The trailblazing cinematographer shares thoughts on the art of lighting, making and restoring Utu, Maori sovereignty, and the state of New Zealand cinema.
Graeme Cowley was a cinematographer on some of New Zealand’s key films in the 1970s and 1980s: among them, Smash Palace, Utu, and Mauri. Retired from behind the camera, and now a renowned wine-maker with Auntsfield in Marlborough, Cowley dusted off the film canisters and has been working on a redux of the great Utu (1983), a classic revenge tale set in the carnage of British campaign in the Uruweras in the 1870s. I sat down with Cowley with some of his (in truth, delicious) pinot noirs, and amidst the earthquakes rumbling through Wellington, ahead of the Utu Redux world premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film? How did you end up in film?
GRAEME COWLEY: It was a very natural and gradual progression for me. I must have been interested in the movies, or introduced to them, like everyone on a Saturday afternoon matinee sessions. I can remember very early on in our garage holding up pictures in front of the local kids, so there was something in the performance of it all that interested me. But I got interested in photography. I’ve always had a mechanical bent, and an artistic bent, so that fit. I had a dark room as a fairly young kid and took photos, liked the process, and then in my university years, I got more and more involved in the movies.
I saw things like Runaway and Don’t Let It Get You come out from Pacific Films. I thought, “ah, this is the possibility of a creative career.” At university I bought a camera and a few of us started making some films. We also viewed a lot of films, which vied with the pub, as a way of not finishing your assignments. We’re talking ’67, the Windsor Tournament, we all decided to get together to see what was happening at the other universities and see the films and work out what they meant. That was down at Canterbury—I was at Vic—and John O’Shea was there, and John offered me a job, which was not a very good thing to do before finals. I ended up with Pacific Films.
I spent three years working professionally, and that helped me into the professional industry. I’ve always spanned the technical and artistic blend very much working as a cameraman and as a director, and working as a producer, and later on getting involved in the infrastructure of the industry. One of the problems with my time at Pacific [was] the industry was divided into three groups. There was the NZBC, Broadcasting Company controlled area with lots of money in their control. There was the National Film Unit again with their own budget, which they had to spend every year or it lowered. And then there was us independents. We had no equipment, or very little equipment. In fact at Pacific, when we were doing 35mm black and white commercials, in those days, when we wanted to do a zoom shot, we’d ring up and borrow a zoom and take it back. Because of import restrictions, we couldn’t get gear.
I went to England, and in my three years there, saw how the rental operations worked. It seemed sensible to me that filmmakers shouldn’t have to worry about gear. Coming back here, things really needed to be freed up. I decided that I would try to make that happen and I harassed all of the relatives and raised the money, and joined with Nigel Hutchinson and together we built up equipment. We produced commercials and documentaries to support the gear, but the philosophy of making it available to everybody else remained pure. Nigel and I kept that equipment going, and it became a vital part of the emergence of the New Zealand industry because it allowed people to leave television and those government organisations, or come back from overseas, and become filmmakers without needing everything for every job. We did about 100 of those early features. We put together production villages over in Auckland and Wellington so that smaller companies could group together and gather strength that way.
BG: It’s hard to imagine now with so much access to technology, in theory, that there was ever a point that film was such an elitist pursuit.
GC: Yeah, the government controlled it. It was a government thing. In fact, right up to before we did the production villages, the government could only see bricks and mortar out at Avalon. So they tended to focus on Avalon for their advice and give them the accolades. We were the guys in the streets. We thought we needed a bricks and mortar face, and also it was a logical thing to get the efficiency of the industry going. The production villages were a key part of that.
And also, with Sue May, I started OnFilm Magazine—that was about ’82, ’83—and the reason for that, it was an infrastructure exercise to give us a voice. Every Friday, all of the industry tended to meet at various pubs. And the conversation was often political, and it was from the three points of view. It became very passionate at times. The Pacific Films lot, we were well trained talking to John O’Shea at our very famous morning tea sessions that would sometimes last a number of hours, about our philosophy of independent cinema and the importance of it. Those things were fought out in the pub. There was a good healthy interface between the sectors of the industry and a lot of common ground. By Monday, they had forgotten it, or next week, taken a different position. It seemed we needed ‘thought’ to be solidified a little bit for people to up-the-ante in seriousness, and as a result OnFilm was born.
