Sometime around 1984, writer and actor Fiona Samuel made a speech which became a rallying cry for many young or emerging film directors. It was about time, she declared, that Kiwi films stopped celebrating the "alienated, macho dickhead" as a national hero, and put their energies into exploring other kinds of characters.
Suddenly, the likes of Goodbye Pork Pie and Smash Palace seemed passé. The new crop of budding Kiwi auteurs had no interest in pursuing men alone across hostile landscapes. They were urban and chic, and much more likely to be influenced by European art cinema than their predecessors.
There were economic forces pushing filmmakers back into cities too. A combination of success and tax shelters brought hyper inflation to the film industry. By 1985, shooting a movie on location had become an impossible dream for most.
It was against this background that the TV drama series About Face was launched. The title of this series suggested both its thematic concerns, and the desire for a new direction - a cinema that was contemporary, urban, and artful.
Consistent with these goals, the producer of that series, Bridget Ikin sought to follow it up with fresh projects by directors who shared her vision. One of the first movies she managed to get off the ground was Alison Maclean's Talkback.
The fact that this remarkable film has somewhat slipped between the cracks of critical regard says more about the unfairly low status accorded short films than anything else. It's a wonderfully assured piece of drama, with a sensibility that evokes the cinema of northern and eastern Europe.
Maclean was determined to do things a little bit differently. One of her bravest choices was bringing a female cinematographer over from Australia. Sally Bongers later lensed Jane Campion's debut feature, Sweetie (1989). Here she pictures downtown Auckland with a markedly fresh eye, capturing lurid, flourescent washed cityscapes, or drab interiors that poetically underscore the film's themes of dislocation and loneliness.
The script called for actors who could carry the plot's knife-edge shifts in tone, and Maclean found them in a couple of unique performers.
Lucy Sheehan had almost ridden out her fifteen minutes of fame, sandwiching this role between starring in Greg Stitt's A Fitting Tribute (1985), and Richard Riddiford's Zilch (1989). With her lisp, strange, not-quite-buck teeth, and off centre stare, she's a genuine original; attractive, but no cookie cutter heroine.
Exactly complementing Sheehan's offbeat charm is Peter Tait, whose performance is so note perfect, he really does feel like he phoned it in from a dingy hotel room - and that's meant in a good way. Tait would memorably re-team with Maclean as the phantom from the plumbing in Kitchen Sink.
Talkback is a quirky film, but never self-conscious or kooky. The drama is neatly contrived, yet it feels completely authentic. The picture's balance of narrative and style is acutely managed.
Bridget Ikin relocated to Australia, where she has produced a range of feature films, either solo or with her partner, John Maynard. Her most conspicuous recent success was Look Both Ways (2005) written and directed by Sarah Watts. It's a film that shares many of Talkback's best qualities.