When I started back in 1986 (my first official job was as Director’s assistant on ‘Starlight Hotel’) the only ‘filmmaking’ courses in NZ were a Masters in Broadcasting at the University of Auckland and a newly established Broadcasting school in Christchurch. So my only option was writing letters to film producers asking for jobs on productions. Even though I’d trained at Radio NZ as a studio operator, none of the producers or production managers were interested in my ‘sound engineering’ skills. But when I said I could type, they couldn’t hire me quickly enough.

I was obsessed with films – filmmakers, arthouse films, foreign films, the history of films etc. I went to the Film Society, and the festival was my yearly indulgence. I read the local industry trades so I knew the names of crew members and what they had all worked on. I look back now and realise I was a bit of a ‘trainspotter’, but knowing all this information meant I stood out as someone who really wanted to be in the industry. I continued to work in production for the next decade as a Producer’s Assistant, Director’s Assistant, Production Coordinator, Production Manager, 1st AD, and 2nd AD. But I also made short films of my own and was happiest when editing them. This was where the magic happened, where films were truly made. It was time to switch roles in the industry and learn how to edit.

At the time, TV3 allowed people to train for free in their newsroom (I don’t think it was official, it was a word-of-mouth thing – it would never fly today!!). You could cut news stories during the very quiet times of the day, and then when you felt confident or they felt confident in you, they could offer you a job. All this time, I was working as a waitress at night, and continued this for many years as I got my freelance career on track.

Cushla cutting ‘The Justice of Bunny King’ in Kauaeranga Valley, Thames.

I look back now and realise I was instinctively obsessed with story: how we told stories, why we told stories, how other cultures told stories, why some films moved me, and why others didn’t. I loved going to the movies and I LOVED being moved to tears, to joy. And that’s why editing is the best place for someone like me, as the editor is the conduit between the audience and the material the director brings to the edit room.

All these obsessions and developing skills came together one day when director/actor Harry Sinclair approached me to edit a TV series idea he had called Topless Women Talk About Their Lives. I’d never edited drama before (except my own short films) but we clicked. My instinct for storytelling made up for my lack of technical experience, and this TV series morphed into a feature film. Two years later I received an editing award for my work on that film, and this stroke of luck meant people saw me as an editor. 

My advice to anyone wanting to break into the NZ film industry is to use the tools at your fingertips to learn who is who, what they have done before, and be really clear about what kind of films you love and why. For editors, the key is to understand storytelling and the huge scope of how we can tell stories. For me, screen stories are constantly pushing the boundaries of how stories are told, and I include documentary when I talk about storytelling.

But also, I believe working in our industry is a privilege we have to earn, as all artists do. So it requires the right balance of ego and humility, madness and caution. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about what one does, but at the end of the day, we are just storytellers and part of a team, so we must prove we are team players as well.

About Cushla Dillon

Cushla Dillon has played key roles in the NZ film industry for several decades, most notably as an award-winning feature film editor of drama and documentary (The Justice of Bunny King 2020, The Price of Peace 2014, Pictures of Susan 2012), but also as a production manager, development manager, screenwriter, script editor and most recently as co-director and editor of the 2023 NZIFF festival sellout King Loser. She has been awarded Best NZ Film Editor on four occasions (Snakeskin 2001, Topless Women Talk About Their Lives 1991, Beautiful Machine 2012, Orphans & Kingdoms 2014) and nominated four times.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

I was expelled from Penrose High in the fifth form after getting caught wagging for a month (I faked the absentee notes from Mum and Dad). I ended up going on the dole (unemployment benefit) for a year. At the dole department you had to show signs of actually seeking work and when they asked me what I would like to do for a living, I said, “A film director” and she looked at me like I was mad. She gave me a French Polishing apprenticeship instead, of which I never attended. Anyway, I showed her!

After a year of bumming around, a friend (Matt Palmer, who also became a director) suggested I go to Auckland Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in Mount Eden which basically accepted high school dropouts from hippy parents. Metro is where I finally met like-minded people and made lifelong friends. I met Matt Noonan at Metro (later to become my first producer). It was after passing the University Entrance and sticking around Metro for a seventh year (then called a Bursary year) that I discovered ‘The Film Industry’.