My background has sort of been an infrastructural one, just by the nature of the fact I was one of the first wave of the Renaissance. That was how I met Geoff [Murphy] through those early films and those activities. And also Roger Donaldson in Auckland. Roger had a 16mm camera but for commercials he wanted to get into 35mm, so he very early on plugged into our equipment and I would fly up often and got involved with the Winners and Losers series, and then Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace.
BG: You were initially a big fan of Polish and Czechoslovakian New Wave cinemas?
GC: Forman and Polanski and those sort of people—they were out of film school just before us. What happened at the time, it was our university time, ’66ish, ‘67ish, the embassies or the consulates brought those films out. Lindsay Shelton at the Film Society at that time may have lobbied for those films to come [as well]. A whole lot of those films we got to see up at the university, and also I had a projector, and also in our last year in our flat on the Terrace, we had two rooms that opened out and we had this magnificent cinema. We had the mattresses on the floor and regular screenings of those films. And also the Canadian Film Board, who were making some really interesting things at the time. Those films were an inspiration, saying that “we can do that too.” They were all emerging industries of our generation.
BG: I’ve read that you were also a big fan of Néstor Almendros. Was it his French work, or Days of Heaven?
GC: Days of Heaven was relevant to what we were doing with Smash Palace and influenced my approach to film lighting. I had also looked at the photography that Robin Morrison had done in all of his interiors. They were very naturally lit. They were effectively and dramatically designed, but didn’t look like they were. That was a style I thought was appropriate for film. For Smash Palace, that was the aim. It meant doing things a wee bit differently, with soft lights and lighting through windows, which actually wasn’t being done here. There was a television mentality, which was pretty rigid. We were doing more flexible stuff, probably because we were doing commercials and had less gear. We had to make do more. We started using fluoros, oils, dimmers, and lightbanks. Before that, everybody was really worried about colour temperature and wouldn’t use dimmers. I thought dimmers were great fun to use and in the theatre they use them all of the time. I bought colour temperature meters, but we knew what we were doing. It was really a matter of looking at what we were doing rather than getting too retentive about how you should be doing things. There was a change in the approach.
BG: Did that carry through to Utu, this sense of liberation from traditional New Zealand lighting models?
GC: Yes very much. Smash Palace had the amazing exterior light of the mountains and the bush, so it all added up nicely. For Utu, the question was the film stock. We were in the bush all of the time, so green and those tones were really important. It was also low light as we shot in winter. And it was at night quite often. A lot of lamp light was needed because we were going back to the 1870s. That decided what it was going to look like. We used lamps, that Almendros thing. Days of Heaven was very much in mind especially for the end scene, which is essentially all fire light.
BG: Barry Lyndon feel too?
GC: Yes, that wasn’t an inspiration, but that was what we were seeing in films overseas, so we thought that we can do that too. The end scene was just practical. We chose a location that felt right. We had looked for a long time during the shoot and we found a place that was amazing but was quite inaccessible. You really couldn’t do big lighting set ups in there and so what I did was I built gas bars and put in fires so that we can control the level of fires at the times, and made other gas bars that were in front of big reflectors, so there was this flame feel we could control. It has given that scene a rawness that I like, it gave us a lot of challenges, especially when we added a Steadicam to it.
BG: Had you worked much with such a moving camera?
GC: No, the Steadicam had just started. It was at the very beginning. Having an equipment company, we were constantly keeping an eye on what was there, and being a cameraman, “well, we’ve got to have what everyone else is going to have.” That was something I had seen overseas and realised it allowed you to move the camera and do stuff quickly, which we needed to do.
Toby Phillips, who was the operator with it, he was an Australian so he was based not far away, and he as the world operator at the time. Garrett Brown, the developer of the Steadicam, Toby was his man. The thing with shooting in the bush, the bush can become very flat and you’ve got to move the camera to get three dimensions into it. It was either laying tracks, which you can’t do extensively without a lot of time and money, or the Steadicam. You have other difficulties [with Steadicam], like focus. We actually got the Steadicam for certain scenes, and we used it a lot more. It was the first time the Steadicam came into New Zealand. I remember the night it was unpacked and demonstrated and after a day of shooting, there were sceptics there but it was quickly embraced.
