Active in New Zealand’s film industry since the 1970s, Pat Robins became increasingly aware of the need to add a female perspective to local stories. She has gone on to direct both short films and TV dramas.
Pat's daughter Robin Murphy — another industry veteran — has described her as an unsung hero of the local screen industry, and "the original super mum". Said Robin: "She started out supporting her former husband, Geoff Murphy, on his films, combining roles as production manager, costumier and caterer, while simultaneously taking care of her growing family."
Brought up in Wellington (aside from "five years in the country"), Pat Robins attended St Mary’s College. At 20, she married Murphy. Bruno Lawrence and John Charles, two of Murphy’s key collaborators, married her sisters Veronica and Judy. It was Robins who introduced Murphy to cinematographer Alun Bollinger.
Robins occasionally ended up on-screen herself. In 1970 she played wife to Bruno's character in Time Out. Mixing documentary and drama, the teleplay featured real-life police trailing a fictional prison escapee. Lawrence's role as an unhelpful accomplice won him a Feltex Best Actor Award, which caused some annoyance from the acting establishment. In the same period Robins was helping out on Geoff Murphy's earliest ventures into filmmaking, including wardrobe and catering, and appearing in the opening scenes of early short film Hurry Hurry Faster Faster. She was also helping keep the family above water, by driving taxis and bar work.
In late 1971 the Murphy family were part of the first tour by Blerta, the legendary music and performance extravaganza initiated by Bruno Lawrence. According to Robins, Lawrence's proposal went like this: "Let’s get on a bus, get on the road and take the family with us. Who’s in?"
"It was a bit startling", Robins told website B-Side Stories. "This colourful bus would roll into town and people would say, how are we going to get rid of these hippies?” She sees Blerta as part of a wider attitudinal change — helping show that Kiwi artists could stay and create quality art and music, instead of having to go overseas as had often happened previously. Asked what she learnt from the Blerta experience, she answered drily: “Don’t make schnitzel for 50 people.”
In October 1972, the Murphys joined the Bollinger and Sanderson families, and settled in the Hawke’s Bay settlement of Waimarama. Their joint property later became the base for further Blerta tours — plus scenes from a madcap 1976 Blerta TV series.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, local movies began to be made in ever increasing numbers. Robins worked in production manager and wardrobe roles on classics like Murphy's Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu, plus Middle Age Spread and Mr Wrong. But she was realising that there were "other stories out there: women's stories".
"Production management is a very important job, but it is a frustrating sort of job," Robins told Illusions. Growing in the back of her head was the idea that instead of being a support person, she might take on more creative roles. "Also there was a growing awareness that most of the stuff I had worked on, the women took a back seat; men were making stories about their aspirations and feelings. It was pretty obvious there was an imbalance there, and a growing awareness that women's stories were important too."
Robins’ directorial debut was the $17,000 short Instincts (1985), written by Helen Bollinger. Initially Robins only applied for funding to complete the film to fine-cut stage, "because I thought I might make a terrible stuff-up". Starring Judy McIntosh, the 20-minute drama explored gender politics and "the whole 70s hippy ethic" of free love — which Robins called "bloody nice for the blokes", but a different story for the women. Making it "was the best fun. I thought, wow, why wasn’t I doing this before?"
Two years later, Robins directed half-hour drama O’Reilly’s Luck, on a $160,000 budget. The film reflected Robins' belief that "real people are actually much more interesting" than the glamorous, larger than life figures on TV. Drawing from an outline by her son Paul, Robins wrote the script with Gaylene Preston and Tama Poata. The film revolves around a young Māori woman, a talented snooker player who literally finds herself playing for the family farm. Newcomer Poina Te Hiko played the lead role, with Bruno Lawrence as her gambling father. The crew included many of Robins’ extended family and friends.
After her daughter Robin showed O’Reilly’s Luck to a producer, she was invited to direct an episode of Canadian-Kiwi anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre. 'The Lake' involved a man returning to the lake where his childhood sweetheart died long before. Robins took on the job "on the understanding that you were working as a director in consultation with them, but you never had final say over the script or the final cut. I don't think The Lake is as good as O'Reilly's Luck by any means, but it will be seen by millions more people".
Robins’ 1992 teleplay Matrons of Honour explores relationships in the twilight of one’s life. Dorothy McKegg plays a woman who finds romance in her 60s, then wonders if it was worth it. The film was scripted by Sue McCauley (Other Halves). Robins revisited the subject of old age in short film Dying Light, (2000), the story of a strong-willed elderly woman struggling with dementia. It was invited to a number of international festivals. Robins also directed a couple of short films while tutoring drama students in Havelock North in the 1990s.
Robins continued to work on screen projects well into the 2010s, usually as script supervisor (aka continuity). Her work in this role includes The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Shopping, and Christchurch quake drama Hope and Wire, directed by frequent collaborator Gaylene Preston.
In 2014 Robins raised $10,000 on website Boosted to fund black comedy Food For Thought, based on Sue McCauley's short story Assassin Bug. It was nominated for Best Self-Funded Short at the 2017 Moa Awards. In typical Robins style, the crew included all five of her children. The subject matter was dear to her heart: the everyday lives of women, and the humour and tenacity they use to get by in a man’s world.
"Worldwide, only eight percent of film directors are women", Robins argued in 2014. "That’s another reason why more women should be out there telling their stories."
Profile written and researched by Julie Hill; updated on 28 July 2021
Nick Bollinger, 'Bruno Lawrence: Bruno did his thing' (Revised Version) Originally published in The Listener, 1 July 1995, Revised in 2009
Talia Carlisle, 'Robins’ next short film turning into real family affair' (Interview) - The Wellingtonian, 24 July 2014
Laurie Foon, 'Pat Robins - great films from a great grandmother' (Audio interview) B-Side Stories website. Loaded 16 July 2014. Accessed 28 July 2021
Douglas Jenkin, 'Reel People' (Interview) - The Listener, 19 August 1989, page 29
Deborah Shephard, 'A Decent Sense of Outrage: Gaylene Preston - Film Director' (Christchurch: Canterbury Educational Printing Services, 2011)
Heather Worth, 'An Interview with Pat Robins', Illusions 3, Spring 1986, page 26
Heather Worth, 'Pat Robins - Instincts', Illusions 3, Spring 1986, page 24
Unknown writer, 'Short film about dementia' (broken link) Alzheimer's NSW Library website. Loaded 19 July 2013. Accessed 10 November 2014