Massey university, Wellington, 6 May, 2014: Film director Geoff Murphy is to receive an honorary doctorate in literature from Massey University – although he thinks “rascal of the realm” would be a more fitting title.
Mr Murphy, 75, is a legend in New Zealand cinema. He has directed 18 films and is best known for pioneering a renaissance in New Zealand cinema in the 1980s with three genre-challenging hits – Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu and The Quiet Earth. While all different, they were each profoundly New Zealand films, attracted large domestic audiences and are widely credited with helping dispel cultural cringe towards domestic films.
Mr Murphy says he was surprised and pleased to be offered a Doctor of Literature (Honoris Causa), which he will receive at a graduation ceremony for Massey’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences next Wednesday in Palmerston North.
“It’s nice. It’s an honour. I appreciate it. It means I can put ‘Dr’ in front of my name. It’ll be good when I’m arguing with the city council,” he says, with a wry comment on how he has been endowed with honours recently after three decades of being “conspicuously ignored”.
Associate Professor Joe Grixti, head of Massey’s School of English and Media Studies, which nominated Mr Murphy honorary doctorate, describes him as “a leading pioneer of New Zealand’s new film industry” who “richly deserves to be honoured for his outstanding contributions to the national culture and heritage”.
Last year Mr Murphy, who is also a script writer, editor and musician (a founding member of Blerta), was recognised as one of New Zealand’s 20 greatest living artists, being named as an Arts Icon by the Arts Foundation. In January he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film.
He says making a feature film and completing a doctorate are comparable in that they are both “fantastic feats” that require enormous passion and faith. “It’s amazing you get it done at all. A film can be 18 months of hard yakka. It takes over your life. And it changes in the process of making it. At the end of it you are emotionally, intellectually and physically exhausted.”
Murphy grew up in Highbury, Wellington, lived briefly in Palmerston North as a child and was educated at St Patrick’s College in Wellington. After a year studying engineering at Victoria University, he opted to train as a schoolteacher and taught at Newtown and Lyall Bay primary schools for a decade.
His first foray into film was when he worked on The Magic Hammer, based on a musical he had written for one of his classes. At the time, he was also part of a local jazz club with a group who would become the prominent filmmakers of their era, including Bruno Lawrence, John Charles, Alun Bollinger and Martyn Sanderson. When they formed the Bruno Lawrence Electric Revelation and Travelling Apparition (Blerta) and went on tour in 1971 Mr Murphy was aboard as trumpeter, filmmaker and explosives expert. The ensemble of musicians, actors and filmmakers set out to create films based on New Zealand stories rather than those provided by imported movies.
He made films throughout the 1970s, including working with the legendary comedian John Clark on Dagg Day Afternoon, but his big break came with Goodbye Pork Pie (1981), a low-budget comedy involving a madcap journey from Auckland to Invercargill in a stolen yellow mini, starring Bruno Lawrence and Kelly Johnson. It was New Zealand’s first home-grown blockbuster and the first Kiwi film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.
Then came Utu (1983), directed and co-written by Mr Murphy and sometimes described as a “Māori western”. It centres on a New Zealand Wars tale of Te Wheke, a warrior who seeks revenge (utu) after British soldiers kill his people. Utu screened outside competition at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, and received critical acclaim in the United States.
A new digitised director’s cut of the film, Utu Redux, was launched last year, and will be shown at a special screening in Cinema Gold on the evening of the graduation. Mr Johnston, who also starred in Utu and is now a lawyer in Whangarei, will speak at the conferment of the degree.
The Quiet Earth (1985) a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story also stars Bruno Lawrence and is based on a novel of the same name by Dr Craig Harrison, who lectured in English at Massey University’s Manawatū campus.
When asked what he makes of the current film scene locally, he says there are “too many distractions”. While full of admiration for the phenomenal global success of the Lord of the Rings blockbusters (he was second unit director on all three), he does not regard them as New Zealand films. “They obscure the view.”
Despite his success in the 1980s, he and his creative cohorts continued to struggle for funding, prompting him to take up offers of work in Hollywood where he stayed for the next 12 years to direct a number of big budget movies, including Young Guns, Under Seige 2 and Dante’s Peak. It was a backward step creatively, but a necessary one financially, he says.
His formative years as a film director and encounters with the-then New Zealand Film Commission left him bemused about a system employing public servants to assess and administer funds for creative projects. “You have to ask what qualities and expertise would a public servant have when they are looking at what it takes to make a film. You need people with massive amounts of talent, energy, perseverance, and you need to be a risk-taker. It’s not the same list as what a public servant has. They are different beasts.”
His ultimate message to aspiring filmmakers is: “Believe in yourself.” Even if it means the powers that be think you’re a rascal.
Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey says conferring the honorary doctorate on Mr Murphy is a fitting way to celebrate the kind of determined, innovative spirit that Massey University champions. “What Geoff Murphy achieved through film was to challenge the status quo and to inspire a fresh vision of New Zealand culture and history through his compelling, comical and dramatic stories and characters. His films were remarkable when they were first made, and they continue to be treasures in our cultural canon.
“Geoff injected new life and direction into New Zealand cinema, and gave us new ways of seeing ourselves as a people. Finding creative new ways to explore, understand and shape our national identity is a great example and something I’m confident many Massey students will do in their chosen fields.”
Mr Murphy will receive his degree at 2.30pm, May 14 at the Regent Theatre, Palmerston North.