The cat’s out of the bag: the South Island is where it’s at, for beauty,
for lifestyle and for natural film sets. Juliet Speedy speaks to local
producer Phil Smith and filmmaker Gaylene Preston about homegrown
TV series and what’s holding our film industry back.
It’s been said by many people that the vast natural beauty of the South Island looks like one giant film set. Some of the landscapes and cityscapes are so beautiful they almost look make-believe. What some studios overseas spend years trying to create artificially, we have right here in front of our eyes and under our feet. And it’s catching on.
More and more local and international film and TV makers are using various parts of the South Island as the main backdrop for their productions. We offer not only the scenery, but an increasing pool of remarkable local industry talent.
The enormously successful Top of the Lake (2013) was filmed entirely on location in Queenstown and Glenorchy. The first series took 18 weeks to film, and although Queenstown is referred to by name in the series, Glenorchy doubles as the fictitious town of ‘Laketop’. Jane Campion cowrote
and directed the film with some overseas funding and a mixture of cast and crew from here and overseas. It was a mystery/ drama series in which the engrossing storyline was offset by the stunning, eerie landscapes. It’s hard to imagine it being made so beautifully or successfully anywhere else.
Now, another drama is about to start production in Queenstown. This one is totally home-grown. It’s called One Lane Bridge and is the baby of Queenstown-based Phil Smith, who runs Great Southern TV. Smith describes the series as a gritty drama with a murderous edge. “It’s down-on-the-farm, down-to-earth New Zealand telly, no Chablis-swilling urban folk. Hardcore Speight’s and lamingtons for morning tea.” The characters talk “real Kiwi” and he wanted it to feel real, not like a pantomime. “It also has a fascinating spiritual edge that ekes its way into the story… but that’s all we can say. And somebody dies.”
Smith had the idea for One Lane Bridge 13 years ago when he drove over one of 25 one-lane bridges on the West Coast and thought it a great name for a drama. “Recently we spent a year developing the drama with Carmen Leonard and Pip Hall. They added a lot to the series.” Smith said it’s being shot in his home town of Queenstown because he always wanted to film something there. He said its appeal is obvious. “Central [Otago] is stunning, vast, cinematic, and so the people are also larger than life.” He loves the diversity in the area, too. “Super rich, super struggling, super ambitious and super traffic jams. Just super all round!”
Unlike many productions in the area, the cast is a powerhouse of talented locals. “No tax-break actors where you suddenly see an Alaskan in a drama and see at the end it was made in conjunction with the Alaskan Film Development Tax Office.” The casting announcement released in September confirmed some top Kiwi talent, including Dominic Ona-Ariki, Joel Tobeck and Alison Bruce.
Smith is passionate about the entire South Island. “Well, point a camera in any direction here and you’ve got a shot.” He says the canvas of it is emerging and is about to erupt internationally in terms of the new vanguard that is: streaming television. “That’s the Hulu; Disney; Netflix; Warner; Amazon; Apple; Facebook collective.” They’re all pouring tens of billions into dramas globally, and Smith says it’s inevitable that New Zealand will catch more and more of this money. Smith says yes, he’s a proud Southlander, but it also has to make creative sense to make TV here. “The South Island does. It provides scale – the canvas is vast. I always
love the way Sydneysiders fly in here and say ‘Holy sht! It took me less than three hours and I’m in f*king Switzerland!’.”
Smith says the crews here are also very good. “The team we have are world-class. We have people on our shoot who have just returned from Game of Thrones. They are amazing.” And he says getting atop of the lake round is also easy for a local team. “We found the big hurdles easy to jump. We found the accommodation and the locations easily.” They were told they
wouldn’t. “But it’s great when someone tells you ‘it’s impossible’ and then you do it.” Acclaimed filmmaker Dame Gaylene Preston also has much experience filming in the South Island, with two main projects amidst a few
other smaller things. The first was her feature film, Perfect Strangers starring Sam Neill. It was shot in Punakaiki, Westport and the
Marlborough Sounds. And, more recently, she made Hope and Wire, which was a six-part TV drama set in Christchurch after the earthquakes.
Preston says Perfect Strangers was a feminist allegory that came out of her head and was always hard-wired to the South. “The landscape is constructed to be an island, which is a character, rather than a backdrop.”
