Although she has been based overseas for over two decades, Finola Dwyer believes that being a New Zealander has been key to her success as a producer. "We tend to cut to the chase, push on and just get on with things," she told the NZ Herald after her film Brooklyn was nominated for an Academy Award."That's always been my approach." In 2016 Dwyer was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for her services to the film industry.
"Mesmerised" as a child by the power of storytelling on the big screen, Dwyer became an enthusiastic photographer — even managing to persuade the nuns at her Wellington high school to install a darkroom. Dreams of working as a cinematographer were dashed when Government filmmakers the National Film Unit thumbed their noses at the idea of a woman camera trainee. Instead, she started an arts degree in Christchurch, before beginning a three year stint as a trainee editor at the NFU in 1977. Her first gig as full editor was the "fantastic" rucks meets classical music oddity Score, which intercuts slow motion images of rugby to Tchaikovsky. She talks about the film in this video interview.
Dwyer found the NFU "a great place to learn, and importantly, indulge and experiment". In 1980 she moved to the far more high pressure environment of TVNZ. There the best part of a year was spent cutting Country Calendar. The chance to witness the country’s scenery and characters would help inspire one of her earliest projects as producer, 1987 documentary Raglan by the Sea; it helped spawn Gary McCormick's long-running travel series Heartland.
Post TVNZ, Dwyer went freelance, working at Wellington company Mr Chopper, for Jamie Selkirk and Simon Reece. After editing tele-movie Nearly No Christmas, she moved into feature film work in Auckland. Dwyer edited either sound or picture on five features during this period, including sound editing the exuberant Came a Hot Friday (alongside Greg Bell), and painstakingly replacing most of the original soundtrack for The Quiet Earth (with John McKay).
By 1986 Dwyer was keen to find another filmmaking challenge. After turning down the editing of Queen City Rocker, Larry Parr asked her if she could help produce it, as Parr already had a full roster of projects on the go through his company Mirage. "Producing hadn’t really occurred to me," Dwyer told Onfilm, "but Larry thought I had some good producing instincts. When I was editing there was usually virtually no money left for post-production, and I would go and renegotiate all the lab and sound deals in order to stretch the money so we could finish the film properly".
Shot largely after dark with many non-actors, Queen City Rocker proved a "baptism by fire". Dwyer followed her associate producing gig on the film by producing road movie Starlight Hotel with Parr. Shot in just six weeks across the South Island, the period piece won rave notices overseas for its stylish imagery. Dwyer then backed up Parr as one of two producers on his directorial debut: WWII love story A Soldier’s Tale, shot entirely in France. A Soldier’s Tale got a very limited release, thanks to the collapse of Mirage after the bankruptcy of an overseas distributor.
Increasingly busy as a producer, Dwyer was developing her own projects, including successful chat show McCormick Country, which she produced for two seasons. Her other TV projects in this period included mini-series thriller The Shadow Trader and two seasons of series Kiwi Shorts, which showcased local short films.
In the early 90s Dwyer followed her then husband to London, after he got a job there. The film sector in the United Kingdom was "at an all-time low", and it took a year for her to find work. Dwyer decided to approach producers whose films "I most admired and would have liked to have made myself — like minds, in other words." One of those she met was British producer Stephen Woolley, who was about to breakthrough with The Crying Game. In 1991 Woolley gave her a draft of a script based on the early, pre-Ringo days of the Beatles.
When Backbeat finally made it to the screen in 1994, it was nominated for a Bafta award for Best British Film. Local Beatles fan Peter Jackson, writing for The Listener, praised Backbeat's "great dialogue and excellent performances", while Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers was won over by its "wizardly re-creation of time and place". Travers even name-checked Dwyer’s contributions — something producers rarely achieve. "Though Backbeat is an independent film, few producers can squeeze a tiny budget as artfully as Stephen Woolley and Finola Dwyer..."
Since then Dwyer has worked in various producing roles on another dozen features, all the while looking out for stories "that are distinctive and will stand out in the crowded marketplace". Often the rights to some territories (eg Australasia) are presold before filming, to help get the project off the ground.
An Education (2009) remains one of Dwyer's most high profile projects to date. The tale of a 60s teenager (Carey Mulligan) who meets an older man, the low budget feature was nominated for best picture BAFTAs and Academy Awards. American critic Kenneth Turan was one of many to praise Carey Mulligan’s performance. He called the film "invariably funny and inexpressibly moving in the way it looks at a young girl's journey from innocence to experience, An Education does so many things so well, it's difficult to know where to begin when cataloging its virtues."
Dwyer developed An Education with producing partner Amanda Poser, wife of bestselling novelist Nick Hornby. Hornby wrote the script, based on journalist Lynn Barber's memoir. All three "were instantly drawn to it."
Six years later drama Brooklyn saw Dwyer and Poser becoming one of the first female producing teams to be nominated for a second best picture Oscar. The Colm Toibin novel about a young Irish immigrant (The Lovely Bones' Saoirse Ronan) who moves to New York became a passion project for Dwyer, whose own mother moved from Ireland to Aotearoa in the same decade as the film. Dwyer's own experiences living in London made her realise this was a universal story, "because everybody leaves home, even if they're not changing countries or continents". The film was finally born as a co-production between Ireland, England and Canada.
Dwyer’s producing CV ranges widely: successful, star-studded retired musos tale Quartet, which marked the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman; Their Finest, which goes behind the scenes on a WWll British propaganda film; Daniel Auteuil’s English-language debut The Lost Son; Robert Redford and Jane Fonda Netflix reunion Our Souls at Night; an adaptation of Nick Hornby bestseller A Long Way Down; Australian comedy Welcome to Woop Woop; and acclaimed 'friends forever' tale Me Without You. In 2005 old friend Stephen Woolley chose Dwyer to produce his directorial debut Stoned, based on the final days of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones.
There have been occasional TV projects, plus a hit West End theatre comedy too (2007's Elling). TV movie The Hamburg Cell fictionalized the story of a terrorist cell involved in the September 11 attacks. It was nominated for an international Emmy. Dwyer also produced ambitious HBO mini-series Tsunami: The Aftermath (2006), whose cast were nominated for three Golden Globes.
Though Dwyer is currently based in London, she would "love to make a film in New Zealand". For now though, she will have to settle with working alongside Kiwis friends abroad — people like Dean Spanley director Toa Fraser (Spanley was largely shot in the United Kingdom) and her longtime set photographer Kerry Brown.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
'Finola Dwyer: An education in production' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 31 January 2012. Accessed 31 August 2017
'Learning Experiences' (Interview) – Onfilm, October 2009, page 27
James Croot, 'Oscar-nominated Kiwi Finola Dwyer talks Brooklyn' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 20 January 2016. Accessed 31 August 2017
Joanna Hunkin, 'Oscars 2016: Kiwi producer Finola Dwyer set to make history' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 29 February 2016
Peter Jackson, 'Get back' (Review of Backbeat) - Listener, 19 November 1994, page 57
Dan Slevin, 'Cinematica Extra: Finola Dwyer' (Audio Interview) Funerals & Snakes website. Loaded 22 February 2013. Accessed 31 August 2017
Peter Travers, 'Backbeat' (Review) – Rolling Stone, 15 April 1995
Kenneth Turan, 'An Education' (Review) – Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2009