Interview: Blyth spirit May 2008
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of his first feature film, Angel Mine, writer/director David Blyth discusses his career to
What first inspired your interest in cinema and encouraged you to begin making films yourself?
Well the very first film I remember seeing in a cinema was the wonderful poetic children’s film The Red Balloon. The film that really talked to me and sent me on my journey into filmmaking was seeing Luis Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie at Auckland’s Lido Cinema when I was about 17. Bunuel’s seamless ability to move between reality and dream fascinated me. I was hooked.
Circadian Rhythms, a 14-minute film shot in black and white, grew out of watching films such as the expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and in particular Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s collaboration on the short film Un chien andalou, a film I watched multiple times, trying to deconstruct its unconscious cohesion. Circadian Rhythms was a collaboration with Richard Von Sturmer and to this day I believe it’s unlike any other Kiwi short film.
Did you have any formal film education or training as such?
I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Auckland University, which included doing Dr Roger Horrocks’ film course as well doing the practical film papers at Elam with Tom Hutchings.
In the mid ’70s there were no film schools in New Zealand. My training came from watching lots and lots of films. Discovering different directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with dynamic cinematic style, unconsciously assimilating the language of film.
What were the circumstances by which you came to make Angel Mine at the age of 22 in 1978?
One of Auckland’s film characters from the past was Jack George, whose film studio was in Pollen Street in Grey Lynn. Jack had the black and white processing machine that processed the 16mm Ilford Fp4 black and white film stock for Circadian Rhythms. He told me that Agfa were about to introduce a new 16mm colour newsreel reversal stock into the New Zealand market, so I approached Agfa with a proposal and they agreed to supply the reversal stock for free.
Ultimately Agfa had decided not to introduce the new stock into NZ when I shot Angel Mine, so in the end I had to send all the exposed film in one box to Belgium to be processed.
Shooting the film blind with no rushes was not an ideal situation but it was free and enabled Angel Mine to be made.
In those days the funding body was called the QE2 Arts Council. I got $5000 from them on the basis of a treatment for Angel Mine and them having viewed Circadian Rhythms, which by then had been selected for the Auckland, Wellington and Sydney Film Festivals.
After he read a proposal for the film, I also received money from a benefactor whose letterhead depicted a giraffe’s head – he liked people who stuck their head out. And I received a small amount of funding from Montana Wines, thanks to a promotions manager who was very sympathetic to the arts...
I met Warren Sellers who had just come off working on [historical television series] The Governor as the production designer – he was full of enthusiasm and, incredibly for me, took me seriously and put together a real film crew that included DoP/camera operator John Earnshaw.
Am I right in thinking the Interim Film Commission funded Angel Mine’s post-production?
Yes – while I had raised enough money to shoot the film, I couldn’t afford to complete it with a professional editor. At about the exact moment that I realised I had the opportunity to snare an editor, Philip Howe, the Interim Film Commission chaired by Bill Sheat was announced in the newspapers. I went to Wellington, and at John O’Shea’s Miramar premises, I showed the IFC a selection of footage from Angel Mine, which they loved. The Interim Board gave me approximately $19,000 to edit and complete the film, including a blow up to 35mm from 16mm...
I was definitely a beneficiary of a new institution that had not yet formulated funding guidelines. I believe it was my youthful enthusiasm and the unexpected timing of me being at the IFC’s first ever meeting, as well as there being some very compelling moving images on display.
Today a film like Angel Mine would not get past the New Zealand Film Commission’s assessment systems.
There was a furore surrounding Angel Mine’s release, with the creation of the special "R18-Contains Punk Cult Material" rating and so on – how did the commission react to what was presumably some unwelcome attention?
Yes, there were questions in Parliament and the Minister of Arts, Alan Highet, took some flack. The Commission, I’m sure, also picked up the fallout from the Minister and, of course, [contemporary morals campaigner] Patricia Bartlett had a go. Really, it was the shock that sex could occur in NZ-made films – far too close to home.
Ultimately the Film Commission stood by the film and it’s in the NZFC’s film catalogue to this day.
Thematically the film seems to be a pretty resounding rejection of suburban materialism; was the exploding of conventional narrative in the film also an expression of that sentiment?
Angel Mine has a unique story structure. Auckland University had opened my mind to our society’s headlong dive into materialism, alienating us from nature and taming our unconscious freedom to connect with our inner selves with increasing control through industrialisation and urbanisation.
