Fiona Samuel began as an actor, and filled the downtime with writing. She has gone on to write scripts, direct, co-host arts show The Big Art Trip, and act in everything from Close to Home to Footrot Flats. With 2011 TV movie Bliss, she became the only woman in over two decades to win awards for directing a New Zealand television drama.
Samuel was born in Scotland: her parents were New Zealanders travelling on their OE. After growing up in Christchurch, she studied acting at drama school Toi Whakaari in Wellington, then later toured New Zealand, playing feisty twin sister to Miranda Harcourt in hit play Oracles and Miracles.
Starting in 1981 with soap Close to Home, Samuel was learning about the demands of acting for the screen — where the camera is king, but the actor must give no hint of knowing it exists. Next came TV play Casualties of Peace, a scene in yokels comedy Carry Me Back, and a role in car chase romp Shaker Run as 'Casey's Girl' — partner to 1970s heartthrob Leif Garrett. She also impressed in Kathy Dudding adoption short Smash Dupe. In 1986 Samuel supplied two voices for hit movie Footrot Flats: Wal's hairdresser paramour ‘Cheeky' Hobson, and freckle-faced kid Pongo.
Bored of waiting for acting roles that weren't always worth the wait, Samuel took up a friend's suggestion and wrote a radio script. Following some scripts for children, her first adult radio play Blonde Bombshell won a Mobil Award in 1984.
The previous year at a conference, Samuel had presented research indicating women were being offered a narrow range and quantity of television roles (she noted a 70/30% male/female imbalance in speaking parts). Fresh from guesting in testosterone-heavy drama Roche, Samuel lamented "if I saw ‘giggle' once more as a script direction, or had to roll around on a bed again, or lick my lips suggestively, I felt I was going to be sick."
The idea for The Marching Girls — a rare Kiwi TV drama with women taking centre stage — was shown to TVNZ in 1985, as part of an application to become a trainee director. Although the job went elsewhere, Samuel was given the "life-changing" chance to create the show, which follows the lives of a group of marching girls in the lead-up to the North Island championships. Samuel writes here about the project's ups and occasional downs, including directors hostile to its tone and content. After finally screening in 1987; the show was nominated for Best Drama Series at the NZ Film and Television Awards, and Samuel for Best Drama Writer.
The same year Samuel began her move into film. She started by working as casting director (and occasional composer) on madcap big screen comedy Send a Gorilla, helmed by Marching Girls talent Melanie Rodriga.
Samuel was also working on her celebrated first play, The Wedding Party (1987). She wrote it after collaborating with Auckland theatre company Tantrum. Theatre audiences found themselves seated as guests at a drama-packed wedding. The play's creation was part-funded by TVNZ's drama department, in an open-ended arrangement that left the team free to shape their own material. TVNZ also documented the creative process for an episode of Kaleidoscope, but with the closure of the drama department, Samuel's script for a proposed TV adaptation was abandoned.
More setbacks followed. First Samuel's part-musical TV satire Where's Kilroy Now? got placed on 'indefinite hold', then she missed out on creating a movie based on the Parker-Hulme murder, in favour of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Had it been made, Samuel's script would have marked the feature debut of Whale Rider director Niki Caro.
Samuel then concentrated on short films. In 1994 she starred in Christine Jeffs' Stroke. The mini-epic of one woman and a swimming pool was invited to 18 film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance. She also joined the cast of the high profile Lemming Aid, Grant Lahood's tale of bickering Kiwis on a Norwegian cliffside. One of her more unusual screen commissions was off-screen: director Keith Hunter got her in to revoice court scenes on Scott Watson doco Murder on the Blade?, after worries by TVNZ lawyers that Alison Wall's "excellent" portrayal of prosecutor Nicola Crutchley could be seen as a caricature that might cause a defamation issue.
In 1994 she finished writing Face Value, a trilogy of one-off solo pieces for television, in which women told their story directly to camera. Samuel called them "small tales of perception and delusion". Ginette McDonald, Davina Whitehouse and Carol Smith starred. McDonald's episode was a finalist at both the Banff and New York TV Festivals. Smith's episode 'A Real Dog' marked the first thing that Samuel "directed with cameras". The experience of directing felt "instant and complete". The same year, Samuel wrote and directed offbeat short film Bitch. It set out to explore the complexities of female friendships, and "the murky underlying emotions in them".
Directing was about to take a prominent position on Samuel's resume — a job that she has compared to an army assault course in terms of the need to keep soldiering on at speed, whatever gets thrown at you.
