Born in Connecticut and raised near Henry David Thoreau's famed Walden Pond, Sam Pillsbury emigrated to New Zealand at the age of 14. Seven years later, he began working at the Government-owned National Film Unit, joining a group of emerging filmmakers who were investigating new subjects and styles.
Pillsbury directed seven films at the NFU, including a multi-faceted study of artist Ralph Hotere, a film about the Wahine disaster, and a satirical look at workplace relations (Men and Super Men). He was also part of the directing team on Commonwealth Games chronicle Games 74, and worked both on set and at the editing bench for Paul Maunder's high profile pregnancy drama Gone Up North for a While.
Pillsbury remembers that at that time the unit was "a sort of hideout for slackers and innovators", where one could get away with doing nothing, or else make use of the "splendid array" of film equipment. He writes about his memories of the NFU here.
Pillsbury went solo in 1975, and soon made his mark. Provocative documentary Birth with Dr. R.D.Laing questioned how the Western medical system handles childbirth, using a mixture of interviews, hospital footage, and passionate critique by the famed Scottish psychoanalyst. The film won awards on both sides of the Tasman, plus controversy in England and the United States.
Pillsbury also worked on four documentaries for TV slot Seven Days, which variously looked into life for a solo mother, an ex-convict, hospital patients, and young Māori in the city. More TV docos followed, then in 1978, Against the Lights, a Witi Ihimaera-inspired drama which examined an assault on a taxi driver from multiple points of view. Round the Bays doco The Greatest Run on Earth won awards at festivals in Chicago and Torino.
Pillsbury's feature film debut arrived in 1981 with The Scarecrow, based on the gothic novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson. For Pillsbury, the book was "about my childhood, and the country I live in: tedious, comic, bizarre; amazing, frightening, silly. I knew the places, the characters and the events, and I wanted to make them come alive. Cinema is an event, an occasion, a celebration. And here was life, its humour, its vitality and its insignificance. I wanted to celebrate that.”
The Scarecrow chronicles the arrival in a 50s town of a mysterious stranger (played by American screen legend John Carradine). In 1982 it became the first Kiwi film to win invitation to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, in the non-competitive Director's Fortnight section.
Enlivened by inspired casting, including a note-perfect narration by Martyn Sanderson, The Scarecrow later won an award for ensemble acting at Italian festival Mystfest. Guardian reviewer Derek Malcolm called it a genuine original; the American distributor renamed it Klynham Summer.
Sadly the film’s local grosses were unimpressive, although in 1985, it drew a television audience of 740,000 during a special season of Kiwi movies. Pillsbury vigorously defended accusations of sexism from Illusions writer Jo Seton, counter-arguing that The Scarecrow‘s teen characters were “in the process of joining an adult world in which nearly every male is corrupt and degenerate”.
Pillsbury then bought the rights to Craig Harrison's sci-fi novel The Quiet Earth. Having protested about nuclear-armed ships on Auckland harbour, the story's themes of apocalypse and global responsibility resonated with him. In the end though Pillsbury handed the project to director Geoff Murphy when a tax break deal forced the film into production, before Pillsbury felt the script was ready.
He would later joke at being one of the only directors who had fired himself, though he would win an NZ Film award for his part in The Quiet Earth screenplay. Instead Pillsbury helmed 1985 mini-series Heart of the High Country, about an immigrant servant (played by Scots actor Valerie Gogan) trapped in 1880s New Zealand. The project was based on the same Elizabeth Gowans novel which had previously inspired a tele-movie; the cast included Frank Whitten, Peter Bland and Elizabeth Hawthorne.
The director then segued into period road movie Starlight Hotel (1987), which featured Smash Palace discovery Greer Robson as a runaway travelling the country's backroads, alongside a young unemployed man (Australian actor Peter Phelps). Shot in just six weeks and poorly distributed, Starlight Hotel won favourable comparisons in international reviews to the evocative imagery of Days of Heaven and Paris, Texas.
Since Starlight, the self-described American-Kiwi hybrid has directed extensively, mainly on American tele-movies. He returned to Kiwi moviemaking in 2000 for Crooked Earth, the tale of a clash between two Māori: a militant drug-dealer (Lawrence Makoare), and ex military man Temuera Morrison. Variety magazine found it "handsomely mounted and compelling".
Pillsbury's other features include Free Willy sequel The Rescue (American critic Roger Ebert argued the film returned to "some of the human elements that made the first movie so good") and 2008 road movie Endless Bummer.
While shooting a television pilot in Arizona in the late 90s, the film-maker fell in love with a local. By 2000 Pillsbury and his business partner had sold their Arizona wine company Dos Cabezas to a group headed by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of band Tool. Pillsbury Wine Company was launched soon afterwards, on adjoining land to the vineyard they had just sold.
Sam Pillsbury, ''Shot at from Behind' - The Scarecrow's Director Replies' - Illusions One, Summer 1986, page 21
Roger Ebert, 'Free Willy 3: The Rescue' (Review), 8 August 1997. Accessed 8 August 2016
Andreas Heinemann, 'The Quiet Earth Interview'. Flicks.co.nz website. Accessed 8 August 2016
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Sam Pillsbury' (Catalogue) 1984
Craig Outhier, 'Arizona Wineries Thrive in the Sun' - East Valley Tribune, 6 November 2008
Jo Seton, 'Subjects of the Gaze: controlling and containing women in The Scarecrow' - Illusions One, page 18