Dorthe Scheffmann’s varied behind the scenes roles have helped ensure that many classic Kiwi movies managed to finish their shoots, without falling apart in the process. In 1996 she competed at the Cannes Film Festival with The Beach, the first short film she directed. Her first feature was released in 2018: ensemble drama Vermilion starring actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand.
...watching Vincent Ward's Vigil took me to the back seat of my fathers Holden, hurtling through the Waikato mist on the way to some sick cow. In Alun Bollinger's cinematography I found my own New Zealand, the way the light falls, its form, its uncompromising nature. Dorthe Scheffmann
Movie Vermilion follows composer Darcy (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) over a summer month, as her daughter prepares to marry. Darcy sees colours when she plays musical notes, but after seeing the colour vermilion she is prompted to secretly make her own plans. The exploration of motherhood, family and female friendship marks the feature debut of director Dorthe Scheffmann (Cannes-selected 1995 short film The Beach). The ensemble cast includes Theresa Healey, Goretti Chadwick (Game of Bros), and newcomer Emily Campbell. The production team were 85 per cent female.
Set in Central Otago in the drought-parched summer of 1975, gay-themed feature film 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous follows a chubby 12-year-old named Billy (Andrew Paterson) as he embarks on a challenging journey of sexual discovery. Adapting Graeme Aitken's novel, writer/director Stewart Main (Desperate Remedies) depicts a boy escaping into fantasy from the drudgery of farming duties — and learning about himself, his sexuality, and dealing with change. 50 Ways won a Special Jury Award at Italy's Turin International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 2005.
In Michael Bennett's allegorical Cow, two old men (played by New Zealand screen legends Ian Mune and Martyn Sanderson) with Confucian beards are adrift in the ocean, a placid Friesian cow in tow. A surreal study on how quickly a minor event can evolve into something far more extreme, the film features no dialogue; rather, a guitar duet that escalates to a duel. It won Best Short Film Script at the NZ Film Awards and made land internationally: Cow was selected for festivals including Cannes (Critics' Week) and Valladolid.
Director Sima Urale's follow-up to her Venice-winning short O Tamaiti swaps a Samoan child's eye view for that of an elderly Pākehā couple. In this moving confrontation with the taboos of aging, the husband struggles to care for his ailing wife and refuses their children's demands that they move into care. Exquisite attention to details and tender performances mark this tale of love accommodating the reality of death. Still Life was the first Kiwi film to take the top short award at the Montreal Film Festival; it also got a Special Mention at the Locarno fest in Switzerland.
Director Peter Salmon's sci-fi short is set in a dystopian future where citizens spend most of their lives in virtual reality to escape the bleak Blade Runner-like offline world. Grace (Sara Wiseman, in a NZ Film Award-winning performance) is a lonely programmer looking for cyberspace love via Angelife: a fantasy-fulfillment site with "five billion connections worldwide". Disenchanted with her Adam (Rupert Cocks), her desire for real world connection, plus a chance meeting, push her into a dangerous underworld. Ray Woolf cameos as a winged Angelife agent.
Two families spend the day at a deserted beach on the hottest day of the summer in this short film which marks a directing debut for long time producer and production manager Dorthe Scheffmann. While husbands and children occupy themselves, Margie (Donogh Rees) discovers a terrible secret about her friend Anne (Elizabeth Hawthorne) and her marriage. Margie’s explosive reaction shatters the languor created by the overexposed footage in this Hamburg Film Festival prize-winner (which was also selected for competition at Cannes and Telluride).
The last novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson revolves around a freezing plant worker (Peter McCauley) in an interracial marriage. For this little seen movie adaptation, the role of an English remittance man was expanded in an attempt to cast Peter O'Toole (New Zealand-born Bruce Spence got the role). Morrieson's view of small-town Aotearoa is a dark one, as he explores racism, violence, suicide and blackmail. Bruno Lawrence contributes to Jonathan Crayford's jazz-tinged score, and features in the wedding band. The freezing works scenes were shot at the defunct plant in Patea.
"I'm gonna build a room that echoes, around and around and around with its own sound." Peking Man's career peaked in 1985 with 'Room That Echoes', a number one hit that saw the band dominate the 1986 music awards. Directed by John Day, the surrealistic video features animated computer graphics of the afore-mentioned room, slowly building wall by wall and tracking against a background of stars. Margaret Urlich is the only band member present, appearing as a lone silhouetted figure dancing across a checkerboard floor.
