Paul Swadel’s experience of the screen industry crossed the gamut. Alongside time as a producer and development executive, he directed successful shorts, music videos, commercials and shows about the arts.
Swadel studied film at Canterbury University, then graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Arts (with First Class Honours) from Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts.
Fascinated by the visual possibilities of film, video, and found footage, Swadel had begun collaborating with his younger brother Marc. Under the moniker the Swad Bros, the two worked on music videos, commercials and experimental films. Another short, abstract relationship piece A Little Death (co-directed by Swadel and Simon Perkins) was nominated for Best Short Film at the 1995 New Zealand Film and TV Awards. Pavement magazine found it “an uncommonly brave and passionate piece of filmmaking that stays in the mind long after it’s been seen”.
Accidents (2000) won screenings at multiple festivals, from Stockholm to Melbourne to Clermont-Ferrand in France. Its nominations for Best Short Film included Venice. Based on a story by author John Cranna, Accidents chronicled escalating bad vibes on a remote construction site. The powerhouse cast included Marton Csokas, Rawiri Paratene, and the late Frank Whitten.
Elsewhere, Swadel was applying his directing talents to music videos (including a number for Auckland group Cicada) and adverts (including award-winning work for Sony, and a globally screened PlayStation series).
Swadel also made his mark in the field of arts-related programming. Documentary Colin McCahon: I Am was judged Best Documentary at the 2005 Qantas Television Awards; Swadel was nominated for his direction at that years NZ Screen Awards. The same year he directed The Understudy, which went behind the scenes at the New York Metropolitan opera. In 2008 arts show The Big Picture won Best Factual Series at the Qantas Film and Television Awards. The six-episode series saw longtime arts guru Hamish Keith presenting a personal view of the history of New Zealand art.
Swadel first met animator James Cunningham while both were studying at Elam. After the two formed production company Supercollider, Swadel would go on to produce a run of Cunningham's films, starting with Delf in 1997. By going directly to cinema owners, Swadel managed to secure screenings for both Delf and Blinder— unlocking NZ Film Commission funding to create 35mm prints of both films.
The pair struck creative gold with digital robbery tale Infection (2000), which won many awards globally, and was invited to Cannes and Sundance. Later Swadel was able to contribute his directing experience to support of Cunningham’s award-winning World War I film Poppy, which moved on from starring computer programmes as main characters, to digitally-rendered humans. As Swadel put it, Cunningham’s desire was to use CGI “to pare everything back to a desolate landscape, to focus right in close on our two main characters, and allow the actors to lead.” Poppy was intended to demonstrate that the pair could pull off a proposed CGI feature, Marshal. The two also taught together at Auckland's Media Design School, where Swadel was a Senior Lecturer for the Bachelor of Arts and Design.
Swadel also produced short films for other directors, including Gregory King (Junk) and Jonathan Brough (No Ordinary Sun). In 2005, under the moniker Headstrong Ltd, he was part of a trio of producers given NZ Film Commission funds to develop digital features, including King's award-winning A Song of Good — which later won publicity after briefly being available free online — and comical stuntman tale The Devil Dared Me To.
Swadel spent time as a NZ Film Commission development executive — where he had a major hand in establishing the Escalator low-budget feature scheme — before returning to filmmaking in 2011. He passed away on 18 March 2016 at age 47, after a long battle with illness.
Profile updated on 31 March 2020
'Digital Filmmaking: Poppy art' (Interview with James Cunningham and Paul Swadel) - Onfilm, July 2009
Poppy Press Kit
Unknown Writer, 'A Small Death' (Review) - Pavement Magazine, 1995