John Toon's globetrotting award-winning career as a cinematographer encompasses documentary, shorts, TV drama (The Governor) and feature films — Rain, Mr Pip, Kingpin and Sunshine Cleaning among them. He has also shot and directed many commercials.
He’s really risky and he doesn’t waste time ... there’s not a lot of people that will light the film, plus operate the camera, plus hand-hold the camera on their shoulder all day; it’s quite a tough job. Director Christine Jeffs, on her husband’s qualities as a cinematographer
Bruce McLaren was one of the icons of motor racing in the sport's 60s ‘golden age’ – he won four Grand Prix, and joined fellow Kiwi Chris Amon to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The McLaren team he founded became one of the most successful in Formula One. In this documentary, director Roger Donaldson returns to the tarmac where he has made a mark before — Smash Palace, his fictional story of a race car driver, and two films inspired by Invercargill's DIY racing legend Burt Munro. Stuff reviewer James Croot called McLaren "engrossing, enlightening and surprisingly emotional".
After overhearing a parental argument which shows no signs of ending, a young boy (Nico Mu) decides to wander out onto the streets. Soon he is caught up in the K Road nightlife, clutching his sushi. Then a chance meeting with a talkative homeless woman (Verity George) and her dog offers him a new perspective. Inspired by an old woman who gave out mussel fritters to bus drivers, writer/director Karyn Childs set out with this short film to show K Road as a place where people of many backgrounds can feel they belong. Fritters was one of ten K' Rd Stories made in 2015.
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.
Rain evokes an idyllic 1970s beach holiday. But as the title hints, all is not sunny at the bach. Mum (Sarah Peirse) is drowning in drink, Dad is defeated, and 13-year-old Janey is awakening to a new kind of power. Adapted from Kirsty Gunn's novel, Rain marked the acclaimed first feature for director Christine Jeffs. Invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, it won awards back home for actors Peirse, Alistair Browning and teenager Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki. Neil Finn and Edmund Cake composed the soundtrack. LA Times critic Kevin Thomas called it "an important feature debut".
Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) has emigrated downunder from wartime Croatia. When she falls in love with Māori cook Eddie (Julian Arahanga) and marries a Chinese man who is trying to stay in NZ, her domineering father Ivan is furious. The second movie from Gregor Nicholas remains one of the few from NZ in which Pākehā culture hardly features. The result was one of the highest-grossing NZ films of the 1990s. International reviews praised its power and strong cast — especially Croatian discovery Aleksandra Vujcic ("instantly alluring" said Janet Maslin). Vujcic won one of five NZ Film awards.
Christine Jeffs made her directing debut with this lush, high end (35mm film, Dolby sound) short film. Dorothy (Fiona Samuel), a lone swimmer, luxuriates in tranquil bliss at a deserted pool — only to have her solitude rudely interrupted by a squad of swimmers. A wordless, strikingly choreographed conflict ensues as Dorothy attempts to assert herself against the dehumanised aggression of the swimmers. Stroke was invited to international festivals including Cannes and Sundance; and Jeffs went on to direct feature films Rain and Sunshine Cleaning.
In 1986 Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale and its theme song ‘Slice of Heaven’ were huge hits in New Zealand and Australia. The adaptation of Murray Ball's beloved Footrot Flats comic strip marked Aotearoa's first animated feature. There were a lot of big questions to answer: Will Wal become an All Black? Will Cooch recover his stolen stag? Will the Dog win your hearts and funny bones? Punters answered at the box office. This John Toon-shot trailer doubled as a promo for the Dave Dobbyn-Herbs song, and smartly leveraged both. Tony Hiles writes about the film's making here.
Frank Whitten won probably his biggest audience when 10 million Brits saw him play an outrageous bastard in this primetime melodrama. This first episode sees Ceci (Glaswegian actor Valerie Gogan) arriving from England hoping for a better life, and instead finding herself trapped on a rundown farm with a rapist, a bitter old man and a simpleton. NZ producers Lloyd Phillips and Rob Whitehouse won finance from TVNZ, Westpac and the UK's Central Television for the six-part mini-series, written by Brit Elizabeth Gowans. There were 118 speaking parts, most of them Kiwi.
Kingpin was the second of a trilogy of films from Mike Walker about troubled New Zealand youth (the others were Kingi's Story and TV movie Mark II) Filmed at, and inspired by residents of Kohitere Boys Training Centre in Levin, the bros-in-borstal tale follows a group of teens who are wards of the state. Kingpin focuses on the bond between Riki (Mitchell Manuel) and Willie (Fafua 'Junior' Amiga), who along with the other kids are terrorised by Karl (Nicholas Rogers), the Kingpin of the title. It was directed by Walker, who co-wrote the script with Manuel.
