Geoff Murphy arguably helped usher in a new age of appreciation for New Zealand cinema, when he consecutively directed three classics of the Kiwi film renaissance. Murphy styled himself as a straight-talking rebel, Murphy's gifts for action and comedy won him a wide audience, and ensured a run of work in Hollywood. He showed a keen eye for capturing Kiwi culture on screen.
Murphy was born in October 1938. He was a teacher in Wellington when the film bug bit. After a kick-start from friend Derek Morton, he began working on unfinished short film The Magic Hammer, based on a musical Murphy had written for one of his primary school classes. By now he was hanging out at a local jazz club alongside a group of people with "ardent, and often misguided artistic ambitions". Key among them were musician and actor Bruno Lawrence, and cinematographer Alun Bollinger. From the mid 60s onwards, they collaborated in varied guises on a series of short films, including The Box and Hurry Hurry Faster Faster, which Murphy starred in.
By the time he made the half-hour long Tank Busters, Murphy's directing talents were coming into focus. He played one of a group of student robbers. Like Bruno and the rest of the cast, his performance was naturalistic and underplayed, at a time when local screen acting could be overwrought. Tank Busters was screened by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, who were likely unaware their resources helped it get made.
When the magic bus of Blerta (Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition) set off on its first tour, Murphy climbed aboard — as trumpeter, filmmaker and explosives expert. Blerta's philosophy was to avoid boredom through creative activity, a philosophy "pursued with great vigour". Murphy's friend Waka Attewell recalls that Murphy felt separating work and family "was what was wrong with modern society .. hence the bus and the travel, where everyone travelled together and lived together, worked and played together. It was anarchic, inclusive, opinionated and collaborative."
Soon Murphy, Bruno, Bollinger and their families were saving money by living communally at Waimarama, in Hawke's Bay. It was there that Murphy directed the half-hour long Uenuku, one of the earliest dramas made completely in te reo. He also honed his filmmaking skills on a series of slapstick Percy The Policeman shorts. State television refused to screen them, worried about showing the police in a negative light.
Madcap TV series Blerta (1975) showcased the eclectic talents of the Blerta collective, and their robustly Kiwi sense of humour. Excerpts from Blerta, Percy and Dagg Day Afternoon can be seen in this compilation. Costa Botes writes about Blerta here.
Showing his gift for creativity amidst adversity, Murphy headed to the West Coast to cobble together colonial-era romp Wild Man. At 69 minutes long, it is sometimes regarded as his feature debut. The semi-improvised film began as an episode from the Blerta TV series. The budget was around $25,000, plus $30,000 more to blow the print up to 35mm. When Wild Man was unleashed on a double bill with Murphy's Fred Dagg collaboration Dagg Day Afternoon, audiences were enthusiastic.
In this early period, Murphy's eclectic skillset proved helpful to other filmmakers, and in calming his bank manager. He cooked up explosions and fake AK-47 rifles for Roger Donaldson's Sleeping Dogs, and rented out homebuilt camera cranes when they were still as rare as hen's teeth. Murphy also helped other filmmakers get early projects off the ground, from Vincent Ward's A State of Siege to co-writing Gaylene Preston's debut feature Mr Wrong. There were also varied acting roles — including this first episode of Pukemanu and teleplay The Pumice Land.
After Wild Man, Geoff Murphy began developing a script called Meatballs, with Ian Mune. Canadian hit Meatballs forced a name change to Goodbye Pork Pie. Although Sleeping Dogs had won respectable audiences, Pork Pie was New Zealand's first local blockbuster — partly, as Murphy noted, because "it was a celebration of New Zealandness". The film mixed Mini Cooper hijinks, flawed but recognisably Kiwi characters, and a spirit of rebellion. Refuting claims that it was an attack on the police, Murphy argued that it was "more an attack on the law. Just about everything you want to do in this country is illegal or you need a permit to do it."
Pork Pie sold to 32 countries, and disproved the longheld belief that Kiwi films couldn't make a profit. Murphy "visited almost every town the film would play in" before the release, to drum up support from local cinemas and media. He talks in this video interview about his work on Pork Pie's distribution and publicity — and that famous line of dialogue about taking the car to Invercargill.
He followed Pork Pie with one of his personal favourites: ambitious, freewheeling period Western Utu (1983). The film follows Te Wheke (newcomer Anzac Wallace), a warrior seeking revenge for the massacre of his village. Mining action, comedy and empathy for both its Māori and Pākehā characters, it was the first historical epic directed by a local since Rudall Hayward's Rewi's Last Stand, four decades before.
The character of Te Wheke was based on Māori leaders as varied as Te Rauparaha, Wiremu Tamihana and Te Kooti; Murphy argued that the character was "true to Māori leaders of the period and even draws on some in the present day". Murphy deliberately set out "to draw a parallel between the conflicts of today's New Zealand and those of the last century", telling Rolling Stone "that same violence is here today; it's just that the nature of it has changed." (he also mentioned having problems finding funders for a film about the 1981 rugby tour: "they're scared shitless of it".)
