From Goodbye Pork Pie to Utu, movie director Geoff Murphy made some of New Zealand’s best-loved classics. On the eve of publishing a memoir about his life in film, he talks to Greg Dixon about fighting bureaucrats, making a film industry, the madness of Hollywood and why he doesn’t rate Peter Jackson.

Geoff Murphy, ONZM, Doctor of Literature, icon of the arts, is chuckling.

He just can't help himself. This doyen of New Zealand cinema is telling me exactly what all those awards and accolades and letters after his name really count for. They mean the auteur who made Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth; the joker who wrote the greatest line in Kiwi film - "I'm taking this bloody car to Invercargill, boy!" - could get the damn city council to finally turn up at his house.

It seems Murphy and his wife Diane had trouble with a fallen tree at the back of their handsome art deco home in Wellington's Strathmore Park but for some six weeks the Wellington City Council did nothing. Then he wrote an email to the body and signed it with all his honours and awards.

"[I ended it] 'Dr Geoff Murphy, Doctor of Literature, icon of the arts, NZONZ' or whatever the f*** it is. They came the next morning."

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The 76-year-old giggles again. "That's about all [those awards mean]. They don't mean much at all really."

Oh, but they do. After a lifetime of kicking against all manner of pricks, of speaking truth to power and of damn hard work, these honours bestowed from above have a particular piquant significance. They mean the Establishment has finally acknowledged him.

Geoff Murphy editing film in the basement of a condemned building which he used as a studio, cutting-room and viewing theatre in 1972.
Geoff Murphy editing film in the basement of a condemned building which he used as a studio, cutting-room and viewing theatre in 1972.

It was a long time coming. Until two years ago, the only honour Murphy had received for his 40-odd years in film-making, for the 17 feature films he directed in five countries, for the 50 scripts he helped write, was a best director award for The Quiet Earth in 1987. As he writes in his new memoir, A Life On Film, which is published this week, it wasn't until 2013 - seven years after he retired as a film director - that the powers that be finally stirred themselves to recognise him. And suddenly it was like some mad, year-long awards season just for him.

The first gong was from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, which made him one of its icon of the arts in 2013. Only 20 of these are allowed to exist at any one time; also among those included that year was one Sir Peter Jackson.

Later in 2013 Murphy received a Moa for lifetime achievement at the annual films awards. Then, in January 2014, he was awarded the ONZM before receiving, four months later, the honorary doctorate in literature from Massey University.

The prophet had finally been honoured in his own land. "For a while there I didn't [think that would happen]," he says over tea and cake.

"I thought they were determined to ignore me. But then they all came in - and I realised it didn't mean a lot anyway.

"If I wished for anything it would be that my opinion was taken more seriously. It would be nice if my opinion was taken as seriously as Peter Jackson's for argument's sake, particularly since he is a so much more inferior as a film-maker ... " He chuckles once again. He's stirring but he means it. He's fighting the Establishment, just like he always has.

The Murphy philosophy - it comes down to "what they are telling you is not necessarily true" - was born at the dinner table nearly a lifetime ago.

The middle son of three boys born to Vernon Murphy, an ex-soldier who would later become the chief civil engineer at New Zealand Railways, the young Murphy first brushed against the hard surface of authority at home.

"[During the war, Dad] was a colonel in the army and that's how he was, he gave orders: 'stop that laughing', 'sit up straight at the table', 'no talking at the table'. He was a man of his time."

The reproving at home was matched by a lumpen, socks-up-or-the-cane discipline at Catholic schools. He hated it. However, it was during the waterfront lockout in 1951 that his views on authority really took shape. "I definitely formed the opinion that authority, people who claim to be in authority and people who claim to be experts, were not to be trusted. At quite an early age, I formed that opinion. And I've got so say that not a lot has happened to assault those opinions throughout my whole life."

If A Life On Film is the story of anything, it is of how Murphy and a generation of mainly young men took on the so-called experts of a then-government-controlled film and television industry and, despite every bastard saying no, managed to create an independent New Zealand film business that would, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, make films like Sleeping Dogs, Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace, Vigil, Came A Hot Friday and Utu.

In Wellington, the incubator wasn't inside the National Film Unit, the body that oversaw local film-making, or even in the city's arts community or a film school - none existed - it was inside a jazz club set up in 1963 by a group including Murphy and the late, great actor, Bruno Lawrence.

"I sort of grew up with a community [of friends] who were interested in film, which made film-making possible. You could get a camera and get hold of a mate who could work the camera, Alun Bollinger was the main one, and could go out and shoot. And we'd get another mate and say 'you stand in front of the camera and be an actor' - like Bruno - and he later became a f***ing star."

