David Stevens began directing in the 1960s, during six years living in New Zealand. He spent his final years in Northland. Along the way, he was nominated for an Oscar, did extended time in Australian television and Hollywood, and co-authored two books with Roots legend Alex Haley.
Stevens' father was an English aircraft engineer specialising in flying boats. Born in Palestine when it was under British control, Stevens was baptised in the waters of the River Jordan. After time in Cairo, South Africa and elsewhere, England felt like a foreign country. Bitten by his father's wanderlust, Stevens had also fallen in love with theatre, after witnessing two actors fly above the audience during an English pantomime.
While living in Jordan, the teenager got to act in a play staged in the Roman ruins of Jerash. Stevens went on to win a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and act on the West End. Although acting wasn't for him, it proved a formative period. Stevens worked as assistant to legendary theatre director John Dexter, who “poured information” into him and extolled stories that had a social purpose.
Keen to travel, Stevens boarded a cargo boat to Australia in the mid 60s. It was rerouted to Auckland; he stayed, and later got a job directing radio drama. State radio eventually purchased his adventure yarn The Island of Gold for $90.
By then Stevens had segued into state television, before almost resigning due to a lack of interesting directing work. He proved himself with a documentary about burned children, You Can't Kiss It Better, then recorded archive interviews with Māori women with chin moko, interviews likely long destroyed.
Stevens joined television's drama department, which at times struggled to justify its existence. Finally he got the chance to direct his first screen drama, The Genuine Plastic Marriage (1970). Based on Julian Dickon's successful radio play, it was “a dark piece about a failed marriage”. Stevens followed it with Christchurch-shot comedy Arthur K Frupp (54), starring Selwyn Toogood as a man feeling his age. Though “It was a blast to make”, Stevens never looked forward to air date. Kiwi dramas were then so rare, each new programme was subject to intense public scrutiny.
The early 1970s marked a cautious expansion in storytelling on screen. Stevens directed an episode of New Zealand's first drama series Pukemanu, then sci-fi murder mystery An Awful Silence, which shared a Feltex award for best drama. Reading Vincent Ley's script in a writing competition, Stevens had been won over by its humour and “bizarre plot”. Casting the “funny and wise” Davina Whitehouse (who also won an award) was his idea.
After Kiwi-born actor Ewen Solon (Section 7) recommended Stevens to Australian TV powerhouse Crawford Productions, he upped tools and got busy directing police shows across the Tasman. An old script was retooled for Crawford hit Homicide, and Stevens honed his craft writing cop shows in his spare time.
Australia would be home for 25 years. By the early 80s, his shelves in Melbourne were starting to fill with awards. In 1981 he directed mini-series A Town Like Alice, based on Nevil Shute's romance. It won sales and gongs, including an International Emmy, and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Limited Series. He was Oscar-nominated after helping adapt court martial classic Breaker Morant, while his big screen directing debut, VD clinic comedy The Clinic (1982) did well in Australia, and competed at the Chicago Film Festival. Writer David Stratton called it "one of the most satisfying films of the 80s", arguing that Stevens "not only succeeds in the difficult task of juggling comedy and drama, but he also puts across a serious message about prejudice in all its forms". Follow-up movie Undercover didn't fare as well.
A decade later Stevens scored three awards for a movie he didn't want to write, The Sum of Us. Stevens had begun it as a play about a gay man and his likeable, understanding Dad. But Australian theatres turned their noses. Instead, an American agent helped win an opening engagement in New York, where the play ran an entire year. Unsure it should be a movie, Stevens rejected offers to direct, before finally agreeing to write the script instead. Russell Crowe and Aussie veteran Jack Thompson starred.
In 1987 Stevens began an 18 year stint in Los Angeles. Directing his first and only American movie, Matt Dillon crime drama Kansas, was like “nuclear war virtually every day”. He returned to television writing, including high profile Sam Neill mini-series Merlin. Stevens was nominated for an Emmy.
He also worked on two book/television projects begun with Roots legend Alex Haley. Mini-series Queen was nominated for a best miniseries Emmy; Stevens became a rare white winner of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) award, for his part in novel Mama Flora's Family. He had hopes of completing a memoir on his experiences with Haley; he also wrote The Waters of Babylon, which fictionalises the complex personality of TE Lawrence.
David Stevens passed away on 18 July 2018. Stevens got one of his final wishes — to have a natural burial, in a newly established section of Whangarei's Mauna Cemetery.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Updated on 24 July 2018
David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation - Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Publishers Australia, 1990)
Unknown writer, 'Thriller awardwinner on TV' (Interview) - The Listener, 2 December 1972
Unknown writer, 'Oscar-nominated NZ screenwriter David Stevens gets wish for natural burial' - The NZ Herald, 23 July 2018