The NZ Herald and editor-at-large Shayne Currie are on a two-week road trip to gauge the mood of the nation and meet everyday and notable Kiwis making a difference in their communities and the wider world. Today he visits the Wētā wonderland, in the heart of suburban Miramar, and talks to Sir Richard Taylor about what motivates him. We also talk to Whanganui author Airini Beautrais and we catch up with Lucy Lawless for Nine Questions With...
In the heart of suburban Miramar in Wellington, on a block opposite single-level weatherboard houses and a Christian school, there are two entrances to Wētā Workshop’s main building.
One is at the top of a flight of stairs and leads to the first-floor reception and the corporate offices.
The other lies to the right, directly off the carpark, and opens into a magic kingdom - the company’s workshop.
“I try to have a rule - as few times as possible in a week, you enter the building through the office door,” says Wētā co-founder and owner Sir Richard Taylor.
“Try and always enter through the workshop floor, so that you kick off the day through creative and technical interaction with the team.
“And when you need to come up for the first meeting, that’s when you first come up to your desk and begin the business side.”
It’s always a “fine balance” juggling imagination and management for one of New Zealand’s greatest creative geniuses.
That’s nowhere better illustrated than in Taylor’s own office - a CEO’s office unlike any other in New Zealand.
He calls it his “haven of joy”, a room where he is surrounded by more than 250 collectibles of all shapes and sizes - his own personal collection, including garage kits from around the world, “only one of them I’ve actually made”.
He starts introducing pieces individually: “You’ve got me going now - I’m fanatical!”
Apart from a couple of pieces on his desk, none of these collectibles are the work of Wētā - there’s a nearby, big conference room with wall-to-wall cabinets of those pieces, alongside multiple awards, including - in one corner - five golden Oscar statuettes.
While Taylor and his business are possibly best known globally for their work on The Lord of the Rings - four of the Academy Awards are testament to that - Wētā's feelers now stretch far beyond film and television production work.
From this unassuming suburban, patchwork building in Miramar, the business now leads the film and TV production work, a consumer products division, tourism ventures, retail stores, a location-based experience division, design studios and a digital gaming department.
Within each of these divisions are enough projects to write a dozen more stories - manufacture work on 13 film and TV projects this year; design work for a further 45 films, TV shows or digital games; collabs with the likes of one of Asia’s biggest musicians, Jay Chou; creating an entirely new Middle Earth game, Tales of the Shire; and museum and atrium designs in China, France and Abu Dhabi.
In Auckland, Wētā Workshop Unleashed is under way at Sky City, a 90-minute tour of a fantastical world. “As someone said, it’s a look inside my head,” says Taylor. “I have always desired to create something that one, demystifies what we do and two, really inspires specifically young people but it’s amazing the breadth of audience we are getting across all age groups.
“We’re trying to re-inspire people to think about creativity and imagination in their lives. So often you’re going through primary school bubbling with an incredible level of creativity only to hit secondary school and many kids start to have it whittled away.”
Taylor has just returned from China, where he visited 10 cities over 21 days and held 22 meetings, “basically chasing work”.
“You’ve got to always make it your endeavour to be in front of the client, in front of prospective work. Never rest on your laurels”.
Of the 22 meetings, he estimates 16 of them were promising.
“There are incredible things always happening in China. We went up originally to manufacture. We still do manufacture our collectibles in China but that led to a series of amazing interactions that have led to working in the film industry up there.”
At the centre of the Wētā empire are Taylor’s staff.
About 400 people work in the business, all of them in Wellington apart from 35-40 staff in Auckland for the Unleashed tourism experience, and some in China.
“This is the most people we’ve ever had,” Taylor says.
The business is “very, very happy in Wellington - it’s the best of places to be”.
“We have considered over the years whether we should set up a workshop somewhere else, but it only takes minutes of conversation to realise that’s something we wouldn’t want to do.
“We wouldn’t have access to the extraordinary people and infrastructure; we would have to literally uplift everyone and move somewhere.
“I want to be in the workshop, making things and I want to be making it with my colleagues and friends.”
He says people often say he must celebrate his success by the number of Oscars and other awards.
“Not at all. You judge your success as a company by the number of mortgages owned by your staff and the number of children born to your team because they’re a middle-class workforce.
“That’s the two biggest decisions that you’ll make in your life - buying a home and starting a family.
“So you’re trying to find the level of certainty and stability that would offer that to your team.”
Taylor says he “constantly” pinches himself.
Having grown up in rural Te Hihi, southwest of Auckland, he lived in an area bereft of artistic inspiration, but he knew his instincts. As a teenager, he wanted to be in theatre, oblivious at that time about New Zealand’s film industry.
“I went to Wesley College, which didn’t have an art class when I was going through. I was the first kid to do art at the school beyond the fourth form, and I took it all the way through to the seventh form.
