Continuing the complete interview between South Pacific Pictures’ John Barnett and Chris Hampson. A heavily edited version of these conversations forms the cover story of the July 2013 issue of ONFILM.
We pick up the story as Barnett has already produced The Games Affair and theThree New Zealanders documentary series but leaves the screen business for a while to work with John Clarke (Fred Dagg).
John Barnett: About then, I re-hooked up with John Clarke, who had just started doing Fred Dagg. He said to me, “I think I need an agent.” I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “I’m pretty sure I do”, I watched a couple of the TV shows and I said, “Maybe you do.”
Actually, it must have been ’74. We had a couple of pretty hot years where we, you know, had the book, the t-shirt, the movie and the concert tour, and we spent a lot of time at the Settlement, drinking coffee and solving the world, generally.
Chris Hampson: That was owned by Harry [Seresin] then, wasn’t it?
Barnett: Yes. I managed some other people during that time. I got involved with Alan Galbraith. We had Alan Galbraith Enterprises, which was a music management company. We had Sharon [O’Neill] and Mark Williams. Annie Whittle.
Anyway, we had a good time doing all that, and it was all – you made it up as you went along, because there weren’t really any models for it, but everything that you did, you learned something from. We got approached by Phil Warren, who was the Deputy Mayor of Auckland at the time and who ran nightclubs.
Phil ran all the clubs in Auckland. He was a character . There ought to be a book! Phil had gone broke and one of his touring companies had been – well, he had to sell some assets. He used to own a Rolls Royce, and I saw him driving the Rolls Royce. I said, “Phil, I thought you had to sell the Rolls Royce.”
He said, “I did – to my dad!” [laughter]
Anyway, Phil called us up and he said, “We’ve got this room here called the Ace of Clubs, and I’d like to do a show with John Clarke and Marcus Craig. John can write it, and we’ll book you in for three weeks or something. You want to talk about money?”
I said, “Yes, sure,” so John and I talked about it, and I said, “Well, we want a percentage of the gross. We want a minimum and percentage of the gross.” You know, I was making it up as I went along, but Phil said, “That’s alright”, he said, “Normally I keep two sets of books, but I like you boys.”
I think we did three seasons of the Ace of Clubs, because it worked out well, and if he kept two sets of books, I don’t know. We did very well out of it.
Hampson: Was that in mid 70s?
Barnett: Yes. It would have been ’75, I suppose. Then we’d had this phenomenally successful record, which you’d never seen the like of. 120,000 units – Fred Dagg’s Greatest Hits, the first album, which took two hours to record!
EMI argued about the royalty and so I said, “Well, we’ll take half a percent for every $5,000 over $20,000,” and they said okay. I didn’t know at the time what we’d sell, but we finished up getting a higher royalty rate than The Beatles!
Barnett: I spent a bit of time with Geoff Murphy and Andy Grant, of the Acme Sausage Company, and they were making the Blerta show, and there was this terrible mistrust between the wallahs that ran what was TVNZ then, and the Blerta boys. It most probably became mythical through both their own misbeliefs, but, at a whole lot of levels, there wasn’t any mistrust at all. The people who were commissioning the show didn’t have any issue about Murphy coming in to the building, but Murphy believed that they did, and therefore every time the Blerta crew could help themselves to short ends of film, they did, and then some executive thought Blerta were going to steal a piano or something, which is silly.
Hampson: That was a fairly honourable tradition — getting away with the film though.
Barnett: Well, yes. Anyway, Geoff and I were talking about what they were doing, and I watched their Wild Man TV episode, which was an extension of the live stage shows that Blerta had done. They were terribly inventive. When you think back on what they were doing in the ’70s with the mixed media and the coordination of special effects and stage and music and the visual thing, they were so far ahead of the game.
Anyway, I said to Geoff, “We should make a feature film. What you had in ’76 was a group of people who couldn’t get work at TVNZ, two of whom because they were making commercials — that wasn’t what you did — and one of whom because he was a crazy documentary maker.
Donaldson and Mune had announced Sleeping Dogs and they got proper money in to make it and an overseas star [Warren Oates] and they got Michael Seresin to shoot it and it was all very exciting, very ambitious. Tony Williams in Wellington, who had come through the Pacific Films school — they were off the TVNZacceptability list as well — was making Solo. Michael Firth, who hadn’t featured on the radar, was making this documentary called Off the Edge, which went on to be New Zealand’s first Oscar nominee.
Those projects were actually in production, and I said to Geoff, “You know what, I reckon we could be in the cinema before all these people! From everything I’ve read, a film just needs to be 72 minutes long to qualify as a feature. If you takeWild Man, you’ve got 55 already, so if we can find 20 minutes to add to it, and we make a Fred Dagg short film and do a double bill.”
The 20 minute intro became the Wild Man set up and featured John Clarke as a travelling apothecary getting duffed over by the people of the town in which Wild Man is set. The Fred Dagg short, Dagg Day Afternoon, was less structured. We didn’t really have a script, which was not a great idea, but Murphy and Clarke said that they could do it on the run.
