Over a busy career Robin Laing has worked as a producer on everything from haunted car tale Mr Wrong to boys' own pool movie Stickmen. Her longtime interest in telling Kiwi stories has been in evidence in Sonja Davies mini-series Bread & Roses and WWII tale Absent Without Leave. Aside from an extended collaboration with director Gaylene Preston, Laing has operated equally successfully as an independent producer. She has produced six features, three short films, five television dramas and seven TV documentaries.
Her slate of feature films includes three produced for Gaylene Preston — Mr Wrong (1985), comedy Ruby and Rata (1990) and Sam Neill thriller Perfect Strangers (2003). Laing was also part of the producing team on War Stories, madcap gorilla-gram comedy Send a Gorilla (1988) and Niki Caro's adaptation of The Vintner's Luck (2009), shot in France, Belgium and New Zealand.
After studying history and a spell as a librarian, Laing began drifting into film thanks to her dressmaking skills, working on costumes and props for commercials. While visiting the Cannes Film Festival she met Preston, and discovered they had much in common. Women producers were then a rarity in New Zealand. Applying for NZ Film Commission funding for their feature debut, Mr Wrong, Preston and Laing were told to come back with a man.
The film's mixture of night shoots, rain machines and ghosts made it a challenging project to produce on a low budget - especially when the budget was suddenly lowered still further, after promised private funding fell through. Facing disinterest from local distributors, despite sellout screenings at the Wellington Film Festival, Laing and Preston rented a cinema themselves, successfully finding an audience for a tale that upended genre cliches of the helpless woman. Mr Wrong also sold to many overseas territories. In the United States, retitled as Dark of Night, critic Judith Crist praised the performances and called it "a dandy little thriller".
Preston and Laing's next feature film outing was chalk and cheese tale Ruby and Rata, a project first brought to them by a frequent collaborator, writer Graeme Tetley. The tale of an unlikely friendship between an elderly woman (Yvonne Lawley) and the son of a solo mother who lives downstairs, the film won strong local audiences, and four NZ film awards. Having bought the car which features in Mr Wrong, the production now purchased the film's key location, a house in Mount Albert, selling it off at a profit after filming.
Follow-up Bread & Roses arguably proved even more challenging to produce, thanks to the many locations and actors required. Made for television, the three-parter dramatises the formative experiences of social activist and politician Sonja Davies (Australian actor Genevieve Picot).
Laing had previously worked on a number of other documentaries, often arts related, and often working with director Shirley Horrocks. Horrocks' documentary Flip & Two Twisters, about legendary kinetic artist Len Lye, was selected for the 1994 Paris Biennale. Judy Rymer's Victory Over Death, about artist Colin McMahon, won gold at the 1989 Chicago International Film Festival.
Keen to work with emerging filmmakers — and a longtime fan of short films— Laing has also produced shorts with directors Christine Jeffs (Stroke, invited to the Venice Fim Festival), Anna Reeves (The Imploding Self, in competition at Toronto and Venice) and Brita McVeigh (Thinking about Sleep, Edinburgh).
In the early 90s, having been offered a number of projects that were too long to be short films, Laing came up with the idea of an anthology series for television. Ultimately screened in two different slots, including as the first Kiwi entries on the Montana Sunday Theatre series, the dramas comprised relationship stories Married (director Gaylene Preston), Mother Tongue (Shereen Maloney), Matrons of Honour (Pat Robins), fractured family tale Xmas for Lou (Kate Jason-Smith), and an adaptation of Robert Lord play Joyful and Triumphant.
Laing is a founding member and president of organisation Women in Film and Television (WIFT). She instigated the annual Robin Laing Scholarship for a woman filmmaker to attend the Film School in Wellington. She has also been a member of the Screen Industry Task Force, the board of the NZ Film Commission, a trustee of the New Zealand Film Archive, on the SPADA Executive, and a consultant producer for the Short Film Fund.
In 1993 she was honoured with an MBE for services to the New Zealand film industry.
After a spell working on contract for the NZ Film Commission, Laing continues to develop scripts.
Profile updated on 13 May 2019
'Producing our stories...' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor (Uploaded 5 November 2012). Accessed 13 May 2019