Heart of the Stag showed that director Michael Firth could handle actors as well as skis (his first film, ski documentary Off the Edge, was Oscar-nominated). Bruno Lawrence stars as a man working for a King Country farmer (Terence Cooper), who romances the farmer's adult daughter (Mary Regan) and starts wondering about the strained family dynamic. A rare drama dealing with incest, Heart of the Stag was praised by The LA Times as "electrifyingly good". The NZ Herald said it handled a delicate subject without compromise. Metro voted it the best Kiwi film of 1984.
The Silent One is a mythological children's drama about the friendship between a deaf mute boy, Jonasi, and a rare white turtle. The boy's differences lead to suspicion from his Rarotongan village. When the village suffers drought and a devastating storm, the boy and turtle (also considered an ill omen) are blamed and ostracised. Adapted by Ian Mune from a Joy Cowley story, the beloved film was the first New Zealand dramatic feature to be directed by a woman (Yvonne Mackay). In the excerpt here, Jonasi is excluded from a boar hunt and first meets the turtle.
This 1983 documentary looks at the (then booming) export of deer antler velvet from New Zealand farms to Asia where the “horns of gold” are highly valued as an aphrodisiac and cure-all tonic. The doco captures the hazards of the trade: from bulldogging (hunters leaping from helicopter skids onto wild deer), to volatile markets in Hong Kong and Korea. The players include a triad of Asian middlemen “who make the millions”, and Kiwi deer entrepreneur Tim Wallis, who led a delegation of farmers to China in 1981 to discover the secret of the Eastern love potion.
This film investigates and captures the dramatic changes to Wellington's cityscape in the 70s and 80s. "To get in before nature's earthquake we created one of our own". As a result of mass demolition of buildings deemed to be earthquake risks and the subsequent building boom, graveyards make way for motorways, and wood and stone for steel, glass and concrete. There are interviews with the boosters (Bob Jones, Sir Michael Fowler), demo workers, and laments for the loss of heritage and local culture (Harry Seresin, Aro Valley protesters, and surprisingly, Rex Nicholls).
Hooks and Feelers tells the story of a painter haunted by an accident in which her son lost a hand. Written and directed by Melanie Rodriga, the 45-minute psychological drama explores guilt and reconciliation as the family adjusts to his disability. An adaptation of the short story by future Booker Prize-winner Keri Hulme, Hooks and Feelers starred jazz singer Bridgette Allen and Keith Aberdein (Smash Palace). It screened on TV in 1984. With producer Don Reynolds, Rodriga (then known as Melanie Read) would go on to make pioneering feminist thriller Trial Run (1984).
Written by Tom Scott, Press for Service is a humorous take on the shenanigans of the parliamentary press as they battle with the prime minister over their journalistic freedom. With the idealism, sleaze and alcoholism, that traditionally go hand and hand with the job, we follow David Miller; striving to be a respected journalist. Miller writes a damning piece but forgets to check his sources. Opening and closing with John Toon's elegant aerial shots of Wellington and a buoyant score, the episode features prominent Wellington thespians Ray Henwood and Ross Jolly.
After hitting Wellington for a Ranfurly Shield game, two brothers from the sticks (Grant Tilly and Pork Pie's Kelly Johnson) have to sneak their abruptly deceased father back home. If the body isn’t buried there, they won’t inherit the family farm. Set back when "blokes were blokes and sheilas were their mums", director John Reid’s shaggy dog tale — a Weekend at Bernie's, reeking of stale beer and ciggies — both lauds and satirises the Kiwi male. Among the six clips, the final clip sees Tilly's character getting things off his chest, now that Dad is finally unable to answer back.
For this documentary director Gaylene Preston goes behind the scenes during the making of Geoff Murphy's Utu — his ambitious 'puha western' set during the 1870s land wars. “It’s like football innit? You set up the event and cover it…” says Murphy, as he prepares to shoot a battle scene. In this excerpt, the film’s insistence on cultural respect is conveyed: Merata Mita discusses the beauty of ta moko as star Anzac Wallace is transformed into Te Wheke in the makeup chair, and Martyn Sanderson reflects on having his head remade to be blown off: “What’s the time Mr Wolf?”.
80s show Close Up had a similar brief to earlier current affairs show Compass: to present mini-documentaries on topical local issues. Stories in the primetime hour-long slot were wide-ranging, from hard news to human interest pieces, including a profile of 25-year-old foreign exchange dealer, future-Prime Minister, John Key. The show won Feltex Awards for most of the years that it was on air. Close Up is not related to the post-nightly news show of the same name, which was hosted by Mark Sainsbury until 2012.
