Mention New Zealand culture and two images spring immediately to mind – namely tongue-waggling Haka-ing Maoris and the all-conquering try-scoring All Blacks. Beyond that, however… Well, it gets a little trickier.

The TV certainly isn’t much to write home about, being roughly as cutting edge as the world of Aussie soaps, only somehow a little worse (Shortland Street anyone?).

Yes, there’s the brilliant Flight of the Conchords, we hadn’t forgotten, but there’s a good reason the show was produced by HBO in America – Kiwi television execs decided the Wellington duo weren’t worth the cash and sent them packing to the States, a decision a few people probably choose to leave off their CV nowadays (see boxout for more). 

Then there’s music. Sure there’s a couple of class female indie acts, like Ladyhawke and Kimbra (think Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”), but after that you’re pretty much left with oldies Crowded House and a bunch of metal, hip-hop and roots bands that don’t exactly set the charts alight overseas. Oh, and anyone for a sing-a-long to OMC’s “How Bizarre”?

There’s one area, however, in which the Kiwis punch notably above their weight – cinema. Indeed, for a country of just over four million people, tucked away at the end of the world, it’s impressive just how many New Zealanders have hit the big time on the silver screen.

There’s Russell Crowe (when it suits him), Lucy Lawless (okay, maybe Xena isn’t quite big time), Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), Karl Urban (Star Trek, Dredd) and Anna Paquin (yep, Sookie from True Blood), plus A-list directors like Peter Jackson and Jane Campion. 

Okay, maybe that list isn’t all that long (plus both Neill and Paquin were born overseas), but the point is that the New Zealand film scene, much like the country itself, isn’t about size, but about picking a niche and doing it better than anyone else.

As a result, a production comes along every few years that not only draws deep from the Kiwi mindset, but also strikes a chord with an international audience. 

And so, taking special care to avoid anything Middle Earth (which you’ve either seen a million times already, are thoroughly sick of, or perhaps a bit of both), here’s the TNT guide to the eight Kiwi films you should make an extra special effort to watch while you’re in the Land of the Long White Cloud. 

Once Were Warriors (1994)

What’s it about? Described by the marketing suits as ‘New Zealand’s first indigenous blockbuster’, Warriors is the hard-hitting tale of a Maori family, living in Auckland, who are struggling to deal with the drunken outbursts of a violent father (Temuera Morrison), while also attempting to reconnect with their warrior roots. 

On location: The film, which collected a stack of festival awards from around the world, is set in the traditionally working class suburbs of Auckland, such as Otara, Onehunga and Glen Innes.

Anything else? You’ll probably recognise Morrison from his numerous Hollywood bit parts as hard men short on lines, such as in the newer Star Wars films, Speed 2 and Green Lantern. Highly-rated director Lee Tamahori, meanwhile, progressed from this debut to the likes of Mulholland Falls and Die Another Day.

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Boy (2010)

What’s it about? Set in 1984, this touching but very funny story is centred around the experiences of a Michael Jackson-obsessed 11-year-old boy (James Rolleston), who lives on an east coast farm.

The Jacko fanatic also hero worships his long absent father (Taika Waititi), who returns out of the blue in search of some long buried money.

On location: The movie was shot entirely in Waihau Bay, in the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island. 

Anything else? As well as being handed a healthy smattering of gongs, Boy has the honour of being the highest grossing Kiwi film of all time (The LOTR films, being US-funded, don’t count).

The main man is Waititi, who was writer and director, as well as one of the stars. One of the leading creative forces in New Zealand today, the Oscar-nominated East Cape man also has Flight of the Conchords and The Inbetweeners directing credits to his name.


Eagle vs Shark (2007)

What’s it about? This quirky romantic comedy is the tale of two socially awkward misfits (Loren Horsley and Conchords’ Jermaine Clement) who meet at a fancy dress party and gradually bond during a mission to exert revenge on a high school bully.  

On location: Filming was done in Porirua, at the southern end of the Kapiti Coast, and within Wellington, with the Manners Mall and Cuba Mall both being clearly recognisable.

Anything else? Director and writer Taika Waititi (him again) made the two leads wear shoes that were too big for them so that they’d seem more clumsy.

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The Piano (1993)

What’s it about? This multi Oscar-winning emotional drama follows a mute woman (Holly Hunter), along with her daughter (Anna Paquin) and piano, as she journeys from Scotland to the frontiers of New Zealand in the 1850s, having been sold into an arranged marriage with an angst-ridden landowner (Sam Neill). 

On location: The production was filmed in the small coastal settlements, such as Piha, to the west of Auckland. To relive those epic piano on the beach scenes, head to the rugged black sands of Karekare Beach.

Anything else? Among the scores of awards heaped on The Piano were a best actress Oscar for Hunter and a best screenplay Oscar for Jane Campion. The film also resulted in Campion becoming the first woman to receive the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and to be the second of just four women to receive a best director Oscar nomination.

Most memorable, however, was Paquin’s Oscar for best supporting actress. Then aged just 11, the Kiwi remains the second youngest Academy winner in history (after Tatum O’Neal, for 1973’s Paper Moon, in case you were wondering).


