John Barnett has earned a stellar reputation in the movie and television world by seeing the international appeal in local stories like Whale Rider.
Barnett, known to his friends as Barney, can spin a good yarn as well as being able to spot one. During his 24 years as head of South Pacific Pictures, and after he left the company, he shaped and influenced New Zealand television and film with perseverance, vision and, importantly, commercial instincts. The question, he says, that is always foremost in his mind as he decides whether to give the big tick to a project is “who will watch this?” – he’s not in the game for kicks or vanity projects. He was the driving force behind movies such as Whale Rider and Sione’s Wedding and hit TV series including Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street.
The only son of Eddie and Anne Barnett, British Jews who migrated to New Zealand in the late 1930s, Barnett has two younger sisters. He attended Auckland Grammar School, and then Victoria University of Wellington, where he and John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, happily bonded in the cafe over their inability to master quantitative analysis. Their collaboration as manager and talent would help lead to Clarke’s transtasman fame. There was the lucrative record deal negotiated by Barnett with EMI in New Zealand in the early Fred Dagg days: “There were all sorts of questions being asked from EMI in London because we were getting a bigger royalty than the Beatles – that was a lot of fun.” Barnett relished the three or four years he managed Clarke, who remained his friend until his untimely death in 2017. Among Barnett’s other achievements are being part of the financial rescue in the 1970s of the then failing National Business Review; realising the potential of David Yallop’s book Beyond Reasonable Doubt (about the Crewe murders) and producing the movie of the same name; and having the patience and belief to persevere for nearly two decades before Whale Rider hit screens in New Zealand and abroad. Barnett has received numerous awards for his work and was named a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2020 New Year Honours.
When Barnett was growing up in Auckland, there was no television. There were cinemas, the radio and, importantly, there were books. Anne and Eddie Barnett passed on to their children their own love of literature.
How bookish were those early years?
Books were very important. So much so that, in the early 60s, my parents opened a bookshop because they felt it would be a good thing to have a business where people could buy quality books. They had Deans bookshop at the bottom of Wakefield St.
Why was it called Deans?
D and E was from Eddie; A and N from Anne. It was a lovely place – light and bright and it had really good books. I was about 14 when they opened it and I spent a lot of time there. It was a struggle and the shop eventually closed, but our home was always one where learning and books were very prized and prominent. And, without belittling our neighbours, you would go to other people’s places and there wouldn’t be many books.
What sort of values did they promote or model to you and your sisters?
They instilled in us a sense of the importance of standing up for things that you believe in and standing up for people who weren’t so well-off or didn’t have a fair go.
Do you have the sense that they did better here than they would have if they’d stayed in England?
Well, yes and no. My father came from Hartlepool, a very poor town, and he was one of six children. My mother was from London. She had three brothers and six sisters and one of them became a multimillionaire with a huge supermarket chain, and the others did well. When I was two or three, I went to England with my mother – not that I remember it. Her parents, by then, lived in Oxford and they had a chauffeur and maids and the like. They had done well.
Was being Jewish a major part of family life?
Yes, very much. Both my parents were very involved in the Jewish community all their lives and it was a very important part of our upbringing.
Does it remain very important in your life?
It does. I’m Jewish. That is me, and it is my sisters, too. There was definitely a feeling when I was growing up that everybody knew I was Jewish. At Auckland Grammar, for example, there were about 35 Jewish boys and we didn’t go to prayers. We, and the boys who were Brethren, would go into a room at the back of the hall on the second floor, wait until prayers were over and then rejoin assembly.
Did you experience any anti-Semitism?
Sometimes something would be said, but it was rare. Henry Cooper, our headmaster, had a very good relationship with a number of prominent Jewish families and ensured that there wasn’t any institutionalised prejudice. But for a number of people, it [Barnett being Jewish] was the first thing they thought of. For example, I got on a plane maybe 10 or 15 years ago and found myself sitting next to someone I went to school with who I hadn’t seen for 25 years. When the meal came he looked at it, saw there was pork in it and said, “Well, you won’t eat that.” It was interesting that it was something he immediately remembered about me.
Does that bother you?
You are who you are. In my film and television career, actually, it’s been really interesting because you tend to look at things beyond a monocultural perspective. If you look at something such as Sione’s Wedding or Whale Rider or My Wedding and Other Secrets, I can get that. When I read Whale Rider, I saw it as a story for a whole lot of people but it took me a lot of time – 17 years – to get that to screen. People would say to me, “No one wants to go and see a Māori film,” and I’d say, “You’re wrong, this is a great story and it’s actually an international story.” I believe that the more specific you are in the telling of the story, the more universal you are, because every culture, every religion has these stories.
In the last decade, Netflix has become a game changer in terms of how people view movies and TV – what’s your take on it, given your involvement as a director of ScreenPlus? (A venture in which viewers can watch a movie at home but must buy a ticket via a cinema. ScreenPlus is being trialled at Auckland’s Hollywood Cinema in Avondale.)
Well, Netflix has shown that you could have seen The Irishman in the cinema for a week or two, or you could watch it at home on Netflix. And Netflix doesn’t want these movies to be in the cinema for too long because it wants its subscribers to be able to see them as soon as possible. But if you want an Academy Award nomination, your movie has to run for two weeks in a cinema in Los Angeles or New York, so you’re going to have to put your movie in a cinema. And the Cannes Film Festival won’t run anything that’s going on Netflix because it believes in the magic of the cinema.
I do, but there are many people who aren’t getting to the cinema. Some are older people, who don’t want to go out at night, and some are younger people with kids who can’t get out. So I don’t think ScreenPlus takes away from the cinema experience; you enhance the number of people that see your movie. But the key is that the only way you see the movie, whether you watch in the cinema or at home, is by booking it through the cinema. It costs about the price of two cinema tickets, but you can watch whenever it suits you. And the cinema makes money either way; it’s not a streaming service in which the cinema is not a participant.
What are you working on?
I’m a big believer in content that’s had a previous life because if, for example, it’s been a book, you’re talking to a whole lot of people who have already read it and understand it. So, I’ve been developing Cleo, Helen Brown’s book about the loss of her child, a story of loss, love and redemption. Also, Paul Cleave’s books, which I think would make great streaming material, and a nice little romantic one called Not Bad People by New Zealand writer Brandy Scott.
Which movies have you recently enjoyed?
I saw an amazing documentary called For Sama, made by a young woman in Aleppo, Syria. She shot it on a little camera over a period of about five years. In that time, she marries a doctor and has a child, Sama. The Russians are bombing all the hospitals and you just see this city fall apart, and her recording life there. It is really powerful. Will it do a lot of business? No, but it’s a story about dealing with adversity and how you try and live a life and how innocent people get caught up in something that they can’t influence. Another I really liked is Uncut Gems – it’s got enormous pace. I thought Marriage Story was terrific and 1917 was really great. Two political pictures, based on real events and people, are Dark Waters, with Mark Ruffalo, and Official Secrets, in which Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun, the British woman who leaked secrets relating to the invasion of Iraq. It’s based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War.
What about books? What are you reading?
I am reading and recommending Danubia, by Simon Winder. It’s the history of the Habsburgs over a thousand years. He talks about society in all of the countries that the Habsburgs controlled – all the way, eventually, from Spain to Russia. Another is Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori writers. A very funny book is Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. And a terrific le Carré-like thriller is A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon. But I keep coming back to Danubia because it is just so interesting.
This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.