After boning up on set design at TVNZ and the BBC, Palmerston North-born Grant Major has gone on to design movies for Peter Jackson and Niki Caro. His work as a production designer on epics Lord of the Rings and King Kong resulted in a run of international accolades, including an Academy Award for Return of the King.
I experimented a lot in the early days and learned a lot of lessons and made mistakes, and had successes. There's no equivalent to just doing it and getting better at it from a technical point of view. Grant Major, in a 2011 interview with Tom Lisowski
In this family-friendly feature, Santa (Finnish actor Kari Väänänen) does a runner to a beach in Aotearoa days before his big night of the year, fed up with bureaucracy and brats. It falls to two Kiwi kids to get him out of the southern sun, and back to global gift giving. Director Tony Simpson (Kiwi Flyer) pitches the North Pole native against Kiwi biosecurity and a bickering camping family (including Step Dave's Sia Trockenheim). Sunday Star Times critic James Croot praised the trio of writers for delivering "a rare 21st century effort that evokes the memory of the great kidult dramedies."
Action movie The Dead Lands joins the short list of screen tales set in Aotearoa, before the pākehā. James Rolleston (star of Boy) plays Hongi, the son of a Māori chief. After the massacre of his tribe, Hongi sets out into the forbidden Dead Lands, hoping to enlist the help of a legendary warrior (Lawrence Makoare). The Anglo-Kiwi co-production marked new screen territory for director Toa Fraser (No. 2) and writer Glenn Standring (fantasy Perfect Creature). After debuting at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, The Dead Lands topped the Kiwi box office and won three Moa awards.
In 2013 actor/director Peter Tait invited a team of actors to an Auckland bar to perform a read-through of a script, involving strange aquatic substances and opportunistic robbers. His plan: a film within a film where thespians and real-life bar owners play versions of themselves. At its heart, Not Set in Stone celebrates the actors — their talent, willingness to send themselves up, and generosity towards low budget projects like this one. The in-jokes include screen veteran Greg Johnson as a wannabe actor, and a final curtain cameo by Jacinda Ardern and Oscar Kightley.
As a bitter civil war tears apart the lives of his students, an isolated English school teacher in Bougainville (House star Hugh Laurie) finds a unique way to create hope; 14-year-old Matilda (Xzannjah Matsi) is enthralled by his Charles Dickens-infused disaster survival lessons. The life during wartime tale was directed by Kiwi Andrew Adamson (Shrek), and adapted from the 2006 Booker Prize short-listed novel by Lloyd Jones. Adamson spent time in Papua New Guinea, as the teen son of missionary parents. Laurie and Matsi won best actor gongs at the 2013 Moa Awards.
Beyond the Edge tells the story of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent of the world’s highest mountain. Award-winning director Leanne Pooley (Untouchable Girls) mixes archival material with recreations of the English-led 1953 Everest expedition. 3D cameras were used to put viewers in the crampons of the climbers, and evoke the endurance and dangers faced as they ventured to the top of the world. Beyond the Edge debuted at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where it was one of two runner-ups for the People’s Choice Documentary Award.
Filmed in France, Belgium and New Zealand, The Vintner's Luck (aka A Heavenly Vintage) is a tale of growing grapes and meeting angels. Belgian actor Jeremie Renier (L'Enfant) stars as Sobran, a poor winemaker who one day encounters an angel. The two make a pact. One day each year, as Sobran's fortunes wax and wane, the angel returns to hear more about Sobran's life. Director Niki Caro adapted Elizabeth Knox's bestselling novel with help from US script consultant Joan Scheckel; the film also reunites Caro with Whale Rider discovery Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Sobran's wife.
During WWII the Post Office photographed letters, enabling mass mailing to soldiers via rolls of film. Post Office worker Ngaire (Yvette Reid) deals with mail for soldiers serving overseas. On this small, handsomely-framed canvas, writer-director Paolo Rotondo explores how war and distance affect relationships. Dead Letters makes a persuasive case that the memories preserved in words and film contain their own magic, even when that magic is tinged with sadness and death. It won best short screenplay at the 2006 New Zealand Screen Awards.
Peter Jackson's love affair with moviemaking and special effects was ignited by seeing the original King Kong (1933) as a child. Jackson's Kiwi-shot remake takes one of cinema's most iconic monster movies, retains the 30s setting and iconic New York finale, and toughens up the "beauty" (Naomi Watts). The film also transforms the male (non-ape) lead from lunkhead to sensitive playwright (Adrien Brody). Exhilarating, Oscar-winning CGI brings the great ape to life, alongside rampaging dinosaurs, and oversized wētā inexplicably absent from the maligned 1976 remake.
Jonathan Brough’s documentary on the making of Whale Rider travels from the East Coast town of Whangara, where the mythical whale rider Paikea landed, to Hollywood. This excerpt concentrates on the movie’s vital special effects component: nine whales, brought to the screen through a combination of life-sized models and digital effects. The models were made by Auckland company Glasshammer; the largest measured 65 feet in length. The human element was also important, with actor Keisha Castle-Hughes describing the challenges of filming the whale-riding scenes.
