Michael Heath’s scripts often involve childhood and/or the fantastical. Beyond that, Heath is a hard man to pin down. A rabid film fan whose tastes range from splatter to Satyajit Ray, Heath’s extended career includes co-creating the first Kiwi horror film, and directing moody documentaries about modernist painters. Along the way he has enjoyed extended writing relationships with directors Tony Williams and David Blyth, and a late flowering as a director.
Heath grew up in the Southland town of Wyndham, and spent time at a Catholic boarding school. Later he worked as a reporter at The Southland Times, and in the late 60s began reporting for Christchurch television station CH-TV.
After moving to Wellington to study music, Heath found himself flatting with “a motley bunch of creative people”, including future cinematographer Graeme Cowley. They worked together with colleague Rex Benson on The Beaconsfield Films, a trio of experimental films named after their Terrace flat. In one, Heath parodied his old job as a news reporter.
In the early 70s, while auditioning to act in a TV commercial for Pacific Films, he met filmmaker Tony Williams, who would become a friend and key mentor. The two shared a love of music, laughter, and films that broke the rules. After their attempts to write dramatic projects for television met deaf ears, Williams was commissioned to direct a series of offbeat films for documentary slot Survey. Heath found himself interviewing, acting and generally helping out, most memorably when he played the semi-improvised role of a teacher in a children’s tale The Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Planet in the Universe.
In 1972 Heath departed for seven years in England — punctuated by this unforgettable expedition by Kombi van with Williams, where the pair imagined what a Kiwi film industry might be like, inbetween interviewing everyone from Steven Spielberg to Werner Herzog at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. In London, Heath began writing the first of many stage and radio plays (The Privacy of the Patients marked the first Kiwi play performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe).
Upon his return to NZ, Heath worked on a feature script with Williams, and, initially, Tim White: Sticky Ends, a black comedy about a family of murderous caterers. The script would transform into the more restrained Next of Kin (1982), arguably New Zealand’s first horror movie (the complication being that it was finally shot and set in Australia). The film has gone on to achieve cult fame — Quentin Tarantino claims to have been "blown away" by it — plus awards at fantasy film festivals in Spain and France. Heath’s bloodstained hands are also attached to the film which is popularly accepted as the first Kiwi horror: 1984’s Death Warmed Up; originally a Heath story idea involving cryogenics.
Heath and co-writer/director David Blyth created a gleefully bloody and outrageous tale of mad scientists and bizarre experiments, starring Michael Hurst in his big-screen debut. For Heath and Blyth it was the start of a longterm creative relationship between the two horror fans (Heath would later help produce a number of Blyth’s digital films). Death Warmed Up won grand prize at the same Parisian festival that Next of Kin had triumphed previously; the award was presented by cult director and jury head Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo).
Heath’s feature career predated either Death Warmed Up or Next of Kin; his first script to see the screen was a 1981 adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow. The rite of passage tale chronicles the arrival in a 50s Kiwi town of a mysterious stranger (John Carradine). Guardian reviewer Derek Malcolm called it a genuine original; In 1982 The Scarecrow became the first Kiwi film to win invitation to the Cannes Film Festival, in the non-competitive Director's Fortnight section. Heath co-wrote the script with director Sam Pillsbury, basing the film’s “loving childhood detail” partly on his Southland upbringing. As he mentions in this interview, Morrieson's descriptions of small town life reminded him of the work of Janet Frame.
In 1989 director Greg Stitt enlisted Heath to flesh out the script for his 50 minute film Just Me and Mario, the tale of a puritan (Mark Hadlow) obsessed with singer Mario Lanza.
Meanwhile Death Warmed Up director David Blyth was growing intrigued by the screen possibilities of Heath’s “delightful and mysterious” radio play Moonrise. Blyth felt that this tale of two boys befriending a kind-hearted vampire presented “a plea for children to be allowed to keep and develop their imaginations.” Released locally as Grampire (1991), it featured Pat Evison and future Pluto singer Milan Borich, with the vampire played by lovable American star Al Lewis (TV's The Munsters).
