Robin Laing has worked as a producer on everything from haunted car tale Mr Wrong to pool movie Stickmen. She has worked on documentaries and dramas — her longtime interest in telling Kiwi stories is evident in Sonja Davies miniseries Bread & Roses and WWII tale Absent Without Leave.
Laing's 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), as well as Bread & Roses for television. Laing was also part of the producing team on Preston's documentary War Stories, madcap comedy Send a Gorilla (1988) and Niki Caro's adaptation of The Vintner's Luck (2009).
As a child, Laing moved around Aotearoa a lot — her father worked for a bank. She was a "huge film fan", and her dad sometimes berated her for wasting money by watching films twice. After studying history and a spell as a librarian, Laing drifted into film thanks to her dressmaking skills, working on costumes and props for adverts. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1983 she met Preston and discovered they had much in common — including having worked at the same film company and gone to high school in Hawke's Bay.
Women producers were then a rarity in New Zealand. Applying for NZ Film Commission funding for their debut feature, Mr Wrong, Preston and Laing were told to come back with a man.“They really just couldn’t cope with the fact that there were two women who’d come to the table, and were really worried that we didn’t know what we were doing," said Laing in this 2012 video interview."Of course that made us more determined, because the one thing that Gaylene and I both have is this kind of determination and contrariness."
Elsewhere, Laing described the relationship as "like an open marriage — we have our own companies, we can do what we like and we can work for other people as well".
Mr Wrong's mixture of rain machines, night shoots and ghosts would have tested any first-time producer — especially when the budget was suddenly lowered further, after promised private funding fell through. Facing disinterest from local distributors — despite sellout screenings at the 1983 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. Under its American title Dark of Night, the movie won praise from critic Judith Crist as "a dandy little thriller".
Preston and Laing moved on to chalk and cheese tale Ruby and Rata (1990), 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. The production purchased the film's key location, a house in Mount Albert in Auckland, selling it off at a profit after filming.
Bread and Roses (1993) was even more challenging to produce. Made for television and shot in 14 weeks on a $4 million budget, the four-parter dramatises the formative experiences of social activist and politician Sonja Davies (played by Australian actor Geneviève Picot). Laing talks about the challenges of filming a period piece in this making of documentary (read more about Bread and Roses here).
In the early 90s, having been offered a number of projects that were too long to be short films and too short to be feature films, Laing came up with the idea of an anthology series for television. The dramas ultimately screened in primetime on Work of Art and Montana Sunday Theatre. They consisted of Married (directed by Preston), Mother Tongue (Shereen Maloney), Matrons of Honour (Pat Robins), Xmas for Lou (Kate Jason-Smith), and a version of classic play Joyful and Triumphant (Peter Sharp).
Laing has worked on a number of documentaries, often arts related, often alongside 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.
Laing faced a "huge challenge" in 2009 with Kiwi-French co-production The Vintner's Luck. The romantic fantasy tells the tale of a French peasant winemaker and the three loves of his life. Just before shooting began in France and New Zealand the exchange rate dropped dramatically, forcing the team of producers to cut the 10-week shoot to eight. This presented "a very scary proposition, with day after day of animals and children on-set, and no weather cover." But Laing and the crew pulled it off (except for a "hero ox", which broke away after being nipped by a dog in France, sending crew and locals running for cover).
In 2018, alongside first-time director Rebecca Tansley, Laing produced The Heart Dances. The feature-length documentary followed the creation of a ballet based on movie The Piano. Laing went on to co-produce Poppy, the first feature directed by Second-Hand Wedding co-writer Linda Niccol. Set for release in May 2021, the film follows a car-mad teenager keen for independence and a shot at love. It's the first Kiwi feature to cast an actor (Libby Hunsdale) with Down syndrome in the starring role.
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 Film Festival), Anna Reeves (The Imploding Self, in competition at Toronto and Venice) and Brita McVeigh (Thinking about Sleep, Edinburgh).
Laing is a founding member and president of organisation Women in Film and Television (WIFT). She instigated an annual Robin Laing Scholarship for women filmmakers, and helped found the NZ Film School in Wellington. Laing has also been part of the Screen Industry Task Force, a NZ Film Commission board member, a trustee of the NZ Film Archive (now Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision), part of 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.
Profile updated on 17 November 2022
'Robin Laing: Producing our stories...' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 5 November 2012. Accessed 18 May 2021
Mike Houlahan, 'Portrait from Life' (Interview with Gaylene Preston) - The Evening Post, 10 July 1993
Ann Packer, 'How Wet Met' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 5 February 2004, page D4
Unknown writer, 'Laing's Hard Graft' (Interview) - TAKE, Summer 2010, page 9