Monstrous spiders, dragon-aided epic battles, endangered hobbits and final farewells ... the finale of the Lord of the Rings trilogy boldly upped the ante. Although the first two films had excited viewers, critics and accountants, Return of the King sealed Peter Jackson's place in movie legend. Reviewers praised it with gusto and the film won a staggering 11 Oscars, a total matched only by Titanic and Ben-Hur. Return anointed a Hollywood empire in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. The box office figures weren't half bad, and nor was the effect on New Zealand tourism.
The second Lord of the Rings installment sees hobbit Frodo Baggins continuing his mission to destroy the ring. Meanwhile the Fellowship is breaking apart, and an epic night battle ensues at Helm's Deep. The film marked a star turn by Gollum, the emaciated Andy Serkis-voiced creature whose realisation was a cinema landmark and a triumph for the design and special effects team. Alongside praise for the film's pace and spectacle, The Two Towers broke international opening records, before going on to outgross Fellowship of the Ring, and win two technical Oscars.
Set in the East Coast town of Whāngārā, Whale Rider tells the tale of a young Māori girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who challenges tradition and embraces the past in order to find the strength to lead her people forward. Directed and written by Niki Caro, the film is based on Witi Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider. Coupling a specific sense of place and culture with a universal coming-of-age story, Whale Rider became one of the most successful and acclaimed New Zealand films released internationally. It also won audience choice awards at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals.
The Fellowship of the Ring was the film that brought Peter Jackson's talents to a mass international audience. A year after its release, the first instalment of his adaptation of Tolkien's beloved tale of heroic hobbits was the seventh most successful film of all-time. Critic David Ansen (Newsweek) was one of many to praise the fan-appeasing Frodo-centric take, for its "high-flying risks: it wears its earnestness, and its heart, on its muddy, blood-streaking sleeve." At 2002's Academy Awards, Weta maestro Richard Taylor became the first Kiwi to win two Oscars on one night.
This debut feature from director Niki Caro follows a Tokyo woman and her fiance who elope to New Zealand. A stunted beginning to their sexual relationship is overcome in a cave on an isolated West Coast beach. Shortly afterwards he drowns. She returns to a suffocating Tokyo before being drawn back to the cave. The restrained study of eroticism and grief was based on a short story by Peter Wells (itself inspired by a true story). Desire was selected for Critics' Week at Cannes (1998), and won best film at 1999's NZ Film Awards and a special jury prize for Caro.
In the debut feature from writer/director Scott Reynolds, serial killer Simon (Paolo Rotondo) has been locked up for the last five years, and is being interviewed by psychologist Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs). Narrated flashbacks reveal Simon's past, the demons and bad treatment in his present, and the potential for more killing. The Ugly won rave reviews, awards at fantasy festivals in Italy and Portugal, and over 30 international sales: Variety called the film "a tricky, stylish horror", praising it's suspense, visuals, and casting. The Listener's Philip Matthews found it "genuinely creepy".
Peter Jackson’s fifth feature is a playful blend of comedy, thriller and supernatural horror and was an effective Hollywood calling card for Weta FX. Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) resides in Fairwater, where he runs a supernatural scam. Aided by some spectral consorts, he engineers hauntings and “exorcises” the ghosts for a fee. When a genuine spook starts knocking off the locals, the FBI suspects Frank is the culprit. To clear his name, Frank must deal to the real perpetrator – none other than the Grim Reaper ...
Luscious fruit, truckies, and Lucy Lawless feature in this Christine Parker short. Sal (Tania Simon) is gifted a peach and meets a saucy tow truck driver (Lawless) en route home to her toddler, and domestics with boyfriend Mog (Joel Tobeck). Mog’s truckie mates arrive for beers, including the nameless driver, whose presence (and peach-eating advice) stirs up desire. “Watch it rot, or taste it when it’s ripe.” A roster of leading NZ film talent worked with Parker on the film, and Lawless' turn hints at the cross-sexual appeal of her breakthrough role on Xena - Warrior Princess.
The movie that won splatter king Peter Jackson mainstream respectability was born from writer Fran Walsh's long interest in the Parker-Hulme case: two 1950s teens who invented imaginary worlds, wrote under imaginary personas, and murdered Pauline Parker's mother. Jackson and Walsh's vision of friendship, creativity and tragedy was greeted with Oscar nominations, deals with indie company Miramax, and rhapsodic acclaim for the film, and newbie actors Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. Time magazine and 30 other publications named it one of the year's 10 best films.
A trio of future Kiwi screen stars smoke, smoulder, steal — and worse — in Scott Reynolds' serpentine short noir. Kane (Marton Csokas) and his Zambesi-clad woman on the side (Danielle Cormack) set about ripping off Kane’s rich wife (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) with bloody results. Writer/director Scott Reynolds and longtime partner in crime, cinematographer Simon Raby, serve notice of their talents — and inspirations — with heady lighting, deliberately shonky back projection, and opening titles right out of Hitchcock. Muso Greg Johnson supplies the horns.
