Costume designer Ngila Dickson is one of an elite group of New Zealanders: she has her own Oscar. With her latest Hollywood creations about to hit cinemas in Green Lantern, she talks to Greg Dixon about dreaming up a costume that doesn't exist, wanting to be a journalist and the pressure of being a winner.
Now don't tell Oscar. But here's something Ngila Dickson, costumer designer and winner of an Academy Award, doesn't tell just anyone. She almost - almost! - said no.
No, not to the Oscar. Don't be so silly. No, she almost said no to the films that helped move her (though she'll probably hate me putting it this way) from the small time to the big.
"Here is the truth of the matter," she says, then pauses slightly for effect - something she's rather good at. "I had a moment," she continues, "when I was offered The Lord of the Rings when I was having so much fun on [television shows] Hercules and Xena that I seriously was thinking that I was not going to accept it.
"It is one of those sort of pivotal moments in your life. I loved what I was doing and who I was working with and, in fact, it was [Hercules and Xena creator and producer] Rob Tapert himself who made me make the decision. He was having a conversation with me about how he had fired the [Hercules] writers in LA. He said, in that wacky American accent of his, 'Ngila, those guys, they've been writing it for three years. They're getting stale. They're just repeating themselves.' And I was sitting there going, 'Oh my God, that's me. I've been doing this for five years'."
She did, of course, say yes to the hobbits. And, of course, she eventually won that Oscar for her work on Rings' third instalment, The Return of the King - though that all seems an age ago now. As Galadriel would say, history has become legend and legend become myth since Dickson made that crucial choice around the turn of the millennium. The Lord of the Rings films are now among Hollywood's great hits.
However, the chances are probably quite good that if Dickson had gone with her first thought and said no to working on Sir Peter Jackson's much-lauded and supremely successful Rings trilogy, she and I would not be talking. Or at least we would probably not talking about her work on yet another big-budget Hollywood affair, Green Lantern.
I have to confess that I had to Google this green fellow - he's a comic book superhero with a power ring - but we'll all be hearing quite a lot about him in the coming weeks as the US$150 million ($184 million) film version heads into our cinemas.
The film is directed by ex-pat Kiwi Martin Campbell - he's directed two Bond flicks, including Casino Royale, is art-directed by New Zealander production designer Grant Major (he worked on Rings too) and stars, if briefly, one Temuera Morrison.
Dickson says, by her count, 11 of the "key crew" on Green Lantern were New Zealanders. "We talk a lot about [New Zealand] directors and we talk a lot about [New Zealand] actors in Hollywood, but nobody seems to take notice of that other layer of New Zealanders who are working internationally, which is really large," she says.
That's because, ahem, it's not the sexy end of showbiz, I say, though I probably shouldn't have.
"Damn you, Greg! I tell you what, when you're on the set, those people are the stars more than the actors are. It's quite an interesting dynamic. Within a film crew, those key crew are treated with more respect I guess, on a lot of levels. But not outside ..."
Fortunately for Dickson, the public's esteem, or perceived lack of it, isn't what matters.
This is how ridiculously busy Dickson is right now. And how ridiculous the business of Hollywood is. To speak to her about Green Lantern, a New Zealand publicist had to talk to an Australian publicist, who had to talk to an American publicist. The last would make a decision, which was passed back to New Zealand from Australia. Naturally there was much to-ing and fro-ing. Eventually it appeared Dickson would be back in Auckland for three days, but no, I couldn't speak to her face to face - though she lives with her husband, culture commentator Hamish Keith, not 15 minutes from the Herald's office. She was too busy to see me; it would have to be by phone.
When I finally speak to her, it's less than 24 hours after she's stepped off a flight from London, where she's spent just a day and half, and she's had little time to shake off the jet lag. In two days, she was off to Bougainville to work on something costing a lot less than US$150 million - director Andrew Adamson's screen adaptation of Lloyd Jones' novel, Mr Pip. She was hoping "not to be there for long" - filming will last weeks in Bougainville - though, of course, making a local film is nothing like as long-winded as a big-budget Hollywood affair.
In total, Dickson spent nearly 18 months working on Green Lantern, a project that saw her doing something she'd never done before: creating a costume that doesn't exist. Well that's not quite right. The costume does exist, but only on some mainframe somewhere in LA and on film - it's completely computer-generated imagery (CGI).
"What I actually wanted to do was build the costume and add CGI elements into it, to complete it in CGI. And they said we had to go one way or the other, we had to go full CGI or no CGI on the costume. We chose CGI because we were feeling quite ambitious that day.
"The most frustrating aspect of it was that you never got to see it in real time ... I was turning that figure around [on screen] and following every line, working on the detail in an incredibly intimate way ... But I was used to [being] hands-on and seeing it right in front of me and being able to fiddle with each bit of it myself. The real fiddling was being done far away from me, mainly in LA and in other parts of America and it is a very slow business. They would be making very incremental steps forward, which was incredibly frustrating. They would say 'don't worry about it, Ngila, we will get there'." She laughs. "I still don't know whether they've got there because, quite honestly, I haven't seen it since Christmas."
When I suggest to her that the film - a comic book, sci-fi blockbuster - seems an odd choice, she splutters slightly and says, "well, which box hadn't I ticked?" This is a fair point. In the last decade and a half she's worked her way through many of the major film genres, including fantasy (Rings, Hercules, etc), historical (The Last Samurai) and modern-day thriller (Blood Diamond).
The way she chooses what she works on is fluid. It might be, like Mr Pip, because she loves the source material. "Mr Pip is an incredible book and that's just an amazing story and I just thought it was a really, really great opportunity to come home and do something from home." Or it might be that she chooses a film because she wants to work with a particular director or actor. Beyond that, it sounds like a gamble.