TV series The Deep End saw reporter Bill Manson trying his hand at a variety of tasks, from female impersonator to Robinson Crusoe to captaining a navy frigate. In this episode, Manson is given six weeks to get in shape for a pro wrestling bout. To prepare himself for the dangerous job, 12 stone Manson hits the weights, grapples with wrestling legend Steve Rickard (On the Mat) and works with an acting tutor, barber and promoters on his onstage persona: ‘Doctor Mindbender’. “The thing that scares me," he says, "is just breaking my neck…”
The Governor was a television epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey in six thematic parts. Grey's "Good Governor" persona was undercut with laudanum, lechery and land confiscation. NZ TV's first (and only) historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. It won a 1978 Feltex Award for Best Drama. Auckland Star reviewer Barry Shaw trumpeted: "It has made Māori matter. If Pākehā now have a better understanding of the Māori point of view [...] it stems from The Governor.
The Governor examined the life of George Grey, providing a whole new angle on traditional portraits of him as the "Good Governor". The six-part historical blockbuster was hugely controversial, provoking a parliamentary inquiry and "test match sized" audiences. This episode — 'He Iwi Kotahi Tatou' (Now We Are One People)' — won a Feltex award for best script. War looms in the Waikato as Māori tribes band together; peacemaker and kingmaker Wiremu Tāmihana (the late Don Selwyn) agonises over the right course of action.
The Governor was a six-part TV epic that examined the life of Governor George Grey (Corin Redgrave). This episode arguably best lived up to the blockbuster scale and revisionist ambitions of the series. It depicts key battles of the 1863-64 Waikato Campaign (including ‘Rewi’s last stand’ at Ōrākau). General Sir Duncan Cameron (Martyn Sanderson) feels growing unease following Grey’s orders to evict Māori villagers, as he learns respect for his foe, and that Grey’s motives are driven not just by the urge to impose order on ‘the natives’ but by hunger for land.
Before he achieved worldwide fame as an actor, Sam Neill directed documentary films for the National Film Unit. This film examines the philosophy, early achievements and frustrations of one of New Zealand's most innovative architects, Ian Athfield. Athfield won an international competition in 1975 to design housing for 140,000 squatters in Manila, in the Philippines, yet struggled to gain recognition back home. This film culminates in Athfield's trip to the Philippines to pursue the project. Shooter John Toon later memorably shot feature film Rain.
Ian Mune is Leo Moynihan, secretary of the carpenters’ union, who — with orange mini and leather jacket — has to navigate the shark-infested waters of 70s industrial relations. In this episode, earthquake regulations, a shifty minister and stand-over tactics from worksite agitators, count amongst Moynihan’s workplace problems. At home he has to introduce lecturer girlfriend Sarah to his young son. The NZ-Australia co-production (with ABC) was the first drama series made by TV One’s drama department. It won Feltex awards for best drama and Mune’s performance.
In 1976 Ian Johnstone became the first NZ TV journalist to visit apartheid South Africa. For this Feltex Award-winning report (one of three for Seven Days) he and a small crew strove — under the regime's close eye — to show apartheid's impact on blacks. Shots of Soweto, human rights meetings, and interviews (Bishop Tutu, students, campaigner Hector Ncokazi), undercut PM Johannes Vorster's case for separatism. Seeing Johnstone being denied service at a burger bar (he was with a black) unsettled Kiwi viewers, weeks before the All Blacks left for South Africa in mid-1976.
For this lauded Seven Days assignment Ian Johnstone was the first NZ television reporter to travel to apartheid-era South Africa. In this episode (one of three) he finds a white minority clinging to power in the face of mounting violence and a sense of looming change. The limbo-like status of the mixed-race Coloureds stresses how untenable the regime’s policies have become; and demand for equality from black students is palpable. Interviewees include a defiant Prime Minister Vorster, author Alan Paton (Cry, the Beloved Country), journalist Donald Woods and activist Helen Suzman.
On the eve of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, this Keith Quinn-scripted profile traces the career of athlete John Walker, from being a training averse teen at the Manurewa Harrier Club to his world mile record triumph in Göteborg, Sweden. Walker still smarts from his second place to Filbert Bayi in the 1500 metres at the 1974 Commonwealth Games. What are euphemistically referred to as "political implications" (Kiwi sporting ties with South Africa) have prevented further match-ups — and they'll ultimately remove the Tanzanian from the race so keenly anticipated here.
This edition of the 1976 adventure series documents a pioneering attempt to fly over Aoraki-Mount Cook by hot air balloon. RNZAF squadron leader Roly Parsons had made the first balloon crossing of Cook Strait the previous year. Director Pamela Meekings-Stewart captures his preparations to take on perilous winds and high altitudes. A first attempt with newbie co-pilot Rolf Dennler sets an altitude record, but crashes near Fox Glacier township, before Parsons pulls on his gold flight jacket for a final attempt at the challenge. Julian Dickon (Pukemanu) wrote the script.