Steve La Hood fell for filmmaking while studying theatre. Since then he has directed an ambitious documentary about Bruno Lawrence, produced a groundbreaking TV series which dared to put female characters at centre stage, and co-founded a visitor attractions company that has taken him around the globe.
Wellington-raised La Hood originally signed up for drama studies at Victoria University. But there was only so much drama one could study in early 70s New Zealand; La Hood exited stage right for 18 months of masters studies at California’s Humboldt State University. Then a man entered the lecture theatre, carrying a bag of jumbled film clips. The students were asked to edit it into something that made some sense.
Making stories on screen reminded La Hood of the electric train sets he used to fool around with: “hundreds of little pieces that make something extraordinary.” La Hood was struck by how filmmaking was precise and bound by rules, yet limitless in terms of being able to jump locations, and points of view.
Attempts to find his own space in television went nowhere — at least until Director General of TV Alan Morris complimented La Hood on his skills as a waiter. La Hood replied that he’d be much more useful in a television studio. A week later he’d left his restaurant job, and started work in a gofer’s job as a TVA, a TV assistant.
After training up as a floor manager and assistant director, he was soon rehearsing and blocking scenes for soap Close to Home. Aware of La Hood’s directing ambitions, Close to Home director Brian Lennane more than once found himself called from the studio by an unexpected nose bleed, so his young protege could take a turn at the controls.
Close to Home’s first producer was Kiwi TV legend Tony Isaac. La Hood remembers Isaac’s welcoming, “approachable aura” and his 24/7 work habits. When Isaac set out on the once in a lifetime production that was The Governor, La Hood was “sucked along” for the ride as an assistant director.
La Hood would gain valuable filmmaking skills during time spent in TVNZ’s documentary unit, although he got there via an unusual route. While directing on Close to Home, he’d been asked to write up summaries of the events that had happened to the show’s characters, to see if they had further mileage in them. Soon after La Hood handed in his report, three characters met untimely ends. It was judged opportune if he was elsewhere for a while.
The prescribed career path at TVNZ for directors was to do some producing as well. La Hood’s Opo the dolphin idea was nixed (later it became this 1991 dramatised documentary); not so The Marching Girls (1987), created by young actor/writer Fiona Samuel. The drama series was about “a marching girls team in their 20s who should have given up years ago”. The style was partly influenced by recent hits like Auf Wiedersehen Pet, “where you could tell a really gut-wrenching visceral story through comedy. We were trying to do that from a feminist point of view.”
Joining the all women team of writers and script editors, La Hood signed up two female directors (plus some male). But in an age when “television was very male-dominated”, having women creatives involved in a story about women saw tensions rising. After La Hood took the (admittedly unusual) step of inviting the show’s creator to rushes (regular screenings of footage), Fiona Samuel protested that the male director had shifted the focus to the male character, in a storyline about a woman dealing with a violent husband. La Hood sided with Samuel, and demanded reshoots.
After programmers dawdled on when to screen the completed series, La Hood had seen enough; he decided to go freelance. But he was gratified when The Marching Girls won acclaim. “That justified it all for me in the end.”
La Hood went on to direct episodes of Country GP and police show Shark in the Park, and worked with talented newbie Craig Parker on kid’s adventure series Hotshotz. In the 90s, he began doing more documentary work, in between the dozen episodes of Shortland Street he was directing each year. There were documentaries on sculptor Paul Dibble, the NZ Symphony Orchestra on tour, and prisoner of war play Shuriken. In 1994 La Hood found himself becoming part of the story, after accompanying his grandmother Mintaha Beca on the first visit to her Lebanon birthplace in 20 years.
Later he signed up to make a documentary which managed to capture the unpredictable talent of screen and music legend Bruno Lawrence. Numero Bruno was nominated for Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director at the 2002 NZ Television Awards; La Hood writes about the project's complications here.
In 1995 La Hood directed one of his personal favourites. Screening on the Montana Sunday Theatre slot, Swimming Lessons chronicles the friendship between a swimming coach and a troubled Samoan child. La Hood was more than happy with the idea of casting the “brilliant” Marshall Napier as the coach — a man capable of playing much more than the “the thug, or the dude with the slouched hat. And once we found Sam P’io Masina to play the Samoan boy, we knew the film was going to rock.”
In 1997 La Hood was invited to write a proposal for a visitor attraction, by the team establishing new museum Te Papa. The result was Golden Days, set in an old junk shop, which has run successfully for over 15 years. It was lucky timing to try something new: museums and institutions were investigating new ways to tell stories and attract visitors. In 1999 La Hood launched company Story Inc, with his Golden Days colleagues James McLean and Dean Cato.
Since then Story Inc has designed multimedia projects in New Zealand (Zealandia, Rotorua Museum) and overseas (Hanoi’s Millennium Museum, Bangkok’s Museum of Siam, the NZ Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai). These days Steve La Hood is a happy man; he reckons he is shooting more footage now than ever.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Steve La Hood
'Steve La Hood: Bruno, Lebanon and causing accidents on soap operas...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 29 February 2016. Accessed 29 February 2016
Story Inc website. Accessed 29 February 2016
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime - A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005) Peter Huck, ‘Peter Huck: Telling tales, at home and abroad’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 12 April 2010