Wellington Scoop

John O’Shea and the emergence of a New Zealand film industry

John O’Shea (left) and Roger Mirams in 1954. Pacific Films Photo Collection, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

John Reid’s long-awaited book “Whatever It Takes,” about the ground-breaking Wellington film company Pacific Films and its visionary producer John O’Shea, is published today. In these two extracts from Chapter 2, Reid writes about the beginnings of the company’s first feature film ‘Broken Barrier’ (Pacific’s three features were the only feature films made in New Zealand in 30 years) and its remarkable release.

by John Reid
John O’Shea’s service as a stretcher bearer in the Italian Campaign left him with vivid memories of New Zealand losses and, while he identified with his European and Irish roots, he was much less confident about what it meant to be a New Zealander. ‘Maoris,’ he felt, ‘were assured of who they were – we, not so.’

For O’Shea, this was the essential story in the New Zealand drama between Māori and Pākehā. When Roger Mirams asked if he was interested in collaborating on a film about Māori, he had already been mulling it over. There is no precise record of the date of their auspicious meeting in an office on Wellington’s Golden Mile, but it’s likely to have occurred in March 1950.

O’Shea knew only too well from the reactions of friends and colleagues what an audacious act it was to claim that you wanted to be a filmmaker, especially when other more acceptable and successful career options awaited. In such an environment, it seemed an additional provocation to kick off this foolhardy career with a feature film.

To the regular cinemagoer, films were American or maybe British, but never Kiwi. To those with educational or artistic pretensions, films were mostly dismissed out of hand and ‘never considered other than vulgar and frivolous entertainment’ for the ‘occupation of idle minds and stupid people’.

O’Shea set to work and sketched out a treatment for the feature while continuing work as the Assistant Censor, and Mirams persevered with the production of commissioned films. This made for an erratic timetable, but they made the best use of what time they could find, often working in the early evenings parked up in Pacific’s Vauxhall outside the O’Shea home in Lyall Bay, the oncoming winter dark broken as O’Shea lit yet another roll-your-own, flicking the fallen ash from his shirt front.

The project was to be called Together, and by the end of April still conformed to the version Mirams had described to Frank Maloney at Movietone: ‘The story will deal with a Maori bloke marrying a white girl . . . could be pretty strong stuff, what do you think?’

Soon the business relationship between Mirams and O’Shea evolved into a company structure, and in September 1950 the Companies Office recorded the formation of Pacific Films Ltd., with two-thirds of the shares held by Mirams and the remainder by O’Shea.

What would really accelerate the development of the production, they thought, would be an overseas distributor. Mirams’ colleague Russell Rankin, with whom he’d started a distribution company called Action Films, offered to find one in the UK, exploiting the presence of Tribute to Achievement, which was then in British cinemas. Rankin pitched to Steven Pallos of Omnia Films ‘a story new and different (with) pictorial values that only New Zealand can offer . . . a controversial theme never done before . . . strong sex appeal but in no way censorable’. Pallos wrote back, ‘in view of our friendship I will offer to arrange a distribution contract for the film’, and did so by securing a £3000 advance against distribution returns guarantee.

Suddenly, it was all on the line. Pallos’s distributor, Maurice J. Wilson of Grand National Pictures, said, ‘I cannot emphasise how important this first production is. If they can show their ability in regard to this picture, I do not see any difficulty in arranging more advantageous deals for their future product. I am convinced, like you, interesting features can be made in New Zealand.’ O’Shea sought an opinion from lawyer Nigel Taylor who, new to distribution contracts, was unable to determine whether the terms were usual or otherwise. He warned, however, that ‘contracts which reltoo much on personal relationships are a lawyer’s delight and perhaps one of the biggest sources of litigation.’ Pacific, a brand new production entity, could scarcely expect a gold-plated deal. They took comfort from the fact they’d achieved what no other local producers had: pre-sold a New Zealand feature overseas.

Mirams and O’Shea were both convinced the film would achieve added veracity if they cast a ‘natural’, off the street. One day in the city, Mirams followed a likely looking Māori woman into Gates’ Milk Bar, bought a cup of tea and a bun, and introduced himself as a filmmaker – which she thought was a novel pick-up line. O’Shea meanwhile shared a bus ride with a likely looking man, found out his name Frank Muller, tracked him down and asked if he would screen-test for them.

Finding the right female lead proved more difficult than chatting to a stranger at a milk bar. After several disappointing screen tests over May and June, an old Victoria University friend of O’Shea’s, Wiremu (Bill) Parker, introduced them to Keata (Kay) Ngarimu in a cramped and awkward lunchtime encounter in the Vauxhall outside Teacher’s Training College. Both assumed Parker had told Ngarimu what they were trying to do. He hadn’t, and she was confused and suspicious. But she was just what they were looking for: as O’Shea described, she had ‘a fine interesting and noble face . . . pale classical features’. Kay remained unimpressed, and even had her roommate make excuses so she might avoid a screen test.

