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How Sam Pillsbury went from filmmaker to vintner

Harvest time at Pillsbury’s award-winning vineyard in Arizona.

With talents and interests that span film, food, winemaking and human rights, Sam Pillsbury is a Renaissance man with a footprint in two countries he calls home. Sharon Stephenson tracks him down in Arizona. 

We’ll get to Nicolas Cage in a minute. And Ralph Hotere. And making award-winning wine. And cooking for one of America’s best restaurants.

But first, US-based filmmaker Sam Pillsbury needs to talk to another journalist about his old foe Geoff Murphy. The legendary director, who Pillsbury knew for 47 years, has just died after a long illness and the Kiwi reporter wants a sound-bite.

“Geoff was a genius, but we ended up falling out over the 1985 film The Quiet Earth, which Geoff directed and I produced,” Pillsbury tells North & South, his words drifting down the line from his 40-hectare vineyard near Tombstone, Arizona. “Despite our trials and tribulations, I’m sorry to see Geoff go.”

Pillsbury’s voice is soft and lilting – Walter Cronkite meets Hugh Grant – with only the odd vowel betraying the 30 years he spent in New Zealand. The 72-year-old was born in Connecticut, but moved to Auckland as a child with his father, who’d previously visited as a marine. “Dad was driven to live on islands, from St Croix in the Caribbean to Hawaii and New Zealand. Curiously, in the 50s only two American families a year were allowed to immigrate to New Zealand, and we were one of them.”

The coin toss of birth landed him in a family that introduced him to sailing – “where my enduring love of the New Zealand coastline comes from” – and also to art, by a mother who’d drag Pillsbury and his two siblings through New York and Boston galleries. “That eventually led me to collect New Zealand art.”

Film came via a teacher at Auckland’s Pakuranga College, who introduced Pillsbury to the black-and-white works of Fellini, Truffaut and Godard, as well as the Auckland Film Society. Five years followed at the National Film Unit in Wellington, where work included everything from government tourist videos to a documentary about the Wahine disaster.

Filmmaker Sam Pillsbury was involved in some of New Zealand’s most iconic films before more lucrative directing opportunities lured him to Los Angeles.

The seeds of a lifelong passion for human rights were also sown. Pillsbury was part of the Peace Squadron blockading US nuclear-powered warships in Auckland Harbour, and protested the Vietnam War and the US invasion of Iraq. Other documentary work dealt with alcoholism, child abuse, the reality of living on the benefit, and recidivism.

Then came a role as first assistant director on Goodbye Pork Pie (1980), and two years later Pillsbury made his directorial feature-film debut with The Scarecrow – the first New Zealand film invited to the Cannes Film Festival.

After more than 20 years of surviving in the slim profit margins of Kiwi filmmaking, and with two sons to support (Reuben, 46, is now an artist/filmmaker in Auckland, while Asher, 43, is a Hawke’s Bay artist), Pillsbury opted for more lucrative directing opportunities in LA.

He’d always been obsessed with wine and the dusty, limestone hills of Arizona, and in 1999 found a way to combine them, planting eight hectares of land south-east of Phoenix with grapes. These days, he’s onto his second vineyard: 14,000 vines, which produce around 40,000 bottles a year of shiraz and chardonnay, among others. He and his partner of 25 years, American Melanie Bermudez, have a 12 year-old son, Luc; there’s occasional cooking at three local restaurants and work on a screenplay he describes as “a cross between No Country for Old Men and Thelma and Louise”.

Was it a culture shock coming to New Zealand as a 13-year-old?

The food was probably the biggest issue. I was used to burgers and shakes, but here it was all about meat pies and lettuce salads with sweet mayonnaise. However, I fell in love with fish and chips, and even spent one summer working in a Paihia fish-and-chip shop. They’re still my favourite fast food.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

When I was 14, I told my mother I wanted to become either a car dealer or a rock’n’roll singer, because I loved cars, music and women – and still do.

How did you transition from writing film reviews for Auckland University student magazine Craccum to making films?

I began to think it was cowardly to write about what other people did instead of doing it myself, so I shot a couple of 16mm short films for the University Film Club. After my MA in English literature, I applied to the only three places in New Zealand you could work in film back then: Pacific Films, the National Film Unit and the NZBC. The Film Unit offered me a job on the spot.

