The new movie Pork Pie opens Thursday, a remake 36 years after the original hit the big screen. Paul Little explores why the seminal 1981 film holds an enduring place in Kiwi hearts.

Goodbye Pork Pie

was released on Waitangi Day, 1981. The simple tale of two hooligans who drive a yellow Mini from Kaitaia to Invercargill, creating mayhem along the way, it was an unprecedented success, eventually being seen by 600,000 people or 20 per cent of the population.

It even got its own stamp as part of a 1996 issue celebrating NZ movies.

But then, we were easily impressed in those days. On February 9 that year the New Zealand Woman's Weekly bore a cover line that read: "Shona McFarlane's friend to re-decorate White House". (McFarlane was a popular artist and broadcaster.)

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However, we were notoriously unimpressed by the products of our own culture, in particular movies. Mainly because, until then, they hadn't been very good. That tide began to turn in 1977 with Sleeping Dogs, a taut dystopian thriller with high production values that did what all movies should: Showed people themselves on screen.

Ian Mune was a co-writer of Sleeping Dogs and, with director Geoff Murphy, of Goodbye Pork Pie. Having had a third of a century to think about it he can easily cite numerous reasons for the latter's success, not all of them high-flown.

"One of the original concepts," says Mune, "was to start as far north as possible and go to Bluff so everybody's going to see something in the movie that is their hometown.

"For years after, while I was teaching young actors, someone would say, 'I've seen that movie a number of times because when they're on the roundabout there's a point where the camera is turning around and we go "There is Aunty's house".' So people had a personal identification with it."

Murphy has his own, darker theories, about why it did so well as outlined in his memoir A Life on Film.

"To a great extent, it was a matter of timing," he writes. "There was a definite feeling things were changing for the worse. We were coming to the end of the age of innocence, or at least the age of delusion. Inflation was running at double figures.

"People were beginning to queue at the dole office. ... [PM Rob] Muldoon was piling on the taxes and a large sector of the community was watching in dread as it looked as though there would be a tour by the Springboks rugby team later in the year ... then, suddenly here was this film that was funny. It was about us and it made us feel good about being who we are."

Murphy had fought against enormous odds to get the picture made. He endured grudging and negative assessments from the New Zealand Film Commission, including one that said: "Making this thing would be the worst thing the Film Commission could possibly do at this time and would set the industry back many years", proving scriptwriter William Goldman's golden rule of film making: "No one knows anything."

Antonia Prebble stars in the movie.
Antonia Prebble stars in the movie.

Kiwi as

Goodbye Pork Pie

was Kiwi as right down to the No 8 wire techniques used to make it: low budget, seat of the pants, scary stuff.

During the film the two leads adopt disguises: one a Groucho Marx nose and moustache set, the other a Red Baron flying helmet. Both were initially done so stunt doubles could perform dangerous feats on behalf of the leads but those personae also become part of the movie.

It's a mark of the film's success that, although at the time Groucho and the Red Baron were foreign characters, any New Zealander now seeing them side by side will exclaim: "Oh look - it's the Pork Pie guys."

Murphy himself had a cameo in the film, did some stunt work and busted a gut to get it in front of people once it was in the can.

"I had made that film for New Zealanders and I was determined that as many of them as possible were going to get to see it."

Perhaps confirming that Murphy had succeeded in making a uniquely Kiwi movie, it was never a hit anywhere else although it was sold to many countries. It did, however, make us better known around the planet. After a Cannes screening, someone approached producer Nigel Hutchinson and said: "I didn't know you had motorways."

That we are no longer such an obscure country internationally it is thanks to the efforts of our filmmakers since Pork Pie.

To watch Goodbye Pork Pie today is to see a different world, one of record players and typewriters and a half-finished Mangere Bridge, a time when you had the choice of smoking or non-smoking when choosing your seat on a plane.

The Listener, then the only publication allowed to carry weekly TV listings, was the best barometer of popular culture at the time.

A scene from the original, seen by 20 per cent of the New Zealand population.
A scene from the original, seen by 20 per cent of the New Zealand population.