Early in that seventh year at school, I got a job as an extra in a period coal mining TV drama called Heart of The High Country. I’d never seen a film set before, it was a real eye-opener, lights, actors, 1st AD’s smashing radios in fits of rage. It was a lot of fun. I loved it. I befriended the standby props guy, Al Ford, and he let me do the smoke pots for background smoke texture. I actually made friends with a lot of the crew and at the wrap party offered my services on the next production. A few weeks later I was on an epic Hong Kong Feature film called Aces Go Places, as standby props assistant, choppering up the Shot Over River in Queenstown with prop machine guns on my lap. I never went back to high school and have been working in the film biz ever since.

Josh working as Art Department Assist on ‘Never Say Die’. He’s standing under the ‘W’ with Robin Murphy; Matt Murphy (Art Director) with Matt Palmer (Stand-by Props) are in the bottom right holding the white dots / Photo: Supplied

I moved to Wellington and Matt Palmer and I became a bit of a hot shot art department team working on commercials and films in the hay days (or the end of the hay days) of the Wellington film and TV commercial industry. Working on projects with some of New Zealand’s top directors, Geoff Murphy, Lee Tamahori, Barry Barclay, Gaylene Preston, Geoff Dickson and Fane Flaws to name a few. Matt was an art director and I was standby props. 

My brother was in a hip-hop band, Mc OJ and The Rhythm Slave, and they received one of the very early NZ On Air music video grants and asked us to make it. Matt Noonan produced it, Matt Palmer directed it and I art directed it.

It was hugely successful, and we went on to make a few more (with our company Hip Operations) until Matt Palmer got picked up by a commercial company to direct ads (with Fane Flaws and Jeff Williams at Black Stump Films).

With Matt Palmer busy making ads, that’s when my break came. I art directed a few more music videos with various artists. I was always good-ish at illustration and had been storyboarding the videos. One video in particular for the band Head Like a Hole (for a song called Fish Across Face), was really well received and I had storyboarded the whole thing. They were my shots and my ideas. I was like, ‘Hang on, I’m doing all the work here’. So, when they asked me to storyboard/art direct the next one, I said to them (and I remember this moment very clearly as I had to really pluck up the nerve to say it), “Not unless I’m directing it”. 

Josh on set of one of his first big ad campaigns for the NZ Electoral roll with Darryl Ward (DOP) and Rob Marsh (AC) / Photo: Supplied

And that’s how I got started.  

Here’s the Head Like A Hole clip, my directing debut. Not that it did huge things, but I was asked back and went on to direct multiple award-winning videos and ads. The Emma Paki video won a lot of awards. Then I followed up with a Shihad video for ‘Stationswhich won Best Video at the Film and Television awards that year. Certain projects catch people’s attention and simply generate more interest. I shot a huge campaign for the NZ Electoral role on the back of this, my first big proper ad campaign. I made a commercial for Sony Home Theatre Systems out of Singapore which made the cover of the Shots Magazine, with the commercial in the first dozen showcase ads (Shots Magazine was the international benchmark trade rag back then and the mail-out VHS showcase was everything). My international commercial career really took off after this.

Left: Josh showing the actors what to do on set for Shihad video ‘Stations’ with Darryl Ward (DOP) in a clay pit with one of the old Arri ST 16mm cameras. Note there is no video split/feed! Right: The final shot of the video / Photos: Supplied

My first break in drama came when I was asked to pitch on a Colin McCahon doco, but I didn’t get the gig and I said to the producer (Fiona Copland) that documentaries weren’t really my thing but I would love to do drama, and she suggested I give Greenstone Pictures a call because they were producing a kids action hero TV show called Amazing Extraordinary Friends. It was super low budget, but super fun. This was at the height of my commercial career and I had to take a significant hit on my earnings, but I really wanted to shoot drama and this was my chance. The people I worked with then on AEF are still the people I am working with today. Dave Cameron was the DOP and he shot my first tele feature years later, Ablaze. With the success of my work on AEF, I was picked up by Chris Bailey at South Pacific Pictures where I worked on multiple shows and really cut my teeth and learnt the craft. Getting a chance to direct a block on Westside, a legacy NZ show, was a real highlight. I was also a finalist for the NZTV Awards’ Best Director for The Brokenwood Mysteries in 2017. SPP has really helped a lot.

So, a lot of luck, a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work. I am currently in post-production on a six one-hour TV mini-series called Friends Like Her, produced by Great Southern TV. A show I am immensely proud of, so keep an eye out.

