Larry Parr has carved out a novel career after showing great promise as a little squirt at Raetihi Primary School and then St Stephen's.
But now comes the big challenge as he takes over the reins at Te Māngai Pāho — as he explains to Dale Husband.
Kia ora, Larry. Thanks very much for joining us here on e-tangata. First I’d like you to tell us a bit about your whānau and where you grew up.
We’re from Ngāti Raukawa Te Au ki Te Tonga, but I was born in 1952 in Raetihi in the central North Island. Two brothers, Les and Bruce, and my late sister, Chanel. My dad is Ray Parr and he’d moved there when he was very young. He worked as a labourer, farm manager, bushman and truck driver. A range of jobs. Sometimes as a barman or club manager. There were three chartered clubs in the town back then.
Dad played a lot of rugby. Rugby was, and still is, pretty much his life. He played for Raetihi. Started in the seniors when he was only 16. In those days there were four clubs in the Ruapehu sub-union. Now there’s only one. He was a King Country representative for 12 years. In fact, he played his first King Country game the same day Colin Meads first played for King Country. He was an outside back or fullback, then a loose forward — and he ended up propping. He was a Māori All Black in 1955. And he also captained King Country Māori.
And your mum?
She was Iris Dauphin. Part French. Her grandfather came out from France and set up the first bakery in Raetihi around 1900. Her father, Henry Dauphin, died when I was a baby and Mum’s mother married again. So the grandfather I knew was George West who was a wonderful man and a huge influence on our lives. He was a fantastic grandfather.
I did reasonably well at school, so Dad decided I should go to St Stephen’s. One of the reasons he sent me there was to learn to speak Māori. I think that he didn’t want me to suffer as he had. He was embarrassed as captain of King Country Māori going to Ruatōria or Whangārei or to the Waikato, when, at the after-match function, he couldn’t stand up and speak in Māori. He didn’t want me to have that same fate.
What he didn’t quite recognise is that you have to be a good enough player to get picked for the team before you can actually be the captain. I did play a bit of rugby. At St Stephen’s. And, later on, I played a number of years of senior club rugby for Northcote. As a first- or second-five or wing. That was before North Harbour split away from Auckland. I got a couple of games for Auckland Māori but rugby wasn’t quite my life as it was for Dad. And anyway, I wasn’t anywhere near as good as he was.
You must’ve been a pretty sharp footballer, though, to make the Auckland Māori team. Congrats on that. But let’s talk about Tipene for a while because you arrived there, so I’m told, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngster in 1965. In the same class as Wassie Shortland. How did little Larry Parr fit in there?
I loved it. It was a great experience. But you need to understand that Tipene at that time was a different school from what it was when it closed in 2000. And there was only one occasion when I didn’t want to be there. That was in 1967. It was my School C year and I had a tough time. In March, my sister Chanel, who was the youngest of us siblings, was killed in an accident. So I went home. And I missed a bit of school.
Then, towards the end of the August school holidays, Dad had a really bad accident in the bush. A tree fell on him and he was in a critical condition for quite some time. So I missed some more school.
To get back to Tipene, I used to catch the train in the middle of the night in Ohakune. I’d get off in Pukekohe around 6 o’clock in the morning. Then I’d get a taxi out to Bombay, to Tipene. This time, when I got there, the school was still asleep because it was August. Middle of winter. So I decided to go to my classroom. But I had trouble finding my desk — and, when I did find it, it was padlocked. Somebody else had taken it. Then I noticed these books lying all around. My books. And I thought: “Oh, really? I don’t want to be here.”
I went out and sat on the front steps and I was having a little bit of a tangi there when Mr Lewis, the principal, came walking up the drive. He came over and stood in front of me. And he looked down and said: “You’ve had a tough year, boy. Come on. Let’s go find a cup of tea.” And it was all better.
That was the only moment I remember not actually wanting to be at the school. I didn’t make the 1st XV, although, in my report for my final year, the headmaster did talk about my rugby ability and said I would’ve been in the 1st XV if I wasn’t so small. But I did well academically. I was dux and went on to Auckland University to study law.
