Although he's a good deal younger than the first wave of directors who emerged during the ‘Kiwi renaissance' of the 1970s, Rob Sarkies shares a good deal of the same pioneer spirit. Clues to the pragmatic yet visionary approach of this filmmaker can be seen in his childhood attempts to procure the means of production.
Sarkies was born and raised in Dunedin. Aged about 10 or 11, he realised he needed to own equipment in order to explore his love of photography and drama. But even a modest camera was a huge expense for a kid whose family wasn't wealthy. So Sarkies saved 50 cents of his lunch money each day, and after 18 months he had his first camera.
Sarkies learned a vital lesson early: success is down to goals, discipline, and hard work. His cinematic education was practical too. Like many of his contemporaries, he was inspired to take part in the annual film competition run by television kids show Spot On (Peter Jackson was an earlier entrant in this annual event).
Sarkies gathered like-minded Dunedinites around him into a group that collaborated on a series of projects. The strategy of Nightmare Productions was to make short films and learn as much as possible until they could create their own feature film.
With the same dogged momentum that got him his first camera, Sarkies pushed out short films of increasing artistry and sophistication. The fantastical Dream-Makers (1992) was followed by bad night at the cinema tale Flames From The Heart (1995). Next Sarkies and cinematographer Stephen Downes sunk tens of thousands of dollars into comical adventure Signing Off (1996). The tale of an ageing DJ who shows impressive dedication to his listeners won Sarkies international attention, including first prize at the prestigious Montreal World Film Festival.
Sarkies could start making a living doing what he loved, albeit directing commercials. But the dream of realising a feature film in hometown Dunedin had not gone away. Rob and his prodigiously-talented brother, writer Duncan Sarkies, came up with a twisted yarn of crime, grass, greed and guilt set in Dunedin's student community. Scarfies (1999) was a critical and popular success, setting the Sarkies up as talents to watch.
The brothers worked on a fantasy script, but the project languished in development purgatory. When a feature opportunity knocked a second time, Sarkies was ready. Out of the Blue (adapted by Sarkies and Graeme Tetley from Bill O'Brien's non-fiction book), was a dramatisation of New Zealand's largest mass-murder: the slaying of 13 residents in the seaside town of Aramoana by David Gray, in November 1990.
The maturity of vision Sarkies brought to bear on his sophomore feature is startling when one sees the progress from Scarfies, let alone the playful experimentation of his early shorts. The film generated critical acclaim. "An inspiring film on a bleak subject, an account of everyday people who struggle to protect their loved ones from horror", wrote The New York Times' Matt Soller Zeitz. The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in the Discovery section.
Perhaps surprisingly, given its bleak subject matter, Out of the Blue was a success at the Kiwi box office, taking over a million dollars and spending time in the top 20 (just behind Scarfies) on the all time Kiwi hit list.
Sarkies spent much of 2009 working on TV series This is Not My Life, having been won over by the originality and complexity of Rachel Lang and Gavin Strawhan's script. The thriller is based around a man (Charles Mesure) who wakes up and can't remember his own name, nor the existence of his wife and children. After debuting in July 2010, This is Not My Life won multiple awards at the Aotearoa Film And Television Awards, including Best Drama Programme.
In late 2010 Sarkies headed south to shoot his third feature. Shot in Invercargill and the Catlins, black comedy Two Little Boys is based on the novel of the same name by Duncan Sarkies. Bret McKenzie and Australian Hamish Blake (from comic duo Hamish and Andy) play mates whose strained friendship is put under fire. The film was selected for the Generation section of the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.
Before scriptwriter Graeme Tetley passed away in 2011, he and Sarkies had began research and interviews for another project based on real-life events. Telemovie Consent - The Louise Nicholas Story was based on allegations made by Nicholas that she had been raped by four police officers. The final script was written by Fiona Samuel.
Though truth was a touchstone for the project, Sarkies admitted that "there are at least four people who will deny, and have denied publicly and in court, enormous aspects of this story, but we were looking for what felt like the truth to us, what resonated as the truth to us and what felt like a human truth". When the Moa-nominated telefeature screened in a Sunday night slot in August 2014, Herald reviewer Paul Casserly found it a "pitch perfect retelling".
November 2017 saw the television debut of Jean, with Kate Elliott playing pioneering pilot Jean Batten. The telefilm took away all twelve of its nominations at the 2017 NZ Television Awards, including Best Feature Drama, Drama Director, Script and Actress. It was nominated for Best TV Movie at both New Zealand's Moa Film Awards and the New York Festival. Sarkies went on to direct Elliott in episodes of 2019 crime thriller The Gulf.
Earlier Sarkies managed, with producer Vicky Pope, a NZ Film Commission short film 'pod', Big Shorts, aimed at developing emerging Kiwi filmmaking talent.
Sarkies doesn't have to skip lunch to get what he needs any more. The drive and determination that characterise his filmmaking achievements to date will no doubt result in more to come.
Profile updated on 14 December 2020
Rob Sarkies website. Accessed 14 December 2020
'Rob Sarkies: three movies and two little boys' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 18 September 2012. Accessed 14 December 2020
Tom Cardy, 'Louise Nicholas story brought to the screen' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 14 August 2014
Paul Casserly, 'Paul Casserly: Family reunion' (Review of Consent) - The NZ Herald, 18 August 2014
Nick Dawson, 'Robert Sarkies, Out of the Blue' (Interview) - Filmmaker Magazine, 19 October 2007
Matt Zoller Seitz, 'A Rampage that shook New Zealand' (Review of Out of the Blue) - The New York Times, 19 October 2007
Melody Thomas, 'Inverse logic' (Interview) - Capital Times, 16 March 2011, page 5
'World Premiere in Berlin for Robert Sarkies' Two Little Boys' (Press Release) 13 January 2012
'Nicholas film will 'surprise, shock' - The Dominion Post, 8 April 2014