Nicolas Cage, Erika Anderson and Pillsbury on the set of the thriller Zandalee, shot in New Orleans. “Nic was a total professional but also a lot of fun.” Others he’s worked with “weren’t very pleasant”.

One of the highlights of your time there was making a documentary about artist Ralph Hotere.

Ralph was another of the geniuses I had the luck, and joy, to work with. I truly loved the man, particularly his support of other artists, which is rare in the film and wine industries. He told me I was free to film him, but he wasn’t going to say a word about his work. So I got all his colleagues and fans to talk about that and instead shot Ralph cooking mussels! He gave me a bunch of his paintings, and years later when I ran into him, he introduced me to his friends as “the guy who made the best film about me ever”.

You got hate mail for the 2001 film Crooked Earth. Why?

It got great reviews in the US and in New Zealand, Māori loved it, but Pāhekā told me they were sick of “Māori whining about their rights”. It didn’t do well, and people called me a Ponsonby wanker and said I didn’t know anything about the real world.

You also worked on a New Zealand documentary about childbirth that’s now used as a teaching aid in the US?

It was made in 1976 with a tiny budget and advocated for more humane childbirth methods. It changed the way mothers and babies were handled in New Zealand, Australia and the UK, and I believe it’s still used at Martin Luther King Hospital in New York.

What did you do after returning to the US in 1989?

I mainly worked on TV movies, including Fifteen and Pregnant with Kirsten Dunst and, believe it or not, Free Willy 3, which, despite the silly franchise, is a pretty good film!

You’ve worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names over the years. Time to shamelessly name-drop.

I’ve been lucky to work with everyone from John Carradine, who was a real sweetie, to Nicolas Cage in the thriller Zandalee, which we shot in New Orleans. Nic was a total professional, but also a lot of fun. Steve Buscemi was wonderful, as were Marisa Tomei, Helen Hunt, Kristen Bell, Neil Patrick Harris and Kirsten Dunst. Unfortunately, Judge Reinhold, Billy Zane and Michael O’Keefe weren’t very pleasant.

How did you segue from filmmaking into wine?

Back in the 80s, I was planning to grow grapes on some land I owned in Waiheke but that didn’t quite happen, so when I tasted a fantastic Phoenix [Arizona] chardonnay, I tracked down the winemaker, bought some land next to his vineyard and went into partnership with him. People thought I was mad, because Arizona isn’t exactly a traditional wine-growing region, but I’d tasted brilliant wines from unlikely places in New Zealand and knew it could work. Our pinot gris was served twice at White House state dinners.

So why sell?

After five years, I wanted to run my own show. We sold the vineyard to a group including the lead singer of Tool [Maynard James Keenan] and, in 2008, I bought 100 acres across the road and started The Pillsbury Wine Company, which is organic and uses sustainable winemaking methods and packaging. We’ve won some great awards and I’ve never had so much fun in my life.

Has being a Kiwi helped or hindered you?

There’s no question the number-8 wire ethos has served me well. Buying land in what was considered a bizarre location meant I got it cheap, and I built a million-dollar winery for around $NZ250,000, using things we found lying around. We repurposed refrigerated truck trailers, which we ran cheap cooling units through. My mantra is, “If you ain’t rich, you gotta be smart,” and growing up in New Zealand taught me to be smart.

Do you still feel connected to New Zealand?

I love New Zealand with every ounce of my being, but work keeps me in the US. My two older children and two grandchildren are in NZ, as well as many dear friends. I still have a bach in Port Charles in the Coromandel – probably the most beautiful place on earth. It’s right on the beach, has an orchard, water comes from a stream and there are no shops. I have a boat and we get our food from the ocean every day. It’s heaven and I try to get back once or twice a year.

What’s next for you?

Making better wine and continuing to cook for guests with food 100% sourced from my land. I’ve also been guest-cheffing at a few Phoenix restaurants, including Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn, which was recently named the eighth top hotel in the US.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a passionate defender of human rights, a gleeful sensualist and a fun person with a genuine joy for life. 

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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