Graeme Cowley's interest in photography and movies began while growing up in Palmerston North. While studying english at Victoria University he was inspired by the work of the Czech and Polish new waves, plus innovative Kiwi-born artist Len Lye.
Frustrated with how little attention New Zealand universities paid to filmmaking, Cowley helped launch a film coop in Wellington in 1967. In student newspaper Salient he wrote about the lack of opportunities to make local films, beyond the "creatively stagnant" work of the government's National Film Unit.
After John O'Shea saw Cowley's short film On the Mud at a student film festival in Christchurch, he invited Cowley to join the impressive roll call of cinematographers in the making at his company Pacific Films. Like O'Shea, Cowley would become a passionate advocate of independent filmmaking. Lacking the equipment available to the government-funded National Film Unit, he started to grow frustrated by Pacific's limited technical resources.
In 1970 Cowley relocated to London, where he managed to win work by taking a job no one else wanted — operating a rostrum camera. Noting that London was awash with affordable, second-hand film-making equipment, Cowley had the bright idea of buying some cameras and movie-making tools, borrowing some money off relatives, and setting up an equipment hire company back in New Zealand. His hope was to widen the narrow pool of equipment available to independent filmmakers, freeing people up "to make films rather than worrying about the gear".
Back in New Zealand, Cowley and English émigré Nigel Hutchinson launched two companies — rental outfit Film Facilities, and production company Motion Pictures, where Cowley was initially a cinematographer and director. Film Facilities imported long lenses, plus special camera mounts which allowed filming from cars and helicopters. The company would supply equipment for commercials made by ex-Pacific Films talent Tony Williams, plus independently-made TV series The Games Affair.
Film Facilities also kickstarted other important working relationships, one of which saw Cowley working with Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune on indie anthology series Winners & Losers. The series began Cowley's move from commercials and documentary into drama, by filming episodes A Lawful Excuse (shot partly in Mount Eden prison) and After the Depression. He was then invited to shoot second unit and making of material for Donaldson's first movie, Sleeping Dogs, and shoot Donaldson's 50-minute kid's adventure Nutcase.
Cowley's first feature as cinematographer was Donaldson's iconic relationship movie Smash Palace (1981). Cowley's approach to filming was partly inspired by the work of photographer Robin Morrison — as well as the poetic naturalism of the Czech and Polish new waves, and the "less is more" imagery of Cuban cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven).
In this period Cowley also worked as cinematographer on historical epic Utu, which saw him shooting in the bush in winter. The latter movie was pioneering for Aotearoa in many ways, including its early use of the flowing, handheld Steadicam camera — which helped bring the bush scenes to life — and the muted colour scheme, achieved partly by Cowley's choice to shoot on Fuji stock.
Cowley sometimes used photography books for research and inspiration, and to help him consciously change modes between his jobs as businessman and cinematographer. His experience on set gave him valuable inroads into what equipment the industry was lacking. He estimates that out of the first 80 films to emerge from the reborn Kiwi film industry, Film Facility cameras were used on the vast majority.
The sometime recreational motor racer also got inside the famed yellow mini for Goodbye Pork Pie (operating the camera in frequently hair-raising positions, under Alun Bollinger's command). Cowley arranged free hire of some of the camera equipment, in return for a share of the movie's profits. The following year he assembled a formidable creative team for doco Jetstream, which followed a world championship jet boat race held in New Zealand. Cowley directed.
Cowley set out to encourage a sense of community (and political power) among the many independent operators working in the Kiwi screen industry. In the 1980s he and Sue May decided to launch a local screen industry publication. Onfilm launched in 1983, with May editing and Cowley providing early financial support. By now Cowley was commanding Film Facilities on his own. Under the title The Production Village, he launched sites in Wellington (in 1985) and Auckland (1994), where film-related companies could share space.
He also played producer on 1982 comedy Carry Me Back, which began as a two page outline by his ex-sister-in-law, writer Joy Cowley. He helped develop the script through his company Kiwi Films, then went on to shoot this tale of two blokes and a dead body in "horrendous weather". Cowley's company Kiwi Films also came close to shooting an adaptation of Joy Cowley's horse tale Bow Down Shadrach, before international funding fell through.
After a frustrating experience of Hollywood moviemaking (Burt Reynolds vehicle Malone, on which the camera crew followed Cowley out the door), he returned to Māori themes and another challenging shoot, for Merata Mita's dramatic debut Mauri. Cowley captured memorable images of land and sea, notably in the film's impressive finale.
Having shot Kiwi-Canadian co-production African Journey in Zimbabwe, Cowley concentrated his energies on running Film Facilities. The company grew to 50 staff, and built production villages in Wellington then Auckland, before being sold in the mid 90s. From there Graeme Cowley took his many skills into winemaking, setting up Auntsfield vineyard on the site of a historic early vineyard in Marlborough.
After despairing at how bad 1983's Utu looked when he saw it play on television, Cowley became a prime mover in the film's restoration and re-edit. The job was a big one — parts of the original negative had been ruined when Utu was re-edited after its original release. Advances in technology gave producer Cowley, director Geoff Murphy and editor Mike Horton the chance "to do the original but better — but all the time considering the spirit of the original film." The result was Utu Redux. Cowley was also part of the team behind the restoration of 1976 TV series Winners & Losers.
Utu Redux premiered to widespread acclaim in 2013, during NZ's yearly travelling International Film Festival. Cowley proposed that Utu be the first film in a new foundation, dedicated to preserving and restoring Kiwi films. The New Zealand Film Heritage Trust (Te Puna Ataata) was launched in November 2017.
In 2020 Cowley restored three of the short films that he'd made in 1967 with fellow university students Michael Heath and Rex Benson. One of these films, On the Mud, had led Pacific Films boss John O'Shea to offer Cowley his first job in the screen industry. In this backgrounder, Cowley looks back at those early days of trying to get films off the ground.
Profile updated on 31 March 2020
'Graeme Cowley: Having an eye on the film industry' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 12 October 2017. Accessed 29 May 2018
Graeme Cowley, 'Film Co-op to foster films at Victoria' - Salient, 14 July 1967
Vicki Holder, 'Flash Palace' (Interview) - ProDesign, December 1994, page 18
Duncan Petrie, Shot in New Zealand - The art and craft of the Kiwi cinematographer (Auckland: Random House, 2007)
'Utu Returns' (Interview) - Onfilm, July 2013, page 10 (volume 20, no 1)