Debbie Kruger
Headline and Tamahori photo
•••••••••••••••••••••••Main photo by Suzanna Clarke
May 11-12, 1996


Has Lee Tamahori been seduced by Hollywood? You bet, says Debbie Kruger.

ONCE he was a warrior, the champion of low-budget, gritty docudrama in New Zealand. Now he has been swept off his feet by Hollywood in a classic Cinderella tale and, in typically modest, self-deprecating style, is overwhelmed.

A plausible scenario, but one which film director Lee Tamahori dispels with a self-satisfied chuckle. Sitting in Joe’s, an inauspicious restaurant across the road from the Warner Hollywood studios peopled with industry types, Tamahori hardly looks daunted. And his warrior-like behaviour is evident only in his attachment to his mobile and the alacrity with which he answers it when his assistant phones regarding his next editing appointment. Hollywood, it turns out, was his natural calling.

“Overwhelmed by resources, money, movie stars? No, I didn’t think it was ever going to be like that. Not unless I got beat up really badly, which I never did.”

Does he mean beat up metaphorically by the brutal forces of Hollywood’s powers-that-be, or literally mugged in downtown Los Angeles? Either way, Tamahori was long prepared. “I’m very tuned into American culture. I actually like American culture and I really love American films, I always have. I grew up on American films, it’s kind of shaped what I am. And I’ve always wanted to make something in the American film genre.”

In which case Tamahori’s first feature, Once Were Warriors, the intensely powerful New Zealand film which cost less than $2 million to make, was against the grain while Mulholland Falls, his new film for MGM at $US34 million ($42.7 million), is right up his alley. (Muholland Falls opened in the US at the end of April. There is no Australian release date yet.)

Tamahori loves success and he loves to talk. He is enthusiastic, articulate and subtly compelling, and Hollywood seems an ideal domain for all his energies.

“I’ve been in the film industry a long time, and I’ve been making television commercials for a long time, and therefore I’ve dealt with all manner of insecurities, fears and anxieties from clients in suits who don’t understand anything about what you do, to advertising agencies who don't believe you're going to create the vision they came up with.

“So to come here and deal with an American studio, which I’d heard all sorts of horror stories about, was actually very easy, and I found that they were nothing but supportive of everything I wanted to do. And they’ve literally left me alone, so I’ve had a fantastic time making this feature. It was actually harder for me to make Once Were Warriors in a lot of ways, because we had no resources — read: no money.”

For all it’s subsequent success, says Tamahori, Warriors was a film that had everything going against it. “A lot of people didn’t want us to make it , the people who were funding us for a start. They were scared about the public backlash, so we had to really battle to get the thing made. We had very little money, we had to make it on a shoestring. And there were no Maori actors to speak of. I had to create a cast.”

Within a year of Warriors premiere, Tamahori was directing a Hollywood cast headed by Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith and John Malkovich in a film that he says actors such as Rob Lowe and Bruce Dern were falling over themselves to play mere cameos in, and the likes of Aaron Neville were eager to sing for.

“It was a very hot film to be on, it suddenly became the movie to be on,” says Tamahori. His working relationships were easily forged – “I had the best time with these actors” – and in his office he points proudly to a framed photograph of himself with Nolte, whom he now considers a good friend.

“I’m not 26 years old and straight out of film school,” he offers further by way of explanation for his comfortable ascent. “I’ve actually been around; I’m 45 years old, I’ve been 18 years in the film industry, through every level of it, and everything I see over here is no different to everything I’ve done either in television commercials, on my own movie or anyone else’s movie. And the language of film is pretty universal, so it was a great experience for me to work with fabulous actors who never gave me a hard time, and a great crew, some of whom I’ve admired for 20 years.”

Unlike his Antipodean contemporaries, including fellow New Zealander Jane Campion, Tamahori did not spend those 18 years honing his skills on critically acclaimed Australian features. He paved his way as an award-winning TV commercial director, but only after a start in commercial art and photography, and doing “all those Hemmingway-esque things like going to live on an island for a year, chopping trees, fishing, forestry work, labouring, even working for a government department.”

Four years in Australia were enough for Tamahori; he returned to New Zealand in 1974 just as the Australian Film Industry was taking off. He never contemplated staying to join the upsurge, his links to New Zealand, particularly through his Maori father, luring him home to start his career. “I tried to get in to television but they didn’t want me – I had long hair; they thought I was a hippie. And I’m so glad I didn’t get in to television, television sucks as a culture. It’s insidious, it’s bureaucratic, creativity doesn’t flourish as much.” He began in film as a boom operator, and by the early 1980s he had graduated to assistant director, working on films such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.

His sights were set higher, however, “Nobody would give me a job directing movies, so I started directing TV commercials, and I stayed there a long time because it’s a great lifestyle; it keeps you in shirts and petrol, and it’s a great place to learn your craft and actually do good work. But ultimately it has it’s frustrations, because you want to do the bigger picture. And it’s very hard to move out of that because people slot you in as a commercial director.”

