Editor Bill Toepfer finds black humour in watching a TV programme’s end credits. “The names are getting smaller and going faster and faster,” he says. Toepfer suspects there may come a time they disappear altogether, and the viewer never learns who was “working in that dark room, manipulating them”.
Toepfer was born in Chicago. His family moved to New Zealand when he was 13. An "all-rounder" while attending Selwyn College in East Auckland, he later completed a Masters in English Literature at Auckland University and trained as a teacher. But after a year in the job, he needed a different direction.
Long keen on film and storytelling, he rang the NZ Broadcasting Corporation "out of the blue", asking if he could become a cameraman. Told they needed editors not camera operators, Toepfer found himself in an editing suite for the first time the following week. He also got hands-on learning in most aspects of making television. “It saved me tens of thousands of dollars in training. You got to do all sorts of things...That all disappeared with neo-liberalism”.
Toepfer was now an in-house editor at TVNZ, working on everything from news and current affairs, to popular police drama Mortimer’s Patch. “Editing on film was physical: you needed scissors, it was an intellectual process. Now it’s a complex computer system”. In the 80s and 90s he gained editing credits on major TVNZ social and political documentaries and specials, like the four-part Revolution, which examined changes brought by the ‘Rogernomics’ era.
While working at TVNZ, Toepfer got his first credit as a director. His friends Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair of Kiwi musical theatre group The Front Lawn won QE2 arts funding to make a film. “I loved their drama, their theatrical performances.... we thought why not make a short film?" Plans to adapt The Reason for Breakfast were abandoned after the show got invited to the Wellington Festival of the Arts. So they rustled up the classic Walkshort (1987), which showcased McGlashan and Sinclair playing all the characters, and the faded chic of late 1980’s Karangahape Road.
Little did Toepfer know that another idea — hatched at his seven-year-old daughter’s birthday party — would have massive global impact. “I had hired a band called The Paua Fritters to play for the party, and the girls ended up pushing the band out of the way, grabbing the mic and singing Spice Girls songs. I thought 'oh my god, what’s happening to the music industry? Can anyone be a pop star now?'”
Toepfer had just finished a documentary with producer Jonathan Dowling. On the way to the pub to exchange ideas, he remembered the party. Dowling jumped at the idea, but TVNZ weren’t exactly opening up their cheque book. The first and only series of New Zealand Popstars was made on what Toepfer calls a "‘measly amount of money". It followed pop wannabes TrueBliss through the now standard reality format of auditions, callbacks, and conjuring up a hit single. He directed a number of episodes. Australian company Screentime bought the concept, and sold it to over 50 countries. Today Popstars can take its place as a parent of the Pop Idol / American Idol reality TV phenomenon.
Another of Toepfer’s concepts was The Big Picture. Presented by art historian Hamish Keith, it traced the history of New Zealand art since 1642. Toepfer and fellow producer Fiona Copland were keen to make the series "as accessible" as possible. Originally they were offered a prime 8.30pm slot on TV One, but after a change of commissioner, Toepfer feels it was "buried" at 10.30pm. The Big Picture won praise, and a Best Series gong at the 2008 NZ Screen Awards.
Toepfer has done 25 years as a freelancer, editing a huge range of documentaries and TV specials. Among his varied credits are this award-winning 1987 documentary on the Cave Creek tragedy, Heavenly Pop Hits- The Flying Nun Story (2002), Murder on the Blade? (2002) — which reexamined the case against Scott Watson — and An Island Calling (2008) which chronicles the story of two Westerners murdered in Fiji. An Island Calling won multiple awards, including Best Documentary at the 2008 Qantas Film and TV Awards. He has also edited many documentaries featuring local artists and poets, including Len Lye, Allen Curnow, and photographer Marti Friedlander. Many of these were directed by Shirley Horrocks.
Toepfer has also edited often for Inside Out and Attitude, two series with a focus on those living with disabilities and chronic illnesses. In 2015 he won an Asia Apollo Award for Attitude episode Living with Parkinson’s. Attitude creator Robyn Scott-Vincent then invited him to join Attitude's creative team, where he edits, writes and occasionally directs. Toepfer doesn’t think of himself as a natural director. "I’m an introvert at heart. I like sitting in a dark room by myself.”
He enjoys the "‘old-fashioned doco-making" at Attitude. "It’s been an education in terms of the power of language in truthfully portraying peoples’ lives."
“I’m lucky in that I always wanted to work in something creative and interesting," he says. "I’ve loved working with the variety of subjects and styles over the years”.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 30 March 2020
'Attitude' NZ On Air website. Accessed 14 March 2017
'Our Team' Attitude website. Accessed 14 March 2017
'Walkshort' (Short film) Director Bill Toepfer (Front Lawn Films, 1987)
'Attitude: Living with Parkinsons' Director Wendy Colville (RSVP Productions, 2014)