In director Garth Maxwell’s 1993 gothic horror twins Jack and Dora (late US actor Alexis Arquette and Kiwi Sarah Smuts-Kennedy) are separated while young; their adult reunion sees them battling the trauma of their past while being pursued by Jack’s sadistic step sisters. Complete with ESP, and a steam-driven hypnosis machine, Maxwell makes an exuberant and surreal contribution to the cinema of unease. New York Times’ Stephen Holden lauded the heady head-spinner as “a superior genre film” with a “feverish intensity that recalls scenes from Hitchcock and De Palma.”
This 1991 story from magazine show Sunday profiles Logan Brewer: production designer on Kiwi TV classics (C’Mon, Hunter’s Gold), and producer of Terry and the Gunrunners and live ‘spectaculars’ like the 1990 Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. He talks through his career: learning about performing at England's National Theatre, and selling Aotearoa as “the last paradise” for Expo '92 in Seville — for which he is shown wrangling an extended shot of Kiri Te Kanawa and the NZ Symphony Orchestra, promoting fibreglass pohutukawa, and working with designer Grant Major.
Directed by Jane Campion, An Angel at My Table is adapted from author Janet Frame's renowned three-part autobiography. It threads together a series of images and scenes to evoke Frame's dramatic life story. Originally made as a TV drama, the much-acclaimed dramatisation won cinema release in 35 countries; it established Campion as a global director, launched actor Kerry Fox, and introduced new audiences to the "mirror city" of Frame's writing. This excerpt follows Frame's life-saving escape from Seacliff Asylum, to first publishing success at Frank Sargeson’s bach.
As a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Brian Deeds (Belfast-born actor Ian McElhinney) grassed on 23 fellow terrorists in Northern Ireland. Now living in New Zealand under a new identity, Deeds has to come clean to his girlfriend (Judy McIntosh) when a hit squad arrives in town for him. This clip sees guns and car crashes on the streets of Dunedin. Made in NZ, the Anglo-Kiwi funded TV movie won solid audiences on UK television, before local release on video. Ian Mune (Came a Hot Friday) directs; Marshall Napier and Temuera Morrison are the cops playing catch up.
Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon’s first — and most famous — defence case was the first episode in this award-winning drama series about his career. In 1895, alleged baby farmer Minnie Dean was charged with murdering two infants in her care. Hanlon’s inspired manslaughter defence was undermined by the judge’s direction to the jury; and Dean became the only woman to be hanged in NZ. Hanlon vowed none of his future clients would ever suffer this fate. Emmy-nominated and a major critical success, the episode contributed to a re-evaluation of Dean’s conviction.
This was New Zealand's first big historical drama after the controversy over the cost of The Governor almost a decade earlier. Over seven episodes — set between 1895 and 1914 — it followed the life of Dunedin barrister Alf Hanlon, focussing on six of his most important cases. British actor David Gwillim played Hanlon, while Australian Robyn Nevin was cast as convicted baby murderer Minnie Dean in the first and most celebrated episode. A major critical, ratings and awards success, it immediately recouped its budget when the Minnie Dean episode spurred a big international sale.
This TVNZ kidult drama is a saltwater Swallows and Amazons, where the plucky "urchins" stumble upon villainous plots (from missing treasure to wildlife smuggling) on their seaside adventures. Over three series, locations like Mahurangi Peninsula in the Hauraki Gulf — where the youngsters holidayed with their uncle — and the Marlborough Sounds allowed for much floatplane, launch and navy frigate chase action. The cast included an array of experienced talent and featured a young Rebecca Gibney (the Packed to Rafter’s star’s first major TV role) and Robert Rakete.
While convalescing down under Sir Charles Pemberton (Terence Cooper) schemes to build a thermal spa in the town of Wainamu c.1900. Conflict ensues as the spa’s planned location is on Māori land. The action is seen through the eyes of youngsters: hotelier’s son Tom, and Pemberton’s granddaughter Sarah Jane; who — along with an erupting volcano — eventually impart on Sir Charles a lesson about colonial hubris. The 13-part series was a marquee title from a golden age of Kiwi kidult telly-making: it won multiple Feltex awards, and screened on the BBC in 1980.
This Feltex award-winning kidult series is set in the colonial town of Wainamu in 1900, amidst the North Island’s ‘thermal wonderland’. It follows the challenges that Sir Charles Pemberton (Terence Cooper) faces in building a spa on Māori land. In this first episode, local lad Tom, son of the hotelier, is irritated by the arrival of Sir Charles and his aristocratic entourage (particularly granddaughter Sarah Jane, also known as “Little Miss Prim”). Their train is late after being spooked by natives. Tom's gang of shanghai-toting scallywags also take on the mean local butcher.