About Josh Frizzell

Josh Frizzell is one of Australasia’s most well-known drama and commercial film directors. Since starting out in the art department after dropping out of high school, he went on to direct a run of music videos in the 90s before moving into film and TV. Frizzell has gone on to helm episodes of Under the VinesThe Brokenwood Mysteries and Fresh Eggs. In 2017 he was nominated as Best Director for his work on The Brokenwood Mysteries at the NZ Television Awards’. In 2019, he was a finalist for the Huawei Mate30 Pro NZ Television Awards’ Best Director for Fresh Eggs. Ablaze was nominated for Best Tele Feature at the 2020 NZ Film and Television Awards. His advertising work has won multiple awards both in New Zealand and abroad.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

Hey there! I’m Luke Haigh, a freelance film editor who’s worked in both the commercial and feature film worlds for the last 20 years.

I first fell in love with editing around the age of 15 or 16. It was a Media Studies class in high school in the UK. We were editing linear style from S-VHS decks. It was slow and tedious, and the work was embarrassingly terrible. That was all overshadowed by the art of editing with its magic equation—the process of simply placing two shots next to each other and the sum of their parts wondrously being infinitely greater. Well, it had me hooked…

My first proper break in the industry was in 2002–2003. At age 22, I’d just emigrated to Aotearoa after studying a bachelor’s in film in the UK. I did the usual rounds, hitting up all of the production companies and post houses I could find in Auckland. But to no avail. I filled my time that summer driving a tractor on an avocado farm in Pukekohe. Fortunately for me, a friend of a friend heard of a full-time role working as a Directors Assistant at an Auckland commercial production house called Curious Film. It wasn’t editing, but it was a foot in the door.

I spent my time mainly putting together director’s treatments and preparing the pre-production meeting documents. Casting, locations, art department, etc. The hours were extreme, but the money was not. However, it was the perfect crash course in the industry. I got to see the intense creativity that goes into getting a project on film. It gave me a well-rounded view of the process rather than a singular take, which can happen when you only work in editorial or post-production. But most importantly, I got to meet directors and producers and understand what makes them tick.

After a year of dropping hints and schooling up on Avid in the background, I finally got a shot at some of the small edit gigs. Charity spots and music videos.

As Curious grew, I convinced the owners to support my post-production dreams. We took editorial in-house and grew a full-service post-production arm at both their Auckland and, later, Sydney offices. I started as a DA and Assistant Editor, and about 5 years after starting, I focused on editing and post-production full-time. That eventually saw me in the dual role of Senior Editor and Head of Post-Production.

Curious Film Pre Axis Awards (2015) / Photo: Supplied

I was lucky enough to work alongside some incredible talent during my time there. Taika Waititi, Zia Mandviwalla, Miki Magasiva, Robin Walters, Steven Kang, Tara Riddell, Matt Noonan, Darryl Ward, Seth Wilson, Dan Higgins, Josh Frizzell, Steve Ayson… the list goes on. They gave me my first breaks; we were like family, and those relationships continue in my work today.

I spliced literally hundreds of commercial campaigns during my time there, and we would spend evenings and weekends cutting short films and honing our craft. I cut my first short, USO, with Miki Magasiva in 2006, a raft of others, and finally, in 2011, I cut Blue with Steven Kang, which went on to win La Semaine de la Critique (Critics Week) at Cannes. That was a defining sea change in my career.

In 2014, I landed my first feature film edit, Turbo Kid, with producer Ant Timpson and Canadian director trio RKSS. As I was still full-time at Curious, I also post-produced and post-supervised that project. Brutal. That year was so intense. I was even late to my own New Year’s Eve party as we were racing to get everything delivered by the January deadline. I’ll forever be in debt to colourist Dave McLaren and Flame artist Leon Woods for pulling that one out of the bag. We delivered for the Sundance Premiere in 2015. It reviewed well, and finally, I was a feature film editor…

‘Turbo Kid’ Sundance Premiere (2015) / Photo: Supplied

That same year, Taika was shooting Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I did the same Editor/Post-Producer/Post-Supervisor role on that one. It premiered at Sundance 2016, and it felt like the right project to springboard off. I finally went freelance to focus on editing around June of that year.

Since then, I’ve tried to find a balance between editing commercial campaigns (here in New Zealand and repped in Australia by ARC Edit) and long-form projects. I’ve been lucky enough to edit the Daniel Radcliff action-comedy Guns Akimbo, the US Netflix rom-com The Royal Treatment (line-produced by my good friend and Curious EP Matt Noonan), and most recently Lee Tamahori’s pre-colonial Aotearoa/NZ epic The Convert, starring Guy Pierce and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne, which premiered at TIFF 2023.