Whale Rider (2002)

What’s it about? A feisty young Maori girl (Keisha Castle-Hughes) challenges the traditionally sexist hierarchy in her Whangara tribe, claiming she is the true descendant of her people’s whale riding ancestor, Paikea.

On location: The movie was shot in North Island’s Eastland region, which is home to New Zealand’s highest concentration of Maori people, and was where the original novel was set. Whangara, just north of regional capital Gisborne, is where the cameras were rolling. 

Anything else? Many of Castle-Hughes’ swimming scenes had to be filmed using a double, due to the 13-year-old not being a strong swimmer, despite claiming otherwise in her audition. Regardless of that, she became the youngest woman to ever be nominated for a best actress Oscar, before being pipped to the prize by Monster’s Charlize Theron.

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Sleeping Dogs (1977)

What’s it about? A political thriller in which a recluse (Sam Neill), living in a near future New Zealand on the brink of economic collapse, becomes a man on the run, trapped between a repressive fascist government and a group of violent guerrillas fighting to restore democracy. 

On location: The film takes place in Auckland and the surrounding coastal towns. 

Anything else? Despite having to use wooden replicas for all the weapons in the film, due to firearms restrictions at the time, Sleeping Dogs made history by becoming the first Kiwi film to gain general release in the USA.

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Heavenly Creatures (1994)

What’s it about? Marking a clear departure from director Peter Jackson’s previous gore-dominated work, Heavenly Creatures is an intense and often disturbing story of ultimately violent obsession, in which two girls (Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey) create their own fantasy world.  

On location: Almost all the locations used, in and around Christchurch, were the genuine places in which the real events occurred. 

Anything else? The movie, which was the debut for both Winslet and Lynskey (more recently seen as Rose in Two and a Half Men), is based on the true story of one of New Zealand’s most infamous murder cases. The 1954 crime resulted in both the girls doing jail time, while the one played by Winslet later went on to become bestselling crime writer Anne Perry. 

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The World’s Fastest Indian (2005)

What’s it about? The true story of New Zealander Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), a lifelong motorbike enthusiast, who, in his late 60s, decided to switch Invercargill for Utah’s salt flats in a bid to beat the world land speed record riding his beloved Indian.   

On location: Apart from the scenes based in the States, much of the movie was filmed on location on New Zealand’s South Island. Sites included Timaru, in Canterbury, plus Invercargill and Oreti Beach, in Southland.

Anything else? Until overtaken by Boy, the film spent five years as New Zealand’s highest grossing movie of all time, cementing the already historic role of Aussie director Roger Donaldson (Sleeping Dogs) in the Kiwi movie industry.


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Welcome to Wellywood

Okay, try as we might, it’s simply impossible to talk about the New Zealand film industry without giving a proper mention to The Lord of The Rings, or more precisely, Sir Peter Jackson.

A notable exception to the usual brain drain that occurs whenever a Kiwi gets the big Hollywood break, Jackson has not just created one of the most profitable and award-laden film series in history, but is perhaps the single biggest player in creating a domestic movie industry now worth over $3 billion a year. 

Indeed, when Jackson chose to film the Tolkien classic in his backyard, he not only kick-started a massive tourism boom to the country, but helped develop a highly-skilled film workforce and joint founded a special effects studio, Weta Digital, that is now a world leader in producing Hollywood-style blockbusters. It’s no joke that the Wellington suburb Miramar is now often referred to as Wellywood. 

Don’t believe the world’s best CGI firm can be found in little old New Zealand? Well, how’s this for a list of its credits. As well as all Jackson’s own films (LOTR, The Hobbit, Tintin, King Kong etc), Weta can also take the credit for the likes of Avatar, Prometheus, Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, among many, many others. You can visit Weta’s free museum, theWeta Cave, to see all sorts of props from the films.


Why the Conchords Took Flight

After Frodo and Samwise, they must be just about the biggest stars to hit our screens from Kiwi shores, so why exactly were The Flight of the Conchords forced to do their robot dance (and robo boogie) away from their homeland?

Indeed, having picked up a Grammy award, 10 Emmy nominations plus millions of fans, not to mention dollars, there’s no denying that, to the New Zealand TV industry, Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie’s comedy series will always be considered the one that got away.

Even more galling must be the fact that when the big rejection decision was made, Conchords was already a proven success, in the form of a 2004 award-winning BBC Radio 2 series, which also featured Rob Brydon as a narrator and Jimmy Carr as the oddball fan.

The reason, it seems, came down to cold hard cash. Despite paying the Wellington duo over $30,000 to produce a pilot, which TVNZ liked, the network then baulked at the estimated $300,000 needed to film the series, and so walked away.

TVNZ public affairs spokeswoman Megan Richards told New Zealand’s Herald on Sunday: “The guys wanted an awful lot of money to make it – we couldn’t afford it. They then went overseas, where people have more money.”

When asked by the same paper why Conchords regularly pokes fun at TVNZ, Clement said: “Because we had written the pilot for them. But also they’re the state broadcaster and I think they’ve got a responsibility to reflect New Zealand culture, which they don’t. They take American programmes and copy them.”


Photos: Getty, Tourism New Zealand