I wanted to approach the story with an unconventional but very economic central concept. The young couple would play most of the different roles in the film themselves. I focused on the creation of false needs (commercials selling products) and I have my young couple play with and against the commercial stereotypes in their enticement towards more materialism.
Bearing in mind it was 30 years ago, is there any particular memory from the shoot that kind of acts as a signifier of the whole experience for you?
The Pakuranga Fire Brigade watching in awe as they sprayed water on [female lead] Jennifer Redford while she danced around the family clothesline. The image of Jennifer dancing around the clothesline is the key suburban metaphor for Angel Mine.
Is there anything in particular you remember especially enjoying about making Angel Mine?
I really enjoyed the opening sequences of Jennifer sitting naked on a white porcelain toilet on North Piha’s black sand beach looking out to sea while [male lead] Derek Ward emerged from the surf, dressed in a sailor suit, later segueing into giving Jennifer the new adult-strength drug for sexual problems: Angel Mine.[laughs] I was spoofing Viagra 20 years before it was invented.
How about what you least enjoyed?
Well, part of the beach scene involved a helicopter shot sweeping along North Piha beach to Jennifer on the toilet. As the helicopter was turning around we hit an air pocket and dropped like a stone for what seemed like ages. It was at that moment I fully understood the saying about there being no atheists in foxholes as I saw my life go down the toilet.
What are one’s options if one wants to watch Angel Mine now, beyond going to the NZ Film Archive?
Currently the options for obtaining copies of Angel Mine to view are limited to say the least, but good news could be around the corner. There is currently a proposal in front of the NZFC to release all three of my Film Commission-funded features – Angel Mine, Death Warmed Up and Grampire – on DVD.
When did you last watch Angel Mine and how do you think it holds up, both in terms of your career and in the context of the NZ cinematic canon?
About a year ago a young film historian who lives on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the US somehow obtained a video copy of Angel Mine and asked permission to screen the film in his small film festival. He raved about the film and, after it was shown, said it was the most popular film at his festival. As a result I thought I had better have a look again. I am proud of Angel Mine – it’s an oddity with some fantastic surreal scenes that, again, make it unlike any other Kiwi film.
Recently Angel Mine has been invited, along with 30 other NZ films, to a major retrospective happening in July in Wroclaw, Poland that’s being curated by Dr Ian Conrich of the Centre for New Zealand Studies in London. I am attending that Festival as part of a round the world trip including the Fantasia Festival in Montreal, Canada and giving a masterclass at the Centre in London. Also, a book called New Zealand Filmmakers has recently been published, with a whole chapter on me by Stacy Abbott ( "The Nightmare within the Everyday"). So Angel Mine and its position in my career and the NZ film tradition is finally being analysed.
What was the local industry reaction to the film?
At the Civic Theatre premiere one wit suggested there was more film on Geoff Murphy’s teeth. Generally there was bemusement from the industry; the phone certainly didn’t ring off the hook with job offers.
The film did receive a theatrical release in Australia, though, playing in both Sydney and Melbourne.
Several years later you directed A Woman of Good Character. What drew you to this story?
A Woman of Good Character was originally a 50-minute television drama that starred Sarah Peirse in her first film acting role. The film was very well received and, again, it’s not-so-golden story of life for a young woman in early New Zealand is what struck a chord with me.
Grahame McLean, the producer, extended the length for the tele-film version, It’s Lizzie To Those Close. I prefer the original 50-minute version, which won Sarah Peirse best actress for her role at the Feltex Awards.
What was the inspiration for your next feature, 1984’s Death Warmed up?
A Michael Heath story treatment involving cryogenics. I had long been fascinated by the pseudo-scientific concept of being frozen at death and then being revived and thawed at some future date, brain and consciousness intact. We decided to work from that premise and developed the link into the traditional teenagers-in-jeopardy theme, involving nefarious activities on Waiheke Island.
How did your writing relationship with Michael Heath work on a practical level?
Michael and I have had a great working relationship over the years. I respect his deep understanding of humanity and storytelling, and his own visionary filmmaking. We both have a love of cinema and good food and this has stood us in good shape over the years.
How did you find the experience of getting the film financed by the NZFC?
Fantastic – lots of help and support from Don Blakeney (aka Scrubbs) and Lindsay Shelton. This was my first film with Murray Newey producing. Murray was not only professional but charming, and thus excellent at managing all aspects of the relationship with the Film Commission.
I understand that the funding was to some extent justified on the basis that it would help foster a commercial base for the industry?
