was a natural development.
In the centre of this ferment was Rory O’Shea, either with camera in hand, or lighting a succession of groundbreaking films with his mate and colleague, director Tony Williams. O'Shea was part of the camera team on Williams films like Take Three Passions and The Unbelievable Glory of the Human Voice. These were ambitious, authored pieces, fusing familiar documentary tropes with the language of avant grade and classical cinema.
It didn’t last. Pacific Films and Rory O’Shea went back to the grind of shooting cinematic paeons to the Apple and Pear Marketing Board. And Rory went sailing, arguably his first love. Explains Waka: “Rory thought he could opt out for a few months and run a business that delivered sailing ships. Yachts and sailing were his first love." Memories differ on whether Rory went back to shooting commercials and corporate work because he needed the money — making a living from sailing proved a challenge — or because father called.
There was joy in another film O’Shea shot with Tony Williams. The Hum (1974) was an all floating affair, documenting the work of Kiwi yacht designer Bruce Farr. Williams has acknowledged O'Shea as "the driving force" in the film being made.
O'Shea helped out on breakthrough documentary series Tangata Whenua, on which director Barry Barclay had the idea of sitting cameras further back, to give interview subjects space, and a sense of intimacy untroubled by the close proximity of technical equipment. When he shot documentary Autumn Fires (1977) for Barclay, O'Shea adopted the same approach. Their collaboration would continue on later projects, albeit with significant breaks.
In the same period O’Shea shot an episode (‘A Great Day’) of landmark Roger Donaldson/Ian Mune drama series Winners and Losers. But the door that had opened a crack for independents was firmly slammed shut, when the NZBC launced a second channel. Opportunities for creative work dried up, and Pacific Films struggled to adjust. O’Shea had to make a hard choice about his future.
“Some of us departed Pacific Films and invented the freelance business”, remembers Waka. “It broke John’s heart, who interpreted it as abandonment and betrayal. Rather than hang about freelance in NZ, Rory hit the road and ended up in New York.”
But he found it hard to sustain his career offshore, and links back to New Zealand were strong. In the early 80s O’Shea began shooting the first of his five Kiwi features, beautifully-lensed colonial tale Pictures. When Barry Barclay set out on a three year trek around the world, shooting his epic documentary The Neglected Miracle (1984), it was mostly O’Shea manning the camera.
The assistant cameraman was Murray Milne, who recalls making a lot of use of a Canon 300mm lens, “so we could be far enough away for a translator to give a live translation (Spanish, Italian, Dutch or French) to Barry, and not be heard by the microphone.” Adds Milne: "I remember a lot of drinking and smoking and sweating. I used to have to dab Rory’s head so it wouldn’t drip into his eyes during shooting. Also a lot of laughs, in Rory’s very special scratchy/phlegmy kind of laugh.”
Milne also recalls O’Shea meeting his New York shoe model wife Dorianne on the shoot: “It might have been in Lima, Peru”.
The reception given to The Neglected Miracle might have disappointed, but not so the next, which represented a high water mark in Barclay and O’Shea’s careers. Ngati (1985), a story about an exile rediscovering his roots, perhaps serves as a most fitting epitaph for a restless soul who was possibly never quite happy in his skin.
Rory O'Shea was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. He died in February 2000.
Waka offers this bittersweet farewell to his late friend and colleague. “Rory never made it to his 50th Birthday. He came home to die. I stood on the lawn next to John at the wake and cried with everyone else as we looked out over Kapiti … it really did feel like the end of an era. John had recently lost his wife, then Patrick died a few months after that in the UK, and John passed away a couple of years later. Kathy is also now recently departed.”
Writing by Costa Botes
Thanks to Waka Attewell, Murray Milne, Johnny Morris and Mike Hardcastle
Memoir/Notes from Waka Attewell, 2015
Tony Williams, 'On Making The Hum' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 12 November 2010. Accessed 15 May 2015
‘Rory O’Shea’ - Newsreel (NZ Film Archive magazine) issue 45, 2000