"Sometimes the [film] you want turns out to be the sweet you wish hadn't bitten into. And that is part of the deal. Once you've signed on, you're in there. However it turns out, you are part of that team and you are going to do the very best you can, really. But you just never know how it is going to turn out."
Her life has been much the same really, especially when you consider Dickson's original career plan was to work for the New Zealand Herald. How we both laughed when she told me this. Fortunately, for New Zealand film, the Herald didn't hire her, even though she'd moved to Auckland hoping for a job.
Born in Dunedin in 1958, Dickson desperately wanted out from an early age. "It was all I thought about from about 13 years old: 'where's the exit, where's the exit?"'
She left school at 17 and came to Auckland. "I was going to be a journalist. My brother was. And I was so naive, I thought I'd go to the New Zealand Herald and I'd get a job because my brother went to the Otago Daily Times and got a job. Well it just didn't work out like that [for me]." She laughs. "Then I did what everybody else does, I went waitressing."
What she also did was make her first tentative steps towards her future career by making clothes to sell at a stall at the late, lamented, Cook St Market.
Dunedin and Cook St now feel a very long way away, but those two things made her who she is, she says. "It's that thing of growing up in a small town with a big imagination and then working in a crazily creative place like Cook St Market - that place was incredible and I wish it was still there."
Her foray into fashion was ultimately not successful because, she says, she didn't have that kind of business acumen. "Which is why the film industry is a very safe place. I'm incredibly responsible with other people's money and very irresponsible with mine. Which makes me the perfect employee."
After Cook St, Dickson found herself working for music magazine Rip It Up as editor Murray Cammick's "paste-up girl". But really, she wanted her own publication - she hadn't got the idea of journalism out of her head.
In 1983, Cammick gave her a phone, a desk he'd made himself and $2000 and Dickson started ChaCha, a publication that quickly became an incubator for talent and the style bible for Aucklanders. The reality of putting out a monthly magazine, however, was rather less chic.
"I'll never forget a journalist coming up to interview me about ChaCha. She came to the third floor of number 3 Darby St and she obviously knew nothing about what was going on up there and she was all dressed up. She had a bright pink dress on, with a big bow on the shoulder and white high-heel shoes and she arrived on this floor, where there was this dirty old broken-down furniture and we were pasting up the magazine on an old cutting table. We looked such a shabby and disreputable bunch. I've never forgotten, she just could not believe that this was the style crew of the town at the time. I thought 'wow, we have really succeeded'. We succeeded in making people see us as incredibly stylish even though we couldn't afford it on any level."
Then came the '87 crash. The New Zealand sharemarket's Black Tuesday eventually killed many, many businesses, and it killed ChaCha too.
"I was destroyed by that. It took me quite some time to get over it. I thought we were producing a very fine magazine. It was a bunch of really interesting people involved in that, great photographers who have subsequently gone on to do great things. There was some pretty bloody good writing at times and it really was a sharp-looking magazine."
Within two years, however, Dickson was - via styling for band video clips and TV commercials - finding work in the film industry. If it sounds like dumb luck, it wasn't. There was, she says, an inevitability about getting into film once she was involved with television.
"You just don't know it, you don't even notice that film is out there as possibility. But it's inevitable. And the first time I did it was an absolute bloody horror show, but I loved it. That was Gregor Nicholas' User Friendly."
While it might appear from the outside that meeting Sir Peter Jackson - she worked first on his Heavenly Creatures, then Rings - was the crucial moment for her new career in costume design, it is actually Rob Tapert's Hercules and Xena which made her.
"I rate Rob as one of the sort of number one film people in this country. I spent five years in that world, being able to play at the most extraordinary level and learn and hone my skills and find out all manner of things and do some of the most outrageous things."
It's no coincidence that Sir Richard Taylor, Weta Workshop's co-founder and special effects wizard, was the one who called Dickson to ask whether she'd be interested in Rings. She'd worked with him on Herc and Xena. The pair would go on to be co-winners of the Oscar for best costume design for their work together on The Return of the King in 2004.
However they won't be labouring together again on The Hobbit due to a timing clash for Dickson. While she's disappointed about that, she's also "that weird sort of person who, in a way, sort of thought 'I've done that'".
Besides, the Rings and that Oscar have opened a huge variety of opportunities to her. Before winning the Academy Award (and a Bafta), Dickson worked on (and received an Oscar nomination for) The Last Samurai - a film that was a personal best, she says. Since then she's done The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel), Blood Diamond (Leonardo DiCaprio), The International (Clive Owen and Naomi Watts) and now Green Lantern. All nice work, if you can get it. And you'd think that the getting of it requires a steely resolve.
"You know, I would say I am the most uncompetitive person I know. I hate competing for anything," says Dickson. "But I have my own kind of personal level that I have to hit with everything and I don't really feel that I ever get there, which is why I go and do the next movie." She laughs. "You would think at my age I would be more cynical than I am ..."
Of course, if that Oscar means she's esteemed in LA - "if you have an Oscar, the respect is colossal" - you wonder whether it creates a heavy sense of expectation. Is there a feeling she's only as good as her last job or does that gold statue mean she doesn't have to worry?
"You do worry about it. It doesn't change anything in that respect. Every time you speak to a new director, you're desperate to get that job. It's all the same stuff. I think that's one of the things I like about it, that there is no resting. Certainly not for me, I never feel that I'm better than the project. Never - damn it!"
Green Lantern opens in cinemas Thursday.