Tim Worrall during the making of Head High, which he co-wrote and directed.

There’s never been a shortage of Māori stories. But it’s no easy path for them to make it on to mainstream television in prime time. That’s what’s happening, though, with the Head High series starting next Sunday. And here we have Dale getting to know a man who’s played a big role in shaping that story. He’s Tim Worrall, a writer with strong links to Auckland’s North Shore as well as to Te Urewera — and with wounds to show and memories to savour from the game of rugby that plays its part in the series.


Kia ora, Tim. I understand you’re Ngāi Tūhoe on your mum’s side, and you’re a Devonport Pākehā on your dad’s. Tell me a little about your taha Pākehā first?

Dad is Dave Worrall and, before he made his way down to Waimana in Te Urewera, and found her, Mum was Kay Nui Boynton. 

Dad’s-great-great-grandfather came to Auckland from Australia in the early 1800s. Then his great-grandad established a business out west importing ceramic pipes for the burgeoning Auckland development. And, in the late 1800s, that business morphed into importing bikes — and that business has kept going as WH Worrall and Co on Anzac Avenue in Auckland. 

The family business passed down through the generations. My father became the managing director and then it was bought by cousins of mine — and it now specialises in racing bikes.

So you always had a flash bike as a kid?

Yeah. Not that flash though, because the other thing the Worralls are known for is being super frugal. But my sister had a Raleigh 10 with streamers on the handlebars. I never had a Chopper. Those Choppers were the ones. I did have a 10-speed something, though, from the age of 15. And, eventually, when I was  working there in the university holidays, I bought myself, and kinda constructed, a pretty good triathalon bike.

How did you go as a triathlete?

I didn’t reach any dizzying heights in the sport, but I had a lot of fun training with mates, and I enjoyed the variation with the three components — swimming, biking and running. The races were fun, too — except for the start of the swim with the mad crush of bodies trying get past each other. 

I remember rolling up hungover to one race, getting kicked in the nuts 20 seconds into the swim, throwing up, and then dropping to the back of the field as I tried to dodge my own puke.

How did your old man meet your mum? 

Dad’s a fair bit older than Mum and he’d got into the habit of shooting down to Tauwharemanuka to stay with Mum’s Uncle Tuhi and Aunty Paku. That’s at the end of the road that winds up the Waimana valley into the heart of Te Urewera. Much later, I made a short doco about it. It’s called The Road to Whakarae.

Dad had taken a shine to Uncle Tuhi and Aunty Paku and all their kids, as well as to the tramping and hunting in the forest ranges. And all that remained for him to become part of the wider whānau was to meet Tuhi’s young niece, Kay, when she was back home in Waimana after finishing her time as a boarder at Epsom Girls’ Grammar in Auckland. I think their first meeting was a set-up involving a whānau picnic at one of the  favourite swimming holes.

From Tim’s short doco The Road Whakarae, deep in the heart of Tūhoe country.

I’m assuming that led on to their marriage and to the production of you and your two siblings, Jan and Michael. Naturally, some Māori-Pākehā couples run into trouble because of their different backgrounds. But I understand that wasn’t the case with your folks.

No. Not at all. The only real issue for us as kids was growing up in an urban environment and not being directly connected to our Māoritanga. But my father’s family, and particularly him, were really open and positive towards te ao Māori. As a young man, Dad was down in Te Urewera every holiday, spending as much time there as he could. And he was hugely proud of, and positive about, having Māori kids.

There was also a positive aspect earlier than that with his father’s parents. All of his father’s siblings, even though they were Pākehā, were given Māori first names by their mum and dad. My Pākehā grandfather was Orewa Worrall, and his brothers were named Rata, Arawa, and Awhitu.

The positivity towards te ao Māori was part of our household as well. We grew up proud of being Māori, proud of Ngai Tūhoe and of our tīpuna. So that connected us with our relations — although we weren’t embedded in tikanga or anything. I had to go on that journey later in life.

Ka pai. I see that, as a young fulla, you went off to the Elam arts school in Auckland. What did you have in mind when you headed in that direction? 

I probably thought that, when I got there, I was going to be like a European-style expressionist painter, because that was the art that set me alight. But I quickly found that I was more inspired by my taha Māori. So that’s what I focused on from my first year there. It culminated, in my final year, with a short film, Savage Rites, which dealt with the land wars.

New Zealand was really starting to open out in the late 1980s in the wake of the Māori renaissance and I was inspired by Māori filmmakers like Merita Mita and Barry Barclay. 

