Director/producer Tony Hiles could be eloquent and straight to the point. A lover of hard work, small film crews, a snappy shirt and the occasional practical joke, Hiles worked on hundreds of productions over a career which encompassed both state television and independent filmmaking.
The youngest of four (and the only boy), Anthony John Hiles was born in the English town of Hereford in 1941. By the time he turned 21, he'd spent time as a mechanic in the Royal Air Force, including a stint in the hotspot of Cyprus.
Hiles first became hooked on photography after getting a stills camera around age eight. In 1963 romance led him to New Zealand, where he joined advertising agency J. Inglis Wright. His first film documented a 1966 visit by American President Lyndon B Johnson. Between then and 1969, Hiles made dozens of adverts for Stan Wemyss, who ran a production house out of what is now Wellington's Penthouse cinema.
Next Hiles began a decade-long run in state television, attracted by the opportunities it offered for directing and producing. Hiles reckoned he amassed 1000 credits in this period, from a run of live studio productions (magazine shows On Camera and Good Day) to Country Calendar, variety shows and comedy (The Wonderful World of Fred Dagg). At one point he did six or seven live shows a week, and described it as "a luxurious time when we weren't driven by ratings".
Soon after another of state television's shake-ups, Hiles and his partner, Fair Go presenter Judith Fyfe, quit. They launched independent production company City Associates in 1980, focussing on social and arts documentaries, and later, interactive projects like Waiorongomai - Waters of Repute (1996).
Interactive veteran Emily Loughnan, who worked with Hiles in this period, says he was able to see potential in technology that others missed. The pair collaborated on one interactive project that failed to get off the ground, partly because funders couldn't see photos ever going digital. Earlier Hiles had used electronic cameras, then new to New Zealand, to capture From the Road. The 1981 documentary explored the early, more political work of photographer Robin Morrison.
Hiles' friendship with artist Michael Smither lasted decades, and encompassed a documentary project with few precedents in Kiwi screen history. Hiles details his first encounters with Smither in this interview, which involved Smither's experiments with erosion and flying. One Man and the Sea (1984) chronicles the artist's attempts to rebuild eroded beaches using driftwood. Then Smither invited Hiles to join him for Flight of Fancy (1987). The whimsical documentary follows efforts to build a flying suit (read more here). The film "made a nice ripple in the water", selling well overseas. It also won a Special Jury Prize at the 1988 NZ Adventure Film Festival, a Listener Film and TV Award for Ian Paul's cinematography, and an invite to French documentary festival Cinéma du Réel.
In 2009 Hiles announced the beginning of a decade-long, 10 documentary project, chronicling Smither at work in his eighth decade. The first film, Michael Smither: Shared Harmonics, was released in September 2009. Many of the Smither documentaries debuted in the yearly round of local film festivals; second film Artist in Residence was invited to French fest Cinema des Antipodes.
Hiles' screen experience proved useful early in director Peter Jackson's career. In the mid 1980s Hiles' "good pal", NZ Film Commission executive director Jim Booth, asked him to assess a tale of alien takeover that had been filming for three years. Hiles was impressed by Jackson's talent, and the "delightful" amateur cast; the film was "cheeky. It has a rich naivety about it." In helping shepherd Bad Taste through to completion, Hiles enlisted the help of industry friends for some of the more ambitious scenes. "It was the first time I had worked on somebody else's project." He was proud of sourcing a car for an exploding car scene for only $30.
Credited ultimately as consultant producer and for 'additional script', Hiles also cameos in Bad Taste's opening scenes as Coldfinger. He went on to direct a documentary chronicling Jackson's early filmmaking efforts, Good Taste Made Bad Taste. He wrote about the documentary here.
Later, Hiles worked with Booth and Jackson when he made his own feature, Jack Brown Genius. The film continued Hiles' longtime love affair with flying (at one point he'd wanted to be a pilot). Described as a "goofily offbeat" tale, the movie involves a modern day inventor (Tim Balme). Possessed by the spirit of a 10th century monk, he creates a flying machine. After Booth's passing, Hiles worked further on the script with Jackson and Fran Walsh. Hiles wrote about the film's troubled path here. Jack Brown Genius earned Hiles a Best Director Gong at the 1996 New Zealand Film and TV Awards. "I got it because it was so bloody hard".
In 2007, shortly before Hiles began his extended Michael Smither opus, documentary Antonello and the Architect screened in the New Zealand International Film Festival. The film explores the life of late Wellington architect Bill Toomath, and his passion for a Renaissance painting.
Diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia in September 2018, Hiles decided to laugh at the disease, and also find out what makes it such "a mischievous bugger". He charted his final project on website Lewy Body and Me. Tony Hiles died on 6 February 2021.
Profile updated on 13 February 2021
‘Tony Hiles: Jack Brown Genius, Michael Smither, Peter Jackson and more' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Loaded 19 February 2009. Accessed 9 February 2021
City Associates website. Accessed 9 March 2020
Barbara Cairns and Helen Martin, Shadows on the Wall - A Study of Seven New Zealand Feature Films (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1994)
Mary-Jane Duffy, 'Flight of Fancy' NZ On Screen website. Loaded 17 December 2008. Accessed 15 March 2009
Ian Pryor, Peter Jackson - From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings (Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2003)