Born in Dunedin in 1952, Murray Newey started his screen career as floor manager for TVNZ in Christchurch. While working on wrestling show On the Mat, he became lifelong friends with wrestler and future talent agent Robert Bruce.
Another friend, cinematographer Waka Attewell recalls that Newey had "an eye for mischief and an ear for the turn of phrase that could take the piss, or defuse a situation". Such qualities arguably put him in good stead for the role of first assistant director (whose job is to carry out a range of logistical duties for the director.) Newey was called north to first AD on kidult series Gather Your Dreams, Children of Fire Mountain and a number of features during the tax break era of the early 80s, starting with Beyond Reasonable Doubt. The importance of the job is clear from this 1982 documentary about the making of a big budget commercial, where Newey is often amidst the action in sunglasses and moustache, walkie talkie close by. He was also crossing the Tasman to work in Australia, including on hits The Man From Snowy River and Phar Lap.
The horse theme followed Newey home when he production managed and associate produced Desert Road western Wild Horses. He went on to produce and occasionally direct for TV series The New Adventures of Black Beauty. Made through his own production house, it would go on to become a major bestseller on DVD.
Attewell argues that Newey "took every opportunity to row the boat out as far as he could - during the later part of the 80's and the 90's he drove himself relentlessly". He believes Newey began drinking heavily when cash-flow problems became a nightmare on Black Beauty.
In 1984, Newey teamed up with director David Blyth to make their debut feature, the gleefully over-the-top horror Death Warmed Up. Both shared a belief that the brooding movies that were emerging from New Zealand were failing to satisfy audiences. Though some critics were horrified at the result, others found it a welcome break from New Zealand' cinema's "social-realist strait-jacket" (Martin Blythe in The Listener). Newey produced Death Warmed Up for only $880,000; it was the first local film to proceed after the end of tax incentives. It went on to sell to 37 countries, including Australia and the United States. Newey told newspapers that the Americans were attracted by the film's humour and "new wave science fiction" look.
The Death Warmed Up team of Blyth, Newey and scribe Michael Heath would reteam for Moonrise, a vampire tale targeted at family audiences. Newey described it as "a light film on a dark subject". This time they imported veteran actor Al Lewis (who played Grandpa on The Munsters) to star as the good guy vampire. Retitled My Grandpa is a Vampire, the film sold well in America on video.
More than most Kiwis, Newey seemed to understand the complex, creatively fraught world of international co-productions, which often involved chasing time zones between Los Angeles and NZ. Newey began edging into co-production after helping develop Hong Kong/Kiwi movie Mad Mission 4, which shot down under in 1985. He would go on to produce four further features using the co-pro mix: Geoff Murphy road movie Never Say Die, Moonrise, and two films with Canadian investment, teen romance Bonjour Timothy and multi-award-winning drama The Whole of the Moon. All four were set in New Zealand, though each featured non-Kiwis amongst their predominantly Kiwi casts.
By the late 80s Newey was one of our most prolific producers, keeping as many balls in the air as he could. His philosophy was the more projects you had in development, the more likelihood of securing a deal. Outside of film he also produced local comedy series Porters, directed by American veteran Noam Pitlik (Barney Miller). Trips to the American Film Market and the Cannes Film Festival punctuated the 90s.
Newey's company Tucker Films also handled the New Zealand shoot of big-budget fantasy Willow. Newey and Willow's originator George Lucas stayed in touch and began developing some projects, though none ultimately materialised. Newey also developed films for a time with local producer John Barnett, under the combined company mantle Endeavour Tucker - including Whale Rider, which Newey had already spent more than a year developing. They later split their projects.
By the time Newey produced cancer tale The Whole of The Moon in 1996, there were worries about his ability to see the project through to completion. Cinematographer Waka Attewell recalls that a deal was proposed to the NZ Film Commission that Newey go into rehab at Dunedin's Ashburn Hall, while Brian Walden and Judith Trye took over producing. "But Murray managed to swerve the reaching hands and stuck with the production."
Two years after accepting best picture for Whole of the Moon, Newey would be dead. As Ian Mune said at the funeral "lets not beat around the bush here - the thing we all know about Murray is he topped himself... he shut the engine down". Newey got a standing ovation as his coffin was taken from Auckland's All Saints church. The crowd spilled out onto Ponsonby road, as there were many more people than could fit into the church.
A decade later, Attewell wrote in OnFilm about his friendship with Newey, and the weight of dealing with his death. He remembered Newey's humour and love of Keats, and crashing parties with him at the Cannes Film Festival. He also wrote of how after Newey's death, close friends were forced "to wrestle with the profound truth of something we still don't understand".
Murray George Newey died 8 April, 1998.
Waka Attewell, 'Murray George Newey: 1953 - 1998' - Onfilm, April 2008, Page 29, Volume 25, Number 4
Martin Blythe, 'Shock on shock' (Review of Death Warmed Up) - NZ Listener, 8 September 1984, Page 139
Moonrise press kit
'Film lands US deal'(Press Association Story). Waikato Times, 11 October 1984