We had the biggest budget of the day—three million dollars—but it was still nowhere near what we needed to do, what we wanted to do. What was fantastic about seeing the restoration was that we did so much with that money, and we did it because of a Kiwi Number 8 wire ingenuity basis, because of enthusiasm, and because there was a fair amount of experience. It was interesting that Graeme Tuckett, in his radio piece, said something like, “everyone was pretty inexperienced in those times, there were a few camera shots.” There might be second unit shots, but the thing is, I had been working in the industry for 15 years and it was the fourth feature I had been on, and three of those I had had a key role on. Michael Horton [the editor] had been working on films for the same amount of time. People like Ron Highfield, the designer, he had been working in Australia on drama—we were all the same age. We weren’t inexperienced. There weren’t many people admittedly our age doing the same thing in England—you had to wait more years. There was this experience and this enthusiasm, and this Kiwi attitude. And also we had a real in-depth knowledge of the basics of filmmaking. For example, the windmill in Utu is a model and it’s pretty good, and that was the first time we had done that sort of thing. We did it and made it work. We had done glass shots. We had done multiple camera things. We knew the craft.
BG: Starting off in independent filmmaking rather than at Avalon—did that help?
GC: I think it was vital, because otherwise you can very easily become a bureaucrat, or bureaucratised. For me, it was right. That freedom within an institution is important for filmmaking. Filmmaking is a very disciplined thing as far as division of labour, and roles, and communication structures, and those sort of things, but you probably learn those more by actually working in the independent area. If you break the rules, you’re out, and you very quickly see what the rules mean. I did work for a while in England, not every day in the industry because it was hard to get into in the start, but by the end I was operating on a fairly big television production, and I spent a bit of time observing what Michael Seresin [the New Zealand-born, internationally-renowned cinematographer on Sleeping Dogs] was doing in the commercial area. I had a feeling for the formality in the English industry, and the English industry was our model of how to structure things. Also, there was an English industry trained person at Pacific Films from Day One, Steve Locker-Lampson, who told us in his very English way of how we had to do things. The independent industry and its industry structure for me was preferable to working in television. Having said that, Alun Bollinger came from television and then worked independently, so as a beginning training ground it was as good as long as you didn’t stay forever. Because look at them now. We have destroyed, actively, the people—one of the most amazing resources to support an industry here in New Zealand. The support for the independents has never been great. Left to their own devices, they’re left chasing an audience that doesn’t exist. Destroy that link with an audience, you let the advertisers come into our living rooms.
BG: Utu was a big hit for audiences here, 300,000 people. Why do you think Utu had that resonance?
GC: As we say in our press release, it was the second biggest at the time. The producers were disappointed. Geoff wasn’t. It did have a resonance, and it was a different audience for the time. As you went further south, it was less popular. In the north, according to Geoff, what they were saying was that people who weren’t going to the cinema, mainly a Maori population, was coming in and seeing themselves on screen for the first time. Also it was a film that entertained, like Goodbye Pork Pie. It has that humour and it reflects our history and our events in a distinctly Kiwi way. Those were the elements in it.
When the film was developed, it started because Geoff worked for about 12 to 15 years trying to develop the idea from the James Cowan diaries and Ron Crosby’s book about Gilbert Mair who was one of the British key people in the Uruwera campaigns and who wrote these amazing diaries about all of the events the film was based on. Geoff had read about the trial, this famous legal military trial, illegal as well being legal—basically an injured person was tried by someone who didn’t have the rank to do so and executed him there. I know it happens a lot now. That intrigued him about how people with a resolution pretty similar to the film—he thought of the lead-up to get them there. The Williamson event is loosely based upon what had happened, it was much worse with the rape of the wife and the slaughter of the family.
Geoff had been working on this for a long time. The events of those 12 to 15 years he was working on it, it was the rise of Maori activism and Bastion Point, and remembrance exercises, and the demand for the Treaty to be honoured, because there was nothing that was working or being effective or treated seriously. The Waitangi Tribunal was formed. Was that how it worked?
