Owen Hughes was born in North Wales to a Welsh father and English mother. Shortly after he turned five, his family migrated to New Zealand.
Hughes was educated at Tauranga Boys’ College, followed by three years at Auckland and Victoria Universities. Halfway through his final year of a Bachelor of Arts in English, he left to work as a negative matcher (the job involves cutting the negative during editing) at John O’Shea’s Pacific Films in Wellington.
Film had been a career ambition since the fifth form. His French teacher Gunter Warner recommended seeing nailbiting thriller The Wages of Fear. Hughes was already an avid matinee fan, but this new experience of foreign cinema proved intoxicating. "Forbidden fruit and Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies were a powerful drug, but they never matched the whiff of nitroglycerine in The Wages of Fear. That’s all it took.”
Three months after Hughes began at Pacific Films, the production manager left for a job in Australia and Hughes got promoted. "John O'Shea believed that certain physical and personality traits could predict one’s occupation," recalls Hughes. "He also identified people’s star signs as a dinner party entertainment." For Hughes, four years at Pacific Films were the equivalent of a Polish Film School. Amongst others, he worked alongside talented directors Barry Barclay and Tony Williams, and cinematographer Graeme Cowley.
Seduced by the promise of drama, Hughes then joined Downstage Theatre as a production manager (during his only stage role he crashed into the scenery, thanks to the mask he was wearing). Hughes soon discovered there was more to theatre than opening nights. His first production — The Narrow Road to the Deep North — was directed by Ian Mune.
During time in England, Hughes did two years as a production manager for commercials company Philip Bond Productions. Based in London, he managed shoots in Nigeria, Dubai, and the Indian Ocean. Despite the international travel, as a non-union worker wages in this period were usually meagre.
Back in New Zealand, Hughes renewed the Mune connection, and production managed Mune and Roger Donaldson's ambitious anthology series Winners and Losers (1976). He also managed the iconic Crunchie train robbery commercial, the first directed by Pacific Films' Tony Williams for his own production company.
This period saw a production boom which encouraged film facilities companies to build up infrastructure. Ambitious producers discovered all they needed was a telephone to be in business.
In 1977 Hughes launched Frame Up Films, initially to make TV commercials. Hughes writes here about directing the classic 'Don't Leave Town...' tourism ad, which encouraged New Zealanders to travel locally. A decade of excess followed, working for a succession of high profile clients. It all came to an end with the stock market crash of 1987, which heralded a major change in direction.
Hughes helped produce Greg Stitt short film Just Me and Mario and production managed Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table, before reestablishing Frame Up as a documentary and drama house. Over the next decade he produced seven one hour dramas (many played in TV One's Sunday Theatre slot), three half-hours, several shorts and 40+ documentaries. Many were made with fellow producer Rachel Jean.
In the early 1990s Hughes began collaborating with director Niki Caro (Whale Rider). He produced many of Caro's attention-grabbing early works, including TV dramas The Summer the Queen Came and Plain Tastes, offbeat documentary Footage and short film Sure to Rise. Hughes has written about all four for NZ On Screen (see the Background tab of each title). He considers Plain Taste a watershed in Caro's career. In this piece about The Summer the Queen Came, he highlights Caro's flair for "normalising eccentricity" and "humanising the bizarre and banal". After Sure to Rise was nominated for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival, Hughes and Caro returned to France for their debut feature, relationship drama Memory and Desire. It was selected for Critics' Week in 1998.
Hughes has also worked with other emerging directors. He produced award-winning TV plays Home Movie (written and directed by Fiona Samuel) and Overnight (directed by future Emmy nominee Jessica Hobbs), and later Sally Tran's debut feature, Timeslow.
Since 2000, Hughes has concentrated increasingly on non-fiction. As well as producing a number of contributions to arts series Artsville, he directed 2007 Artsville documentary Out of Darkness: Out of India, a study of Kiwi-Indian painter Prakash Patel and his divided heritage.
In 2010, conscious that the 2015 centenary of Anzac Day was likely to be a magnet to filmmakers, Hughes began reading up on 100 years of armed conflicts involving New Zealand and Australia. Deciding that a joint perspective to the topic might be both appropriate and uncommon, he wrote to "quintessential trans-Tasman citizen" Sam Neill, and proposed a documentary looking at Anzac history through the lens of Neill's own family. The result was 2015's acclaimed Anzac: Tides of Blood (Australian title Why Anzac). The feature-length documentary was a co-production between Frame Up and Aussie company Essential Media.
Neill and Hughes reconvened for 2018 TV series Uncharted with Sam Neill (aka The Pacific: In the Wake of Captain Cook with Sam Neill). Winner of an NZ Television Award for Best Factual Series, the show sees Neill following Cook's route around the Pacific, and hearing the thoughts of both Cook-lovers and Cook-haters. Hughes produced the six episodes, and was one of the writers.
Earlier (in 2002) Hughes went back to university part-time, to complete a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in film. He also completed his masters thesis, 'What is a Screenplay?', which used the example of Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck to examine the relationship between a script and the completed film.
Hughes has been a writer and producer on theatre and performance projects as part of Auckland's Neko Theatre Company, which he founded with actor Yuri Kinugawa. He has been a member of the NZ Film Commission’s short film panel, a shareholder and director of Onfilm magazine, an executive member of SPADA and spent two years as chairman of the society running the NZ Film and Television Awards.
Profile updated on 8 October 2020
Owen Hughes, 'The Summer the Queen Came - A Perspective' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 1 April 2014. Accessed 8 October 2020
Renee Liang, 'Dominion Rd: Walk Eat Talk' (Interview) The Big Idea website. Loaded 13 March 2013. Accessed 17 September 2020
Melenie Parkes, 'Uncharted: Sam Neill explores Captain Cook's travels from both sides of the beach' (Interview) - TV Guide, 23 August 2018
Anzac: Tides of Blood press kit