Garth Maxwell got his first taste of commercial filmmaking on 1984 feature Other Halves — hanging out at Auckland Airport waiting for footage to arrive from a lab in Sydney, then desperately rushing to assemble it each day for the waiting film crew. A glut of film production in the mid 80s gave Maxwell lots of chance to “saturate” himself in filmmaking, including helping out in the editing suite for Peter Wells and Stewart Main.
Maxwell had begun making Super 8 films while at university. His third short, the fantastical, music-heavy Tandem, won the GOFTA award for New Zealand's Best Short of 1987. The following year, thanks partly to funding from TVNZ, he directed 48-minute-long romance Beyond Gravity, a love story between an astronomy-obsessed Kiwi and a part-Italian. “I wanted to show, without compromising too much, a relationship between two men,” he told magazine Preview. “I made it for gay people, but at the same time I tried to make it for everybody . . . if you can make people laugh it makes your job a lot easier.”
In 1988 Maxwell and co-writer Graham Adams won $13,000, after Beyond Gravity took out the best screenplay prize at a festival in France. They followed it with short film Red Delicious, a comical re-imagining of the Adam and Eve story.
Maxwell made his feature debut in 1993 with darkly-stylish revenge drama Jack Be Nimble, which won him an award for Best Screenplay at Portuguese fantasy festival Fantasporto. Sarah Smuts-Kennedy (who also won at Fantasporto) and American Alexis Arquette star as traumatised siblings, who reunite to find their parents, years after being separated at birth. The cast also includes Bruno Lawrence and Elizabeth Hawthorne.
Maxwell's aim was for a film that was both dream-like and elemental. The film's visions reflected his view of New Zealand as a place where males were "terrified of showing gentleness or affection", and hearing horrifying stories of farmers beating their children. British horror expert Kim Newman praised the outsider tale as John Irving meets Stephen King, praising Maxwell for making it ”at once affecting, funny and horrifying”. In 2022 the film was restored, and won screenings at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Maxwell went on to be one of the more prolific Kiwi directors for series Xena and Hercules, before directing and co-writing another feature, When Love Comes (1998). Again the film may have suffered commercially for refusing to slot into simple marketing categories. It explores the relationship romantic dramas and musical ambitions of an ensemble cast. Rena Owen played the key role of a singing star returning home, alongside early feature appearances by Dean O’Gorman, Nancy Brunning and Sophia Hawthorne.
When Love Comes won little attention at home, but gained positive notices for cast and director upon American release. The Hollywood Reporter mentioned the “colourful performances ... energetic direction” and vibrant imagery, while the Los Angeles Times praised Owen and Simon Prast for possessing “a wit and depth that lend gravity to a film intent on capturing the skittishness and tentativeness that so often accompany matters of the heart”.
Since then Maxwell has directed on television on both sides of the Tasman, including episodes of multi-platform Australian show SLiDE and Kiwi-shot fantasy Legend of the Seeker. In 2007 he created Rude Awakenings, and directed many episodes. Starring Danielle Cormack as a woman battling to become more upwardly mobile, the drama-comedy revolved around two warring families with contrasting income levels, one newly arrived in the other’s Ponsonby street.
Profile updated on 21 November 2023
Dominic Corry, 'Dominic Corry: Kiwi cinema at its twisted best' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 22 May 2014
Kim Newman, ‘Jack Be Nimble’ (Review) Empire Online website. Accessed 21 November 2023
Harvey Clark, ‘The Kiwi myth’ (Interview) The NZ Herald, 1988
‘Interview - Garth Maxwell’ - Preview, January 1988 (Issue 11), page 18
‘US release begins’ - NZfilm, October 1999 (Issue 63), page 18