Born at Devonport Navy base while his father was off fighting in Korea, Richard Turner describes himself as a "classic navy brat". At university, commerce studies were quickly overtaken by the arts. Turner put himself forward to learn — and perform alongside — avante-garde theatre groups Living Theatre and Red Mole. Money from Living Theatre would help fund his first film, A Fool's Song.
During an OE in London, Turner worked behind the scenes at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House. Later, alongside much smaller stage crews, he become a stage manager for ballet, opera and theatre productions as they toured New Zealand.
He then got a trainee job at Government filmmakers the National Film Unit. Though the next 18 months taught him much, Turner's diverse artistic interests were possibly not the best fit for the decades-old organisation. Thanks to some long-forgotten misdemeanour, Turner was incarcerated in an edit suite to "trawl through vast amounts of old footage". Turner wrote an article describing how NFU films were "rotting away in ex-army bunkers". Though unpopular with his superiors, the article has been claimed as helping in the push to establish better archiving of New Zealand screen material.
Long enamoured of poetry, Turner borrowed NFU equipment to make a loose trilogy of films with Ian Wedde, Russell Haley and Red Mole's Alan Brunton; he worked closely with the poets to nominate images that might accompany a recent poem. The films played at a number of international festivals. Sometimes grouped under combined title Souvenirs of Egypt, 1942, the films are Angel (Wedde), Garlic Seed (Brunton) and Weekend (Haley).
Facing little interest from the NFU, Turner secured some funding from the education department, who financed his next film, made with pioneering Māori scribe Rowley Habib (aka Rore Hapipi). Two Rivers Meet / Te Tutakinga O Nha Awa e Rua showcased a roll call of emerging Maori poets, including Habib himself, plus the then little known Keri Hulme and Apirana Taylor. Wellington's Evening Post described as "extremely powerful and moving". When broadcast by the NZ Broadcasting Corporation, executives agreed to include some contemporary Māori poetry without English subtitles.
Working through his independent company Trilogic Film Productions, Turner went on to direct Death of the Land, the first tele-play written by Maori. Habib's original play was a landmark in Māori theatre; the courtroom drama revolves around the potential sale of a block of Maori ancestral land, dramatising injustices which the playwright had debated on the legendary 1975 Land March. Death of the Land's August 1978 television debut proved timely; 222 protestors had recently been arrested at Bastion Point.
After working on an unfinished documentary about Black Power, Turner began his first feature, Squeeze. Drawn partly from the personal experiences of its cast, and almost entirely privately funded for around $100,000, Squeeze explores a young gay man's first explorations into the gay meeting spots of Auckland, and his developing relationship with a young man who plans to marry.
Squeeze played at a dozen film festivals including Berlin and London. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "sensitive and engaging". Los Angeles Times reviewer Kevin Thomas praised its compassion and authenticity, and argued the film was "perhaps the first feature anywhere to deal seriously with bisexuality".
Censorship campaigner Patricia Bartlett campaigned to MPs over Squeeze's subject matter, and the possibility the Film Commission might put money into its completion. Some argue that Bartlett's efforts resulted in a new clause to the Film Commission act, which required the commission to take account of standards of general public morality.
Turner departed soon after for Sydney, where he has continued to make television and feature films. In 1991 he directed perhaps his best known documentary, In the Shadow of a Gaol. The film layers images and modern day interviews to explore the evolution of Sydney's Darlinghurst community, it won a number of awards.
The same year he was credited as associate producer for John Malkovich romance The Object of Beauty.
In the mid 90s Turner originated and directed two low-budget features: Violet's Visit is a comedy about a teenage girl who crashes into the life of her Dad and his boyfriend; Sydney detective tale Drop Dead Gorgeous (aka Harbourside, not to be confused with the Kirsten Dunst comedy) was co-written by ex-Auckland uni colleague Martin Edmond.
In 2007 Turner co-directed (with Mary Moody) TV doco Lunch with Madame Murat, which chronicled the 100th anniversary of a family restaurant in rural France. He also worked for many years develop projects with late producer David Hannay, under the banner Vitascope Filmed Entertainment.
'Richard Turner - Director/Writer, Producer' (broken link). Vitascope Filmed Entertainment website. Accessed 26 March 2012
'Richard Turner, Sydney’. 'Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960 - 1975 Comment and Context' New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre website. Accessed 26 March 2012
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
'In the Shadow of a Gaol'. Screen Australia website. Accessed 26 March 2012
Roger Horrocks, 'The Tradition of the New - Experimental Film Making in New Zealand' in Film in Aotearoa New Zealand. Editors Jonathan Dennis and Jan Bieringa (Wellington: Victoria University Press, Second Edition 1996)
'Squeeze' Film Archive website. Loaded December 2005. Accessed 26 December 2005