If a cinematic comet was about to streak across the sky on February 6, the issue dated January 31 seemed to be unaware of it, although it is in other ways still strangely relevant with a cover story on earthquakes shouting: "THE BIG ONE: Can we predict it?" and a transcript of a radio talk about the "imminent death of the Maori language" and what could be done about it.

Inside we were looking resolutely abroad: Phil Gifford interviewed Australia's "celebrated cook: Gretta Anna Teplitzky", quiz show host Selwyn Toogood was spruiking the London Shoppe travel centre and Gordon Campbell shared his pick of the best of 1980s music, including Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, The Pretenders and Marianne Faithfull.

On the box, primetime highlights included The Christians, a documentary series, The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Charlie's Angels, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

The following week, however, The Listener made Goodbye Pork Pie its cover story and pretty soon the media were getting excited by the movie.

Not the Woman's Weekly, however, which went behind the scenes of a now all-but-forgotten international co-production called Race for the Yankee Zephyr.

Although the Southland Times slated the film's "flagrant breaking of speed restrictions and examples of dangerous driving" most were happy to go along for the ride.

James Rolleston at the Pork Pie Premiere at The Civic in Auckland.
James Rolleston at the Pork Pie Premiere at The Civic in Auckland.

Headline writers were particularly grateful for the opportunities it provided, with standouts including: "Goodbye Pork Pie, hello profits"; "Goodbye Pork Pie, hello fun"; "Chasing a slice of the 'Pie' "; and "Hello hello hello, Pork Pie".

With its anti-authoritarian themes, one question loomed large: How would the iron-fisted PM of the time, Rob Muldoon, whose influence hovered over all aspects of national life, find the movie?

According to a report of his reaction: "For him the film had a Keystone Cops quality which cancelled out any fears of an anti-establishment flavour ... The principal characters in the end get their just desserts." Phew.

Inevitably, it was not long before copycat hoons took GPP literally and attempted to emulate what they saw.

"Seventeen-year-old Philip Stephen Payne, who saw the movie Goodbye Pork Pie 18 times then tried out the driving tactic on a central Otago highway has been ordered to do 100 hours community work," reported the Auckland Star. Numerous other misguided young men soon appeared in court under similar circumstance.

Changing attitudes to authority were visible elsewhere. The Truth reported that MP Gerard Wall "engaged in a tussle" with police trying to take his son into custody on driving charges. The police fought Wall but Wall won.

The Government was stonewalling the introduction of FM radio and pirate stations had begun broadcasting in defiance of the law. But we couldn't seem to decide whether we were anti-authoritarian or not. Although Murphy had made a strong case to the censor, to his annoyance his film was released with an R13 certificate, to protect pre-pubescents from its anarchic message.

But all this took place at the innocent beginning of that year. By the close of 1981 the nation had been through a bloody rite of passage that would change it forever: the Springbok Tour, marked by violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

"Pork Pie came out in early 1981," observes Mune. "The attitude to police then was that they are an irritation and that's about all. But in only the next six or seven months, suddenly we had the riot at Eden Park and the police Red Squad and so on."

"The police are a lot of fun in Goodbye Pork Pie," wrote Murphy. "They are not in Patu," the documentary film of the tour made by his wife, Merata Mita.

Mune said he thinks the sceptical attitude to authority is still part of the national character "in spite of the rest of 1981, in spite of various police shootings and what have you, there is still a fairly healthy attitude in New Zealand about authority and that is: don't take them too seriously. When the public takes them seriously, then they take themselves seriously and then you're really in trouble."

When interviewed, Mune was looking forward to seeing the Goodbye Pork Pie remake called simply Pork Pie, directed by Geoff Murphy's son Matt, which opens on Waitangi Day. "I loved the trailer, but you've got to be careful with trailers. You've got to make sure the movie is better."

Pork Pie opens on Thursday. The original Goodbye Pork Pie can be downloaded for purchase or rental from NZ Film on Demand.