Cliff Curtis and Taika Waititi at the NZ premiere of ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen’.
Cliff Curtis has more 50 screen credits as an actor but he is just as passionate about his role as a producer and executive producer – and he may soon direct his first feature.
“My interest in trying to understand my trade and craft took me behind the camera,” Curtis tells IF on the line from his home in Rotorua. “When I got into producing I discovered there is a totally different aspect of my brain and how I think about things.
“With acting you are expected to play to the crowd and to be gregarious. I have that part to my nature but there is another part where I’m very private and I like to spend time on my own, isolated and within my head.
”As a producer you are there at the genesis of the project, you crew it up, build confidence in the investors and follow it through to completion.”
The Fear the Waking Dead star, who will next be seen in Universal’s upcoming Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw and in all four of James Cameron’s Avatar epics, is especially proud of his latest production.
Due to open in Kiwi cinemas on May 14, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen is an intimate portrait of pioneer filmmaker and activist Merata Mita, directed by her youngest son Heperi Mita. Merata was the first Māori woman to write and direct a narrative feature with her 1988 film Mauri.
Curtis had hoped to make a feature film about her early life and career but dropped that idea after she died in 2010. An archivist with Ngā Taonga sound and vision, the nation’s film archive, Heperi cut a 12 minute tribute to his mother which screened at her funeral.
That so impressed Curtis he knew Heperi would be the ideal director for the feature doc, which took five years to put together. Conceived as a not-commercial project, it was financed from grants from the NZFC, NZ On Air and Te Mangai Paho (Māori broadcasting funding agency) as well as licence fees from broadcasters.
Ava DuVernay’s distribution company Array acquired the North American and UK rights to the doc produced by Chelsea Winstanley after its Sundance premiere and other deals are in negotiation.
After appearing in the iconic films The Piano, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider, he watched as directors such as Geoff Murphy, Roger Donaldson, Lee Tamahori and Jane Campion went to Hollywood, to the detriment of the Kiwi film industry.
Barrie M. Osborne, one of the producers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, was the first to encourage him to venture into producing. Mita and Whale Rider producer Bill Gavin also advocated that move.
With his cousin Ainsley Gardiner he formed Maori film production company Whenua Films in 2004. The pair produced Taika Waititi’s WWII short film Tama Tū and his debut feature, geek comedy Eagle vs Shark.
In 2010 they produced Waititi’s Boy, the saga of an 11-year-old devout Michael Jackson fan who gets a chance to reconnect with his absentee criminal father, which was inspired by the director’s Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night.
Another motive for venturing into producing was to fill in the downtime between acting gigs. Typically he appears in two films a year, which may occupy him for up to three months.
In 2013 he created Arama Pictures to continue his commitment to Indigenous storytelling inspired by the works of Merata Mita, Don Selwyn and Barry Barclay.
The Dark Horse.
In 2014 Arama Pictures executive produced James Napier Robertson’s The Dark Horse, which starred Curtis as a brilliant but troubled New Zealand chess champion who finds purpose by teaching underprivileged children about the rules of chess and life.
Its production credits include the short Ahi Kā, Richard Curtis’ film inspired by Cliff’s grandmother’s childhood experiences, the TV series This is Piki and Tearepa Kahi’s upcoming Herbs – Songs of Freedom, a feature doc about the NZ reggae band Herbs.
He is tentatively attached to direct a family feature film in New Zealand, aimed at international audiences. “I wasn’t chasing to direct but it was an offer that walked in the door,” he says.
Later this year he may go to New York to appear in a Broadway show, title under wraps, which would mean his career has come full circle: He started out in musical theatre 30 years ago.