A review/interview with Greg McGee and his memoirs TALL TALES (SOME TRUE)(Penguin Books) by David Geary
I feel like I’ve marked Greg McGee many times. On the rugby field, he’s the kind of guy I’d line up against at the back of the lineout. The ball would be thrown in, he’d soar above me (with some subtle help off my shoulder) palm it perfectly down to his halfback, then be out the backline before I’d recovered my balance. On the way, he’d have time to share a joke with the ref about how I should be called Zigzag, ‘cause when I jumped a ciggie paper is about all you’d fit between my sprigs and the turf. And as I wheezed off after him, I’d think – ‘Ah, so that’s what it takes to be an All Black.’
McGee, the gentle giant, casts a long shadow wherever he goes. In television, his miniseries Erebus, the Aftermath remains an enduring example of how good the medium can be, while Street Legal showed you could make popular TV drama that made Auckland look sexy and dangerous with a Samoan Kiwi lead.
In theatre, McGee set the standard by which all playwrights can measure themselves. He started writing his first play while coaching footie in Italy, but had no idea what he was really doing. It turned out to be Foreskin’s Lament, still regarded by many as the greatest NZ play ever. Just recently Dave Armstrong organised a celebration of our literature for NZ Book Month and the highlight was still Foreskin’s challenge, ringing through the years – Whatarya? Whatarya? Whatarya?
When the play emerged from a Playmarket workshop in the early 80s a lot was written about how it spoke to our national identity crisis, and the struggle to find our own voice. Well, McGee gave us a strong one and contributed to us feeling more sure of ourselves. But hearing the cry again, after reading McGee’s great book, it also reminds me that it’s also a call for justice – Whatarya…doing that for? Whatarya…saying that for?
McGee’s memoirs give us a man on a mission, strongly motivated by a sense of social justice. Whether it be to sort out the psychotic thugs and blinkered old farts who ruin a good game of rugger. Or the bullies and bureaucrats who tried to bury the truth about Erebus.
It’s a compelling read. Ballsy, insightful and rollicking entertainment. It also serves as a sweeping social history, as we see a gangly kid from Oamaru negotiate Otago Uni, All Black trials, grotty Ponsonby flats, Sicilian witches, and all manner of drama queens, to emerge as a leading light in 80’s television. Only to see the writing on the wall is indeed that scrawled by his fellow scribe and aspiring graffiti artist, Dean Parker – ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.
Along the way, McGee passes on a wealth of writerly wisdom. Most of our stories of development hell come from the US, so it’s refreshing to have a Kiwi insider give us the dirt on the local deals, dreamers, dodgy bastards and how, if you’re very lucky, dreams can be turned into drama. His book is a resource that writers in all mediums should lap up. But even if you’re not in the industry, and don’t know who he’s talking about, then it’s still a ripping yarn about the boom & bust world of being a professional writer in New Zealand.
Here’s Mc Gee on writing Actions or Directions into a script – ‘…most directors regard that stuff in the same way a Neapolitan regards a traffic light – as an indication of what he might do if he can’t come up with a better idea.’
And if you do know who the likes of Mune and Hampo are, then picturing Ian Mune holding court at his goat stud in Kaukapakapa, telling McGee, Hampo and Parker that their father-son redemption story solve is ‘the booby prize’, whereas the real deal is the guy gets the girl, all this while the market crashes and the arse drops out of Mune’s goats as he speaks, is…priceless.
There’s a lot of pricking of bubbles, and frothing pricks who get their dues. But, full credit, Mc Gee doesn’t let himself off the hook. He’s frank about his failures and failings. But, even better, he’s a fearless and insatiable gossip – the mother lode of all drama. He loves to name-drop. I just wish there was an index so I could revisit the juicy stuff more readily, like the section about the Centrepoint commune’s culture of abuse with its “blowing” and “blackheads”. And how Crumpy was a real bugger, more Rimbaud than we’ll ever know.
You hit the final page, wanting more. With the impression that McGee’s instincts as a marauding loose forward remain stronger than ever. That he still loves the contact, the big hit, tackling the big boys, and then setting up perfect pill in the form of the well crafted story. It finishes in the late 80s, and I really can’t wait for the next instalment, so thought I’d have a chat with the big guy himself. Find below some questions I put to Greg McGee in written form and his replies.
INTERVIEW (via Email)
David Geary Hey Greg, loved the book. But wasn’t so sure about the parenthetical bit of the title TALL TALES (SOME TRUE). Surely, you’re staking your reputation on it all being true? And don’t want us thinking you made any of it up?
