Although he's a good deal younger than the first wave of directors who emerged during the ‘Kiwi renaissance' of the 1970s, Robert 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 earlier a runner up in this annual event).
Sarkies gathered like-minded individuals around him into a group that collaborated on a series of projects. The strategy of Nightmare Productions was to make short films, learning as much as possible until they could make a feature film.
With the same dogged momentum that got him his first camera, Sarkies pushed out short films of increasing artistry and sophistication. Dream Makers (1992) was followed by bad night at the cinema tale Flames From The Heart (1995). Then Sarkies and director of photography 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 was able to 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. Collaborating with his prodigiously-talented brother Duncan Sarkies on a screenplay, the two came up with a twisted yarn of crime, greed and guilt set amongst Dunedin's student community. Scarfies (1999) proved a critical and popular success, setting him up as a talent to watch.
Sarkies worked on an ambitious fantasy with Duncan, 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 Aramoana by local loner David Gray on 13 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' reviewer. It 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 NZ box office, taking over a million dollars and (as of January 2012) sitting at number 14 (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 show 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.
Late in 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 two mates whose friendship is put under fire. The film was selected for the Generation section of the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, and opened in Wellington in September of that year.
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 was based on allegations made by Louise 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 called 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 New Zealand Television Awards, including Best Feature Drama, Drama Director, Script and Actress. It was also nominated for Best TV Movie at New Zealand's Moa Film Awards and at the New York Festival.
Sarkies is also developing further feature projects. He is managing, with producer Vicky Pope, a NZ Film Commission short film pod, Big Shorts, to develop 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.
Rob Sarkies website. Accessed 18 March 2017
Tom Cardy, 'Louise Nicholas story brought to the screen' - The Dominion Post, 14 August 2014
Paul Casserly, 'Paul Casserly: Family reunion' - 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) - New York Times, 19 October 2007
Melody Thomas, 'Inverse logic' (Interview) - Capital Times, 16 - 22 March 2011, Page 5
'World Premiere in Berlin for Robert Sarkies' Two Little Boys' (Press Release) (Broken link). New Zealand Film Commission website. Loaded 13 January 2012. Accessed 17 January 2012
'Nicholas film will 'surprise, shock' - The Dominion Post, 8 April 2014