Phil Smith says the biggest negative to the South Island is “the ‘S’ word”. That is, a studio. “Please someone build a studio here. I feel we would book it for four to five months a year – we are talking with local visionaries who get it. I believe a studio will be built here.” Smith says it’s a field of dreams.
“Build it and they will come.” He says an amazing studio based in Queenstown would guarantee a 12-month-a-year, vibrant industry driving the Queenstown economy. “Oh, alongside the three million bed nights a year!” Preston agrees with the need for a studio. She says the obvious positives about the South Island “are the place itself – breathtaking”. But the negatives are infrastructure “anywhere other than Queenstown”. She says the South Island certainly needs a studio, but it should be in Christchurch. “Because that is the international gateway to the South. At the moment, the
internationals fly in and out to Queenstown.” There have been many international shows shot in Central Otago. Wanted for 7 was filmed there recently, and they’ve just announced The Lord of the Rings TV series will be shot in New Zealand. It is mostly Auckland, but Smith is anticipating
possibly some second unit content coming south. Straight Forward – a Nordic co-production with Screentime, was also shot in Central. A Wrinkle in Time was filmed there with Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon; Mission: Impossible – Fallout was filmed with Tom Cruise; and Disney shot Mulan in the South Island last year. “But TV series that could run for
multiple seasons are rare – so One Lane Bridge is quite unique. Our goal is a second and third season.”
Smith says producers choose parts of the South Island over other parts of the world because of the vast landscape. “Internationally, people love coming here. Reece Witherspoon and Oprah slayed it on social media – they were staggered by the beauty of Wanaka. I mean, have you ever had a wine
at Rippon? It’s the best looking vineyard in the world.” But he says it’s also the crews and expertise. Peter Jackson opened it up by shooting The Lord of the Rings here. This not only boosted New Zealand’s profile but also gave hundreds of Kiwis the credits on their CVs to able to work on other major
projects, without question. “So scenery and skill – but we do need a bump in facilities – the missing ‘S’ – studio.” The economy and country as a whole benefit from both local and international content being filmed here because it stimulates work in the region. “I have just left our offices and I was surprised by how many locals we have employed.”
The crews then spend big capital in the district. “We are running over 100 people for five months – houses, restaurants, locations, vehicles, food.” Smith says any drama production is spending millions locally, in fact many are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. “So I say it is all good. The only limitation going forward will be a shortage of skilled locals.”
Smith says it would be great if there was more packaging of regional incentives backed locally. “Drama projects need multiple streams of funding to get green-lit.” A good example of this is the Invercargill Licensing Trust backing the film The World’s Fastest Indian, directed by Kiwi Roger Donaldson and starring megastar Anthony Hopkins. It was shot largely in Invercargill and employed many locals both on and off screen.
On release in 2005, the film quickly became the highestgrossing
local film ever at the New Zealand box office, taking in over $7 million.
Gaylene Preston says other drivers to get more filmmakers to the South Island would be deals with Kiwi Rail that moved gear and people at a reduced cost, and also location subsidies for local films, “such as exist on the Isle of Man etc.”
Many parts of the South Island make for ideal and stunning backdrops for many and varied productions. Being remote isn’t a big barrier, because crews are like a moving city, Smith says, with everything they need inside their large trucks. “So we can pretty much go anywhere if it’s pretty.” Smith says, in fact, the South Island is like a smorgasbord. “It has the Marlborough Sounds, then Kaikoura, the city of Christchurch and its heritage, the wild West Coast, Queenstown and Wanaka, Fiordland, the charm of Dunners and then the Catlins area – that I love.” Plus Stewart Island, which Smith calls “the big one”. “With global warming, buy real estate there. They have
pure white sand beaches. I don’t think many people realise how mind-blowing it is.”
Almost as mind-blowing as the potential of what could happen in the south if the film and TV industry further erupts here. The South Island is often revered in travel guides as having majestic landscapes offering awe and adventure in equal measure. Local filmmakers have known this for a long time, and the international community is quickly switching on. Now we also have an increasing pool of local talent to complement this. With more funding and infrastructure, it could quickly become a top spot worldwide for film production, benefitting many.