As a teenager in Gisborne, Christina Milligan would rather have been another place entirely, like acting her heart out onstage. And that's exactly what happened; she won a scholarship to Norway, to spend a year at an Oslo high school for the performing arts.
Next she studied at drama school Toi Whakaari. A couple of years later, worried that acting was "a road to the poorhouse", she talked her way into a script-editing job at TVNZ. Milligan was on the team for TVNZ's big selling hit Hanlon, inspired by Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon. Legal enquiry was also at the heart of miniseries Erebus: The Aftermath, which she counts as a personal highlight. Milligan worked with scripter Greg McGee and Peter Mahon, the late High Court judge who led the Commission of Enquiry into the crash of flight 901.
Her first experience as a producer came with season two of Gloss in 1988, under "fantastically creative producer" Janice Finn. Milligan considers herself lucky to have started out at TVNZ when the drama department was run by John McRae. McRae kickstarted Erebus, and encouraged a burgeoning team of producers. Many were women. "He had a great gift for trusting people," says Milligan. "He expected the best, so naturally he got it."
It was becoming clear that producing was what she enjoyed most: it offered the chance to work with writers "and pull the whole structure together — script, budget, crew, cast, music, design, and post-production".
After TVNZ's drama department was replaced by new in-house subsidiary South Pacific Pictures in 1989, Milligan produced a number of SPP shows, including resort drama Marlin Bay, Canadian-Kiwi horse drama Star Runner, and big-budget Franco-Australasian production Deepwater Haven. She also got a "fantastic opportunity" to join the crew on coming of age classic The End of the Golden Weather, which she producing alongside director Ian Mune. It was named Best Film at the 1992 NZ Film Awards.
By now Milligan had launched TopStory Productions, with her partner Roger Grant. As with the pair's current company Conbrio, Milligan concentrated on developing projects, and Grant specialised in post-production. By 1998 Milligan had begun seven years in Sydney, writing and script editing for a range of prime time dramas. Two of the longest gigs were McLeod's Daughters and medical drama All Saints. Australian television proved "tough, but valuable — the competition is fierce, and that forces everyone to raise their game."
Since returning to New Zealand in 2005, Milligan has concentrated on producing. Many of her projects relate to her heritage (she is Ngāti Porou on her mother's side) — including feature-length documentaries, a long in development te reo feature, and 2010 TV movie Nights in the Garden of Spain (aka Kawa). The latter stars Calvin Tuteao as a married man struggling to reveal he is gay. Milligan produced with Nicole Hoey.
The 77-minute long Let My Whakapapa Speak (2008) was nominated for a Qantas Award for Best Māori Language Programme. Directed by Tainui Stephens, it tells the story of the Kōhanga Reo movement, and the revival of te reo Māori. Kim Webby's The Price of Peace (2015) centres on Tūhoe activist Tame Iti and the 2007 police raids in the Ureweras. Milligan also helped produce In the Zone (2018), which follows an African-American man caught between helping migrant teens in Auckland, and his community back in Chicago.
Milligan was a script consultant, and later executive producer, during an extended association with Tearepa Kahi's Mt Zion, 2013's highest grossing Kiwi film. Working with Roger Grant and Rawiri Paratene, she executive produced a number of short films, including award-winners This is Her, Poppy and Aphrodite's Farm.
Since 2014 Milligan has lectured in screen production and screenwriting at Auckland University of Technology, where her research work includes exploring the work of Māori documentary makers.
Milligan has also been Deputy Chair of organisation Script to Screen, managed television funding for NZ On Air, and served on many industry boards — including those of the NZ Film Commission, Ngā Aho Whakaari (Māori in Screen) and the Screenwriting Research Network.
Profile updated on 20 July 2020
'Christina Milligan' Auckland University of Technology website. Accessed 20 July 2020
Conbrio website. Accessed 20 July 2020
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)