This group - some of whom, including Murphy, would go on the road with Lawrence's travelling roadshow, Blerta, a few years later - might have been a bunch of jazz-addicted, dope-smoking hippies, but by the end of the 1960s their weekend experimenting with cheap cameras and borrowed gear was ready for a much broader audience than their mates.

"In a weird way we were very patriotic," Murphy says. "We believed in our own stuff. At that stage, New Zealand was taking its first faltering steps into TV drama. And they made these bloody dramas and they were terrible, they were embarrassing. We decided to make one and find out what the huge problem is that they came up against. There wasn't one."

Getting hold of camera gear and sound recording equipment, trying to get the film edited and getting it in front of an audience meant fighting the Wellington bureaucrats. But this just made Murphy more determined.

"Official television and Film Unit people were trying to stop us, literally putting up barriers. [Another independent film-maker] John O'Shea rang me and said, 'Oh [the bureaucrats] were talking about you in a meeting.' I was pleased. I was thinking, 'Oh they're talking about me.' The fact that the talk was negative didn't bother me at all. It said to me I must have them worried."

In 1969, after nearly a year of struggle and weekend film-making, Murphy, Lawrence and their collaborators completed Tank Busters, an Italian Job-style heist film about a bunch of students who decide to crack a Victoria University safe. It was good; Murphy decided he'd try to sell it to television. And so it was, that on New Year's Eve 1970, a Geoff Murphy film screened on New Zealand TV for the very first time. His hobby was finally starting to look like a career.

The film that changed Murphy's life was born at a dinner table too, this time at the commune that Murphy and Lawrence, along with actor Martyn Sanderson, cinematographer Bollinger and their families had established in Waimarama in Hawkes Bay in the early 1970s.

One night in 1977, one of Sanderson's friends arrived from Auckland and proceeded to tell a dinner table story about hitching a ride with a couple of guys who, during the trip south, had pulled into a gas station and had swapped their car's jack and spare tyre for some gas. It was only after the car had left the station that Sanderson's mate realised the car was a rental and they were selling parts they didn't own.

It was some yarn. And it became the heart of a film that became one of the most successful features ever made here. Released in 1981, Goodbye Pork Pie became as close to a phenomenon as any local film ever has.

It wasn't the first of the so-called renaissance (Murphy hates the word) of New Zealand film. Sleeping Dogs (1977) - directed by Roger Donaldson but with Murphy in charge of the explosive special effects - is normally viewed as the beginning of all that.
Nor was Pork Pie Murphy's first feature. He'd made two films, Wild Man, starring Lawrence and Dagg Day Afternoon, starring John Clarke, which had been released as a double-bill in 1977.

However, Pork Pie, an hilarious anti-establishment road movie about a couple of guys who steal a rented yellow Mini and take the bloody thing to Invercargill, had New Zealanders, for the first time in our history, queuing around the block to see a New Zealand film. It made its money back, running for more than three months on Queen St. It was, instantly, a New Zealand classic.

Yet there is something like ambivalence in A Life On Film about Pork Pie; Murphy almost damns his hit - it was sold to over 20 countries - with faint praise. He has his reasons.

"You knew when you went public with a film [back then, that] people would come after you with bats to beat you and tell you it was a piece of shit!" Murphy tells me. "That happened. That was continual. It was bad enough that at first I wasn't going to direct Pork Pie at all. I was too scarred by early experiences, mainly Wild Man and Dagg Day Afternoon. There were letters to the paper when Pork Pie got funded [by the Film Commission] saying, 'Why are they giving that joker money? He has already proved he can't do it.'

"The important thing when you've made a film is to sit down and watch it and try ... to make an assessment of it. So then when they come after you with brickbats to try to beat you to death, you compare what they are saying with what's in there" - he points to his head - "and you go 'no, no, you're wrong, it is much better than that'. Or, as in Pork Pie's case, when they came smarming at you [saying] 'it is a work of genius', you go 'no it's not. It's very good, it's high energy, it's exuberant and all that. But it's flawed.'" He laughs.

"So you know, you don't buy your own publicity and go around thinking you're a f***ing genius." Well not until you end up in Hollywood.

"I never had any ambition to go to Hollywood. It was just that some joker rang up and asked me."

In the wake of Pork Pie, and his next two New Zealand films - the terrific Utu (a film which, in its restored Utu Redux cut, is as close to a masterpiece as he made) and the creepy sci-fi picture The Quiet Earth - Murphy decided he might as well go.

"I actually didn't have much of a choice. There was nothing happening here. I was driven over there really: I went there to pay a tax bill [of $250,000], otherwise I would have been declaring bankruptcy."

