By 1983 Ian Mune had done starring roles on stage and television, directed stage play Once on Chunuk Bair and some short films for TV, and flown to Tahiti to do rewrites for Anthony Hopkins on The Bounty.
What remained on Mune’s bucket list was directing his own movie. In 1984 he finally managed it, with Came a Hot Friday. The result was hailed by showbiz magazine Variety as “a major advance in Kiwi comedy”. It would remain one of New Zealand’s three highest-grossing local films for another eight years.
First published in 1964, Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s original novel is a lively but sometimes grim tale featuring two conmen who gamble and drink their way across Taranaki, before encountering nasty Sel Bishop and a strange Māori who thinks he is Mexican.
Mune and fellow scriptwriter Dean Parker got to work. Sometimes they rewrote each other’s pages, before handing them back. Mune later admitted that some of his contributions were so black, there was a danger of scaring away the financiers. It would not be the first or the last time scriptwriters found themselves grappling with Morrieson’s darker moments of sex and sadism. It was Parker who helped find the tone, thanks to an opening voiceover which declared “the privations of war are over…there is money to be made!”
Mune's acting instincts came to the fore as he set about finding a group of performers able to deliver both over-the-top moments, and the immediacy needed for screen acting. His ex Downstage Theatre colleague Peter Bland won the prize role of con artist Wes Pennington, a loser who in Bland’s words “thinks he's a winner”.
First suggested by producer Larry Parr, Billy T James was tapped to play The Tainuia Kid. Riding high on TV and a punishing live schedule, Billy T’s image would dominate media coverage of Came a Hot Friday. The Tainuia Kid is certainly a memorable creation — a pseudo-Latino man child who reacts to shotguns with toy pistols, and is attracted to danger like a bear to honey. Billy T’s big scenes are part of the film’s brilliantly hare-brained "let's steal our money back" finale, but it should be remembered that he is only on-screen for 15 of Friday's 102 minutes.
Also in the ensemble are Peter Bland’s conman sidekick (Inside Straight’s Phillip Gordon), a pair of brilliantly detestable villains (Marshall Napier and Don Selwyn — who got the job after reminding the director his father was a bookie), a naive local who joins the con (real-life league player Michael Lawrence) and his prospective girlfriend (Miss New Zealand runner-up Marise Wipani). A sax-playing Prince Tui Teka makes one of his final screen appearances.
Billy T was one of the only actors not to turn up for rehearsals. The wardrobe team grew increasingly worried about his whereabouts. As Ian Mune tells it in his engaging Mune: An Autobiography, the comedian finally turned up on set in Whanganui, having driven overnight from a gig in Gisborne to make his 6am start. Used to the feedback of a live audience, he tried to convince Mune shyly he’d “never done any of this acting stuff”. The director told Billy the basics: the Tainuia Kid should be played straight, as a man who has no idea he is unusual, and just wants to be in on the action.
“From that moment on, every scene he's in, every line, every gesture, is a doctorate-level lesson in acting,” writes Mune. “And because he's so serious about it, he's as funny as hell.”
Unlike so many stories set in New Zealand’s past, Came a Hot Friday is precision-designed to make you smile; it hums with the energy and excitement of its characters, even though their darker emotions can lead to fights, squashed thumbs, and automobiles hanging above rivers at dangerous angles.
Larry Parr later recalled it as one of the few films he’d produced where the whole cast and crew made a point of gathering each night to watch the latest rushes (daily footage). That spirit of positivity continued into movie theatres, when Came a Hot Friday became the biggest local hit since Goodbye Pork Pie, three years earlier. Friday went on to win eight NZ Film awards, including best film, script adaptation, director, and acting gongs for Peter Bland and Billy T.
Local critics were almost universally keen. The Listener and Metro magazine were especially bowled over by the Tainuia Kid: “a parody to eclipse the others”. Variety’s Mike Nicolaidi praised the way “a picaresque story full of traps for the unwary is propelled with great humour and visual joy”. Name-checking performers Bland, Erna Larsen and “acting standout” Billy T James, he also mentioned the “wry charm and subtlety of Alun Bollinger's photography, the original 40s style music of Stephen McCurdy, and the convincing and integrated production design of Ron Highfield.”
In 1986, author Nicholas Reid judged Friday “the funniest, liveliest, most exuberant" NZ film to date. Reid argues that although not squeamish about boozing, brawling and lust, the movie wisely keeps the nastiest of Morrieson’s demons off screen. “Darkness is acknowledged only to be kicked back where it belongs. This is a comedy, after all.”
Although no box office smash overseas, Came a Hot Friday sold well, won praise in England, and prodigious backslapping for Mune at a film industry screening in Hollywood. But plans for a series of US telemovies based on the characters ultimately went nowhere, after proposals that the Tainuia Kid be dropped from the story. A Friday without the Kid? Talk about muy loco.
Matt Elliott, Billy T - The Life and Times of Billy T James (Auckland, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009)
Tom McWilliams, ‘Slapstick in Hicksville’ (Review of Came a Hot Friday) - The Listener, 31 August 1985, page 40
Ronald Hugh Morrieson, Came a Hot Friday (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1964)
Ian Mune, Mune - An Autobiography (Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing, 2010)
Mike Nicolaidi, ‘Came a Hot Friday’ (Review) - Variety, 20 February 1985
John Parker, ‘Film: Came a Hot Friday: fast, funny and highly entertaining’ (Review)- Metro, August 1985, page 66
Nicholas Reid, A Decade of New Zealand Film - Sleeping Dogs to Came a Hot Friday (Dunedin: James McIndoe, 1986)
Came a Hot Friday press kit