No doubt, there were a few people there — boys as well as teachers — who made an impression on you in your five years at the school.
Well, of course, Joe Lewis, the headmaster, was an incredible influence. And there were others who had an impact on me. In my third form year, Awi Riddell was my Māori teacher, and Gary Wilson my English teacher. I was really disappointed when they left at the end of my first year. I felt I had a great rapport with both of them.
Rā Ihaka was in charge of haircuts and ended up teaching me sixth form chemistry. I think I was a disappointment to him. By the time I got to the sixth form, I was over science and maths, and so chemistry was the only subject I didn’t get accredited in. Api Mahuika was the chaplain in my first year there — and his best mate was Graeme Renouf, a maths and science teacher. Now there was an odd couple. The chaplain and the atheist doing up old cars in their spare time.
Eric Eason taught us book-keeping and was the careers advisor. And in my last two years Tamati Reedy taught me both English and Māori. That was inspirational. He introduced us to whaikōrero and that saved my bacon on more than one occasion. He also coached me in public speaking. And, thanks largely to his patience and guidance, I somehow managed (at my second attempt) to win the South Auckland Schools competition, which was a first for the school.
Some of my contemporaries were Wassie Shortland, Amos Forrester, James Schuster, Graham Smith and Charlie Timutimu. There was a stellar group of seventh formers when we arrived. Doug Hauraki, who’s on our board at Te Māngai Pāho, was my Panapa house captain in my first year. Others were Paraire Huata, Rima Edwards, Herewini Ngata, Derek Fox, Tingi Manga, Trevor Patrick and Mahara Okeroa. So you can see that, while I was at Tipene, there were a number of boys who became influential in Māori and wider circles. It was a great experience. I loved it!
Ka pai. You didn’t get bullied though?
No. Probably I wasn’t cheeky enough to get roughed up. And, anyway, I’d always try to talk my way out of difficult situations. Whereas my younger brothers didn’t. They followed in my father’s footsteps. They got me into more trouble back in Raetihi than I got into at Tipene. I’d go home and find that they’d been bullied. And they’d said: “You wait until Larry comes home — he’ll fix you!” Which I really wasn’t capable of doing.
On then from Tipene to nailing a law degree at Auckland University.
Yep. I was there with the Peters brothers. Winston and Ron. And Jim was another. I think he was in my stage one Māori class. Along with Toby Curtis. They were already out working as teachers. But they were back at university and getting further qualifications.
I also got introduced to politics and protest when I went to university. I met Taura Eruera, Syd and Hana Jackson, Peter Rikys, Paul Kotara, Vinnie Raureti, John Ohia, Matiu Dickson. We were pretty much the nucleus of the first wave of Ngā Tamatoa in Auckland.
Then you got caught up in the film world. Quite early in your life. And somehow Don Brash had a hand in that.
Well, while I was at university, I got a job at Kerridge Odeon — they were the cinema chain owners. And I was there for about three years as some sort of legal assistant. That got me interested in commerce, so I did some commercial subjects in my degree. Including commercial law. And economics.
That probably helped me land a job at Broadbank Corporation with Don Brash. And, when somebody came in wanting funding to make a film, Don said to me: “You used to work at Kerridge Odeon. You must know more about film than anybody else. You better talk to this guy.”
Don was probably thinking: “I’ll palm this guy off to Larry and that’ll make him go away.” But this guy, Jack George, went to the Herald and said we were going to finance his film. Well, we’d never said that at all. But a Herald story on page 3 said we were — and overnight I became a successful film financier without having done anything at all. Soon Broadbank had everybody who wanted to make a film knocking on our door. That’s how I met Roger Donaldson, and we eventually put the money together for Sleeping Dogs.
That, I suppose, is what started you down a path that has led to quite significant Māori film production.