Greg McGee All true, Your Honour. But the title acknowledges that the memoir is a dodgy literary form in many ways – there might have been 6 people in the room, but you’re only hearing from one of them about who said and did what. So Tall Tales is a partial truth in the sense that it’s my truth: I’m not speaking for anyone else.
DG Or were there legal issues and you’re covering your arse? You put the boot in to a few individuals, were there long meetings with lawyers, or, as a recovering lawyer yourself, did you take your own counsel?
GM My arse, like most writers’, isn’t worth covering. But yes, there was a lawyer. He seemed most concerned with my barbs about other lawyers (the Erebus chapter takes the odd judge and knight of the realm to task) – perhaps because they’re the only ones mentioned in my book who might have the money to sue!
DG You tell a lot of stories about old mates. Did you run any material by them first?
GM Yes, I did run the material past a few people whom I wanted to keep as friends. I found them wonderfully generous about what they were prepared to let me say about them. I like to think that being reasonably hard on myself might have helped.
DG The peccadillo about Barry Crump taking it in the rump from a former Bedazzler had me going. Isn’t this necrophilia of the poor old sod? Have you read A LIFE IN LOOSE STRIDES by Colin Hogg, the essential book on Crump and understanding his good keen generation?
GM I haven’t read Colin Hogg’s book. Did Crumpy show ‘theatrical tendencies’ in that book too?
DG No. No mention of that sort of ‘shooting in the backblocks’. You’re obviously still upset about the treatment of playwright Mervyn Thompson at the hands of femafia treepists. Is there a tree with your name on it? Have you read Stephanie Johnson’s THE SHAG INCIDENT where she transplants the story to an errant All Black?
GM Make mine a manuka (I might be able to rip it out and escape)! Yes, I did read Stephanie’s book. I thought it was a terrible injustice to ex-All Blacks everywhere that the central character, even in middle age, could be over-powered by 6 women.
DG I put to you, Greg McGee, that not making the All Blacks is the best thing that ever happened to you. That if you had made it all the way you would have found it a lot harder to turn around and write Foreskin. That once in the exclusive club you may not have been able to break the code. Or publicly burn a real All Black jersey in protest at the 81 tour? I give you that the All Blacks loss was NZ’s great gain.
GM You’re just trying to be kind! But yes, in retrospect I’m glad I missed out because to have become a good All Black in those days, I would have had to change hugely, and those changes – even if I could have made them, which I doubt – would certainly have not helped me to become a writer.
DGWas there ever the fear that to actually make it to the top you had to become Grizz Wyllie’? And that this is what test match rugby required?
GM In Tall Tales I write about not having the ‘psychological avoir dupois’ to be a good All Black, and really, using a phrase like that just confirms it. Can you imagine me trying to use that excuse on the coaches of the day? They would have thought my avoir dupois was right up there with dodgy hamstrings as a pathetic excuse. And they’d be dead right!
DGThe current All Black squad has at least five guys who’ve had problems with the law, from wife-bashing to shooting seals on a piss trip from a boat in Otago harbour. Are they just getting dobbed in for stuff the boys used to get away with? Or are they a new spoilt-rotten lawless breed?
GM Probably, as in the past, they’re a fairly accurate reflection of NZ society. Certainly, the modern players are no worse than those of the past – the level of media inquiry into off-field activities is so much more invasive than it was, and has given rise to on and off-field codes of behaviour that were non-existent when I played. That alleged rape at the Hilton Hotel during the English rugby team’s recent tour, for instance, would never have reached the papers in the old days, partly because the reporters stayed in the same hotels, travelled on the same bus, and were therefore part of the ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’ rugby omerta.
DG I really liked your Venetian travelogue, the perils of coaching Italian players who are political powder kegs and how the mafia really works. Do you intend to travel, live overseas again, write about travel?
GG I’m committed to living in NZ, but to do that healthily, to get and keep some perspective on the place – which you need, to write about it – you should get out of it fairly regularly. I love the fact that Australia is so close, and the islands. And I do want to revisit in a significant way, Venice and London, both of which I know pretty well. I’d love to write stories set in both places. I’m not your intrepid traveller, though. After bumming round the world when I was young, I still get a huge kick out of arriving at a place where I have a room booked. Luxury!
DG You seem a fine judge of character, in observation and creating them. What do you make of our modern men – Graham Henry? John Key? Winston Peters? Is Winnie the next big mini-series in the making?
GM Suspension of disbelief might be a problem for any drama series about Winston. Wish I was in the position where $100,000 bills were of so little consequence that I couldn’t remember who paid them for me!
