Director Josh Frizzell: How I Got Started in the Industry

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.

Last updated on 27 March 2024