I originally conceived this idea around 1990 and sketched out most of the main sequences and narrative threads. About a year later, I mentioned it to Peter Jackson, and he was keen to get involved. Together we refined the story, but without any serious prospect of getting it made. It was more of an amusing diversion than a viable project.
This changed after Peter's success in the wake of Heavenly Creatures. Suddenly the former gore-meister and enfant terrible of New Zealand film had become a respectable producer and everyone wanted to do business with him. But not only that, he had created in Weta a special effects company that was capable of delivering the illusions that would be necessary to make Forgotten Silver.
The final piece of the puzzle was funding, and this came from an unlikely source. The New Zealand Film Commission and NZ On Air decided to pool their resources and fund a series of quality one-hour television dramas. TVNZ was the broadcaster, and wine company Montana joined as sponsor. Tenders were put out for seven scripts with a particular request for "contemporary dramas". Naturally, Peter and I thought it would be a great joke to send in an historical documentary.
The joke was on us in the end, as the funding committee loved the project, and we were forced to confront the reality of actually trying to make it. No small problem for Peter, who was also about to start work on his first big Hollywood project, The Frighteners. There's no space here to go into the highs and lows of how it was done, but suffice to say we crawled out the other end, happy and excited with a film that met or exceeded our expectations.
Nothing could be more surprising, however, than the controversy that erupted after the film's screening on television. Despite all the (we thought) obvious clues we planted to undermine the story's veracity, a large proportion of the audience swallowed the whole thing; and when they found out next day that the new national hero they were celebrating was a sham, the mood turned nasty (see a survey of the choicest bits of viewer reaction in Behind the Bull). As a work of fact, our most trenchant critics said, Forgotten Silver could have been a national treasure, but as a work of fiction, apparently, it was worthless.
Ironically, this dismal assessment underscored the whole point of the film — that this country is not very supportive of its artists.
The immediate repeat screening proposed by TVNZ would have been unprecedented, and viewers might have enjoyed the film as the comedy it was intended to be. Unfortunately, the controversy grew and grew, causing the broadcaster to lose its nerve. Plans for another screening were dropped.
Though I'm not sure we've yet been forgiven in New Zealand, Forgotten Silver gave the lie to its domestic critics. It went on to a terrific reception at notable international film festivals such as Cannes and Venice, where it won a special critics' prize. It has become a cult favourite around the world, particularly in the US and Europe, where it is available on DVD. To this day, we continue to get emails from people wanting to know where they can get hold of the full cut of Colin McKenzie's biblical epic, Salome.