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Profile image for Rob Whitehouse

Rob Whitehouse

Producer

Rob Whitehouse and Lloyd Phillips have a special place in Kiwi film history. With Battletruck (1982) and Savage Islands (1983), they were pioneers in successfully negotiating with American movie moguls to make films downunder. Though not the first case of Kiwi-US filmmaking collaboration — witness the Universal funded Under the Southern Cross, which dates back to the silent movie period — Savage Islands marks the first time New Zealanders managed to presell a movie to a Hollywood studio, before filming began.

Born in the Waikato town of Matamata, Whitehouse grew up in Tokoroa, then Auckland. It was there that he qualified as a barrister and solicitor. In the mid 1970s Whitehouse took a year out from his new career to work with director Roger Donaldson at Aardvark Films. 1980 marked the year he left his job as partner in an Auckland law firm to set up his own production company, with support from the NZ Film Commission.

Whitehouse helped out on round the bays documentary The Greatest Run on Earth, and raised funds for a series of Asian docos produced by Ian John. Whitehouse won his producing spurs with 1981’s The Scarecrow, based on Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s rite of passage tale (with American import John Carradine playing the sinister title character). In the process Whitehouse managed to persuade the Government-owned National Film Unit to climb on board for one of its rare ventures into dramatic features. The results were impressive enough to play at Cannes in the non-competitive Director's Fortnight Section, making The Scarecrow the first Kiwi film to win official selection at the prestigious film festival.

Whitehouse had been introduced to Lloyd Phillips in London, shortly before getting The Scarecrow off the ground. South African born, Kiwi raised Phillips had just graduated from England’s National Film School; the two talked for hours, with Phillips priming him for info about the renaissance in filmmaking that was gathering steam back in New Zealand. Phillips later argued of their filmmaking partnership that he was a good anticipator of problems, while Whitehouse was good at solving them.

After Phillips sent him the script for apocalyptic chase movie Battletruck, faxes and phone-calls began circling the globe. Though Whitehouse managed to secure finance in New Zealand, the key player in getting Battletruck an American release was legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman, who insisted on personally approving a number of the Americans in the cast. The film is also known by its US title, Warlords of the 21st Century.

Whitehouse and Phillips's biggest Kiwi adventure began after British studio head Barry Spikings saw Battletruck, and approached the pair about making Monty Python-er Graham Chapman's comedy Yellowbeard, in New Zealand. Though the plan was abandoned, Whitehouse's thoughts soon drifted to another seafaring figure, real-life conman Bully Hayes.

The pair got Film Commission assistance to develop a screenplay for a Hayes-inspired adventure romp. Though it was financed by a NZ bank, the pair managed to pre-sell Savage Islands to Paramount Pictures in a deal known as a 'negative pickup', where the studio pays for the film upon delivery.

Making this NZ $13 million adventure provided a crash course in logistics and negotiation — not least of which was persuading Hollywood studios and actors (including Tommy Lee Jones, who played Hayes) to sign on the dotted line for a three month shoot, far from home. Extensive location shoots (in Fiji and the upper North Island) posed many challenges, including extensive filming at sea. Interiors were largely shot in a Mangere warehouse, with post-production following in England. The project provided many Kiwi cast and crew with vital experience in making larger scale movies — including designers Dan Hennah (The Hobbit) and Rick Kofoed (River Queen), plus producers Catherine Madigan and Tim Coddington (both Mr Pip).

Though Savage Islands won a 1200 print release in the United States, the film’s box office fate was sealed by revolving doors amongst Paramount executives, and a late name change to Nate and Hayes.

Realising that government support for filmmaking was on the wane, Whitehouse and Phillips then made a rare venture into television: miniseries Heart of the High Country, which chronicled 17 years for a working class British woman who immigratwa downunder. It was financed by British network Central Television, Westpac, and TVNZ; Scarecrow helmer Sam Pillsbury directed. Playing in a primetime slot in England, it secured audiences of 10 million viewers.

From there Whitehouse and Phillips’ careers took different paths, despite a period where they shared digs in Los Angeles. Realising that Kiwi legal qualifications only took him so far, Whitehouse requalified as a lawyer in California, and quickly found himself running a production company (and raising five million pounds in funding) for an American TV producer.

In the mid 90s, after being recommended by Kiwi producer Don Reynolds, Whitehouse joined “terrific” Canadian company Alliance Atlantis. His job as managing director of international finance saw him working in Barbados, Amsterdam and sundry other locales.

From 2002 Whitehouse was based in London, financing and producing movies. These days he runs London-based Piccadilly Pictures with British producer Christopher Figg (Hellraiser, Dog Soldiers).

Among the many films Whitehouse has helped arrange funding for at Piccadilly are Stardust, which recreates David Bowie's first visit to the United States, and acclaimed Tilda Swinton drama We Need to Talk about Kevin, based on the award-winning Lionel Shriver novel about a mother and her disturbed son. The film, which Whitehouse admits was “a bit of a gamble”, was selected to compete at Cannes. He also has fond memories of the time actor Ralph Fiennes sought funding for his bloodsoaked version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus — Fiennes pitched the project “in a hypnotic one-man show" over lunch, with war footage from his laptop as background.

Piccadilly went on to work on acclaimed revenge thriller Mandy, starring Nicolas Cage, and a remake of Australian classic Storm Boy.

Piccadilly’s involvement in projects varies from finance to creative input, and Whitehouse enjoys working with promising new producers and directors. He remains proudest though of those early days making movies in New Zealand, “when we were all very young, pretty green, but had a great belief that we could do it”.

Profile updated on 3 January 2020

Sources include

Rob Whitehouse
Piccadilly Pictures website. Accessed 3 January 2020
Helen Martin and Sam Edwards, New Zealand Film 1912 - 1996 (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1997)
Sue May, 'Fast-Track Film Making' - Onfilm, June 1985, page 22 (Volume 2, Number 4)