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The Moviemaker

Geoff Murphy: A Life On Film
by Geoff Murphy (HarperCollins, $40)
Reviewed by Lindsay Shelton

book geoffGeoff Murphy’s new memoir deserves to be as popular as his three hit movies of the 1980s. He proves himself to be a natural storyteller, and he tells his story with droll humour. He’s often self-deprecating and he’s occasionally unforgiving. Specially about himself.

Murphy delivers a persuasively lively account of his early life in Wellington. Strapped during his primary school years at Marist Thorndon. Caned during his secondary school at St Patrick’s College at the Basin Reserve. (Not more than six strokes on any one day.) Compulsory military training at the age of 18. (“Conscripts were marched endlessly, up and down the parade ground with NCOs shouting at us at the top of their voices.”) Life at Victoria University and becoming a trumpet player in the band at the university jazz club. (“A boisterous and unruly mob.”) Moving to teachers’ college. Being given the lowest marks during seven years as a primary school teacher at Newtown School. (“My perspective on teaching was quite different to that of the education board.”) Leaving teaching. Finding other ways of earning money. Touring with Blerta (the Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition.)

The possibility of filmmaking emerges during his years as a teacher. “If you wanted to make films [in the early days] you had to be tenacious, persevering, devious and lucky.” He describes the “absolutely absurd structure” of the local film industry in the 1960s. “Two main producers: television and the National Film Unit, both lavishly government funded.” The Film Unit was “anointed with the sole right to make motion pictures in New Zealand. Anyone else attempting to enter this field was an upstart and should be opposed rigorously.” In the middle were the independents and freelancers, led by John O’Shea’s Pacific Films, whose film processing had to be done in Australia because the Film Unit refused to handle anyone’s images except their own.

“How were we going to succeed in this atmosphere?” asks Murphy, who answers his question with fascinating stories of extraordinary initiatives, including building and designing a new camera crane, which was then hired by everyone including television and the Film Unit. And making the first short films. And setting up the legendary Acme Sausage Company. “It was suggested that it should be a functioning anarchy. [But] the likes of Andy Grant and Albol had no need of philosophical principles. As far as they were concerned, you just set your goals and went for them. In the end, the devastatingly simplicity of this philosophy, or lack of it, was its strength, and ultimately we all took it up. Interestingly enough, this is pretty much what the main characters in Goodbye Pork Pie did when we got around to making that film some ten years later.”

This is a book that is in no way only of interest for filmgoers. But Geoff’s descriptions of the challenges involved in making Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth are eye-openingly entertaining. As are the ups and downs of his lucrative decade in Hollywood.

He’s frank about his personal life. Falling in love and marrying Pat, with whom he had five children. After 15 years, beginning a relationship of “intensity and passion” with Diane, but not leaving Pat. (“There were the kids, there was my own emotional cowardice, and then there was that thing called Catholic conditioning.”) The complexities of a shared life in the commune at Waimarama, which would lead to a dispute in court. The final separation from Pat, after 22 years. The abandonment of the relationship with Diane. The start of a new relationship with Merata Mita who “was sometimes economical with the truth”. And after 20 years, a new relationship with Diane, to whom he is now married.

There are famous names too. Dinner with Mick Jagger. A holiday in the Jagger residence in Mustique. Directing Emelio Estevez, Anthony Hopkins, Stephen Seagal. Almost directing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hanging out in Beverly Hills with Russell Crowe. And back home in New Zealand, directing second unit for Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings. (Five camera crews in Twizel, and 200 people under his command, as well as 300 soldiers on horseback and 150 orcs in rubber suits.)

The pleasure that the book gives is occasionally interrupted by some editing glitches. Alan Highet, who introduced legislation to establish the Film Commission (which invested in the first four Murphy movies), is mis-spelled like the hotel chain. And Geoff under-states the importance of the Cannes Film Festival screenings of Utu – it wasn’t in the Certain Regard section but in the main auditorium category of “official selection – out of competition”, the same section where ET had screened, one year before. Seriously important international recognition for Geoff and for the New Zealand film industry.

I couldn’t put this book down. I had to keep reading till I’d completed it. It’s as gripping and entertaining as a really good movie. But with a much bigger cast and a much more substantial plot. Lots of them, in fact.

Lindsay Shelton is the author of “Dancing With Hollywood,” published this year by Awa Press as an eBook. It is the updated second edition of “The Selling of New Zealand Movies,” published in 2005.