Heath describes what happened next as a “life-changing” piece of serendipity. After Blyth proved unavailable, Heath took up the invitation to accompany Moonrise to a 1993 film festival of young people’s films, held in the Indian city of Udaipur. There Heath met his future producer Bhim Singh Chouhan, who was involved with the festival. Chouhan, who later moved downunder with his family, has since worked on every film Heath has written.
Heath fell in love with India, kick-starting many future returns to the sub-continent (including a 1998 retrospective devoted to Heath’s own screen work, at the Kerala Film Festival). Though India helped inspire Heath’s creative rebirth, the rest of the 90s was the darkness before the light. Heath’s directorial debut - Between Two Worlds, a Work of Art documentary about composer Gareth Farr, was extensively recut, in Heath’s view a victim of political correctness and homophobia. He also lost both his parents, and spent five years in “development hell” on the ambitious unrealised script The Lake of Lost Souls.
In 2000 Heath wrote and directed the “cinematic song cycle” A Small Life. Born from a desire to make a film in a spirit of freedom and collaboration, the film uses the music of composer David Downes and "extraordinary" singer/actor Mahinarangi Tocker to tell the story of a mother dealing with the serious illness and death of her son.
The 52-minute film is little known back home, though it played in New Zealand's yearly round of film festivals. Overseas A Small Life was invited to festivals in Tokyo, Sydney, Finland, the Czech Republic, India, Portugal (where it won a Special Mention Award), and South Korea (grand prize). At the 2002 Karachi International Film Festival, Heath’s film was up against 70 plus others; it walked away with eight awards, including best director, screenplay, and a best cinematographer gong for Heath’s longtime collaborator Stephen Latty.
In 2004 Heath was the subject of the Latty-directed Artsville documentary A Long Lost Season, which followed a Los Angeles production of Heath's play All Good Soldiers in the West Wind.
In 2007 Heath wrote and directed Edith Collier - A Light Among Shadows, a doco about the neglected modernist painter. A sellout at the Auckland and Wellington Film Festivals, the film was later invited to festivals in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Listener reviewer Helene Wong praised its mixture of research and family anecdote, while the Dominion Post found it “beautiful, rich and acutely sensitive”. Later the Edith Collier Trust invited Heath to make another film, this time concentrating on the time Collier spent in Ireland. Village by the Sea debuted in the 2012 round of NZ film festivals.
He has also co-written the script for locally-shot Kiwi-Indian feature Waiting for You, directed by Shyam SR Upadhyay. The romantic drama stars Bollywood veterans Bomi Dotiwala and Usha Jerajani (both from Indian epic Asoka). He is now working on a personal memoir film, Home and the River.
'Michael Heath: Vampires, mad scientists and forgotten artists..' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Uploaded 1 October 2013. Accessed 29 November 2013
Stacey Abbott, ‘The Nightmare within the Everyday - The Horrific Visions of David Blyth’ in New Zealand Filmmakers. Editors Ian Conrich and Stuart Murray (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007)
Merrill Coke, 'Showing the other side of things' (Interview) - Listener, 12 December 1987, Page 60
Lawrence McDonald, ‘Genre Benders and Grandes Buffs - A revisionist micro-history of 25 years of New Zealand film’ (Exhibition Catalogue) - (Wellington: City Gallery, 1994)
Moini, Qasim Abdallah, ‘A new approach’ (Interview) - Dawn Images (Pakistan), 5 January 2003
John O’Shea, Don’t Let it Get You - memories - documents (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999)
Helene Wong, 'Still life with Edith' (Review of Edith Collier - A Light Among Shadows) - Listener, 3 November 2007, Issue 3521
'Edith Collier Film Returning to Cinemas' (Press Release) Scoop website. Loaded 14 August 2007. Accessed 9 November 2010