Obviously Sleeping Dogs was a really good introduction into that movie world. I got to go to the Cannes Film Festival with Roger Donaldson and Ian Mune to sell it. I was still working at Broadbank but Cannes was a whole new experience for a boy from Raetihi. My eyes sort of glazed over. And I thought: “This is more fun than being a lawyer in a bank.”
That was 1978. And 18 months later, I left Broadbank and went and made a whole lot of commercials with Roger Donaldson. I got to make much more money there than I was making at Broadbank, even though, by young lawyers’ standards, I was well-paid at Broadbank. Plus I had plenty of fun. And I also learned about making films.
Roger and I got to make Smash Palace, which again was a learning curve. Shooting Smash Palace I learned just how little I knew about filmmaking. But, when it was finished, we had a much more enjoyable and rewarding experience in the international film markets. Sleeping Dogs wasn’t particularly successful offshore in those early days. But everybody wanted Smash Palace. It was a totally different experience.
At this stage, though, you weren’t focusing at all on Māori films, were you?
No. That came later. After Roger went off to the States, I tried my hand as a producer. First there was Constance. We had a really good budget for Constance so I didn’t feel the problems as much as I did on Smash Palace.
After Constance, I became cheeky. I thought I could have a crack at anything, so I decided to make Witi Ihimaera’s The Mākutu on Mrs Jones as a short film. That was a whole new experience. I wrote the script, produced and directed it. Which was probably a bit rich seeing as how I hadn’t had any training in either scriptwriting or directing.
By that time, Taura Eruera was an experienced musician and he did the music for the film. I think it’s fair to say that The Mākutu on Mrs Jones was one of the first Māori dramas. It was quite successful and was nominated in almost every category in the film and TV awards. It didn’t win any, but it was up against stiff competition from the big TVNZ drama series Hanlon.
Following The Mākutu on Mrs Jones, we made Pallet on the Floor, Came a Hot Friday and Shaker Run, which were all made under the pre-1982 tax regime. It got a lot tougher to finance films after that.
As for a Māori focus, well, both Pallet on the Floor and Came a Hot Friday were Ronald Hugh Morrieson novels and had strong Māori elements. Shaker Run, however, was an American script transplanted.
There were a range of other films we made in the years after the tax regime changed. Bridge to Nowhere, Queen City Rocker, Starlight Hotel. None of them were as successful as Came a Hot Friday.
In 1987, I thought I'd have another crack at writing and directing. I did an adaptation of MK Joseph’s A Soldier’s Tale. We shot the film in France. And we were in Los Angeles, on the way back from France, when the sharemarket crashed. Our whole world changed again.
Then, I understand that you worked on the E Tipu E Rea project.
Yes. That was the first one I did after the sharemarket crash. It was a series of Māori dramas that were written, produced and directed by Māori, and had, essentially, an all-Māori crew. We had a wānanga in Ōtaki in late 1988 to launch the series and start the script development process.
That was an interesting exercise and one of the more important kaupapa that I’ve been involved in, because many of those working on that series were having their first experience in that field — and went on to have significant careers in the film and television industry.
Another step for you was in 1992 with TVNZ. What did that involve?
That was a relatively brief period after I was appointed to head up production at Avalon Studios. But it was when the TVNZ management in Auckland were trying to bury Avalon. I think they put me in there thinking I’d help them with the burial. But instead, I added a bit of life to it. So I was called up to Auckland and told that they didn’t want me coming up with ideas because it made them feel uncomfortable. I said: “That’s my role. I’m a producer.”
Anyway, that didn’t work out. I had a three-year contract, but I was asked to leave. They bought me out of the last two years.
That move led on to you setting up Kahukura Productions, which was an ambitious project — but, for various reasons, it had a number of challenges and eventually imploded.
You’re right. There were challenges. But the reality is that, if you roll the dice in making films, every now and then you’re going to come a cropper. Which I did. But you can’t let those things get you down. You have to move on. It’s a tough industry. There are challenges.