“Very thankfully for me, there was a young teacher called Mrs Burrows who saw that if I didn’t do art, I probably wouldn’t do anything and would come to nothing.
“She very kindly took me under her wing and helped me get through my fifth, sixth, and seventh form years, doing art.”
From there, he made the trek to the capital with his then-girlfriend (now business partner and wife) Tania Rodger, to Wellington Polytech to study visual communication and design, and to a city where his heart has firmly stayed.
He and Rodger - he reportedly fell for her when he set sights on a photograph of her when he was 13 - officially set up Wētā 30 years ago next year. But they were actually working together for years before that, setting up their first workshop in the bedroom of a Wellington flat.
“Luckily on arriving in Wellington with my wife Tania, we discovered this extraordinary film industry. Well, it was more the advertising and television industry until we actually met Peter about five years into our career.”
They remain close to Peter, as in Sir Peter Jackson.
“We met him while he was finishing off Bad Taste,” says Taylor.
“The first movie we actually got to work with Peter on was the original Braindead, which then fell over and then we worked on Meet The Feebles.”
He, Rodger and Jackson have never had an ill word.
“We come together if Peter’s making something and when he’s not, we obviously have to stay very busy doing our own stuff.
“It’s always been critical to me that he doesn’t ever feel the weight of our commercial needs on his shoulders.
“He needs to make his films in the schedule and time that he feels is right. And then if there’s a place for us on them, fantastic.”
- Shayne Currie is travelling the country on the Herald’s Great New Zealand Road Trip. Read the full series here.
He’s also never had an ill-word with Rodger about their work.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. Tania sees in black and white more than I do and I see in shades of multi-colours, but that’s served us very well,” Taylor says.
“We have areas of specialty - we are able to complement each other - and we have this incredible senior team around us, which takes away some of the weight and stress that comes with this type of career.”
Taylor says he aims to lead by example. “There’s no job too small or too dirty that I wouldn’t do myself on the workshop floor.
“You always try and be here on time, last to leave type thing. I always make sure that I work as hard as I can physically work in trying to play my part in keeping this all together and rocking along.”
He says he leads by intuition and has never had formalised management or leadership training.
“You’ve just got to run two lives really in one and you’ve got to ring out of every day the maximum you possibly can.”
I ask him the common question I pose to others on the Great New Zealand Road Trip - one word to sum up their state of mind.
Taylor says he wears rose-coloured spectacles: “I wake up every morning giddy with the love of life”.
“I love what I do. I love the people that I do it with. I love the people that we do it for and I’m happy in my place in the world.
“So I think if there’s one word, it’s probably ‘love’ - as soft and dopey as that is.
“I think you’ve just got to love the thing you’ve chosen to do in life. Otherwise, you’re somewhat defaulting on the privilege of getting to do it.”
Towards the end of the interview, Taylor’s Schnoodle dog Lottie bounds into the office, and on to Taylor’s lap. A remarkable, real-life creature.
Taylor is besotted. “It’s pathetic!”
“Look at these eyelashes. You could almost tie her up with them.”
Taylor says he is optimistic for the people of New Zealand.
“We’re a driven group of people who are passionate about our place in the world. We’re very patriotic about the country that we live in and very proud of the people that we are.”
He’s also optimistic about the creative industries.
“Obviously, the creative industries ride the fickleness of the world’s economic and sociopolitical realities and no one knows what shape that’s going to take. Obviously, there are very dark forces afoot in the world.
“I think the foil can often be through creativity - the arts, music, dance, theater, film...
“The ability to share positive, powerful messages of good, and the desire to keep the creative arts at the forefront of the world, is an important thing.”
He says he has a saying with his team: “The thing that we love to make today is other makers”.
“I’d love to think that we can continue to inspire new people that are coming into the industry of creativity, a future that can look very bright and they can see how they can indelibly make their mark on the world stage, spread the positivity of New Zealand around the world.”
Wētā certainly wants to play its part.
“We don’t aspire to be necessarily the best in the world, but we certainly want to try and be the best we can be in the world. And hopefully what will come from that is things that people enjoy watching and engaging with.”
Day 8 - Wellington to Palmerston North
After interviewing Taylor, I headed into Wellington city for a food-truck lunch.
At the Crude coffee cart - five years old this summer, and having survived the Covid years - Leon Stothart and Cecile Bary were happy. Partly because they were about to head home. And partly because they feel the summer ahead might be just their best yet.
They had one word for the moodboard: “stoked”.
On Monday afternoon, I took the all-electric VW ID.5 up Transmission Gully, north of Wellington, and charged the car up at Paraparaumu for the first time in two days.
While it handled the steep, new highway route extremely well, there was one lookout further on - two police officers standing with radar guns on a highway overbridge, and then three police cars further on, waiting to pull over speedsters.
Two of the three police cars had pulled over motorists.
Today the Great New Zealand Road Trip heads from Palmerston North to New Plymouth, for the second time seeing the Tasman Sea on this cross-country journey.