Death Warmed Up was New Zealand’s first official horror film (thank god I’ve got something over Peter Jackson) and the NZFC logic at the time was that young people are the main cinema-goers, and young people like horror films, so why not make a New Zealand one.
Interestingly, the NZFC recently noted that horror films "generally ... do not do well at the box office and they have limited cultural value". Which is rather a reversal of the commission’s enduring view that there’s always a ready global market for horror movies. As to the genre’s cultural value, it’s certainly true there have been some disappointing local horrors in recent years that have no cultural resonance or thematic subtext whatsoever (something that’s arguably I think had more to do with their lack of box office success than an alleged downturn in the horror market), and have been made purely as a career move rather than out of any affinity of the genre. In contrast, it seems to me that you and Michael Heath used the genre as a way of unpacking your preoccupations, some of which Stacey Abbot argues, in her essay on you in New Zealand Filmmakers, are evident throughout your career...
Yes, I agree completely... We also stayed within the NZ landscape and unpacked those preoccupations within that context.
What was Death Warmed Up’s reception?
The film was described as not being released, but escaping. Death Warmed Up won the Grand Prix at the Paris Festival of Horror and Science Fiction at the Grand Rex in 1984.
What did it do for your career?
Well, it got me to Hollywood at 30 years of age. Having Death Warmed Up meant I could get an agent and thus be able to go to meetings for film directing jobs. Horror films were being made continuously on all funding levels in Hollywood at the time.
These days Death Warmed Up has "cult status" internationally and I find that, when I am submitting my recent documentary films to festivals, invariably the festival directors remember DWU and comment on it.
Did it lead directly to you making Red-Blooded American Girl in 1990?
Yes, the Canadian producer Nick Stiliadis liked the film – I met him at the American Film Market in Los Angeles when Death Warmed Up was being promoted there.
What was the experience of making the movie like?
I really enjoyed working with a Canadian crew in Toronto – very much like the NZ experience, and quite different from the crews on some of the American shoots.
It was great working with writer Alan Moyle, and it was a wonderful on-set experience to work with the actor Christopher Plummer.
What attracted you to the feature film Grampire in ‘91, which saw you teaming up with writer Michael Heath again?
Michael Heath had written the delightful and mysterious radio play Moonrise and, having just done vampire film Red Blooded American Girl with Christopher Plummer, I was really attracted to the idea of bringing the vampire mythology into the context and consciousness of the New Zealand landscape. Michael’s story provided that very mix.
What’s your enduring memory of making that movie? I presume working with Al Lewis of The Munsters fame was something of a highlight?
Well, it was fantastic being able to work with Al Lewis and New Zealand’s Dame Pat Evison. Both had had very successful careers and it’s always wonderful to hear the stories and soak up the wisdom. Plus it was wonderful to be working out on Auckland’s West Coast again. We shot at a number of locations around Piha and Kare Kare Beach.
Is it true that a lack of finance hobbled the movie in terms of the intended special effects?
Yes, at the eleventh hour the American money in Moonrise, as it was originally called, dropped out. The budget adjustments meant that many expensive special effects had to be dropped.
What kind of reception did the film receive?
The reaction to the theatrical release of Grampire was mixed, review-wise. The movie failed at the box office, which was a major blow to my career. This was also my third outing with the Film Commission and did not bode well for the future.
What are your feelings about the film now?
Grampire is a sweet, endearing film, beautifully shot by Kevin Haywood, with great performances from Al Lewis and Dame Pat Evison. I believe it’s a great movie for kids and look forward to a new generation of Kiwis experiencing it on DVD. Also don’t forget the talented young Milan Borich has grown up to become the lead singer of the band Pluto.
In general, with regards to all your credits, does your relationship with, and view of, your films change as the passage of time allows you to view them a little more objectively, or does the way you see them remain inextricably tied up with your memories of making them?
I find films like Circadian Rhythms, Angel Mine, Death Warmed Up, and Grampire far more amusing than I remember them being when I made them. Certainly time allows you to see the films more clearly and also reveals more of one’s own themes and obsessions, which you aren’t necessarily aware of at the time. And yes, of course, I still see my mistakes and the stuff-ups.
Red-Blooded American Girl II in ’97 and Exposure in 2000 strike me as examples of jobs-for-hire rather than vehicles for personal statements. If that’s the case, how much do you seek to inject your personal sensibility and preoccupations into such projects?
