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Two minutes with: Geoff Murphy

His classic 1983 movie Utu, a near-factual account of a Maori rebel’s rampage against British troops in the 1870s, is about to be reissued after extensive digital remastering. The soundtrack has been made over, and Murphy has trimmed 10 minutes from his original cut.

Geoff Murphy's Utu Redux New Zealand International Film Festival NZIFF
Photo/Jane Ussher

The remastering wasn’t your idea, was it?
No, I never thought we could get enough money, because it’s very expensive, but Graeme [Cowley, the director of photography] pulled it off. I’m really glad we did it, because at the time it wasn’t a great hit with the critics in New Zealand, but I know it’s good. It’s also emotional because so many of the people who made it with me, who were very good friends, are gone. Also, it’s one of the few period movies made about New ­Zealand history.

Why didn’t the movie get a good reception back then?
It was too aggressively marketed. I wasn’t in charge of that, as I had been with Goodbye Pork Pie. With Pork Pie we said, “Oh, yeah, here’s a film about a car … it’s all right. Prob’ly a wasta time, but anyway, here it is.” And people loved it. The approach with Utu was, “This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened, biggest budget, it’s brilliant!” It’s the New Zealand thing that if you get up and say, “This thing is the ultimate”, Kiwis will say, “Nah, it’s not. Stop skiting.” But Maori loved it. The further north it screened, the bigger the audiences.

Was it nerve-racking having the biggest-ever budget for a New Zealand movie at the time?
There were times we looked at each other and said, “How are we going to pull this off?” Because it was a lot of money, but we still really didn’t have enough money for the film we were trying to make. Period drama is really expensive.

That’s why they’re hardly ever made here. For the army’s march across the tussock, we had this challenge: where the hell were we going to get 1000 extras for the middle of nowhere between Hastings and Taihape? So we went around local schools and taught them how to make soldiers’ hats out of cardboard and paint them and stick a silver milk bottletop on the front for a badge, and we got them to come wearing black, and we put masking tape criss-crossed over their fronts and backs. And all the troops on horseback were girls – from local pony clubs.

Is it true you shot a scene of Te Wheke eating the pastor’s eyeballs, as Hau Hau activist Kereopa te Rau did missionary Carl Völkner’s?
Yeah. We got the eyeballs made to be edible, out of ­liquorice and other stuff. But we didn’t end up using that scene because [Te Wheke actor Zac Wallace] chewed them. When [Maori adviser] Joe Malcolm saw the footage, he said, “That’s wrong! You don’t chew eyeballs, you swallow them!” It would have been like showing Winston Churchill smoking a cigarette, apparently. So that scene has never been shown.

Thirty years on, the film has amazing resonance: it represents many shades of Maori political opinion, which is exactly what the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection has just done. Do you think the movie was ahead of its time?
There was an element of that. People were ready to see a film about themselves. But although we got a tremendous response from Maori, the film wasn’t well received by the media; it just wasn’t the right time for that type of story.

What are the chances of more movies being made about our history?
I can’t see it. The reality is, New Zealand can’t afford a film industry. A New Zealand film industry. What Peter Jackson does is fantastic, but that’s not New Zealand film. You go through 20 actors before you find a Kiwi in the cast. I want to make a film about the Kiwi, the ship that sank a Japanese sub at Guadalcanal. But as soon as you start talking more than five minutes about the project, they [potential backers] start talking about which American actor should play the captain. That’s the reality of the ­economics of it.

Utu Redux will debut at the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, Auckland, on July 28, at 6.15pm.

See also: Reflections on the life of Bruno Lawrence.