BG: With Norman Kirk and Matiu Rata, it was set up in 1975 but could only look forwards. It was only in 1985 when it was able to look back.
GC: That’s right, the film came out in 1983, and then in ’84 and ’85 they extended the scope to go backwards and land was included. I found that really interesting, especially with Zac [Anzac Wallace, the lead actor and union leader] being involved, and he was the foreman on the Mangere Bridge, and there were films about him. It was so neatly developed at the time there was a consciousness of these issues in the background.
BG: There was also the Maori Renaissance in culture, people wanting to express the stories that had not been given publicity at that point.
GC: That’s right, after the release here, it premiered in New York at the time of the ‘Te Maori’ Exhibition there. A lot of that taonga survived because of Gilbert Mair who was involved in those campaigns. There were these things involved. That’s why the film is so important in New Zealand. It will always be relevant to study as an historic artifact, as well as a film in its own right. Those aspects got resonance with people and made it successful at the time. It was a little bit ahead of its time for some people.
BG: I was about to say, was it controversial? This was obviously Muldoon, Springbok era, etc.
GC: That’s right, because that was ’81. The critics weren’t sympathetic to it. They said some pretty silly things, so it must have come from somewhere else. Geoff could never understand it. I think also from what Geoff says, the critics, it was one of those situations where the film was oversold by [the producers] Don Blakeney and co., they thought they had the best thing that had ever been made in New Zealand, and they went out and said that. The tall poppy thing comes into play very quickly, and I think it did in that regard. It wasn’t the best film of all-time. Now we can look back and say perhaps it was the most important film, and it’s up to each individual viewer to decide if it’s the best or not.
BG: Given its historical placing in that time, what’s it like revisiting it now. Is it still relevant? Is it still a vital piece?
GC: Absolutely. The reason why we did it was I saw a copy that I didn’t recognise. I just thought that was wrong. I was very aware of what had been done on it. It did have a resonance. So I talked to Geoff and the rest, and it happened. Very quickly, we found two things. One, we found the negative had been pulled apart, and we realised this was really important because the whole film didn’t exist. I realised I was the only one who had the talent as I was still talking and could talk with all of the people involved, whereas Geoff wasn’t. Geoff had been feeling really bad about what had happened and it was one of those things you put aside. The investors were keeping their heads down because they had had this big court case.
We had to put all of the material we could possibly use into the editing machine and just go through how he would get it back to the original. That process of getting Geoff in there, and Mike Horton, both with considerable experience—Geoff has done 12 or 15 features since then in the States, and Mike has done hundreds and got Academy Award nominations—sitting them together, and going through the material very quickly with some of the original scans we had done. It had relevance, but it looks so good and the Fuji negative was the one bit of material that had degenerated the least. Park Road Post said they had never seen a negative from that era that looked so good. It essentially didn’t need restoration.
The only thing we had of the original film was the interpositive [version], and that had degenerated hugely. They [the re-editors for the foreign version] had cut frames in half. It was the process of sitting down in the editing machine that showed us that here was this film that was aching to get on the big screen again. It was very easy to see that. The original motivation was preservation and showing what we can do in those days, but very quickly it was, “here is another film that has another life.” The original film had a lot of, Geoff calls it, “we were arrogant in those days”; there were a lot of ‘Geoffisms’ that came from Pork Pie and Blerta’s contact with the audience, whereas films had to be [a step back]. That essence is still there but the distractions have gone. And all of that helps you focus on that end scene. By the time we finished and saw it on a full run on the big screen, it really gave it a new life, we hope. I think it will be viewed by many for a long time to come. It has already been invited to the Berlin International Film Festival. I think it will be the one film that keeps going around and around there.
BG: In terms of its thematic depiction of a New Zealand people didn’t want to see, do you think now, with the rise of the Pakeha Party and the recent Tuhoe settlement, there’s still a cultural and historical relevance now?
