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New Zealand film pioneer Geoff Murphy dies

New Zealand film director Geoff Murphy has died in Wellington at the age of 80.

Story from Wellington.Scoop

Geoff Murphy (centre) with fellow 2013 recipients of the Arts Foundation Icon Awards, (from left) Cliff Whiting; Jacqueline Fahey, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Ian Athfield

Murphy is best known for his 1980s features Goodbye Pork Pie, The Quiet Earth and Utu – which set box office records at home and were among the first New Zealand movies to be screened, and praised, around the world.

He began his working life as a school teacher, and then joined the travelling multi-media group Blerta, making silent movies that were projected behind their onstage performances.

In 1980 he completed Goodbye Pork Pie, which was the first New Zealand feature film to screen in the market at the Cannes Film Festival. He didn’t go to Cannes with his film – he’d made Pork Pie on such a small budget that, instead, he chose to go to Australia “for a job I would get paid for,” making special effects for a TV mini-series about Ned Kelly. Pork Pie sold to 20 countries at Cannes. In its New Zealand release the following year, it was seen by more than 600,000 people. There’d never been anything like it.

In 1983 his second feature Utu was the first New Zealand feature officially selected for the main programme at Cannes, though it was in the “out of competition” category.

A French critic commented: “Murphy keeps an ironic distance from the narrative conventions and moral cliches which the Australians do not achieve.”

Its theatrical release in the USA began in the same year that the Te Maori exhibition had been on show at the Metropolitan Museum. The New Yorker critic said Murphy had “an instinct for popular entertainment and a deracinated kind of hip lyricism”

Its New Zealand release was seen by 250,000 people and the Sunday Times proclaimed it a “cultural benchmark.”

Murphy’s extraordinary science fiction epic The Quiet Earth, completed in 1985, starred Bruno Lawrence as the only man left alive in the world. It sold for release all over the world and the Los Angeles Times acclaimed it as best science fiction film of the 1980s.

Never Say Die, his fourth New Zealand feature, was completed at the end of 1988, with a budget ten times as large as Pork Pie. An American company pre-sold it all over the world, but it didn’t get an American release, unlike the previous three movies. Its New Zealand results disappointed the filmmakers – it was seen by less than 80,000 people.

Murphy then left New Zealand for almost decade, making films in North America. The most notable was Young Guns 2 with Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland and Christian Slater. He returned home early in the new century, and made a significant contribution as second unit director on Lord of the Rings.

In 2013 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the NZ Film awards, and he was made an NZOM in the 2014 New Year Honours.

Earlier he had been honoured as one of New Zealand’s 20 greatest living artists when he was named an Arts Icon by the Arts Foundation, in the same month that a restored, shortened version of Utu was released.

His autobiography, A Life On Film, was published by Harper Collins in 2015.