Fortunately, I’ve had the support of a wonderful family. They’re always there when you fall on your face. They keep it real. Lynne and I have been married for 43 years this month. She was at Waitangi with us in 1972. She’s shared some of the highs, but been there for me in all of the lows. We’ve got 14 moko and two great-grandkids. As I said, family keep it real. And they’re also motivation to carry on.
One significant stage in your career was your three-year stint, starting in 2005, as head of programming for MTS, the Māori Television Service. And that was a time when, among other things, you helped the channel make a mark with its Anzac Day coverage. I imagine there was some satisfaction in that.
Yes, when I look back on things that I take satisfaction from, ANZAC Day 2006 is right up there. Obviously, E Tipu E Rea was special and important. Came a Hot Friday was a lot of fun and very rewarding. And the emergence of Ngā Tamatoa was really important. But, ultimately, the most important and satisfying thing I’ve been involved with is ANZAC Day 2006. It was groundbreaking and caught the other broadcasters on the hop. But, more importantly, it also secured the place of Māori Television in our broadcasting landscape.
From MTS, you moved on to Te Māngai Pāho eight years ago — and now you’re in the box seat there because you’ve followed on from John Bishara as the CEO. It’d be unreasonable to expect a detailed blueprint for TMP just yet. But, no doubt, you have some priorities.
Well, I think there needs to be a change of focus. We’re funders of Māori language content but, as a sector, we know that our language revitalisation efforts aren’t working. Despite all of our efforts, the number of speakers is declining. We need to arrest that decline. And quickly.
I couldn’t have scripted a better time to get this job at Te Māngai Pāho. With the passing of Te Ture Mō Te Reo Māori 2016 (The Māori Language Act 2016) and the emergence of Te Mātāwai, it’s a perfect opportunity for our whole sector to take a good look at what we can do differently. On top of that, there’s all the new technology and a rapidly changing broadcasting landscape.
That’s going to take time but, in the short term, there are three things we can do better. One is collaboration. We need Te Puni Kōkiri, Te Māngai Pāho, Te Taura Whiri, Māori Television and iwi radio to be on the same page. We also need better research. And a third focus has to be on improving content quality. It’s the creativity, entertainment value, the range of genres, and the technical quality that all go to produce great content.
We can’t afford to fund boring programmes. We have to focus on better quality reo Māori content — and to awhi creativity.
All over the world, there are French, Japanese, Chinese films that succeed in other cultures. That’s because they’re good films. We may need to put up with subtitles, but if they’re good, we’ll watch them. It’ll be the same with Māori language films or content. If it’s really good content, audiences will watch it, with subtitles if necessary.
Just look at what Taika Waititi has been achieving with his movies. Of course, they’re not reo Māori productions but he’s setting the gold or platinum standard. He’s showing what can be achieved when you have aspirations. And creativity. So let’s apply the platinum standard to Māori language content.
Finally, I suppose we shouldn’t leave any discussion on New Zealand movies without acknowledging the importance of a Māori dimension.
Yes. If they’re truly New Zealand productions, they’ll provide an accurate portrayal of Māori. That doesn’t mean it has to be excessively PC. I think that’s something that our Pasifika whānau handle better than us. Billy T could do it — I know some Māori didn’t like it, but many of his characters weren’t PC. Take the Tainuia Kid for example, the Māori Mexican. He was a real Māori character. There was someone just like that in Raetihi. Rode around on a horse, wearing a cowboy costume, as if he was living in a western. Maybe every town had someone like that. That’s not necessarily the Māori dimension that everyone would like to see. But it is undeniably a Māori dimension to a New Zealand film.
And another interesting aspect — which everybody should know — is that 10 of our top 20 New Zealand films are either made by Māori or essentially are Māori stories. And, actually, as Waihoroi Shortland pointed out to the Film Commission recently, it’s eight of the top 10 New Zealand films. That’s huge. Of the most successful New Zealand feature films, 80 percent are Māori. Maybe they should just give all the money to Māori.