Her second short as writer/director was the stylish Song of the Siren. Singer Janet Roddick starred as a stifled woman who dreams of glamour and freedom. It won one of the key awards at a festival in Bilbao, and was nominated at another in Portugal. She also directed TV movie Home Movie (1997), in which Samuel moved from the rituals and dramas of weddings, to a family christening. Samuel writes about it here (by now she'd written another TV movie, comedy-drama Overnight, but Home Movie marked the first time Samuel had directed a feature-length project). She had been won over by the truthfulness of the family found in Fiona Farrell's original A Home Movie short story. Home Movie won NZ Film and TV Awards for best single TV drama, actor (Ian Mune), and actress (Geraldine Brophy).
In 2001 Samuel entered the world of documentary, as director of Virginity, after hearing that in 1918 one in three New Zealand brides was pregnant. The doco features women talking about their first sexual experiences.
Since Home Movie, Samuel has written episodes for TV series Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons, Nothing Trivial, Rude Awakenings, Agent Anna and police drama Interrogation. Her script for Interrogation episode 'Girl in Woods (Non Speaking)' won her a 2006 Screen Award.
In 2009 Samuel wrote and directed a project that she'd nurtured for a decade: Sunday Theatre TV movie Piece of My Heart. In this video interview, she describes her impressive cast: Annie Whittle, Rena Owen, Emily Barclay and Keisha Castle-Hughes. Samuel's script was adapted from Renee novel Does this Make Sense to You? The then and now adoption tale is based on the emotional fallout affecting a young unmarried mother in the 1960s. Said the Herald's Michele Hewitson: "a beautifully produced, moving piece of drama, with terrific performances from all four leads".
Samuel's next project took only a year from first pitch until the last day of filming. TV movie Bliss explored the "untold story" of teen runaway Katherine Mansfield, in the period before her first short story collection was published. "I have no idea why this story hasn't been told," Samuel told journalist Sarah Murray, "but I was delighted to get there first."
Listener reviewer Fiona Rae praised Samuel's "excellent" script — and for allowing "Mansfield to be witty, passionate and outspoken without belabouring the status of women in 1908". Bliss won Samuel the 2012 NZ Television Award for Best Director of a Drama or Comedy (she'd been nominated previously for Piece of My Heart). Starring Kate Elliott as Mansfield, Bliss screened on TV One in August 2011, and was later released on DVD.
In 2014 Samuel wrote the script for Consent - The Louise Nicholas Story. Based on Nicholas' allegations that she had been raped by four police officers, the TV movie was originally developed by writer Graeme Tetley and director Robert Sarkies. When Tetley passed away in 2011, Samuel joined the project, and started over with a new take. Consent went on to win an NZ Film Award for Best Television Feature, and an NZ Writers Guild award for Best One-Off Drama.
Samuel was named an Arts Foundation Laureate in 2012. In the 2019 New Year Honours she became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to television and theatre.
Samuel is also developing a number of movie projects.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Published on 3 April 2009; last updated on 22 January 2018
Fiona Samuel website. Accessed 10 January 2019
'Fiona Samuel: Marching to success'. NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 10 December 2012. Accessed 10 January 2019
Fiona Samuel, 'The Marching Girls - The Writer's Story'. NZ On Screen website. Loaded 9 September 2009. Accessed 10 January 2019
Fiona Samuel, 'Home Movie - The Writer/Director's Perspective'. NZ On Screen website. Loaded 6 August 2009. Accessed 10 January 2019
Michele Hewitson, 'TV Review: Piece of My Heart' - The NZ Herald, 6 April 2009
Miranda James, 'a working girl' - Salient, July 1990
Rachel Lang, 'Talented Marriage' - Onfilm, July 1988, page 49 (volume 5, number 4)
Sarah Murray, 'Scandal of an icon' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 28 August 2011
Fiona Rae, 'TV & Radio Sunday August 28' (Review of Bliss) - The Listener, 27 August 2011
Joelle Thomson, 'Fiona Samuel' (Interview) - Capital Times, 9 August 1995, page 3
Marita Vanenberg, 'Going places' (Interview) - The Listener, April 1989
Denis Welch, 'Three times Fiona Samuel' (Interview) - The Listener, 6 May 1995
'Samuel, Fiona' (Profile). Playmarket website. Accessed 9 January 2019
'TV Pick of the week: Bliss' - The NZ Herald, 25 August 2011