Murphy's 10 years in Hollywood form the most rollickingly and gossipy section of A Life On Film as he describes what read like increasingly surreal adventures. It started not long after arriving when his big mouth lost him the chance to director Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (in a meeting he'd foolishly joked about Schwarzenegger's Conan The Barbarian, calling it "Cronin the Librarian"). But he went on to direct bonafide Hollywood eccentrics Steven Seagal and Mickey Rourke, made solid actioners like Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and even spent two weeks on holiday with his second wife, Merata Mita, at Mick Jagger's flash place on Mustique in the Virgin Islands (Jagger had a cameo in Freejack, a mess of a sci-fi picture that Murphy directed in 1992).

All his Hollywood pictures were action films - Utu made him an action director as far as the Americans were concerned - but he made big money. He admits in A Life On Film it did rather go to his head until the disaster of Freejack. It also made him fairly wealthy.

"I made millions over there. But I was never that good at being greedy."

He was also not good at keeping his mouth shut. When I put to him that A Life On Film suggests his habit of speaking plainly might not always have served him well, he just laughs.

"I can't [kiss arse], I don't know the rules. It's like these people that run the big major studios in Hollywood, and I suspect a lot of the public servants here, are very neurotic people, paranoid people and when you go to meetings ... your real job is to make them feel comfortable. It's really hard to make a neurotic person feel comfortable, I don't know how to do it." He giggles again. "[My Hollywood agent] Bill Block would say 'you can go into a meeting top of the list [to direct a film], they want you, they've asked for you specifically and you'll come out of the meeting without the job. Whereas Roger Donaldson can go in 20th on their list and come out with the job and does it regularly ... Perhaps you should go ask Roger how he does it!'"

He never did.

Geoff Murphy filming with a Panavision camera while making Under Siege II in 1995.
Geoff Murphy filming with a Panavision camera while making Under Siege II in 1995.

"In New Zealand, film is not a risky business. You will fail." Murphy bursts into laughter once again. "That is how it is."

Not that it matters to Murphy any more; it's been a decade since he retired from full-time directing. After returning from Hollywood he spent the early 2000s working as a second director on other people's films, including Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, before making his last local film, the poorly reviewed Spooked, loosely based on Ian Wishart's The Paradise Conspiracy, in 2004.

Murphy, however, remains a keen observer of the business here and he doesn't like what he sees - "Right now [New Zealand film] is a pretty improvished field" - and he doesn't think that Jackson and his vast empire in nearby Miramar has done New Zealand cinema much good. While Murphy heaps praise on Jackson's technical talents in A Life On Film, he also makes it plain he's not much of a fan of Jackson's films. Murphy writes that he can't be bothered with "these screeching, crashing orgies of violence that pass for hits. This could be why Peter is a billionaire and I'm not."

Part of the problem Murphy has with The Lord of the Rings is the source material - Tolkien is no Shakespeare, he says - but he also views Jackson as more of an industrialist than film-maker.

"It's nothing to do with what I do ... and it's nothing to do with New Zealand national cinema at all. Peter Jackson is a very good film-maker, he puts them together nicely and he makes the scenes work and he's got a very, very good eye for certain camera moves and things like that.

"My reaction to Peter Jackson is really my reaction to them sanctifying him - if he farts it makes the front page of the f***ing newspaper! I didn't mind him being made a Sir, I objected to him being made an icon of the arts, because I don't think his film-making is art. I thought he should have been made an icon of industry or something ... "

Is it fair to say that he doesn't mind making enemies, then?

"It's only when I mention Peter Jackson's name that the question arises. Even the publishers [HarperCollins] queried that: 'You don't mind pissing Peter Jackson off?' I said 'I'm not if it is just telling the truth. I've said a lot of good things about him'."

And a bit of bad too, as you can see. But Geoff Murphy, ONZM, Doctor of Literature, icon of the arts is not one for regrets, and he and his generation of film-makers are the ones who battled and fought and worked to create a truly New Zealand cinema.

"If it had been easier, we probably wouldn't have done it. In our day, if you wanted to get something you had to go and fight for it - and you had to fight and punch and f***ing fight ...

"We'd learnt the craft, literally, on the side of the road. Trying it out, shooting it, trying this and that ... All that stuff."

HarperCollins New Zealand, Rialto Cinemas & Flicks.co.nz are hosting a special screening of Goodbye Pork Pie followed by director Geoff Murphy talking about his memoir.

When and where: Thursday 15 October, 6pm at Rialto Cinemas Newmarket. Tickets are $25.
Geoff Murphy: A Life On Film (HarperCollins $39.99) is out on Thursday.