DG Is Julian Mounter, the man who shafted the TVNZ Drama Dept in the late 80s, perhaps the best Dickensian name of modern times?
GM Exactly. Julian Mounter’s name alone should have immediately disqualified him. He was just another in a long line of imported Poms who have been paid an enormous tranche of Kiwi tax-payers’ money to enlighten us on how to make indigenous television and film. Mind you, some of our locals, when given responsible positions in the networks, haven’t done any better.
DG What do you consider must-see appointment TV these days? Madmen? What inspires you to go back into Dante’s Inferno? If you do, will you take Dean Parker?
GM Country Calendar (seriously, I love it, Kiwi success stories every week), Deadwood, Green Wing, Outrageous Fortune, 30 Rock, Underbelly (before it was pulled by TV3 from the same slot as my piece, Doves of War). And Madmen. After the Doves of War experience, I’ve lost a bit of faith in television, so I’m not sure whether I want to go back there. And I think Dean Parker’s probably past redemption, too.
DG You mention going back to old journals and finding a recurring theme to be ‘overdraft’. Do you still use journals? Do you ever wish you’d become a hot-shot lawyer and only used the phrase ‘overdraft’ when trying to break around-the-world ballooning records?
GM Don’t keep a journal any more, but I think emails have obviated the need for that. If you can go back through your emails, you’ll probably get a fairly accurate idea of what your preoccupations were at any given time, not to mention who you were meeting and getting drunk with! That ballooning thing – not my overdraft – is my only regret about not continuing in the law.
DG The first thing I remember about you is the advice that a writer shouldn’t do anything until he has a contract. I wish I’d followed that advice. As a past NZ Writers’ Guild President, what do you feel about the current working environment, contract situation?
GM Writers’ fees haven’t moved in 15 years. Neither have producers’ fees or directors’, as far as I can ascertain. Which means to make a living here, you have to run a hell of a lot harder than anywhere else – and be grateful for the opportunity to grind yourself into creative dust. If Jimmy Griffin and Rachel Lang had written a success like Outrageous Fortune in the US or UK, they wouldn’t have to work again, unless they had some extravagantly bad habits (which, as far I know, they don’t – unless they neglect to pay me for my silence).
DG I also love your advise about going into negotiations with a producer, and talking about the budget to get an idea of the writer’s percentage, not about what your worth. Have you ever thought of writing a HOW TO BE A PROFESSIONAL SCRIPTWRITER guidebook?
GM I’ve already given away all my secrets to the Writer’s Guild.
DG After that earlier quote about directors ignoring writers’ Directions, do you want to direct? Try other medium?
GM I once did a director’s course. Then I realised that so much of it is seriously tedious work – we get that shot with this lens, then we reposition and get this shot with that lens, then we reposition and wait for the clouds to pass over the sun again and for the grass to grow… Not to mention dozens of people running around wanting decisions from you, second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour. I came to the conclusion that directing is actually my idea of hell on earth.
DG So what next? This book finishes with the late 80’s demise of the TVNZ Drama Dept and out-sourcing to independents. You later became one of these with ScreenWorks. So when can we expect the next memoirs? Any working titles? And what prompted you to write this one? Was it stock-taking?
GG Tall Tales did begin as a kind of stock-taking exercise after I exited ScreenWorks, (which left a bit of a hole in my day!). Then I found I was having an enormously good time writing it. After so many years of scripts, I particularly enjoyed prose – having a one-on-one relationship with the reader, without all those pesky intermediaries like actors, directors and producers and network executives. If the publisher shows any enthusiasm, I’ll get to finish the next bit, Telling Lies For Money, sometime soon. In the meantime, I’ll just carry on writing – it’s a necessary activity for my mental health. Like most writers, I don’t write because I want to be a writer, I write because I need to write.
DG Thanks, Greg. Always a pleasure. Though you may have trouble with your next title – Telling Lies For Money – as I’ve heard a certain politician on the outer at the mo may have already optioned it.
David Geary is an all-rounder. He writes for theatre, television and film. He’s also an actor, teacher, poet and fiction writer. His collection of inter-linked short stories A MAN OF THE PEOPLE was published by VUP in 2003. He is the Writer in Residence at Victoria University, working on a play about Mark Twain’s 1895 lecture tour of New Zealand, a children’s play about a tuatara, and his short story GARY MANAWATU (1964-2008): DEATH OF A FENCE-POST-MODERNIST has just been published in the NZ Book Month 6 PACK – 6 stories for $6.