Helen Watson White
Whatever It Takes: Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948–2000 by John Reid (Victoria University Press, 2018), 462pp, $60
Whatever It Takes is an apt title for John Reid’s story of the formation of Pacific Films, an enterprise that dared to dream in an age when dreaming was expensive. The No. 8 wire mentality, necessitated by insufficient funding for almost any part of independent film-making, is exemplified in countless ways in this account, from the building of a camera dolly with bicycle wheels, to the capture of the 1953 Royal Tour on three cameras simultaneously, by mounting them on the same frame, the results of the shoot destined for three different agencies, each paying for a share of news footage of the glamorous royal couple ‘abroad’.
When Pacific Films was started in 1948 the government had already been producing – and more to the point, paying for – documentaries made in the Miramar studios of the state-owned National Film Unit (NFU), founded in 1941. These were screened as ‘shorts’, entrées before the main course, in hundreds of cinemas throughout the country (by 1948, an astonishing 600 venues). We were a film-addicted country, colonised in the inter-war years by big corporate exhibitors like Kerridge Odeon and Amalgamated, and fed a diet of as many American films as we could consume – plus these extra filmlets of light entertainment, in a new genre (now more familiar on TV) of edifying or uplifting news.
Money was always tight, even before cameraman Roger Mirams left the NFU, which he did in 1948, after shooting docos that were more like advertisements for government departments, like Mail Run, Backblocks Medical Service and East Coast District Nurse, plus (in only two or three years there) a total of 75 items for the magazine-style Weekly Review. According to Reid, having signed up as New Zealand correspondent for Fox Movietone News, and joined by another NFU escapee, writer/director Alun Falconer, Mirams initially worked ‘from home in Seatoun Heights at a time of post-war shortages and rationing’. The two continued developing the same sort of promotional material they had provided for state services, adding major clients like Federated Farmers, the Wool Board and the Ford Motor Company; it was what John Reid calls ‘seat-of-the-pants filmmaking’, and stayed that way for decades.
In 1952, Broken Barrier, Pacific’s first full-length feature about a relationship between a Māori woman and a Pākehā man, pulled the shoestring company up to another level, despite continuing financial struggles. For the two years it was in preparation, John O’Shea, who had joined the nascent Pacific Films as creative director, retained his job at the Censor’s Office, assistant to Roger’s elder brother Gordon Mirams. While Roger persevered with making commissioned films for income, he and O’Shea worked together after office hours, O’Shea sketching out a story treatment of a subject that had long interested them both.
Just as Roger Mirams’ career as a cameraman had begun in Italy while he was on war service, O’Shea’s time as a stretcher-bearer in the Italian campaign led him to think about his fellow New Zealanders’ sense of identity. In a retrospective interview in 1994 he said he felt that ‘Maoris were assured of who they were – we, not so.’ Casting Broken Barrier with actors virtually ‘off the street’ meant they were engaging real people who were pretty nearly being themselves. Shooting much of the film in a Māori farming community on the Mahia peninsula gave a degree of authenticity that must have appealed to the crowds, for they flocked to the film in droves – like the mustered animals captured on celluloid.
Despite Broken Barrier’s success, finance and sponsorship continued to be problematic, because Pacific Films was grossly undercapitalised (it had no money of its own). The partners might have expected the 1953 royal tour, especially in exotic Oceanic locations, to be a ‘panacea to cash-flow problems’, but they were wrong. They were actually just a few men who loved film, with an office and a shared Vauxhall, accredited as news correspondents for Cinesound News, NBC TV, TeleNews USA, Associated British Pathé, British Movietone, and Pacific Film-Movietone. There were more masters than slaves in this arrangement, and the slaves remained slaves, as revealed in this Tour-related story:
Movietone ‘cavilled’ when Mirams’s expense claim in January 1954 topped 400 pounds. As Reid relates, he ‘had joined his family in Whangarei for Christmas, spent only an hour with them before news of the rail disaster at Tangiwai came through … He chartered a flight from Whangarei to Waiouru, but continuing bad weather diverted him to Taupo. At 2am, a taxi took him to Tangiwai, where he started shooting at first light on Boxing Day, returning to Auckland to dispatch the footage to Sydney and then travel on to Waitangi to catch up with the Queen’s visit. And all this would get him, he complained, was 12 pounds for two days’ work over Christmas.
From May 1954 Mirams and O’Shea, with the Weekly Review long defunct, continued their bread-and-butter filming of shorts in a similar format called Pacific Magazine, which was itself retired after two years. A more lucrative money stream was provided by Pacific’s building a capacity to film rugby tests, starting with the 1956 Springbok Tour, which the NFU was also giving (minimal) coverage in their Pictorial Parade. The NFU would not agree to processing others’ rugby footage at weekends as they were not, they said, a ‘newsreel’ organisation; yet when Kerridge whistled, they came, weekends and all.