Kay Ngarimu was the daughter of a highly regarded family in her East Coast community, the sister of Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, who had been posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross for action in North Africa. Bill Parker again came to the rescue – as a youngster he’d lived next to the Ngarimu family, and he was prepared to vouch for the filmmakers to her family. It later turned out that, following Parker’s reference, Kay’s father told her she had a responsibility to represent her people. It was this that brought a change of heart….

World premiere of Broken Barrier at the Regent in Wellington in July 1952. Pacific Films Photo Collection, Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

On the night of Thursday 10 July 1952, moviegoers and on-lookers jostled on the pavement outside the Regent Theatre in Wellington, and police were needed to clear a path into the cinema for arriving dignitaries. O’Shea wrote:

‘The crowd was terrific, floodlights a la Grauman’s Chinese, cameras, flashbulbs, the Port Nicholson Silver Band, a Guard of Honour of marching girls, 400 hundred distinguished and not too distinguished guests . . .’

For those who couldn’t be there, there was live radio coverage:

This is Brian Chadwick speaking to 2ZB listeners on the occasion of the world premiere of the New Zealand Feature film Broken Barrier . . . Executives of the motion picture industry, here tonight in force, say it’s the greatest show of its kind New Zealand has ever turned on . . . now from my vantage point on the main staircase I can see the vice-regal car just drawing up outside the theatre. The Police are clearing a passage across the footpath and now their excellencies are entering the foyer between the ranks of the guard of honour . . . Mr Mirams and Mr O’Shea are being presented. And here’s a happy little moment as her excellency receives a bouquet from a pageboy dressed in the distinctive Regent Theatre uniform.

Once the viceregal party had been seated, anxious cinemagoers charged the stalls’ entrances. O’Shea reported:

‘After 8pm, when Cormie and I are seated, the stalls patrons had clothes torn, bruises and some fractious incidents fighting their way to get in. We have the sure knowledge we can turn on a circus.’

Broken Barrier was a box-office hit, running three capacity weeks in Wellington, and became Kerridge Odeon’s movie of the month, out-grossing the latest features from the majors, including Annie Get Your Gun and Samson and Delilah. Kerridge offered to cover the costs of an additional print.

The film opened next in Gisborne, exceeding by £100 the record for a week’s take – without playing the late Friday or Saturday sessions. Its most important test came on 1 August, when it opened in the biggest market, Auckland. To everyone’s relief, it exceeded Kerridge’s gross weekly average by 157%. In Wairoa, where the shoot had created great publicity, this was 264%. In the provincial cities, only Gone With the Wind was bigger at the box office. In the first four months in New Zealand, Broken Barrier saw £6400 in film hire, which, after the distributors’ share, returned £4300 to the producers. O’Shea was relieved to be able to share glad tidings with Terence Bayler on the far side of the world:

We are breathing easier, it’s estimated that by the end of the year it will have earned enough to meet production costs – we’ll then be out of the red reputations unsullied. At present we’ve got a little over half our money back and Kerridge estimates that 25% of the country have seen the film.

This bright outlook was reflected in the personal messages that started to arrive.

Victoria alumnus and friend of O’Shea’s Ormond Wilson wrote saying he thought it ‘particularly good for the cinema, and exceptionally and phenomenally good was your handling of the theme itself. Indeed what a lot there is to be said about a film without dialogue’.

O’Shea heard from John Pascoe, who said, ‘I had a sense of seeing history being at your premiere . . . you have certainly started something.’

Plaudits came from unlikely sources. Basil Holmes in People’s Voice wrote, ‘New Zealand has produced a film which will be the pride of all who have regard for our country and people.’ A week later their film reviewer added that the film ‘demonstrated beyond dispute that New Zealand has the artists and technical ability to produce films . . . if our culture is at the mercy of Hollywood it is not because there is no alternative.’

Whatever It Takes
Pacific Films and John O’Shea 1948 – 2000

by John Reid
Victoria University Press

John Reid is a leading New Zealand writer and director whose feature films include Middle Age Spread, Carry Me Back, Leave All Fair and The Last Tattoo.

1 comment:

  1. Wellington Inc, 15. November 2018, 21:37

    It’s good to be reminded that Wellington and NZ had a vibrant film tradition before LOTR. With WCC’s proposed film museum having fallen through, maybe there is a case for a establishing a less ambitious but broader scoped film museum – a bit like the one that used to sit on Market Lane around 20 years ago.