Forty-five odd years ago if you wanted to make a Kiwi movie you were nuts. Okay then, maybe television instead? Unfortunately you could only make a TV drama if you were employed by state television, or the National Film Unit. Outsiders like Geoff Murphy had managed to made Tank Busters off his own bat, and John Barnett made The Games Affair series in 1974. But for Roger Donaldson and myself, there seemed to be no way open. So we resorted to Roger’s old maxim “If you want it done properly, do it yourself.”
I was in the middle of a self-inflicted crisis, holed up in an old villa on New North Road with no furniture, and a mantlepiece decorated with a jar of Marmite, a bottle of milk separated into a glob of white on top and clear water beneath, and a scrunched up pair of underpants. I was feeling sorry for myself, and Roger was being sympathetic. But our friend David Mitchell thought it was a hell of a joke. Out of that, the three of us decided to make a series of sketches about a guy going through what we grandiosely called a “midlife crisis.” (We were all turning 30!) Rog would borrow a camera and some lights, and we and anyone else who wanted to come on board would work for nothing.
We cobbled together Derek, a story about a 30-year-old-guy with a bored wife and two needy kids, who dreams of being hot and sexy, goes to his boring job and gets fired. When the farewell drinks don’t appear, he throws his own farewell party, declaring himself headed for better things, and disgraces himself with a down-trou.
State TV agreed to screen our little independent film. They insisted on cutting a shot of Derek from behind, stepping on the scales, then removing his jockstrap to lose a few ounces.
Here’s some of the letters to the editor that Derek inspired:
— "I watched with ever-increasing dismay, a piece of garbage calledDerek … We are all aware of office parties and the cavortings and antics of drunks... But dear God, who wants to commit such stuff to film?"
— "I cannot use polite language to describe the nausea it gave me … dirty, uncouth and sordid, and a complete bore."
— "What a depraved mind could think up such dirty rubbish as Derek... Youngsters watching this filth cannot help but be tainted."
The reviewers were kinder. One (Irvine Yardley) called it "a poem of escapism", "so close to the bone it hurt". Another (Sue McCauley) found it "a sympathetic and intelligent look at ourselves", that deserved acclaim. The Listener's Dick Campion weighed in with:
"As a study in modern-day morality — a man emasculated by the office machine and empty of spirit,Derek was a Kiwi Waste Land. Ian Mune is really something. Has anybody else his ability to project the New Zealand common man? The face is ugly, the voice grates, he sings abominably. Yet you watch him like you watch a time bomb."
The guts of all this is that the old protesters, hippies and varsity types of the 60s were now in positions of influence — and they thought Derek was terrific!
We got a call from Wellington lawyer Bill Sheat. He knew someone in the Education Department who thought a series of New Zealand short stories would be good in the classroom. However they didn’t have much money. But Bill thought the QEII Arts Council might be interested in getting involved. They were! So was David Fowler at the NFU. And, amazingly, the Aussie joker that state television had brought in as Controller of Programmes was keen too.
We had enough money to make a 30-minute film. We chose Katherine Mansfield’s 'The Woman At the Store'.
Rog had bought his own camera. Geoff Murphy and Andy Grant had designed and built a crane, so the camera could move forward and back, up and down and either side of sideways. Rog was on top of the visuals, "the look.” I worked with Peter Hansard to produce a script, and we were able to hire a real crew and real actors!
The Woman At The Store picked up Feltex Awards for Best Drama, Script and Actress (Ilona Rodgers). We were ready to go. All our investors were keen, and we launched into six more films based on Kiwi short stories: Winners & Losers.
From the start, Roger and I had a plan: by working together, we would learn to work alone. I knew about stories and actors, or a little bit, and he knew about filming. So we said we’ll co-produce the lot of them. We’ll co-direct the first two, then he can direct one, and I’ll act in it, so I’m still there; and then I’ll direct one and he’ll shoot it so he’s still there, holding my hand; and then I’ll direct one, and he’ll go have a holiday; and then he’ll direct one, and I’ll have a holiday.
In 1976 TV1 screened the series and it picked up a few more awards. But the real trick was to sell it internationally. We asked the Broadcasting Corporation how we should go about it. Unfortunately, all they could offer was the agent they bought their programmes from. “Use him,” they said. “He handles all our sales.” So what’s he sold? “Ahhhm, nothing yet.” How long has he been doing it? “Oh. Ever since we began.” So we were back to Rog’s old maxim: “if you want it done properly, do it yourself.”
We heard about a TV market in Cannes — MIP-TV. We had a little dosh left over from the shoot. The Broadcasting Corporation and the NFU, presumably amused at our foolhardiness, gave us some of their programmes to sell and a little more dosh, and off we went. For two weeks.
MIP was definitely not the Cannes Film Festival! It was more like the Kumeu A&P Show, with four floors of booths, all selling, not chickens, goats, cabbages and pumpkins, but TV programmes. There was a book with 3000 names; all the attendees, sellers (including us) and buyers. Where to begin? Fortunately an English sales agent took pity on us and marked up our book, indicating all the people who might be interested in our series from way downunder.
At the end of the week we had a bunch of people expressing an interest. But no contracts. We couldn’t go home with that, so decided to visit every one of them and get something signed. Ha! Not the way it worked. Between us we tracked down potential buyers in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo, Stockholm, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Boston, Washington, LA. Most said the same thing: “Go home! We can’t commit to anything until the programme committee approves it.” So, when our two week trip had turned into eleven weeks we limped home. With nothing. Except that by the end of the year we had sales in many countries, and it just kept rolling on from there.
The next year every Kiwi and his/her dog was off to MIP-TV!
Some years later the Peter Jackson bomb exploded and now we have Park Road Post, NZ On Screen, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, and a completely renewed Winners & Losers. To them all, from us — thank you!
Titles in the Winners & Losers series
Blues For Mrs Laverty (Maurice Duggan) - An aging piano teacher struggles to find connection in her disintegrating life
A Lawful Excuse (Barry Crump) - When Mick and Charlie get of out prison, their find an unusual way to make a living
Shining With The Shiner (John A Lee) - A swagger agrees to try to con a publican for some free drinks
The Woman at the Store (Katherine Mansfield) (Sold as part of Winners & Losers overseas, although it screened separately on NZ television) - Three arrivals at an abandoned rural store meet an unusual mother and daughter
- Ian Mune is a storyteller who has been known to act, write and direct.