Tussles like this abound in a book which is extraordinarily broad, but also detailed, in its unrelenting critique of forces in the film and then the television industry; and in the market both for entertainment and – if it can be called a market – for social self-knowledge. Reid also details the hundreds of small and large shifts within the organisation, as different contributors come and go. Of his early partnership with Mirams, O’Shea is recorded as saying: ‘We both had our strengths – writing, directing, editing, that’s my line. Roger was a producer, ideas man and cameraman and manager and we were quite well teamed actually.’ But an imbalance in the ownership of shares meant they were not equal. In 1956 the Pacific Films directors decided to open an office in Australia with Mirams as manager; as O’Shea recalls in his 1999 memoir Don’t Let It Get You (the title of a 1966 PF film produced with Howard Morrison), ‘Roger left to start a branch in Melbourne which quickly outgrew the tree.’
In his account of the 40 years after their split, when O’Shea was in charge, Reid chooses telling names for his chapters, from Chapter 4 (‘Short-term Pain, Longterm Gain’), through 6 (‘No Turning Back’) to 14 (‘Taking on the World’) and 15 (‘The Long Way Home’). But that’s not the end. While Chapter 17 describes ‘Hitching Beggars’ Karts to the Affluent Stars’, and 18 ‘A Well-Travelled Road’, there is no coming to rest in any sort of gratified (because well-deserved) retirement. The final chapter, 19, is titled ‘Howling at the Night Skies’.
This book is virtually a social history of the period, because films were so centrally part of the culture as it evolved, from the popularity of all genres of film as exciting entertainment, through the opening of new-wave European-style cinemas in the late 1960s, and then in an opening of a different sort, of the almost fatally constricted NZBC, into a television industry that could admit critical voices – not so much of women or Māori, as of journalistic adventurers and creatives. Alongside The Spirit and the Times will Teach (1972), a careful, intimate documentary filmed on a Māori theme and as far as possible from a Māori point of view, and (from late 1973), the searching, serious Tangata Whenua series – which changed completely how I saw my own country – Pacific Films with the NZBC could also produce films like Rally: Like little boys in a man-sized sport, that in their natural entertainment value were pure television gold:
The shoot began on Saturday 7 July, with four camera crews leapfrogging the progress of 120 cars over eight stages, from Central North Island pine forests to South Island mountain ranges, to end on Saturday 14 July. Some stages saw up to fourteen cameramen shooting, including Alun Bollinger, Roger Donaldson and Leon Narbey, as well as students from Maurice Askew’s course at the Ilam School of Art. It was a logistical nightmare …
O’Shea, says Reid, ‘recognised the strategic importance of television for sustaining the aspirations he encouraged among his production team’. Yet, unless he came up with them himself, there had been no models for young aspirants to follow. With a pair of unusual social documentaries in 1971, the company provided ways for groups of people with common interests to see themselves reflected on screen. Getting Together, said its makers, was ‘more than a catalogue of Wellington eccentrics but a celebration of people who created any excuse to combat loneliness’. Then came The Day We Landed on the Most Perfect Place in the Universe, starring the pupils of a young Robert Lord, at that time ‘an aspiring playwright working as a primary school teacher in Petone’. Television’s direct and topical communicative potential meant O’Shea was able to push what was a very successful idea, that ‘local – and real – talents must be cherished and fostered’.
There were peaks, but there were troughs too. When Barry Barclay and Michael King were working together on Tangata Whenua, ‘cultural differences’ between cast and crew, for instance, were pronounced, since no such Māori–Pākehā collaboration had been attempted before. While O’Shea’s troubled relationship with Barclay shadows much of the second half of the book, Tangata Whenua was in fact a peak of achievement, shocking but soulful, and different. It had many consequences, but it was just a beginning. The unkempt ground of Māori–Pākehā relations in general remained a source of pain, particularly for Māori.
Reid’s book is chock-full of photographs taken, most of them, in the field. They form a stunning parade of candid images of the subjects of Pacific’s films, mixed with operatives of various sorts among the hardworking crew. A young girl returns the camera’s gaze as she bathes in a river for Tales of Tahiti (1953); ‘Pioneer New Zealand filmmaker Rudall Hayward is questioned by James McNeish as he prepares to show him and Barry Barclay his new camera grip for filming Opo the Dolphin’ (1972); everything stops for the pōwhiri at the start of shooting Pictures, in 1980 on the Wanganui River; a thoughtful John Gielgud is captured in the northern summer of 1984 on the set of the Mansfield film, Leave All Fair. Even the captions are full of interest, adding to the encyclopaedic feel of the book, emphasised by a long, long list of Pacific Films productions, a list of its employees, copious notes and an index.
John Reid was himself involved in some well-known Pacific achievements, working on Middle Age Spread, Carry Me Back, Leave All Fair and The Last Tattoo, as well as TV dramas, docos and many nameless ads. Victoria University Press is to be congratulated for supporting the publication of this hefty but readable volume, which honours the practice of filmmaking in this place.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin writer, critic and photographer.