Director and producer Mark Beesley, who has worked with Mike Smith on more than one occasion, appreciates his respect for the importance of the script. "Once Mike locks into a story, he's like a terrier with a bone," says Beesley. "He won't let it go, won't compromise till the telling's done to his satisfaction. He becomes a monster — but in a good way — especially if it happens to be your story he's chasing down."
The scripts in Smith's sights over the years have ranged from fantasy to straight drama to farcical comedy, plus the odd show hovering in the dramedy netherworld (The Almighty Johnsons, The Strip). Smith holds that a key part of directing is knowing one’s material, and exactly what writers and producers are trying to achieve. He is careful to differentiate projects he has been involved with from early on, eg telemovie Siege or comedy Sunny Skies, from shows where his key job is continuing in a pre-established style.
Describing four decades in television, he is succinct. “I stumbled into it, then got lucky.”
Born in Nelson to a doctor and a nurse who later moved to Christchurch, Smith recalls being "quite introverted, but keen to please" as a child. Tiring of analysing Shakespeare, he left school after the sixth form, ironic considering his future career. His father — then doing talkback on Radio I as Eccles Smith — asked what he was good at: English and History. Maybe broadcasting was worth a look.
After a year in advertising, Smith applied for the cadetship scheme at state television in 1972. The scheme provided a “fantastic” chance to learn how television is put together: "You basically got paid to have a look around."
Smith spent a few years as “a cable dragger and floor manager”. In 1975, after the second television channel launched, expat Kiwi John McRae returned to command a major rise in drama output. Smith was in the right place to help. After jobs as an assistant director on some of McRae’s new shows, he took a production training course, and joined the directing team on Radio Waves, one of the soaps McRae launched to upskill cast and crew.
Smith recalls showing McRae some of his completed episodes, and feeling proud of his camera moves. "All he was interested in talking about was the performances. That was a huge wake up call." Soaps proved a great place to learn — one day directing a funeral, the next a dinner party. McRae’s scheme to give staff experience in drama must have paid off: TVNZ’s next big series Mortimer’s Patch, on which Smith was one of the directors, was "a lot better frankly."
In 1984, at the age of roughly 25, he was given the chance to direct and produce his own series. Heroes followed the birth of a pop band. Smith looks back on two high-rating seasons with affection for its adventurousness, as well as regret — much of the later thanks to an audition by a young Russell Crowe. "We didn’t use him because he didn’t fit the two characters that we had. I think he would have been fantastic. But I’m really proud of the people we did use: Michael Hurst, John Gibson, Jay Laga’aia, Margaret Umbers, and Frank Whitten."
Grant Morris — who’d turned Smith’s one line Heroes idea into a script — was one of the friends that later joined Smith to make Hotel Hitler, a feature-length underground comedy shot in one weekend, then rarely seen again.
In the mid 80s Smith relocated to Sydney for nine years, although roughly a year of that was spent trying to break into the industry, starting on soap operas again. "You just have to re-establish yourself."
Shows like Police Rescue provided useful experience in shooting action scenes. He also directed on A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors, and a Halifax fp tele-movie starring Rebecca Gibney. In this period Smith occasionally flew back home for the odd show, but it was Cover Story, the drama based around a current affairs show, which made him realise New Zealand was the culture he knew best. The cutting edge series benefited from intelligent scripts, a "terrific cast", and then-edgy handheld camerawork. In 1996 it scored Smith his first directing award.
The following year another gong arrived for Share the Dream, one of many telemovies that litter Smith’s CV. The Dean Parker tale followed two lovers who meet on a factory assembly line. Smith had befriended editor John Gilbert on Cover Story and Share the Dream. The two decided to form production company Big House, and make some shows of their own.
Their first project was short film Willy Nilly, which begat a comedy show both adored and reviled. The dark comedy revolved around two slightly dimwitted farmers (Mark Hadlow and Sean Duffy) trying to negotiate life, after the death of their live-in Mum. Invited to esteemed short film festival Clermont-Ferrand, it proved one of NZ’s biggest sellers in 1998. The television series of the same name added a female flatmate (Tandi Wright) into the mix.
The show ran three seasons, often rating highly, and won Smith another directing award. But critics were largely unmoved. Smith feels his error was straying into farce, even dopiness; the show reminded him how careful you need to be when combining different strains of comedy in the one show.
This pre and post millennium period proved an especially busy one. Not only were Big House developing shows, and producing shorts for others: Smith was also directing episodes of Duggan, Ivanhoe fantasy Dark Knight, Cliff Curtis mini-series The Chosen and the pilot episode of strip club tale The Strip.
In 2003, after his award-nominated work on soap satire Serial Killers, Smith had a rare stab at producing television for others. Outrageous Fortune proved "a great show to be part of". Though Smith is clear he was just one of those in the mix, he was "deeply involved" in casting, successfully gunning for lead actors Robyn Malcolm and Antony Starr. He also signed on director Mark Beesley, after Beesley showed "great insight into what we were trying to do".
In 2011 tele-movie Siege won an NZ Television Award award for Best One-off Drama (Smith was also nominated for Best Drama/Comedy Director). Based on the events that followed after Napier man Jan Molenaar opened fire on policemen in 2009, the intention was to depict "what we understood to have happened as well, and as closely, as we could". By contrast Mr Asia television series Underbelly - Land of the Long Green Cloud was meant as more of a "rollicking yarn".
In 2012 he returned to comedy, as co-creator (with Paul Yates) of campground comedy Sunny Skies. Stuff reviewer Chris Philpott described it as "enjoyable, well made and well performed". Since then Smith has continued to direct a wide variety of material, from The Almighty Johnsons and Nothing Trivial, to WWII docudrama Nancy Wake: The White Mouse and a series of detective tele-features, The Brokenwood Mysteries. In 2015 he was one of the directors on NZ-Australian co-production 800 Words, which stars Erik Thomson as an Australian writer who moves to a seaside NZ town with his children.
Despite the challenge and satisfactions of capturing scenes visually, Smith believes the cornerstone of his work has been working with actors, to realise story through character. He is particularly proud of work with Mark Mitchinson, Miriama Smith, and Joel Tobeck (all on Siege), plus Dan Musgrove and the Underbelly cast. "The visual stuff is fun," he says, "but working with the cast is where the real rewards are."
Chris Philpott, ‘Farewell to Sunny Skies and The Radio’ (Review of Sunny Skies) Stuff website. Loaded 18 March 2013. Accessed 15 April 2014