Graeme Tetley was not afraid of trying different approaches when writing scripts: pinning cards to a hessian board; using paintings to help focus ideas, writing scenes written as poems, script guides from Hollywood. Tetley was one of New Zealand's most respected scriptwriters — his work ranged from impressionist coming of age tales (Vigil) to ghost stories (Mr Wrong); through to real-life tragedies (Out of the Blue) and comedies (Ruby and Rata).
Tetley believed that New Zealand's most culturally specific films were "still our most successful". His scripts often explored the complexity and courage of 'ordinary' — often female — New Zealanders.
Graeme Tetley was raised in Havelock North in the Hawke's Bay, where his formative influences included vaudeville, Saturday morning movie sessions and rock'n'roll. While studying English and History at Canterbury University, he grew increasingly interested in theatre. His work as an English teacher, he wrote for a number of school productions, and acted in plays for Court Theatre co-founder Mervyn Thompson.
Tetley became curious about the screen after an invitation to get involved. Thanks to some roles at the Court Theatre in Christchurch, Murray Reece chose him to play Mr Sullivan, father to the main character, in a 1976 TV movie based on Ian Cross novel The God Boy. "The mysterious, complicated, wonderful process that makes a a film grabbed me and scared me," recalled Tetley. "And I wanted more."
Tetley's first experience of scriptwriting began with a lucky break, then moved from confusion into excitement. A teaching colleague knew someone who was working on a movie project. The director had more than a hundred cards, each with a drawing on it. He needed some dialogue; although not too much. So began the long process of creative exploration which led to Vigil (1984), co-written by Tetley and first-time feature director Vincent Ward. Towards the end, Tetley was trusted enough to work on the final two drafts alone; he would use cards again to help structure later scripts.
"I ran away from teaching and went on the shoot." Writers traditionally enter film sets at their own risk. Later Tetley was even invited to join Ward in the editing suite. Tetley watched and learned as Ward pursued his belief that "the image is central to film, because a film is a poem before it is story, character or even an idea." Vigil would win sizeable acclaim: "utterly unique" (The Boston Herald); "an extraordinary visual and psychological experience" (The Los Angeles Times); "astonishing" (The Guardian); "timeless" (The Sydney Sun-Herald). Although Tetley loved teaching, it was clearly time for a job change.
During Vigil's development, director Gaylene Preston called on him. Tetley beefed up Danny Mulheron's prospective boyfriend character on Preston's debut feature, Mr Wrong. It was the start of a collaboration that lasted decades. As Preston writes in her autobiography, "Graeme had that special combination of talent and kindness, and a rare, cool-eyed social awareness." Based on a story by another actor-turned-writer (British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard), Mr. Wrong's tale of woman and her haunted car set out to avoid genre conventions of glamour, sexism and cultural vagueness. Mr Wrong won good reviews, and sold to over 10 countries.
Tetley spent much of the 80s working in television, and directing the occasional play for (Lower) Hutt Repertory Theatre. On the television front, he took on a variety of writing roles on Country GP (including writing 10 episodes, and acting in this episode). He also wrote for the ambitious but short-lived Open House, based around an urban community house, and was a key player in creating Shark in the Park, which ran to 37 episodes. The drama series chronicled about the working lives of frontline police officers.
Tetley often found himself adapting other people's stories for the screen. His third collaboration with Preston was one of the most ambitious yet — Bread and Roses, a four part, three-hour adaptation of an autobiography by peace protester and MP Sonja Davies. Spanning three decades, the script concentrates on the formative influences on Davies' life, ending just as her political career kicks into high gear. Tetley told Preston that when he met Davies, he was aware of being in the company of greatness. He talks about the project, three minutes into this 'making of' documentary.
Although made for television, Bread and Roses won enthusiastic audiences at film festivals on both sides of the Tasman. The Evening Post argued that the result "achieves that rare feat of stepping back into the past" while overflowing "with memorable impressions of our country and our people — especially the women".
During the long process of developing and trying to win funding for Sonja's story, Tetley showed Preston and producer Robin Laing his five page pitch for a TV show about an elderly woman, and the Māori solo mother who moves into part of her house. Gaylene Preston wouid direct it as movie Ruby and Rata, this time from a script by Tetley alone. Reviews were enthusiastic. The NZ Herald suggested crawling across broken glass to see it again. The Sunday Star-Times found it "the sort of film New Zealand should be doing more of; films where the work is put into the characters and what they say".
Tetley's script for high-rating telemovie Aftershock (2008) imagines how a major earthquake would effect Wellington. Writing it, stories told by Tetley's mother, a nurse during the 1931 Napier earthquake, stayed in mind. His hopes of dramatising the quakes never eventuated. Earlier Tetley had spent 18 months working on another story which explored how people react to tragic events: Out of the Blue, based on the 1990 Aramoana massacre.
Tetley and director Robert Sarkies spent roughly ten days staying in a crib close to where killer David Gray had lived, and interviewed policemen, including author Bill O'Brien, and relatives of victims. "Research is everything", said Tetley. He added that he would never want anyone else to research on his behalf — "because then you would miss the tiny little gems that can become scenes and then whole films".
As for the ethics of making a film based on real-life tragedy, Tetley argued that filmmakers had a duty to move beyond intrusive news coverage and dramas that used violence to entertain, in order to find greater truths.
In 2008 Tetley won a Qantas Film and Television Award for co-writing Out of the Blue — as he had for his first film Vigil, 25 years before. He also provided the script for 2011 TV movie Cancer Man: The Sir John Scott Story, based on the case of 70s-era medical fraudster Milan Brych.
Graeme Tetley died of a heart attack on 13 March 2011. He'd recently relocated to Lyttelton, to start a post as artist in residence at Canterbury University, and was working on various projects, including an adaptation of a bestselling historical novel for an American studio. Tetley's heart attack occured six weeks after the February 2011 Christchurch quake, though he'd had coronary disease stretching back for many years.
At his funeral service in Lower Hutt, Reverend Charles Waldegrave described Tetley as "deeply compassionate, especially to those who were marginalised ...He taught people how to write, to act, to create drama, how to observe the fine-tuned notes of life in Aotearoa".
Updated on 17 November 2022
Simon Edwards, 'Graeme Tetley, New Zealand's 'Yoda of script world' dies' ' - Hutt News, 22 March 2011
Phoebe Fletcher, 'Graeme Tetley - the storyteller' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 18 April 1995
Gaylene Preston, Gaylene's Take - Her Life in New Zealand Film, (Wellington: Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022)
Unknown writer, 'Telling it straight' (Interview) - Onfilm, October 2006
Unknown writer, 'Graeme Tetley - 'Shaping the 'beautiful' script'. Script to Screen Press Release, 5 April 2007