GC: There’s a small percentage of people who read history and are interested in history. Us older ones are. So having a film, the medium of today, that touches that area in a considered and honest way, and an entertaining way, is very vital thing for a culture to have, or for us to have as a state. It’s exceedingly relevant. Chris Finlayson used to be a neighbour of mine down south, we wrote to him wanting him to be a guest of honour, because Utu covers all of his portfolios—Minister of Culture and Heritage and Treaty Settlements. He’d just done the Tuhoe settlement and a section of his announcement speech is devoted to the destruction of crops and a village of one of the chiefs.
BG: Scorched earth, essentially.
GC: And that’s the opening of the film. The concept of utu, as it’s presented in the film, is really a concept that has got to be kept in mind with all Treaty settlements. And is subconsciously. The idea of finding lasting redress in the human sense in the film is really what the Treaty settlement process is about today. It is a little piece of entertainment, big piece I’d say on the big screen, but it touches on the very core of our nation. It’s incredibly important. I have realised the importance more and more through this process. That’s why we all worked on it, and were so enthusiastic for Geoff as a filmmaker—to be doing something that was relevant. Some of us stopped making films when we stopped making films that were relevant in that way. Or stopped getting involved in the industry. We understood that back then and really it has become clearer now. And really for an audience young and old, it has been the same. It’s been incredible. The people we have shown it to, the younger generation out at Weta and Park Road Post, they really responded to it amazingly. It has all of the elements. The ones who haven’t seen it, it’s quite fresh. There were a lot of other people who studied it and saw it as a little historical archive. When we’ve talked about it, some of them have said it’s their favourite film. When something this ‘big” was their favourite, there’s something there.
We’ll see how the New Zealand International Film Festival screenings go and if we can get it out there further. It’s not something we’re going to rush out onto DVD. I think it deserves to be seen big and that might mean taking it to different areas and working on those areas, and it’ll depend on, I suspect, the enthusiasm of other people, not just us.
BG: Was Utu of a different time? Could a film like Utu be made nowadays?
GC: With the current thinking, I don’t think it would happen. We did a calculation during the restoration. We worked out to do this film today would be in excess of 30 million dollars. We then realised that River Queen was 26 million, or something like that. You think, River Queen, it’s such a narrow focus in environment. When you look at Utu, it’s huge.
It’s quite a lot of money. You need to do it that good, you need to get the history stuff right, people’s expectations to sleep in a soft bed and eat are quite considerable these days, so it’s definitely going to be expensive to do it. The funding bodies, the whole structure of Kiwi filmmaking is not for that. Out in Miramar, Peter Jackson’s outfit is essentially world filmmaking. It’s structured that way, and works that way.
For Kiwi filmmaking, the Film Commission here, since the time of Utu and since the tax structures were dismantled, has been to make films cheaper and cheaper and look more and more at how other people make them, which has been the biggest mistake. I know the Commission brings in script advisors and all these sort of people. If they’d brought them in the time of Utu—now how can you make Utu with a three act structure? It’s complex parallel stories that meld in together. Really they have institutionalised the way we make films and taken the magic that was attractive in our films to the international world, so we’ve had this attitude of not doing what we did in Goodbye Pork Pie and Utu. Even the likes of Smash Palace. Smash Palace would be difficult to do nowadays. They were films that came from people’s hearts. I think we’ve lost our way looking at the bottom line and trying to find an audience that matches the bottom line of the film.
Filmmakers don’t have a big involvement in the Film Commission. They did earlier on, that was important. They don’t now. It’s all lawyers and accountants really. That’s expertise that you need, but it’s only part. A prominent New Zealander—I can’t remember his name—said one of our biggest problems is boards don’t reflect the young generation. They are dysfunctional because they essentially have people who have been in business before, but they don’t interface with the society that’s out there. It’s the same problem with film. His thing is try to break that up and get all sorts of people to work on those boards. That’s what we’ve got to do.
Can we do it today? No, the structure is not right. Yes, of course we can. You can do it in Miramar. So why can’t we do it with our films? It was only thirty million dollars. How much was wasted on the education computer system? How much is wasted—you can go on and find many wastages out there that people accept. Why can’t we have within our abilities a desire to find that sort of funding for these sort of stories when they happen? It is possible for us to do it again. Whether we can get the right elements together, it needs the right stories.