Vincent Ward, ONZM, is one of the most acclaimed directors to emerge from New Zealand. His films have won praise here and overseas for their distinctive vision and atmosphere. Images in films like Vigil and The Navigator of lone characters in wild landscapes have staked their place in New Zealand screen history.
Ward's debut feature Vigil (1984) marked the first time a local film had been invited into the competitive section of the Cannes Film Festival, one of the world's key film events. Follow-up The Navigator won raves from Newsweek, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. With successive Cannes successes Ward proved that our stories could be a critical success on a global scale.
The characters in Ward's films are often isolated, and/or caught between cultures. Ward's hour-long adaptation of Janet Frame novel A State of Siege (1977), demonstrated his ability to get inside a character's mind — skillfully using the tools of sound and image to convey how a lonely ex-teacher perceives the world around her. Frame enthusiast Michael Heath called it "sensitive and intelligent", and a landmark in local filmmaking; a US festival programmer found it "a work of genius".
Ward has described Siege as his first "public" film. At least five predated it. While working towards a Diploma in Fine Arts (with Honours) at Ilam in Christchurch, he'd found his interest drifting from painting and sculpture towards filmmaking and animation.
After graduating, Ward went travelling — not for the last time — searching for inspiration. Keen to learn more about Māori traditions, he ended up at the house of an old Māori woman named Puhi, and her mentally-ill son. Ward stayed on and off for two years. The result of his commitment: award-winning 45-minute documentary In Spring One Plants Alone. He talks in detail about the film, in this video interview.
Vigil (1984), Ward's first feature-length movie, follows "a solitary child who imagines, fantasises and dreams". Partly inspired by Ward's partly rural upbringing in the Wairarapa, it was shot in the Taranaki after exhaustive searches for the right location, and the right person (Fiona Kay) to play the central girl. Vigil remains among the most acclaimed local films yet released: "utterly unique, a stunning achievement" (The Boston Herald); "an extraordinary visual and psychological experience" (Los Angeles Times); "a work of astonishing and original force" (The Guardian); "timeless... striking" (Sydney Sun-Herald).
Ward's planned follow-up was The Navigator, which utilises "medieval" blue and orange tones to capture a group of 14th century Cumbrian villagers after they tunnel through the earth, and find themselves in modern day Auckland. Ward described the film to The Evening Post as "a muscular adventure story, a quest film" — and also as a collision, a "juxtaposition of two time periods which enables you to see your own time through fresh eyes".
Failure to lock down a final investor saw the ambitous project cancelled, just six weeks before filming was due to start. Ward and his producing partner John Maynard relocated to Australia. The project finally emerged in 1988 — after a famously demanding shoot — as the first official trans-Tasman film. Subtitled A Medieval Odyssey,The Navigator would win Ward a wide audience, a stack of awards (including best director and best film on both sides of the Tasman), a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes, and more raves.
Landscape is a strong feature in Ward's work. He has won a reputation for challenging locations. His actors have performed in caves, atop hot air balloons, in chest deep snow in the Southern Alps, and on Arctic ice floes.
The ice floes were first visited by Ward en route to his $20 million third feature, Map of the Human Heart. Ranging from Canada to the skies over WWll Germany, the film charts the ebbs and flows of a relationship between an Inuit boy, a Métis girl and a visiting British cartographer. Screening as a work in progress at Cannes in 1992, it was later nominated for best film at the Australian Film Institute Awards. American critic Roger Ebert praised its unpredictability, sense of adventure — and "two of the most astonishing romantic scenes I've ever seen in a movie".
During seven years in and out of Hollywood, Ward developed multiple projects, and took some small acting roles. He signed on to direct What Dreams May Come, after injecting the plot idea that gives the film its unusual painterly look. Released in the United States on 2600 screens, the tale of a man (Robin Williams) searching for his departed wife in heaven and hell scored mixed reviews, solid box office returns — and a 1999 Academy Award, for its special effects. Earlier Ward had been offered Alien 3; his concept of a world ruled by monks was brainstormed on the flight to LA. Creative differences ultimately saw the film directed by David Fincher, but elements of Ward's storyline were retained.
During this period Ward began developing twin stories about Westerners encountering other cultures. One became Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai, which Ward ultimately helped produce, for American director Edward Zwick. The other was Ward's historical epic River Queen (2005). This tale of a mother and son caught between cultures featured Brit Samantha Morton (Control), Keifer Sutherland (24) and local Cliff Curtis. The film won respectable audiences at home, but initial reviews crossed the gamut, and tales of the troubled winter shoot dominated the film's release.
Rain of the Children (2008) is part documentary, and part reimagining, Ward looks into the history of Puhi, the woman that Ward first met while making In Spring One Plants Alone, and asks "how she became who she was". At Poland's Era New Horizons Film Festival, audiences voted it the Best International Film of 250 on offer. The previous year, Ward was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to film.
Ward has argued that it is vital to bring New Zealand stories and characters to the screen. "Otherwise you end up a country without a voice, a country that can't look at itself in the mirror."
Ward's 1990 book Edge of the Earth combined autobiographical material with background on his first three features. In 2011 came part memoir, part photo book The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film and multi-media exhibition Breath, which opened at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, before becoming New Zealand's first entry in the Shanghai Biennale.
Profile updated on 21 April 2021
Vincent Ward, Kely Lyons, Geoff Chapple and Nick Roddick (introduction), The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey Screenplay (London: Faber and Faber, 1989)
Peter Calder, 'The Navigator - Vincent Ward's four-year odyssey' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 3 February 1989, Section 2, page 1
Roger Ebert, 'Map of the Human Heart' (Review) Roger Ebert website. Published 14 May 1993. Accessed 13 March 2017
Michael Heath, Review of A State of Siege - The Evening Post, 22 July 1978
Roger Horrocks, ‘New Zealand Film Makers at the Auckland City Art Gallery: Vincent Ward' (Catalogue) 1985
Richard Kuipers, 'Rain of the Children' (Review) - Variety, 25 June 2008
'Coming up for Breath' - Onfilm, December 2011, page 22
Rob Edelman, 'WARD, Vincent', Film Reference.com website. Accessed 13 March 2017
Victor van Wetering, 'Navigating from one film to the next' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 2 February 1989, page 15
NZPA, 'Hollywood wooed then dropped Ward' (Interview) - The Northern Advocate, 29 May 1993, page 23
Unknown writer, 'Tough times ahead for film-makers' - The Evening Post, June 1986
Talk Talk, Episode 10 (Television Show) Studio Director Brendon Butt (3rd Party Productions, 2008)