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Margot Francis


At 17-years-old, Margot Francis left Dunedin for upstate New York as an exchange student. When not attending her unfamiliar high school, she joined a group of poets and artists, shooting footage and creating experimental reel-to-reel pieces with them. Based out of a nearby art school and all older than her, the group had previously collaborated with pioneering video artist Nam June Paik, and promptly took Francis in. 

Although a long-time admirer of film who came from a creative family of painters, Francis hadn't considered the possibility of a career in filmmaking until her year abroad. Upon graduating and returning to Dunedin, she experienced the local screen industry firsthand, shooting and cutting various pieces for television. Alongside news programming, she assisted on 1977 TV series Women with camerawoman Margaret Moth, and children’s show Spot On. At age 21 Francis returned to New York. Although only planning to stay for four months, she would live in New York City for the next 16 years.

After knocking on many doors, Margot Francis joined a small production company based out of SoHo. She was introduced to comedy writer Tom Schiller, who was in need of an editor for one of the embedded short films for legendary comedy show Saturday Night Live. The two worked together for 10 years, on and off; they shared “the same sensibility”, inspired by editing styles of the 1950s and 60s.

Schiller wrote and directed only one feature film, Nothing Lasts Forever, a retro-styled science fiction comedy whose cast included Zach Galligan (Gremlins) and Bill Murray. He selected Francis, then 25, to edit with Kathleen Dougherty. The finished film was shelved by MGM and never released theatrically in the United States, appearing on American television for the first time in 2015.

Francis also edited several telefeatures and specials during her time in New York, including part of Decade 1980 - 1989, a Peabody Award-winning special on the first 10 years of MTV, a segment for an ABC Earth Day Special in 1990, and HBO’s The Mondo Beyondo Show with Bette Midler in 1988 for which Francis won a Monitor Award for Editing.

In the same year as her Monitor Award win, Francis shared an Emmy with Joan Morris for their work on TV documentary Sarafina! Words of Freedom... Songs of Hope, a shortened cut of the feature Voices of Sarafina! (which they also edited). Francis cut the footage of anti-apartheid stage musical Sarafina! performed at the Lincoln Centre Theatre. As with The Mondo Beyondo Show, the win further showcased Francis’s strength with cutting to music. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin presented Francis with what was likely the first Emmy won by a Kiwi. 

Awards can be nice, but the people Francis met through her work made more of an impact. Time with the Maysles Brothers (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) "changed my life". These trailblazers of the cinema-verité approach to documentary made Francis realise that "this is how documentaries have to be". Alongside editing several documentary commercials for the pair, Francis acted as the initial compilation editor for Umbrellas (1994), one of their docos on installation artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. 

In 1994 Francis finally returned home, bringing with her a baby and her husband, producer Steve Sachs. The plan was to stay for a year the first of Francis’s adult life where she didn't work but the Kiwi film industry had changed so drastically in her absence that exciting opportunities quickly arose. Long-running documentary series Heartland stood out to her as evidence of this change. “I was so impressed with it because it felt more like the Maysles.” Francis would come to edit a couple of Heartland episodes herself.

Shortly after the move, Steve Sachs successfully pitched True Life Stories, a Kiwi adaptation of HBO series Lifestories: Families in Crisis, on which Sachs had been Line Producer. Through her proximity to this series, Francis was first introduced to director Niki Caro. Francis would go on to edit Plain Tastes, Caro’s acclaimed one-hour suburban drama from 1995, and Caro’s first feature, Memory and Desire, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won four NZ Film and TV Awards.

Francis has gone on to edit several other acclaimed local features, including Harry Sinclair’s Toy Love and Mark Beesley’s first feature Savage Honeymoon. Both were finalists for Best Editing in the NZ Film and TV Awards. Following Savage Honeymoon, Francis again collaborated with Beesley, cutting the first two episodes of popular and much-awarded TV series Outrageous Fortune. Her work on television dramas has continued, with crime miniseries Harry starring Oscar Knightley and Sam Neill, The Brokenwood Mysteries, and the award-winning The Panthers.

Yet Francis never forgot the skills for editing comedy she had first demonstrated with Saturday Night Live, editing the iconic The Topp Twins – Do Not Adjust Your Twin-set TV series over several years. "A big experiment, really," Francis admits, but one that reinforced the twins' generous souls and distinctive humour. "They’re funny, they’re good souls; they’re good people." Francis was pleased to see how the Topp Twins "were just accepted and loved", despite New Zealand being in some ways "quite a conservative country". 

Francis would encounter another icon of New Zealand comedy when she edited Ian Mune’s documentary portrait Billy T: Te Movie. In approaching the vast (yet far from comprehensive) amount of material, co-producer Toby Parkinson notes that Francis "chose sound and music to drive the story forward, using the footage of Billy in front of a live audience as the central character".

Francis describes her approach to every project, regardless of genre or medium, as reacting to the material on a personal and subjective level. She notes what moves her, making sure to "leave emotional space around things" and focus on those moments. “Everybody wants you to cut harder and faster now. Sometimes that works, but often for comedy it doesn’t.”

Alongside the Topp Twins and Niki Caro, Francis has collaborated with numerous female directors and creatives. She joined director Fiona Samuel for documentary Virginity and telefeatures Piece of My Heart, and Bliss: The Beginning of Katherine Mansfield. Francis won Best Editing at the 2012 NZ Television Awards for Bliss; that year she was also nominated for drama Siege. Pietra Brettkelly is another director whom Francis has worked with extensively, including Inside Outward Bound – The New Zealand Journey and acclaimed documentaries A Flickering Truth, about the restoration of historic Afghan film reels, and Yellow is Forbidden, following Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei.

Margot Francis has also edited two documentary features by Briar March: Mothers of the Revolution and Dame Valerie Adams: More Than Gold; Leanne Pooley’s The Girl on the Bridge, for which she received both editing and writing credits; and the deeply personal feature For My Father’s Kingdom, directed by Vea Mafile’o and her partner Jeremiah Tauamiti.

Francis notes that she has worked with lots of male directors too. “In fact, in New York, it seemed to only be with men.” This stands as one of the notable differences of working in New Zealand, with Francis having collaborated with many “really good women making really good films.”

Profile written by Danny Bultitude; published on 20 October 2023

Sources include
Margot Francis
Toby Parkinson, 'The Road Less Travelled: The Making of Te Movie' - Onfilm, August 2011 (Volume 28, no 7), page 12
'Margot Francis' Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 20 October 2023