Why New Zealand Filmmakers Are Telling More of Their Own Stories

Courtesy of KEW Media Group; Tiff; BBC
'The Dead Lands,' 'Guns Akimbo,' 'The Luminaries'

Years of big-budget location shoots give rise to a thriving Kiwi film and TV sector.

Annabelle Sheehan, chief executive of the New Zealand Film Commission, likes to say that Disney's Thor: Ragnarok was "the most expensive New Zealand film ever made — which Hollywood and Australia paid for."

The film, of course, isn't actually a New Zealand production at all, and it was shot in regional production rival Australia. But thanks to the offbeat humor and casting choices of its Kiwi director, Taika Waititi, the Marvel Studios blockbuster had an unmistakably New Zealand accent and sensibility.

In this regard, Ragnarok — and presumably its forthcoming sequel, which Waititi signed on to direct in July — represents the inverse of Hollywood's usual mode of tentpole filmmaking when it comes to New Zealand. The studios have regularly sought out the country for its generous production incentives, experienced crews and stunning locations, but the resulting blockbusters have bared little trace of New Zealand's culture and identity beyond its otherworldly vistas. Examples of such productions abound, from 2018's summer hits The Meg and Mission: Impossible — Fallout to Disney's upcoming live-action Mulan remake and James Cameron's wildly ambitious trilogy of Avatar sequels, now shooting in Wellington.

The steady influx of Hollywood tentpoles has produced exactly the kind of vibrant domestic ecosystem that national film incentives are designed to create.

"Twenty years ago, film and television was mostly a hobbyist industry for a lot of people here," says local producer Matthew Metcalfe. "Now you can hardly walk down the street in Wellington without falling over someone who has an Oscar, and we have some of the most amazing facilities and crews in the world."

New Zealand's hard-won production prowess has arrived at an ideal time, as global streaming platforms grow increasingly hungry for fresh perspectives and narrative worlds that viewers haven't seen before. This happy confluence of preparation and opportunity is giving New Zealand's filmmakers the chance to tell their own stories on a global scale for the first time.

Metcalfe recently wrapped production on The Dead Lands, a TV series adaptation and expansion of a 2014 Kiwi film of the same name. The series, like the film, is an action adventure story set in New Zealand's pre-colonial Maori society — a careful re-creation of the culture and customs of the country's indigenous peoples, but one done with enough action and violence to qualify as a thriller. Produced by AMC's specialty streaming service Shudder, it's also the first New Zealand TV series to be commissioned directly from the U.S.

"It's quite proper that it could have only come from New Zealand," Metcalfe says, noting that the cast is made up almost entirely of young Maori actors. "If you had told these actors five years ago that they would come out of acting school and get a role in a U.S.-backed TV series and that they wouldn't have to be playing the Middle Eastern guy, but instead could represent themselves — their own culture — they would have said, 'No way.' "

In a similar vein, Working Title Television and BBC 2's upcoming co-produced period series The Luminaries, starring Eva Green, tells a story of romance and adventure on the coast of New Zealand's South Island during the country's 1860s gold rush. The show is based on a Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, who also wrote the series.

"It's a real privilege to get to be telling a piece of New Zealand history," says Lisa Chatfield, one of the show's producers. "It's an important moment in terms of the journey of our industry, too," she adds, "going from being known as a location and servicer to producing international television that has an amazing New Zealand story at its core."

The Toronto Film Festival will give a special presentation to the Germany-New Zealand co-production Guns Akimbo, a black comedy thriller written and directed by Kiwi filmmaker Jason Lei Howden. The film stars Daniel Radcliffe as a nerdy video game developer who becomes an unwilling contestant in an underground live-streamed death match.

Although the film was partially shot in Auckland, it's set in a nondescript Gotham-like future city — more a product of genre than location. "But it definitely has that distinctive Kiwi comedy in it," says one of the film's producers, Tom Hern, of Auckland-based production outfit Four Knights Film. "There is a whole new wave of filmmakers traveling the path that Taika and his crew trailblazed. We really ought to be thankful to them, because when you go into an international pitch meeting now, our New Zealand humor isn't just recognized as a thing — people get excited about it."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.