Sleeping Dogs launched the acting career of National Film Unit director Sam Neill

A dramatic action-thriller

How Sleeping Dogs woke up the New Zealand film industry

By Lindsay Shelton

At a mid-1977 preview of Sleeping Dogs in Wellington’s Kings Theatre, actor Ian Mune (who plays the villain) sat on the edge of the circle balcony and lectured us about the importance of Roger Donaldson’s film for all New Zealanders. It was the first New Zealand feature film that most of the audience had ever seen.

Only five theatrical feature films had been made in New Zealand between 1940 and 1977. Pioneering Wellington director John O’Shea had made three of them. All three are now national treasures, but when they were released they received little recognition and earned little from the local box office. O’Shea had been arguing for a local film industry since his days on the Wellington Film Society committee in the 1940s, when he said that New Zealand should be establishing a national identity through film. At an arts conference in 1970 he launched the idea of a national screen organisation, and his speech began a campaign seeking political support and finance to make it possible for New Zealanders to make their own films. But when director Roger Donaldson – who had made a series of short films for television with Ian Mune – became determined to make a local feature, there was still no official support for film-making in New Zealand.

Merchant banker Larry Parr helped find the money for Sleeping Dogs – an interest-free loan from Broadbank, money from the Development Finance Corporation, underwriting from the Arts Council, and a small amount from state television in return for exclusive broadcast rights for more than 20 years. Ian Mune wrote the script with poet Arthur Baysting.

Sleeping Dogs was released in October 1977 and unlike O’Shea’s three features it was seen by a large number of New Zealanders – more than 250,000 of them – proving to them (and to nervous politicians who were considering the idea of a New Zealand Film Commission) that New Zealand could make films that were just as entertaining as the endless stream from Hollywood. Wellington critic Peter Harcourt called it “an accurate, funny, sensitive and unretouched picture of how many people in this country talk and behave.” He said the film had overcome “kiwi cringe,” the belief that anything imported was better than the New Zealand equivalent. A month after the film’s release, the government established the interim Film Commission.

Sleeping Dogs launched the acting career of National Film Unit director Sam Neill. His impressive performance as Smith, a man on the run, led him to being cast in the Australian film My Brilliant Career, followed by decades of international starring roles.  
Sleeping Dogs was the first New Zealand feature ever released in the United States, where it opened in February 1982, just as Kiri Te Kanawa was becoming an international star at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The New York Village Voice said the film was a “precociously accomplished” debut. Smash Palace (which Roger directed in 1981 with finance from the new Film Commission) got even better reviews when it opened later the same year. The New York Times named it as one of the year’s ten best films and hailed Roger as “a film-maker of potentially worldwide importance, a man of original visions with the technical ability to realise them.” The New Yorker said it was “a remarkable piece of work.” With such acclaim, Roger moved from Auckland to Los Angeles where he directed a dozen Hollywood features with stars including Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson and Robin Williams.

– Lindsay Shelton was president of the Wellington Film Society from 1970 to 1978, and director of the Wellington Film Festival from its inception in 1972 till he became the first marketing director of the NZ Film Commission in 1980. He handled international sales of Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace. and more than 60 other feature films, including Goodbye Pork Pie, An Angel at My Table and Once Were Warriors.