Carmen J Leonard’s earliest memories are steeped in television. She was “dragged" into the old Shortland Street TV studios in Auckland many a time by her dad, lauded TV producer Ernie Leonard. He was pivotal in the development of Māori representation on New Zealand television — a key player in launching and leading TVNZ's Māori Programmes department, and famous for presenting hit 1970s wrestling show On the Mat.
Carmen J Leonard was born in Christchurch. Her family spent a few years in Rotorua before settling on the North Shore in Auckland. Sick of school, she left Takapuna Grammar partway through year 13 (seventh form) to work in a bank. But those TV studios of her childhood had left a deep impression, and she applied for a place in TVNZ’s TVA (Television Assistant Scheme). Leonard got a taste of all the TVNZ departments. "At the end of the course, you could choose where you’d like to go. It was the golden age all right."
Her first official TV job was driving cast members of miniseries Erebus: The Aftermath (1986) around. Leonard later worked as a general floor manager (in charge of a studio set), then assistant directed on popular shows such as drama Gloss and quiz show It's in the Bag. The first big shake-up of Leonard's career came in 1990 when TVNZ underwent a series of restructures and suddenly Leonard was unemployed. “Frankly, it was the best thing that could have happened."
She took the time to explore other options — working freelance, taking a bar job in Queenstown and enjoying her early 20s. In 1992 producer and friend Caterina De Nave rang Leonard with a job offer in Auckland, first assistant directing (running a film set) on a new soap known as Shortland Street. "At the start there we didn’t know what we were doing and it was panned." The show soon found its audience.
In 1998 Leonard moved into line producing (logistical work) on Shortland Street for a year, before returning to first assistant directing on Young Hercules, drama Mercy Peak, and the second series of Being Eve (2002).
Leonard gave birth to son Oscar in 2003. After taking nearly a year off work, she began line producing for Screentime's kids show P.E.T. Detectives, before moving to South Pacific Pictures. At the end of 2004 she became the line producer for series Outrageous Fortune.
Leonard calls Outrageous Fortune "the biggest show I’ve ever worked on". She became a co-producer from the second season onwards, relishing the chance to be more creative. The Westie drama was a critical and popular hit, which meant expectations rose with each new series. "It became extremely difficult as it went on; the audiences were more demanding, everyone wanted more and more. Six series was enough."
After the intense pressures of Outrageous Fortune, Leonard took a break. Her next career move to Eyeworks (now Warner Bros) in 2011 broadened her focus from drama to factual and reality series. Her credits include The Block (series two) and New Zealand‘s Hottest Home Baker; the latter was the first reality show she worked on. She took time out from Eyeworks to produce 2014 docudrama Erebus: Operation Overdue, a nominee for the Best Documentary at the 2014 Rialto Channel NZ Film Awards.
In 2014 Leonard moved to Great Southern Television to produce rugby biopic The Kick. A year later, she produced Hillary, Tom Scott's six-part series based on the life of Sir Edmund Hillary. Leonard's 2017 drama The Dance Exponents: Why Does Love?, about legendary Kiwi pop band Dance Exponents, won five awards, including Best Television Feature Drama at the 2018 Huawei Mate20 NZ TV Awards (Leonard-produced horseracing tale Kiwi was nominated in the same category, the following year).
In 2016 Leonard began a two year run as Head of Content at Great Southern. While there she worked on several te aō Māori programmes, including the award-winning series The Hui and web documentary NZ Wars: The Stories of Ruapekapeka.
Surprise reality hit The Casketeers initially didn't capture interest until TVNZ’s Jude Callen picked it up. The series follows the busy lives of Francis and Kaiora Tipene, who run Auckland's Tipene Funerals. Leonard asked her sister Susan to come on board as director and craft the show. The Casketeers was picked up by Netflix, attracted international media attention and won Best Original Reality Series and Best Māori Programme at the 2019 Huawei Mate30 Pro NZ TV Awards.
Leonard has a special place in her heart for standalone TV dramas. "It’s one script, one story, so satisfying as an art form." The drama lover’s most satisfying project to date was 2019 telefeature Runaway Millionaires, which marked the first offering from Leonard and Deb Cope's production company, Fearless Productions. It's based on the story of Kiwi Kara Hurring, who in 2009 became an overnight millionaire via a banking error, then fled overseas with her partner. "To secure Kara’s story, get her over the line and not be at the mercy of anyone else in telling it, that was our biggest achievement to date." In April 2020, Runaway Millionaires won four awards at the New York Festivals Film and Television Awards, including a silver in the TV movie category.
In April 2020, Leonard's crime/drama series One Lane Bridge for Great Southern Television debuted on TVNZ. As of mid 2020, Leonard was in pre-production for international TV series Under The Vines, starring Rebecca Gibney.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Originally published on 24 April 2020; updated on 23 June 2020
Carmen J Leonard
Keith Barclay, 'Leonard joins Great Southern' - Screenz website. Loaded 23 May 2014. Accessed 24 April 2020
Kerry Harvey, 'True story of New Zealand’s runaway millionaires revealed' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 22 August 2019
Paul Little, 'Famous Kiwi dynasties and the key to their winning ways' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 16 February 2019
Unknown writer, 'Rotorua Runaway Millionaires telefeature up for New York Film & TV Awards' (Interview) - The Rotorua Daily Post, 17 February 2020
'A famly affair - Leonard siblings clean up at NZTV Awards' (Video Interview) Te Ao Māori News website. Reporter Mānia Clarke-Mamanu. Loaded 23 November 2018. Accessed 24 April 2020