So he jumped at the chance to make Once Were Warriors, dispite its inherant difficulties, and then bypassed Australia to join his contemporaries in Hollywood, The Australian film industry, even now with all it’s obvious successes, holds no attraction for him.

“I’ve jumped sideways now in to much bigger territory. It doesn’t mean I won’t go back to smaller budget film but to me Australia and it’s many film commissions only represents another variation of New Zealand, and I want to move in to film making where people put money at risk, not governments. I think that (government) money now belongs to emerging film-makers. I don’t want to take another dime of the New Zealand Film Commission. Along with Jane [Campion], whoever else, we can generate revenue from anywhere now, we can just pull out some French textile company or some American film studio – it just doesn’t matter now. They’ve got pots of cash and they’re looking for film-makers to dispense it to.”

MGM and producer Richard Zanuck chose Tamahori for Mulholland Falls after seeing Once Were Warriors partly for his being an economically efficient director, but chiefly because the overriding impression Warriors left on it’s audience was it’s depiction of violence, and Mulholland Falls is also a violent film.

Tamahori describes it as “one of those classic kind of guys’ movies from the 50s when guys wore hats — you know, a tough guy movie.”

His greatest influences were American action directors from the 1960s. “I grew up on all these guys who made things like The Dirty Dozen. My favourite film-makers are people like Kurosawa, Polanski, Leone and all these old American action directors – Sturgess, Aldridge, Segal, even Sam Peckinpah, who I love dearly.”

Tamahori is unapologetic about his penchant for screen violence. “The American film landscape is full of gratuitous violence, they love it over here. But they won’t come out in the newspapers and television and say, ‘We love violence and that’s why we make violent movies.’ For some reason they all run for cover and try and hide behind some other thing. The usual bullshit runs like this: “Film and television only reflect reality.’

“The truth of the matter is that violence in America is inseparable from the entertainment, that America is a violent society, and they actually like it. I like violence in the movies because I think that’s where it belongs. I don’t like violence in real life. The perfect place for violence is in the cinema; it’s completely escapist and you can watch it and either it can be cathartic or repellant or whatever. I even like big action movies that have absurd violence, because you know what you’re going to see.

“But I wish people would stop hiding behind this kind of smokescreen and just come out and admit that violence is a staple of the cinema because it is an experience that we don’t normally have. Going in to space is one we don’t normally have. Diving down 20,000 feet under sea is one we don’t normally share. We can do all of these things in movies, and that’s why there are so many cop movies and so many crook movies and so many crack dealers and gun fire and all that nonsense that goes with it. It’s because it’s about entertainment, and extreme violence represents the primal edge of where we go as human beings, where we ordinary people dare not fear to tread. And when it’s dressed up very, very terrifyingly real by someone like Scorcese or Polanski then it becomes a truly visceral and compelling experience to watch on film.

“My film Warriors was actually done specifically to shock people into feeling they right inside a situation; the violence was staged so that it would appear more terrifyingly real than anyone was used to seeing in the movies.”

Mulholland Falls is less gritty realism and more US genre, “with vague echoes of Chinatown.” The violence, says Tamahori, is peripheral – “atom bombs, murder, corruption, power” – while at the heart of the film is the story of a disintegrating marriage. He is proud and confident of his work which he feels, despite it’s star cast, is outside the mainstream.

“I know this is a good film,” he says, “It’ll be a tough one for them to sell. But most mainstream American film-making these days leaves me a little cold; it’s all geared towards the opening weekend, this inexorable thing where the whole American public is tuned into how much money a film makes in it’s opening weekend. It’s ridiculous.”

The post-production process was less enjoyable than the actual shoot; test screenings were “an unpleasant experience” resulting in “some hand-wringing and angst” as the studio asked for re-edits. “But eventually I got the film that I wanted.”

Tamahori spent a month during the Christmas period in New Zealand seeing family and making two commercials. Now he is back in Los Angeles in pre-production for his next film, this time for Fox, a David Mamet screenplay titled The Bookworm. It will be filmed in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, and casting is under way, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin so far confirmed.

While he still keeps two homes in New Zealand, Tamahori is indefinately based in Los Angeles, in a Brentwood house “exactly halfway between OJ’s and Nicole Brown-Simpson’s houses.”

He admits there is little to his LA life beyond his work. “I’ve been obsessed with making this picture, it occupies most of my time, but then I’m obsessed with film anyway, so it doesn’t worry me. I don’t mind this being a one-industry town, but I do like other things. This is just not the town to enjoy them in.” He rails for a while against the franchising of the US – “tacky signs stuck up everywhere, you know, really messy horizons; that’s the kind of American landscape these days” — but realises his idealistic hippie days are long gone. This is the big time.

We are walking through the studio lot back to his office and as if to emphasise the point, he throws his arm to one side to point out his sleek black convertible. “See, I’m the ultimate Hollywood wanker,” he says, and chuckles.

This article also appeared in the New Zealand Listener on June 15, 1996.

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