Lee Baker writes and directs TV shows including Neighbours at War, Highway Cops and Eating Media Lunch. He is also a member of the Alternative Commentary Collective.
1. You've made TV shows about neighbours, bogans, renters, cops and chefs. Who are your favourites?
The most memorable characters always come through Neighbours at War. We've met some very eccentric, unusual and intriguing people who often aren't used to being listened to, so are very happy to tell their stories. One thing I've learned is how seriously important it is to get along with your neighbours. Because when you can't it's a nightmare. Your happy, safe place is no longer happy and sometimes not safe. You can't relax there and that's a terrible thing.
2. Have you ever cut footage that was too violent or objectionable?
Generally we don't choose stories we think will be too hot to handle. We had a woman who bit another woman's finger off in a dispute over a lawnmower. That was a bit of a classic. But the show's meant to be funny. To be entertaining it has to have some hope in it. People can be very inventive with finding ways to express their dissatisfaction and that's when it gets interesting. Dead rats deposited in letterboxes. Dog poo deployed creatively between properties.
3. What's the main cause of neighbourly disputes?
It can be things like noise or proximity but some stories have the most extraordinarily abstract roots. The common theme is a lack of communication. If you're not listening to the other person's perspective you make assumptions. Choosing a course of action based on those assumptions can lead to unfortunate results. It's what people do in relationships. I've done it. You put off talking about an issue and by the time you get round to addressing it, it's become too big. Some people don't want to listen or understand. Next thing you know its 23 minutes of television going out to the nation.
4. Do you ever get complaints from people who don't like the way they've been portrayed?
We've had neighbours question the way their stories have been told. They often wish we'd had more time to spend on a particular issue. But very few people are unhappy with the way they've been portrayed. They're mainly pleased that someone's bothered to listen. If they lose it on camera, they don't necessarily feel embarrassed because to their minds they're just being honest. An outsider might find that amusing or even tragic, but they don't necessarily care.
5. Which of your shows has achieved the highest ratings success?
Incredibly, Highway Cops season 2 was the fourth most-watched show on TVNZ last year. I can't explain that. It was one of the dullest shows I've ever had to make. It's no one's fault. It's just that South Island cops don't always have exciting car chases or big crimes to solve. They're often just pulling over teenagers and going, "Hey, you know the restrictions. You shouldn't be driving." It's quite sweet but not exactly scintillating. Making that into a TV show is challenging.
6. Do you sometimes have to beat it up to create a story out of nothing?
Beat it up? Sorry, I'm not familiar with that phrase. Television is all smoke and mirrors. You get good at crafting drama from limited materials by using a lot of clever tricks and some rather obvious ones. The very process of editing is deceitful in some ways. It doesn't mean the end result is deceitful if you can satisfy yourself that it's telling the story accurately, and it usually is.
7. How did your Alternative Cricket Commentary Collective fare after losing accreditation to this year's World Cup because Leigh Hart accompanied a drinks trolley on to the pitch during a break?
Well, it certainly didn't hurt our profile. Any publicity's good publicity. We never saw that coming, though. It was a huge blow for us to lose our right to be at the ground because those live ground effects are what make it a real commentary.
8. What's your most memorable moment in the 'ACC'?
During the first World Cup game, the Minister of Defence suddenly rolled into our caravan. Maybe his PR person thought it would be some light-hearted fun. Unfortunately Jeremy Wells and I had just been discussing how we'd lost our virginity so we spent the next 15 minutes trying to get Gerry Brownlee to tell us how he'd lost his virginity. He couldn't walk away because he was live and on our turf. Then we moved on to various questionable sexual practices like dogging. He did a great job of skirting around issues and avoiding questions. I recall him walking away from the caravan somewhat downcast with his PR person on his right flank trying to either console him or save his job or both.
9. Do you talk about cricket much during your commentary?
Surprisingly little. But the game is well covered. We call it ball by ball. The rest of the time we're just talking shit really. The number of personal confessions that I've made while live on air with these guys is extraordinary. I think of the ACC as the over-enthusiastic rottweiler puppy biting at the legs of the loveable labrador of traditional radio commentary that's got cosy in front of the fireplace. Looming in the background is a vet preparing a syringe, possibly.
10. Did you also deliberately test the boundaries of broadcasting standards in Eating Media Lunch?
The best thing about working on that show was no one ever said "no" to me. Some of the stuff I wrote was patently outrageous and it would actually go to air. Being on late night TV, we kind of flew under the radar. We had so much fun making that and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand. We'd mine the archives and then put made-up bits of footage in with the factual stuff to keep the audience constantly guessing. If they think it's real then you've hit on some triggers, which is what satire should do.
11. You wrote a book Way of the JAFA: The Guide to Surviving Aucklanders. Why was it a bestseller?
It was quite cheap and well-marketed for Christmas. As a born and bred Aucklander, I'd always disliked the whole parochial Jafa thing. So it was somewhat ironic that I ended up literally writing the book on it.
12. You went to a Catholic boarding school. Do you think you'll ever return to your Catholic roots?
Not a chance. I won't send my kids to a single-sex school either. It's too important to learn how to work with the opposite sex. When my parents separated they sent me to Sacred Heart College. I missed girls so badly. I was having the time of my life at Pakuranga College. Luckily I made lifelong friends, a surprising number of them actors and comedians like Paolo Rotondo, Brendhan Lovegrove and Jonathan Brugh.