I’m currently editing a feature with the director who gave me my very first edit gig at Curious 20-odd years ago. Miki Magasiva. Pretty cool to finally complete a loop on that relationship.

I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up a few awards along the way, only been fired once, collected a bunch of incredible people, and even after 20-odd years, it is still a job that I love.

About Luke Haigh

Luke Haigh is an award-winning freelance film editor. He’s edited feature and short films that have screened globally at A-list festivals and even won Critic’s Week at Cannes. Having cut literally hundreds of commercials, his specialty is the big kind. Beer ads, car brands, soft drinks – often on a global scale. Many go on to become award-winning campaigns – Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, Clio, and D&AD. His work can be both quirky and emotive and he will happily lean into something that’s a little unusual.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

Looking back, I would say that my life’s theme is, “There are no wasted moments.”

It’s a lesson I have clung to working in the film industry, where there are all sorts of twisty roads lined with the bloated corpses of dead passion projects and empty promises of paid work. In film and in life, I’ve learned that the people you meet in year one might just be the same people who come back and change your life in year twelve.

Born and raised in the Philippines, my favourite childhood memories were of days spent at the cinema watching back-to-back screenings of the most random movies available. It was a lawless time, back when a 10-year-old girl could watch The Sixth Sense at the theaters, and it was glorious and revelatory.

I originally thought I was going to be a comic book artist and author, some kind of 5ft tall Filipino Alan Moore. I loved film but the thought of becoming a filmmaker felt sacred and untouchable. Unable to shake the urge to try, I wrangled a job at an advertising company earning what would now amount to NZD450 a month. I had a short stint working on Filipino independent films doing random odd jobs before moving to New Zealand, where I did a year at film school.

Being an immigrant in the film industry is harrowing, especially when you have a less desirable passport, as I did. I’m the only international student from my year who managed to find work and, subsequently, a visa that allowed me to stay. I traded four years of my life for a chance at a resident visa, meanwhile, unable to apply to any local film programs or get paid for any creative work.

But – there are no wasted moments.

While I was treading water, I networked and volunteered to get on set whenever I could. I worked on music videos and passion projects, hopping into any role that would have me, trying and testing and learning my own strengths and weaknesses. I learned that I loved being on set and that I could thrive in the vicious ups and downs of late nights and cheap pizza.

Director Mia Maramara and longtime collaborator Hweiling Ow at 48 Hours / Photo: Provided

Most importantly, I made contacts — and friends. I saved up enough money to cobble together my first short film, a zombie movie called Bites, which got into Tropfest that year. There’s something to be said about the blind confidence of your early years, where a good attitude and some stamina can net you a zombie movie for NZD2,000.

I did Foodie as part of the Someday Stories program and participated in 48 Hours for a few years, where one film became a Grand Finalist and won me Best Female Director.

Along the way, I met my longtime collaborator, Hweiling Ow, who won me over with a bucket of vomit. We won awards and money, which gave us the opportunity to keep on trying to win more awards and money. We co-wrote a feature film, Grafted, which finished filming this year and is being distributed through international channels.

Hweiling and I co-founded MHM Productions, a genre-oriented production company, with fellow horror fiend Morgan Leigh Stewart. Through MHM, I wrote and directed a TV episode called Albularyo that, as far as I’m aware, made me the first Filipino director to helm a slot on New Zealand TV.

Mia and Hweiling on set of ‘Albularyo’ / Photo: Provided

Other key career highs include writing Candy for anthology feature film Kāinga, the third in the portmanteau trilogy that includes critically acclaimed films Waru and Vai. Another personal highlight was working with the writing team of Power Rangers, where I fulfilled my childhood dream of pretending to be the Pink Ranger.

My career careens wildly about due to the fact that most of my work is self-generated. It involves a lot of quiet, tortured nights hunched over a keyboard, trying to write something good before my bank account hits zero. But it’s a fulfilling way to make use of my personal talents, and I’ve never lost sight of what a privilege it is to be in my position.

I haven’t yet cracked into my dream of being a full-time features director, but I’m taking my time and enjoying the journey. After all, there are no wasted moments.

