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Yvonne Mackay


Yvonne Mackay's long directing career has seen her coaxing performances from giant turtles, animated lions, puppets, a great many children — and a fair few adults as well.

Mackay grew up in Christchurch, the daughter of a real estate agent and a policewoman (this at a time when 'police' and 'woman' rarely went together). Alive to the power of storytelling from a young age, she began organising her friends to rehearse plays during school lunchtimes. She was also acting on radio and stage, and managed to score a job straight from high school, directing radio drama.

After transferring to the television side of the state broadcaster, Mackay became the first female floor manager at Avalon. Her directing break came thanks to producer Peter Coates, who gave her the chance to direct on Close to Home. Alongside 50 episodes of the long-running soap, she also helmed episodes of iconic series Country Calendar.

In the mid 70s, Mackay co-founded Gibson Film Productions (now the Gibson Group) with Dave Gibson, one of New Zealand's longest-standing independent production companies. One of her first films there as director was a half-hour adaptation of Frank Sargeson's Old Man's Story.

Mackay and Gibson discovered there was room in the market for projects aimed at children; Mackay would direct most of them. The majority were dramas, but some were documentaries. They were rarely child's play to make: aside from the complications of directing younger actors, short film Blackhearted Barney Blackfoot (1980) contained no dialogue, while the sets for fantasy series Cuckoo Land (one of many projects involving late author Margaret Mahy) were almost entirely miniatures. Mackay also made one-off children's tales The Monster's Christmas (starring a courageous girl plus oversize creatures), and the Alun Bollinger-shot Nearly No Christmas.

Mackay has also directed a broad range of material for adults, from detective series (Duggan) to episodes of the offbeat Insiders Guide to Happiness and its prequel, and docu-drama Clare (2000). Starring Robyn Malcolm in the title role, the Clare tele-movie was based on Clare Matheson book Fate Cries Enough, in which Matheson related her own experience of the unfortunate experiment at National Women's Hospital.

Mackay made her feature debut with The Silent One (1984), the first New Zealand feature directed solely by a woman (1972's To Love a Māori was likely co-directed by Ramai Hayward and Ramai's ageing husband Rudall). Based on Joy Cowley's myth-like novel, this tale of the friendship between an outcast boy and a white turtle was shot largely in the Cook Islands. The cast included George Henare, Zac Wallace (fresh from starring in Utu) and Pat Evison. The Silent One went on to score awards at children's film festivals in Germany, Italy and France, and became the first Kiwi feature to win theatrical screenings in China.

A second feature-length drama followed in in 1991. Tele-movie Undercover starred William Brandt as a rookie cop who goes undercover to investigate a heroin operation. The film scored a NZ Film and Television Award for Best TV Drama — plus another for Jennifer Ludlam's portrait of the ex-prostitute who is romantically involved with Brandt's character.

By now Mackay had approached renowned author Margaret Mahy, encouraging her to create a television series for children. Mackay told Mahy to "go for it ... she's a dangerous writer to say that to..." The result was madcap, sometimes musical fantasy Cuckoo Land, which won a gold medal at the 1986 New York Film Festival. The impressive cast, including Grant Tilly and Jennifer Ludlam, worked entirely within a cramped studio in central Wellington, to create the show's fantastical settings, thanks to video matting technology called Ultimatte. The NZ Sunday Times said of the result: "It's Lewis Carroll meets Elvis Costello. It's terrific."

Cuckoo Land marked the beginning of an extended collaboration with Mahy that would include tele-feature The Haunting of Barney Palmer (a co-production with American network PBS, based on classic Mahy book The Haunting), offbeat documentary A Tall, Long Faced Tale (2008) award-winning fantasy series Kaitangata Twitch (2010) and storytelling slot Margaret Mahy's Rambustifications (2012-13). There was also one Mahy project aimed at adults: mini-series thriller Typhon's People (1993)

Mackay's documentary work includes producing and directing episodes of The New Migration (about talented young Māori returning home), directing doco Leo's Pride (about Sister Mary Leo) and co-directing STD doco Safer Sex. In 1990 she captured on video Mary-Jane O'Reilly's 90-minute ballet Jean, inspired by aviator Jean Batten. 

For 2006 arts documentary Aspiring (shown as part of the Artsville series), she acted as sleuth as well as director: tracking down lost footage of a legendary 1949 trip up Mount Aspiring by a dream team of poet James K Baxter, photographer Brian Brake, composer Douglas Lilburn and artist John Drawbridge.

In 2006 Gibson Group moved elsewhere in Wellington, and Mackay took over the company's distinctive corrugated iron-clad building as the base for her own operation, Production Shed TV. Under that banner she has made documentaries about Justice Eddie Durie for Māori Television (Justice Durie) and a second project involving Brian Brake (Painting with Light).

In 2009 Mackay collaborated again with Margaret Mahy to develop novel Kaitangata Twitch for television. Mackay directed all 13 episodes. The series debuted on Māori Television in May 2010, and was repeated the following year, with a cast that included George Henare, Charles Mesure, and 13-year-old star Te Waimarie Kessell. Kaitangata Twitch has won or been nominated for a number of awards, including the highly-regarded Prix Jeunesse, and taking the top award at the long-running WorldFest in Houston.

Following Mahy's death in July 2012 Mackay completed work on two volumes of Margaret Mahy's Rambustifications, in which Mahy read some of her most famous stories. Mackay also directed pre-school storytelling show StoryTree, for screenings on channel KidZone24, and soldier's tale The Berry Boys, a one-off 'rockumentary' which combines original songs, animated sequences and interviews with relatives of WWI veterans.

In 2016 Mackay directed and produced Doubt: The Scott Watson Case, a feature-length docudrama which revisited the 1998 disappearance of Olivia Hope and Ben Smart. 

Sources include
Yvonne Mackay
Productionshed.TV website. Accessed 5 October 2016
Kaitangata Twitch website (broken link). Accessed 5 October 2016
'Interview with Yvonne Mackay and Margaret Mahy' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary. Uploaded 9 December 2008. Accessed 18 July 2011
Maggie Burke, 'Dancing On Air' - The Listener (TV Times liftout), 9 July 1990, page 88 
Sian Clement, 'KAITANGATA TWITCH wins scifi, fantasy awards' (Press Release). The Big Idea website. Loaded 25 June 2011. Accessed 18 July 2011
Mark Cubey, 'Multi-Layer Magic' (Interview) - Onfilm, June 1985, (Volume 2 Number 4), page 31
Michael Dean, 'What you see is what you get' (Review of Cuckoo Land) - New Zealand Sunday Times, 10 August 1986, page 12
Kier-La Janisse, 'The Monster's Christmas - Q&A with Director Yvonne Mackay' Spectacular Optical website. Loaded 16 December 2012. Accessed 5 August 2014