 At Elam, though, no doubt you studied a range of art.

Yes. There are some paintings I did in my first year, like the one that’s still at Mum and Dad’s place. It’s based on a drawing project at the Auckland Museum. I remember stepping into Hotunui, the Ngāti Maru-Ngāti Awa wharenui — and feeling the wairua.

So I did this large painting of two poupou, with a figure entering the wharenui between them. In some ways, that was a metaphor for where I was, standing on that threshold. I feel really strongly about that painting. It’s probably my most meaningful piece from that time.

The big thing at university and art school, however, are the relationships that you build. I was in the same cohort as Lisa Reihana, Brent Graham and Niki Caro. Those and other influential friendships and connections have continued over the years. 

You’re also known for your love of tā moko and pounamu. What drew you into these interests?

About a year after I went back down to Whakatane, I moved out to live in Tāneatua and Waimana and immersed myself in my Tūhoetanga. And I looked for what art was important in our communities there — the things that people wanted.

Initially, I helped set up the Tūhoe Artists Co-operative in Tāneatua and I was part of a group doing a bunch of large public murals in Whakatane. Then there was a big carving project that we did out at Rūātoki. People obviously also wanted taonga pounamu and tā moko — and they were starting to rediscover those arts.  

I’d been doing some workshops over the years with Sandy Adsett and Derek Lardelli. Chas Doherty was another influence. He was spending time with Rangi Kipa who’d given him some basic tā moko gear which Chas brought back to Tūhoe. 

At first, we were just having a muck around with the gear. I did some work on him which other people saw — and it just went from there. It wasn’t that it was something I’d always been burning to do, but it was becoming more and more important to our communities. 

As well as all that, you ended up with a master’s degree in scriptwriting. That’s awesome. What skills do you need to produce interesting TV or movie scripts?

I’d made that short film at art school. I’d loved that medium for a long time but hadn’t seen a future for myself until I started getting into it at Elam.

But it’s hard. I still find screenwriting hard. That said, there are some strategies that have made a difference for me. One came from Ken Duncum, associate professor of my MA course in scriptwriting at Victoria University.

Over the years that he’d been teaching creative writing, he’d observed that many aspiring writers are our own worst critics — and that we’re prone to paralysis by analysis. We’re forever rewriting the beginnings of scripts. Forever telling ourselves that what we’ve written is shit.

His simple strategy to get us moving was to set tight timeframes for delivering longform pieces (usually a feature film script). Also, his directive was to work to a daily page count. Say, four new pages a day. And you were not to reread or rework the earlier parts of the script until you’d reached the end of the first draft.

I’ve also come to value having a basic outline before starting a script — having a good sense of the beginning, middle and especially the end of the story. You need to know, at least in a general sense, what you’re writing towards.

There’s a podcast called Scriptnotes run by a couple of experienced Hollywood screenwriters (Craig Mazin and John August) that’s a great resource, too. It provides technical advice on aspects such as outlining.

Any other tips?

Well, one of the other lessons I’ve learned is that, although happy endings are fine, your characters have to earn that happy ending. An audience wants to be taken on an exciting, emotional ride that tests your main characters to the utmost.

In your role as a writer, you have to know the worst fears of your main characters and then make them face those demons. It also helps to know what your main characters want and what they need — and it’s even better if those two things are opposed.

Do any other mentors come to mind?

There’ve been a few who’ve been a great help. Briar Grace Smith and Kath Akuhata-Brown spring to mind. Then there was Graeme Tetley, who passed away in 2011. He was New Zealand’s most prolific feature film writer for 30 or so years — Vigil, Ruby and Rata, Bread and Roses, Out of the Blue, and so on. 

He mentored me through that master’s course in scriptwriting. Just a beautiful man, who was excited about the craft. He worked with you by only asking questions — working to help you find your own answers. He was a great influence that year in Wellington. 

You’ve been on other journeys, too, haven’t you? Like your reo journey. How’s that been?

Long and tortuous. Lots of twists and turns. You may know that journey, too, bro. Being pale-skinned, going out to Waimana for the first time by myself, turning up for rugby training or to the marae — well, you just felt inadequate through not having the reo.

Luckily, the Awanuiārangi Whare Wānanga was starting up then, so I enrolled and did a full year there. And there was one particular person on the staff who made a major impact on me. That was Tamati Kruger, a lecturer who gave me a decent run at the reo that year. And I started working with Tamati and his wife Sandre and my whānaunga, Rex Hiakita, who were setting up Anamata, a private training institute at Tāneatua. 

