One of Riccardo Pellizzeri’s many favourite quotes comes from an interview with Hill Street Blues co-creator, producer Steven Bochco: “surround yourself with really smart people who disagree with you”. Pellizzeri takes this to mean that it's always good to have someone smarter around to save you.
Pellizzeri was born in Sydney, the son of Italian immigrants. Never the "Anglo kid, or the surfer", he spoke Italian at home and this sense of being from two worlds made him an observer, and honed his desire to tell stories.
At school he showed an ability with language, and joined the debating team. The stage was the unexpected next step, and the opportunity arrived like a beat in a soap opera. After an actor in Richard II fell ill, his debating coach approached him and said "Pellizzeri, you can talk underwater, you're in the play”.
Pellizzeri remembers the sensation of standing on stage and soaking it in. His conclusion? "Pretty cool...but I knew I didn’t want to be an actor.” Yet the theatre still attracted him. He was studying English and Drama at Sydney's Macquarie University when Hayes Gordon, founder of long-running local theatre company Ensemble Theatre, gave a guest speech. Pellizzeri was so inspired, he studied with the company after leaving university. He followed the drama bug overseas, attending drama school in the UK and working as a stage manager at legendary British theatre companies Bristol Old Vic and London Old Vic, after serving a student apprenticeship at the National Theatre.
Looking for a new direction, he headed home. Following a friend’s advice, he joined the ABC TV channel, where Pellizzeri was chosen to train as a director and producer. His first directing credit was on music drama Sweet and Sour (1984). Over the next decade, he directed on everything from the very first, feature-length pilot of Home and Away, to acclaimed depression-era drama Palace of Dreams. In 1994 he joined new police series Blue Heelers. The series proved a hit and from 1995 to 1997 he stayed on as supervising producer, and from 1998-2000 executive producer. In total Pellizzeri helped produce over 300 episodes of the highly popular Aussie police drama, which over the years garnered a host of Logie awards.
In 2001 he joined the team as series producer on new legal drama MDA (Medical Defense Australia). The show's debut season was nominated for Best Television Drama at the 2002 AFI awards.
Next up was a tenure at perhaps the best known Aussie soap, Neighbours. Pellizzeri was executive producer from 2002 to 2007, and has deep admiration for the team behind the Neighbours machine. “It’s a massive story monster always needing to be fed," he says. "We had really talented story editors and writers who had to generate countless stories per week. I’ve no doubt Charles Dickens would have been a soap story editor if he was around today”.
By this stage of his career Pellizzeri had produced or directed over 400 hours of TV drama. In 2005 he became Head of Drama at FreemantleMedia; from 2008 to 2009 he was the company's Drama Development Producer.
In 2011 he started a rich working relationship with Kiwi/Australian production company Screentime, and in particular with its Head of Production and Managing Director, Philly de Lacey. Pellizzeri is effusive about the high quality of ideas that de Lacy and Screentime explore as a company, and the chance they gave him to flex his directing muscles again. “Philly is incredibly daring in what she puts out there...working with her is a case of wondering what the next challenge will be.”
Pellizzeri started his Screentime run in 2011 as a producer and director on the fast-paced UnderBelly NZ - Land of the Long Green Cloud, followed rapidly by his work producing Siege (2012). The telefilm recounts the 50 hour stand-off between New Zealand police and Napier man Jan Molenaar in 2009. Siege collected five New Zealand TV awards, including Best One-Off Drama. Pellizzeri felt invigorated by working in New Zealand, a fact bought home to him when he returned to Australia in 2012 to produce AFI-nominated telefilm Carlotta.
“I was sitting there in an office staring at a car park, facing piles of contracts and paperwork, and thinking this is not much fun.”
Screentime continued their run of acclaimed New Zealand telefilms with 2014 black comedy How to Murder Your Wife, which Pellizeri directed and co-produced. A dramatised re-telling of a puzzling 1977 Wellington murder case, the story zipped between sedate suburbia and Wellington’s red-light scene. "I don't think anyone would have made it in Australia. Black comedies don't excite networks. I just think projects in New Zealand are far more daring, courageous and adventurous.”
At the 2015 New York International Film Festival, How to Murder Your Wife saw Pellizzeri nominated for best director, and the telefilm won three awards, including Best International Comedy, Best International Telefilm and Best Supporting Actor (Geraldine Brophy).
The run of Kiwi stories continues. In 2015 he worked on Screentime’s The Monster of Mangatiti. The doco-drama mixed scripted re-enactments (directed by Pellizzeri) and interview material (directed by Philly de Lacey) to chronicle the ordeal of Heather Walsh, who in the early 80s was held captive at a remote farm and repeatedly physically and mentally abused by self-styled bushman Bill Cornelius. NZ Herald reviewer Alex Casey praised The Monster of Mangatiti for showing "just how powerful and fearless telefeatures can be" — and for proving "that you can still work within the doco-drama genre to give the story the respect it deserves”.
Screentime brought another tragedy to television screens in October 2016; Pellizzeri directed and co-produced NZ Televison award nominee Bombshell, which revisited events before and after the 1984 bombing of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior, a crime that had significant political and national ramifications.
Pellizzeri went on to another Kiwi project involving crime and punishment: mini-series Dear Murderer, based around the life and times of legendary criminal defence lawyer (and author) Mike Bungay QC. Again the historical lens is set to New Zealand in the 70s and 80s, when Bungay fought his most famous cases. Pellizzeri says he is revelling in the rich material it offers: "Wigs and gowns, issues of crime and murder...and the fact that the legal outcome isn’t always or exactly the ‘just’ one. Bungay believed the people he defended had the most to lose, so they needed the best defence.”
Pellizzeri has never doubted he was in the right career. “I’ve become a storyteller. That, in the end, is what’s important to me. It’s a great right brain / left brain career...it tests every part of me in very different ways, and continues to do so every day.”
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell
Jane Bowron. ‘How to Murder Your Wife wins with superb cast’ (Review) Stuff website. Loaded 21 August 2015. Accessed 21 November 2016
Alex Casey, ‘Harrowing tale gets powerful treatment’ (Review of The Monster of Mangatiti) - The NZ Herald, 9 September 2015
Ian Pryor, 'Philly de Lacey' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 16 July 2014. Accessed 21 November 2016
Rhys, 'Interviews > Ric Pellizzeri' Neighbours- The Perfect Blend website. Loaded 13 March 2004. Accessed 21 November 2016
Chloe Winter, ‘Filming begins on drama series about famous Wellington lawyer Mike Bungay’ Stuff website. Loaded 19 October 2016. Accessed 21 November 2016