So we put together a small amount of equipment and some film — which had come from TVNZ (apparently) –
Hampson: That honourable tradition again …
Barnett: I set about seeing if we could pay for this by sponsorship, which involved going to about five or six different corporates and asking for $5,000 for their product to be freely demonstrated in it.
A friend of mine was running Watties and I asked him if he’d like to be in it. He knew John Clarke and he said, “Oh, that sounds like a good idea.”
If you remember the scene, what you see is Fred and the Trevs and he’s cooking breakfast and he says, “Anybody want baked beans?” and into the pot goes baked beans. “Anyone want peaches?” Into the pot goes tinned peaches. And there’s all this Watties product going into the one pot.
Which was a bit of a surprise for Watties, when they saw it, but they paid their $5,000. [laughter] We did Smith’s Crisps and Bell Tea and Nissan and someone else, and we got enough money to make the film and actually to pay for some prints.
So we had this Double Bill. I went to Kerridge-Odeon and they were dismissive, but the Moodabes at Amalgamated said, “Oh, we’ll give it a go. We’ll put it out.” We released the picture and it ran for about six weeks, and nobody made any money but no one lost any money, and I thought, “This is a lot of fun.” Then Sleeping Dogs came along and did really well, and Off the Edge got an Oscar nomination, and Solo did quite well.
Barnett: I went to see Middle Age Spread at the –
Hampson: At Circa?
Barnett: Well, I saw it at the Opera House, and John Reid – did John direct it? No, he was in it.
Hampson: No, John directed it.
Barnett: He directed it, and John said to me, “What do you think? It’s a movie.” He said, “Let’s make a movie.” I said, “Well, that’s a good idea.” Keith Aberdein wrote the script. Of course, there wasn’t a Film Commission. There was an interim Film Commission. I went to South Pacific Finance, which was run by John Anderson, who was latterly the chair of TVNZ, and they agreed to put up money, and I think, if you pass me one of those books, I think –
Hampson: Oh, the cost?
Barnett: No, I know what it cost! It was $120,000. [laughter]
Hampson: You’ve always been really good like that.
Barnett: It was the interim Film Commission that had been established, due to the efforts of Bill Sheat, David Gascoigne, John Reid and a few others. In one of those completely random moments, Allan Highet, who was the Minister of Internal Affairs, which used to look after the arts then, had a good friend – and I don’t know how this had happened – but he had a good friend called Dennis Stanfill, and Dennis ran 20th Century Fox in America.
Barnett: So Highet had somebody to ask about the movie business, and he expressed an interest. He was ripe for the lobbying. Which the guys were doing, but I’ll never forget, there was this interim Film Commission and he was it, in a way.
With Middle Age Spread, technically we weren’t that clever. We shot it in 16mm, and that kept the budget down, but then we had a problem with exhibiting it, because there wasn’t a lot of 16mm film -
Hampson: — projectors.
Barnett: No, so we had to travel with a 16mm projector, and again, Amalgamated came to the party. The film did well, but then suddenly they pulled it. I said, “Why?” They said, “Because it’s the school holidays and we’ve got Disney coming.” I said, “But, it’s doing well?”
They said, “Yes, but sorry, you’re gone.” That was one of the few times when I got grumpy with them, but I thought, “Well, we’ve got to make a kids film.”
I talked to Roger Donaldson and Keith [Aberdein] and [Ian] Mune, “Let’s make a kids film, and let’s see if we can get South Pacific Merchant Finance to put up some money. So we made this thing called The Nutcase.
Hampson: Who directed?
Barnett: Mune. The idea was that we actually release in the school holidays and that we’d get our share of what was going on. Well, what happened was that the exhibitors made it clear that they were not going to break their arrangements with the existing suppliers, and they weren’t going to release our film.
I said, “Well, we might have to do our own exhibition,” and at the time, there was a Cinema Licensing Authority, and only they could say if you could open a cinema in a given location. But I looked into it and found out that the Wellington Opera House and the St James Theatre in Auckland and a few other places had cinema licenses, but they didn’t have any projection equipment. I said, “Well, we’ll book these places, and we’ll open this film.”
The Cinema Licensing Authority, the chairman of which happened to be somebody who was also chairman of the Film Commission. [laughter]
Hampson: A W. Sheat, by any chance?
Barnett: Yes, but he was under a lot of pressure from the cinema people. Bill Sheat came back and said, “I think there’s a compromise.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “They’ll show your film in the May holidays.” I said fine, but what I hadn’t counted on was that they would show it, but they wouldn’t advertise it. [laughter]
Hampson: They buried it!
Barnett: Look, against the films that it was up against, it didn’t have a show, but again, I think it was about a hundred grand, but you learnt a lot from something like that, and you learnt that you had to work with these people.
Link courtesy of www.onflim.co.nz