Sam Pillsbury's The Scarecrow was the first Kiwi movie to win invitation to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Starting at government filmmaking body the Natonal Film Unit, the part-Kiwi, part-American dlrector has worked in documentary — including helming the controversial Birth with Dr. R.D. Laing — and made a run of feature films and TV movies, both here and in North America.
Big money and big talk don’t make good films. Wit, style, dedication, passion, commitment and conviction make good films... Sam Pillsbury, in a 1982 Listener interview
When his father dies, soldier Will Bastion (Temuera Morrison) returns home after 20 years. Tradition dictates he take on the mantle of tribal chief, but he's not interested. His brother Kahu (Lawrence Makoare) seizes the opportunity, but he's a drug-dealer with grand plans to get stolen land back. Worried about Kahu's provocative approach, Will must choose whether to face off against his brother. Melding horseback action and indigenous land rights, Crooked Earth marked the first NZ film for director Sam Pillsbury since 1987's Starlight Hotel. Variety called it "handsomely mounted and compelling".
Numero Bruno is a warts and all biography of widely popular actor, musician and counter-cultural hero Bruno Lawrence. Lawrence's intense, charismatic screen presence was key to ground-breaking Kiwi films, Smash Palace, The Quiet Earth and Utu. Directed by Steve La Hood (the veteran director’s TV swansong), this documentary features interviews with family and friends, and liberal excerpts from Lawrence's film and musical work, including performances by 70s alternative Aotearoa icons Blerta and clips showcasing his seminal collaborations with Geoff Murphy.
This Depression-era road movie tails teen runaway Kate (Greer Robson) as she tags along with World War I veteran Patrick (Aussie actor Peter Phelps) — himself on the run after assaulting a repo man. The odd couple relationship grudgingly evolves as they oft-narrowly escape the law and head north across the southern badlands. Director Sam Pillsbury's on the lam tale won wide praise, with Kevin Thomas in the LA Times calling it "pure enchantment". Robson's award-winning turn as the scamp followed up her breakthrough role in Smash Palace.
Frank Whitten won probably his biggest audience when 10 million Brits saw him play an outrageous bastard in this primetime melodrama. This first episode sees Ceci (Glaswegian actor Valerie Gogan) arriving from England hoping for a better life, and instead finding herself trapped on a rundown farm with a rapist, a bitter old man and a simpleton. NZ producers Lloyd Phillips and Rob Whitehouse won finance from TVNZ, Westpac and the UK's Central Television for the six-part mini-series, written by Brit Elizabeth Gowans. There were 118 speaking parts, most of them Kiwi.
In director Geoff Murphy's cult sci-fi feature a global energy project has malfunctioned and scientist Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakes to find himself the only living being left on earth. At first he lives out his fantasies, helping himself to cars and clothes, before the implications of being 'man alone' sink in, along with his own culpability in the disaster. As this awareness sends him to the brink of madness, he discovers two other survivors. One of them is a woman. Los Angeles Daily News gushed: “quite simply the best science-fiction film of the 80s”.
Goodbye Pork Pie was a low-budget smash, definitively proving that Kiwis could make blockbusters too. Young rascal Gerry (Kelly Johnson) steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John, who wants his wife back; and a hitchhiker named Shirl. Soon they are driving to Invercargill to find her, with the cops in pursuit. Eluding the police with hair-raising driving, verve and trickery, it's not long before the Blondini gang are hailed as folk heroes, onscreen and off. A remake began filming in 2016, directed by Matt Murphy — son of Geoff, who directed the original.
Praising novel The Scarecrow, one critic argued that author Ronald Hugh Morrieson had melded genres together into “a brilliant, hallucinatory mixture distinctively his own". The movie adaptation is another unusual melding; a coming of age tale awash with comedy, nostalgia, and a touch of the gothic. Taranaki teen Ned (Jono Smith) is worried that the mysterious arrival in town (US legend John Carradine) has murderous designs on his sister. The masterful narration is by Martyn Sanderson. The result: the first Kiwi film to win official selection at Cannes.
This film documents Auckland's Round the Bays run. In 1980 jogging was booming, with coach Arthur Lydiard and a band of Olympic champs (Snell, Walker etc) inspiring the way. Here, participants run and reflect, from a blind runner, to children and an army squad. Slo-mo sweat, sinew and samba shots frame the 70,000 runners as members of an infectious cult chasing the piper around the waterfront. Adidas, terry toweling and facial hair make the film a relaxed 70s update on Olympiad; directed by Sam Pillsbury it won awards at Chicago and Torino festivals.
Framed by the distinctive burr of influential Scottish thinker RD Laing, this 1977 doco questions how the Western medical system handles childbirth: in Laing's view, "one of the disaster areas of our culture." Supported by arresting hospital footage and impassioned interviews with mothers, the film argues that women are often deliberately sidelined during the process of birth, and babies' needs ignored. Screenings in the UK and US saw it contributing to a debate about newborn care; one that remains ongoing. Birth won a Feltex award for best documentary.
NFU drama Men and Super Men is a barbed chronicle of a workplace where harmony is a distant dream. Intended as a how-not-to guide for ‘management bodies’, the film sees patronising factory supervisor Ferguson (actor Eddie Wright in fine form) trying to increase productivity by constantly changing systems. Meanwhile a trio on the factory floor (Paul Holmes, Peter McCauley and Close to Home’s Stephen Tozer) react with bullying and barely suppressed defiance. It was an open secret when the film was made that some of the characters were inspired by NFU staff.
Directed by Sam Pillsbury, this 1974 film observes Ralph Hotere — one of New Zealand’s greatest artists — at a moment when excitement is gathering about his work. Lauded as a “classic” by Ian Wedde, the documentary is framed around the execution of a watershed piece: a large mural Hotere was commissioned to paint for Hamilton’s Founders Theatre. Interviews with friends and associates — poets Hone Tuwhare and Bill Manhire, art critics, officials and dealers — are intercut with fascinating shots of Hotere working (including making art by photocopying or 'xerography').
This chronicle of the Christchurch Commonwealth Games marked one of the National Film Unit's most ambitious productions. Though a range of events (including famous runs by John Walker and Dick Tayler), are covered, the film often bypasses the pomp and glory approach; daring to talk to the injured and mentioning that most competitors lose. The closing ceremonies of the "friendly games" feature the athletes gathering to — as the official song's chorus put it — "join together". The directing team included Paul Maunder, Sam Pillsbury, and Arthur Everard.
The focus of this short film is a memorial service on Seatoun Beach, five years after the sinking of interisland ferry Wahine on 10 April 1968. More than 50 people died when the 9,000 ton ship keeled over just inside Wellington Harbour, during the ferocious Cyclone Giselle. The ferry had been in service just 20 months. National Film Unit director Sam Pillsbury uses archive footage of the sinking along with reconstructions and recreations of radio reports — the memorial service itself was recreated for the film. There are also scenes of the attempted salvage operation.
After a young woman (Denise Maunder) falls pregnant, she decides to go against the tide of advice from her family and unsympathetic welfare authorities by keeping her baby. Misery and hardship ensues. Director Paul Maunder brought kitchen sink drama to NZ television with this controversial National Film Unit production. The story can claim to have effected social change, stirring up public debate about the DPB for single mothers. Keep an eye out for a young Paul Holmes as a wannabe lothario. Maunder writes about making it in this piece. Costa Botes writes about it here.