Michael Firth's feature film tells the story of writer and educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner, as she forges her visionary philosophy of “organic teaching” while teaching Māori children at an isolated school in the 1940s. Taking in romance and struggle, the drama was widely praised: Village Voice named it one of the 10 best films of 1985, while critic Andrew Sarris found “the intensely interacting performances" of the four principals "nothing short of breathtaking”. The film is based on Ashton-Warner’s books Teacher and I Passed This Way. Supporting actor Mary Regan won a GOFTA award.
“The funniest, liveliest, most exuberant film ever made in New Zealand”. So said critic Nicholas Reid, a year after Came a Hot Friday became 1985's biggest local hit. Though Billy T’s loony Mexican-Māori cowboy is beloved by fans, he is but one eccentric here among many — as two scheming conmen hit town, and encounter bookies, boozers, country hicks, nasty crim Marshall Napier, and Prince Tui Teka playing saxophone. Until the arrival of The Piano in 1993, Ian Mune and Dean Parker’s award-loaded adaptation remained NZ's third biggest local hit. Ian Pryor writes about the film here.
Constance centres on a young woman who attempts to escape the staid world of 40s Auckland, by embracing glamour and passion. After meeting a photographer, her aspirations of stardom are brutally fractured. Directed by Bruce Morrison, the movie echoes the style of Hollywood melodrama, while simultaneously critiquing the dream. Donogh Rees was widely praised in the title role as a protagonist who lives in a fantasy world, with one review describing her as “New Zealand’s answer to Meryl Streep”. New York's Time Out called the film "lush and exhilarating".
After hitting Wellington for a Ranfurly Shield game, two brothers from the sticks (Grant Tilly and Pork Pie's Kelly Johnson) have to sneak their abruptly deceased father back home. If the body isn’t buried there, they won’t inherit the family farm. Set back when "blokes were blokes and sheilas were their mums", director John Reid’s shaggy dog tale — a Weekend at Bernie's, reeking of stale beer and ciggies — both lauds and satirises the Kiwi male. Among the six clips, the final clip sees Tilly's character getting things off his chest, now that Dad is finally unable to answer back.
Goodbye Pork Pie was a low-budget sensation, definitively proving Kiwis could make blockbusters too. Young Gerry (Kelly Johnson) steals a yellow Mini from a Kaitaia rental company. Heading south, he meets John (Tony Barry), who wants his wife back, and hitchhiker Shirl (Claire Oberman). Soon they're heading to Invercargill, with the police in pursuit. High on hair-raising driving and a childlike sense of joy, the Blondini gang are soon hailed as folk heroes, on screen and off. Remake Pork Pie (2017) was directed by Matt Murphy — son of Geoff, who drove the original film.
This fictionalised account of pioneering 19th century photographers the Burton brothers is set partly in Dunedin during the closing stages of the New Zealand Wars. William and Alfred take contrasting approaches to representing their subjects — and are treated accordingly by the authorities, who are attempting to attract new settlers while brutally suppressing Māori. Produced by veteran John O'Shea (who co-wrote with playwright Robert Lord), the tale of art, commerce and colonisation was largely well received as a thoughtful essay at revisionist history.
Smash Palace is a Kiwi cinema classic and launched Roger Donaldson's American career. Al Shaw (a brilliant, brooding Bruno Lawrence) is a racing car driver who now runs a wrecker's yard in the shadow of Mount Ruapehu. His French wife Jacqui is unhappy there and leaves him, taking up with Al's best mate. When she restricts Al's access to his young daughter, his frustration explodes and he goes bush with the girl, desperate not to lose her too. "There's no road back" runs the tagline. New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called the film "amazingly accomplished".
Three friends cruise inner-city Auckland in a 1946 Ford pickup, as they cope with the changing dynamic of their friendship and encroaching demands of the adult world. In the tradition of American Graffiti it captures the hope promised by a night on the town and a reality that struggles to meet expectations — punctuated by hoons, officious cops and dodgy tow truck operators. Queen Street is a fascinating look at Kiwi car and street culture in the pre-boyracer era, and a snapshot of a downtown that has changed markedly since 1981 when the film screened on TV.
Smith (Sam Neill, in his breakthrough screen role) is devastated when his wife runs off with his best friend Bullen (Ian Mune). Smith escapes to the Coromandel. Meanwhile, the government enlists an anti-terrorist force to crack down on its opponents. Bullen, now a guerrilla, asks Smith to join the revolution. Directed by Roger Donaldson, this adaptation of CK Stead's novel Smith's Dream heralded a new wave of Kiwi cinema; it was one of the only local films of the 1970s to win a big local audience. This excerpt includes a much talked about scene: a baton charge by government forces.