That’s where I worked to establish the Tūhoe artists co-operative. Alongside of that, I got to attend Tamati’s Tūhoe studies class. It was a six-month course in a little Skyline garage in Rūātoki. That’s still the most powerful, most informative, most meaningful training I’ve ever done.

It was an amazing course in mātauranga, tīkanga and whakapapa. But, more than that, it galvanised an understanding of, and commitment to, Tūhoe mana motuhake for all of us at that course over the decade or so that Tamati ran it.  

Since then, I’ve just been chipping away at the reo — and I’m now doing Anaha Hiini’s advanced reo classes once a week in Rotorua. When I was back in Auckland for a wee while, I also did Scotty and Te Kauhoe’s awesome classes at Unitec. You grab it wherever you can. 

I think, like a lot of others, one of the reo breakthroughs for me was having kids. When you have your own tamariki, you’ve got little people who you can speak crap reo to. That’s until they go to kura and start turning on you. Then there was another jump forward with my reo when I became chairman at our marae in Waimana. Being forced to conduct meetings in reo was a turning point for me.

Because you’ve worked in the media, you probably have a good idea about the way the media shapes our thinking about ourselves. And that can be positive or negative. The creative sectors are important to our people overall, aren’t they? Important in having us thinking well of ourselves.

I think we can all see that they’re really crucial. And we also can recognise that, as Māori, mahi toi has been a key area of excellence within our culture for a very long time. You just need to look at the sophistication of our tīpuna’s artistic expression, and the level of achievement across various forms. Like whaikorero, waiata moteatea and tā moko.

Then, if we focus on the screen sector, Māori engagement and excitement in film started right at the very beginning of film in this country. I think the first feature film made in Aotearoa was a Hinemoa and Tūtanekai story. And you have Ramai Hayward and her husband Rudall’s many Māori-based films like Rewi’s Last Stand. 

Then, among the 10 top-grossing New Zealand films, the majority are Māori-made or Māori stories. Right through to this day, there’s a high level of Māori excellence in the industry. It’s something we’ve been really good at right from the start, and we continue to have a strong presence in the movie world.

You’ve had a hand in many different productions including Deadlands and Whale Rider. Any number of short films, too. But what have been the most satisfying productions so far?

Probably my second short film, Tits on a Bull. That was me getting back to writing and directing. And it came at a time when a bunch of us Māori who were working in the industry, in Rotorua, set up the Steambox Films Collective. It was a film inspired by a story from my rugby days in Waimana.

I have to say that working as co-lead writer and one of the directors on TV’s new drama series Head High has been a buzz as well. Especially getting to work with so much young Māori talent both in front of and behind the camera.   

There’s a bit of rugby in Head High — Tim’s latest project.

What sort of a footy career did you have?

I was a late bloomer with rugby. I played a bit when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I finished university and moved back to Waimana that I fell in love with the game. I’d grown up hearing stories about the Waimana glory days of my grandfather, my great-grandfather and various uncles. So living there and playing for a team of my close whānaunga was a powerful part of my reconnection with Tūhoetanga.

As a player, I was a scrappy midfield back and then openside flanker who loved the aggressive side of the game — you know, coming off the field with blood spilling out of my head somewhere.

One of the highlights for me was playing a season at centre outside my legendary uncle, Wayne Boynton, who’d been a stalwart midfielder for Southland in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Wayne was often the largest player on the field in those days — and, even though he was in his late 40s when we teamed up for Waimana, he was still a formidable presence.

For me, it was a dream ride for me when he was at second five — basically all I had to do was time my run off his shoulder. He’d crash through the defence and flip me the ball.

Any memorable moments?

I vividly recall my first game for Waimana. It was against Tāneatua and I was determined to show my whānau that I could handle the physical side of the game. So, in my first tackle on defence, I went flying at my Tāneatua opponent, leading with my head and hitting him high on the chest. 

It was terrible technique. Our heads smashed together and we were off to A&E. Both of us. Him with concussion and me with a bloody laceration that had to be stitched up by a doctor who was my very recent ex-girlfriend. She’d warned me that I’d get hurt if I turned to rugby.

No doubt that sort of experience came in handy when you were working on the script for Head High.

Yep. It did. And it was really satisfying to help pull together a series that’s partly a rugby drama and definitely a Māori story made by a predominantly Māori production team. And it’s on mainstream television and in prime time, too. We’re chuffed about all that. Really chuffed.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2020

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