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 "experiment to your heart's content" with 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.
Although Pillsbury had begun dabbling in drama while at the NFU, he jumped in the deep end in 1978 with Against the Lights. Based on a short story by Witi Ihimaera, it examined an assault on a taxi driver from multiple points of view. Pillsbury was energised by filming it, and challenged by making it cut together. The plan was that Against the Lights would launch a series about race relations, based on short stories. But the 18 months state television sat on the drama before screening it indicates the idea was probably a little ahead of its time. The same year, 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 1950s Kiwi 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. Ulimately Pillsbury handed the project to colleague Geoff Murphy, later joking that he was the only director to have fired himself. A tax break deal rushed the film into production before Pillsbury felt the script was ready, and he became part of fevered script sessions — and then one of the producers, doing deals with demolition companies to capture scenes of abandoned buildings before they got destroyed.
The Quiet Earth became a cult hit in the United States; Pillsbury shared a 1985 NZ Film award for helping adapt it. By then he was busy completing miniseries Heart of the High Country, about an immigrant servant (Scots actor Valerie Gogan) trapped in 1880s New Zealand. The project was based on the same Elizabeth Gowans novel which had previously inspired this 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 back roads, 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.
After making racy New Orleans drama Zandalee (1991) with Nicolas Cage, the self-described American-Kiwi hybrid began a busy decade plus period of directing, mainly on American cable and TV movies. He has helmed more than a dozen, including at least one in New Zealand (2004's Raising Waylon). Pillsbury also returned to Kiwi stories one more time for 2000's Crooked Earth, an ambitious high drama about the 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 credits also include Free Willy sequel The Rescue (critic Roger Ebert argued that the film returned to "some of the human elements that made the first movie so good") a post-apocalyptic take on Knight Rider, and his last directing slot to date, 2009 road movie Endless Bummer.
While shooting a television pilot in Arizona in the late 90s, Pillsbury 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'd just sold.
Profile updated on 16 April 2021
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) Roger Ebert website. Loaded 8 August 1997. Accessed 8 August 2016
Andreas Heinemann, 'The Quiet Earth Interview'. Flicks website. Loaded 1 April 2010. 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