Michael Bennett has argued that for writing and directing are two words for the same thing. And Bennett would know — he has done plenty of both.
His first paid writing gig was "tough as hell" — as part of the team trying to provide a laugh every eight seconds, on the 1993 debut season of sketch comedy show Skitz. The following year his script for short film Michelle’s Third Novel screened before the first American festival screening of Pulp Fiction. Bennett went on to write episodes of big city dramas City Life and Cover Story (he was nominated in the 1997 NZ Television Awards the later), before adapting Nepi Solomon's small town novel Jubilee into a movie, around the turn of the millennium. The comedic drama stars Cliff Curtis stepping up to run the local school jubilee.
Bennett was also starting to direct, with episodes of Mercy Peak and anthology series Mataku. In 2002 his short film Cow was invited to play at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. He set himself multiple creative challenges with this self-styled “aquatic bovine musical comedy”. Made partly as a chance to tell a story without dialogue, the film features Ian Mune, Martyn Sanderson and a cow, who are all adrift at sea.
Kerosene Creek (2004) was an attempt at a more serious, naturalistic drama. The coming of age tale premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, en route to a dozen more festivals around the world. The cast featured the debut of actor Darcey-Ray Flavell-Hudson, long before Ghost Chips ad fame.
Bennett next directed a number of episodes of Outrageous Fortune, was nominated for a Qantas Award for this episode of docudrama series Taonga, and spent time overseas, before helming his first feature Matariki (2010). The ensemble drama involves eight characters whose lives are affected by one moment of violence. The project began after Bennett fell in love with Iaheto Ah Hi's play Tautai, about a one-man crimewave. Bennett and co-writer Gavin Strawhan laboured through 27 drafts, aiming to give “a sense of cautious hope and optimism” to the drama.
Argues Bennett in this video interview: “Every character in the film, in bigger or smaller ways, goes through some form of transcendence. As Matariki rises they find a way to move forward.”
Matariki debuted at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. Praising the “excellent” ensemble, NZ Herald writer Peter Calder described the film as “a touching series of intersecting stories about the fragility of life and the redeeming power of love”.
After finishing work on Matariki, Bennett began working on a number of documentary projects As a result he found himself nominated in two different categories of the 2011 Aotearoa Film and Television Awards: Outstanding Feature Film Debut, for Matariki, and Best Director - Factual Television, for Whare Māori (both this series and Kaitangata Twitch, which Bennett helped write, won awards for best show in their category). Bennett worked on multiple episodes of this series about Māori architecture, including the first episode.
In 2013 Bennett wrote, directed and produced The Confessions of Prisoner T. The Māori Television documentary examines the two-decade imprisonment of Teina Pora, whose convictions for rape and murder were finally quashed by the Privy Council in 2015.
Bennett has also worked on a number of projects aimed at younger audiences. He was co-creator and occasional director for fantasy adventure series P.E.T. Detectives, directed multiple episodes of period tale The Lost Children, and was one of the writing team on award-winning Margaret Mahy series Kaitangata Twist. In 2013 he helped create web series The Factory, based on a South Auckalnd family who are forced into a talent contest by their factory-owning father.
Bennettt trained at Australia's Film Television and Radio School. In 2005 he won a British Council/Writers Foundation Award which saw him spending time with the script team at British channel and production company Film 4. Three years later he was one of the first recipients of the NZ Film Commission Writers Award.
Bennett has projects in development ranging across animation, comedy, and magical realism — plus an adaptation of Maurice Gee science fiction tale Salt. He also loves competing in “crazy endurance events”, 40 marathons amongst them.
'Michael Bennett on directing and cow-whispering' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 11 January 2011 Accessed 2 August 2015
Michael Bennett website. Accessed 2 August 2015
Fritha Stalker, 'The Write Stuff: Featured Writer/Director: Michael Bennett' (Broken link). New Zealand Writers Guild website. Loaded 17 November 2010. Accessed 2 August 2015