Red-Blooded American Girl 2 aka Hot Blooded was actually based on a script I wrote myself – a dominatrix road movie, staring Kari Wuhrer, that focused on issues that would be explored again in [documentary] Bound for Pleasure. With Exposure, which was a job for hire, I tried to inject my own personal sensibilities into the project as I was attracted to the story, but the straight-to-TV nature of the project inhibited that.
Bound for Pleasure – which I think of as your War Stories Our Mother’s Never Told Us but with, you know, dominatrices – really seems to represent something of a turning point, the ushering in of a new phase in your career, if you will. Without wanting to be trite, it does seem that your career has come full circle, with you returning to a more hand-made and personal type of storytelling after a period of working on more "professional" (and presumably less personal) project. Is that a valid observation do you think? If yes, what prompted this shift?
The feature film Exposure was a frustrating experience and ultimately did nothing for my career. I realised that I had lost touch with my own personal view of the world and needed to reconnect with my inner self and its desire to explore the realms of dream, desire and the unconscious. Documentary was a way of expressing that desire without having to tread that well-worn path of going to funding bodies for the finance before being able to make a film. Instead, I gave myself permission to make a film!
And yes, your observation is accurate, Bound For Pleasure liberated me and allowed a new phase of my filmmaking career to begin.
So how was Bound for Pleasure received?
Like Angel Mine, Bound for Pleasure was funded by myself to the post-production stage when, with Richard Driver’s help, a deal with TV3 was secured.
The documentary ended up having a number of versions to accommodate various world markets. The TV3 version was very well received and had great reviews, while a 52-minute version of the film sold to about eight countries, and a longer feature length version was released on video and DVD in New Zealand.
It received a special mention at the Golden Gate Festival and has been selected for Fantasia Festival in Montreal this year along with my latest doco, Transfigured Nights.
Our Oldest Soldier was even more personal, in a literal way. What was the particular significance of this project for you?
This documentary, my first, was an opportunity to tell my family story with its links with a far off French town called Le Quesnoy. What made this film so significant for me was I had interviewed my grandfather many years earlier. It was only upon his death, and the national realisation that the soldiers from the First World War had fallen silent, that my personal interviews with my grandfather became a national treasure.
What prompted you to make doco Age of Aquariums?
Age of Aquariums was a continuation of my interest in the many strands that obsession can take. I found it very relaxing being around water and needed a soothing sorbet after the rigours of the dominatrices documentary. It’s coming up soon on the Sky Documentary Channel.
Your most recent film is doco Transfigured Nights, which – based on the short synopsis I’ve seen – seems like something of a companion piece to Bound for Pleasure. What’s it about, what led you to make it, and what kind of reception has it been getting?
Bound for Pleasure’s success stimulated me to look deeper into the internet world of webcam. Minority groups have been the first to exploit the internet’s networking potential and I found the subjects for Transfigured Nights on the internet and made the whole film from my lounge.
It’s a documentary about male mask performance captured on internet webcam. The characters are from all around the world. Transfigured Nights is more experimental than Bound for Pleasure as I have tried to deconstruct the traditional documentary approach.
It premiered at the Lausanne Underground Film Festival in Switzerland in October last year. I attended the festival screenings and the film had a great reception. As I mentioned earlier, it’ll also be screening at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival in July.
So what’s your relationship with the NZFC like these days? The funding body is sometimes accused of writing off more experienced filmmakers and having a fixation on "fresh" talent. In your experience is there any truth to this view?
Like many other New Zealand filmmakers I have continued to submit feature film projects for funding, including two major projects since 2000 seeking production funding from the NZFC Board.
Certainly I got those three opportunities from the commission earlier in my career, but my relationship with the commission in recent years has become very low key.
Looking back over the 30 years of the Film Commission’s existence reveals an incredible story of helping to grow a New Zealand film industry from scratch to where it is today, a respected part of the international film community.
The issue of only having a local market with a population of four million isn’t going away, and the limited government funding to the commission means that despite large numbers of projects on offer and in development with NZFC, only a handful of projects can be made each year.
What can you tell us about the projects you’re currently working on?
I am currently working on a new feature length, low budget horror script. The film i will not be conventional genre horror, more a continuing exploration of the unconscious worlds of desire and obsession. I aim to take the script on my overseas festival trip in July with the hope of finding money and a leading lady. I want to shoot the film later this year here in Auckland.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Yes, can you please give my website a plug – www.davidblyth.com.
© Copyright Onfilm magazine May 2008
Article republished with permission