Utu proved a local hit. Overseas, many reviewers raved. Le Monde called it a "unique astonishing film" and "spectacular but intimate"; The Montreal Press praised Utu for combining the adventure and romance of old Westerns with a humanist approach to its Māori characters. In a rave review, legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael singled out "a feeling of exaltation and spirituality" hovering over the film, and praised Murphy's instinct for popular entertainment, plus his refusal to reduce the narrative to simple heroes and villains.
End of the world tale The Quiet Earth (1986), written and shot in haste to meet tax shelter demands, became another Kiwi classic. Adapted from the Craig Harrison novel, and originally set to be directed by Sam Pillsbury, it featured an extended solo turn by Bruno Lawrence as one of the last humans on earth. The Quiet Earth sold to around 80 countries, gained a cult following, and won Murphy meetings in Hollywood.
Next came another movie shot on the road. Released on an impressive 69 local screens, Never Say Die was a light-hearted thriller about a couple on the run, with cameos from Murphy veteran Tony Barry and John Clarke. Murphy's keen eye for casting was again clear; this time he overcame opposition from his producers to his relatively untried lead actor Temuera Morrison.
By now Murphy had embarked on an extended period of international wandering. After playing a racist farmer in Mauri, under the direction of his then partner Merata Mita, his first non-Kiwi project began shooting in Hungary: TV movie Red King, White Knight (1989) was a spy thriller featuring Helen Mirren, Tom Skerritt, and an Emmy-nominated performance by Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist).
Over the next decade Murphy worked largely in the United States. He brought style and pace to bratpack Western Young Guns II, and Steven Seagal train thriller Under Siege 2. Mostly he directed cable and TV movies, including thriller Blindside, the pilot for a Magnificent Seven TV series, and Mickey Rourke Western The Last Outlaw. In his autobiography A Life on Film, Murphy recalled other projects that never eventuated — being offered Surf Nazis Must Die, despite the lack of a script; developing the movie that became Predator, then being fired by star Arnold Schwarzenegger thanks to a Conan the Librarian joke; and failing to win enthusiasm from the NZ Film Commission in a second "Puha Western".
Murphy also made significant contributions as a second unit director to a number of big-budget productions, including US-shot disaster movie Dante's Peak, directed by Roger Donaldson, and The Lord of the Rings.
In 2001 Murphy made Blerta Revisited (aka Blerta — The Return Trip), which collects together early skits, shorts, and musical performances. He followed it with his first local drama in 14 years. Conspiracy thriller Spooked (2004) was a box office disappointment. Cliff Curtis starred as an reporter on the trail of a mysterious payment. The story was inspired by a real-life Auckland computer dealer who got caught up in a legal battle over bank records found on an old computer.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination showed that Murphy was still innovating. Picked for the 2009 NZ International Film Festival, it was built around music inspired by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. Working on an Apple Mac at home, Murphy mixed concert footage, CGI, and interviews. The project reminded Murphy of his early years with Blerta.
From 2013 Murphy was suddenly getting his due. That year he recieved a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 Moa NZ Film awards, and was named one of New Zealand's 20 greatest living artists, as an Arts Foundation Arts Icon — the same month a restored, shortened version of his 80s classic Utu won acclaim when it debuted at the NZ Film Festival. In 2014 he was made an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit in the 2014 New Year Honours.
Geoff Murphy passed away on 3 December 2018. He was 80. He will be missed.
- NZ On Screen's collection of Murphy's work includes written pieces by colleagues Alun Bollinger, Derek Morton, Roger Donaldson, and writer Dominic Corry. Aside from 2015 autobiography A Life On Film, Murphy writes about Goodbye Pork Pie in a chapter of 1992 book Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Jonathan Rayner's short book on Murphy was later collected in book New Zealand Filmmakers. Goodbye Pork Pie gets extensive coverage in Shadows on the Wall.
Profile updated on 4 October 2023
Geoff Murphy, A Life in Film (Auckland: HarperCollinsPublishers,2015)
Geoff Murphy, The End of the Beginning’ in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
Waka Attewell, 'In Memory of Geoffrey Peter Murphy' - NZ Techo 79, Summer 2018, page 8
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Helen Brown, 'Mr Pork Pie - rebel of the silver screen' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 15 August 1981
Pauline Kael, 'Mirrors' (Review of Utu) - The New Yorker, 15 October 1984
Malcolm McSporrran and Redmer Yska, "The First (and Last?) Great New Zealand Movie - Rolling Stone (Australia), page 63, 1983
Rebecca Thomson, "Once upon a midnight dreary' (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 16 July 2009, page 17
Utu press kit