About Mia Maramara

Mia Maramara is a Filipino-born filmmaker with work that has been screened both locally and internationally. Her passion for authentic, trailblazing stories has led her to wear different hats in the industry, most notably as a writer and director. In the Philippines, she participated in Philippine National Artist Ricky Lee’s Cinemalaya Masterclass. In New Zealand, she won the SPADA New Filmmaker of the Year award in 2021 and participated in DEGANZ’s Emmerging Women Filmmaker Incubator in 2022. She is currently one-third of MHM, a collaborative production company between her and fellow creatives Hweiling Ow and Morgan Leigh Stewart.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.

I’ve always been a tinkerer.

Growing up, I spent most of my time drawing, carving, and making things. I would pick up the tools and teach myself by doing, feeling my way through it. As an editor, it’s something I still do to this day.

My career started with my whānau in Tūrangi. My uncle hired me to be his graphic artist and edit a tamariki show he was producing in preparation for the launch of Whakaata Māori. It was an opportunity to ‘learn while you earn’, and I found huge satisfaction in crafting images with sound. I equally enjoyed learning about the tools.

By day, I was cutting. By night, I was researching components.

Soon after, I met a DOP named Mike Jonathan. I moved to Rotorua and started cutting shows with him and Hula Haka Productions. I got to cut a range of genres and work with different directors and producers. They gave me the freedom to try new things, which was important groundwork for figuring out my style as an editor.

Editor Te Rurehe with his daughter while working on ‘Ka Haku Au’ in 2008

Like many, I was drawn to the creative energy of Wellington. From musicians to writers to animators, the city was bursting with expression. It was infectious. I hit the streets, knocking on doors and saying yes to anything from cutting news and current affairs to adverts, web series to new series. By default, I set myself up as a business, which made it easier to freelance around town. In my downtime, I sharpened my tools, kept up to date with new tech and software programmes, bought new (and second-hand) computer parts, and started designing systems. I trained myself to use everything; the industry demands relentless evolution. It pushed me to broaden my skills from the basic NewTek system to Adobe Suite, Avid, DaVinci Resolve, Blender, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop, and many others that came and went. I honed my craft, learning from incredible storytellers like Annie Collins, Tainui Stephens, Fiona Kupenga, Tina Wickliffe, Ngahuia Wade, and Maramena Roderick (my now mother-in-law). It was years of hustling, layers of grunt work, and a special time with incredible people.

Editor Te Rurehe at Fifo Film Festival in 2019 after ‘Making Good Men’ won Best Documentary the previous year

A few years ago, I moved to Auckland, ready to do something different. Off the back of some of my long-form factual work, I’ve had the opportunity to work in scripted drama and films. It’s broadened my relationships with Māori creatives, challenged my limitations, and deepened my craft as an artist.

Right now, I am again cutting with Mike Jonathan, this time on his first feature as a director. It’s taken us twenty years of patience and perseverance. Maybe it’s serendipitous. Maybe it’s planned. Maybe it’s whakapapa.

I still love tech. I still love learning new things. I still love to tinker.

Through the grace of many who’ve supported me, I’ve built a career that is all three.

I’m a Māori boy from Tūrangi with no qualifications or formal training who never spoke English until he was 16. It sounds cliche, but it’s true. If I can do it, so can you.

About Te Rurehe Paki

‘Ko te ahi whakakakā, ko te ahi whakahikahika, ko te ahi whakakihihī, hei whakahoro kakā i te manawa. Ka tuu ki te mura o te ahi, pae tu, pae hinga, karawhiua ki ngā pari karangaranga, whakapaohotia atu rā, kia haruru ki te rangi, kia rū ki te nuku, ko Te Rurehe tēnei, e tau nei e.’

Te Rurehe is a video editor and owner of The Suite Limited, the post-production facility that has shaped numerous television series and films including, 2021 NZIFF Jury Award Winner Washday, 2019 Victoria Film Festival Winner Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen, and the 2018 Fifo Film Festival Winner Making Good Men. As an editor, he focuses on the narrative and pace of a story, following his intuition that he has honed from working on various formats and genres throughout his career. He approaches each project with a fresh perspective, applying his skill as a storyteller with his passion for computers and technology. He promotes opportunities to do this in his first language, te reo Māori, and share with audiences what was nurtured in him – a unique Māori worldview.

How I Got Started in the Industry is a guest blog series from the Directors and Editors Guild of Aotearoa New Zealand (DEGANZ). Our members reflect on how they made their way into assistant editing, editing, and directing—with no two stories the same. They offer advice for those starting out. Get in touch with admin@deganz.co.nz if you’re a member and would like to share your story.