Roy Murphy reports on the making of
Dagg Day Afternoon, a film starring New Zealand's comedic farming everyman, Fred Dagg.
"There we were with this feature film, Wild Man
", executive producer John Barnett recalls. "Amalgamated Theatres wanted to run it on the main street of every New Zealand city. Sitting in their offices I suddenly thought, there's no better time to make a Fred Dagg film. Shorts don't make money in cinemas but putting it up as a package with Wild Man
made it a feasible proposition.
"We'd already reached agreement with Amalgamated over Wild Man, but that idea got them out of their seats a bit. They were obviously delighted."
So were Geoff Murphy and John Clarke. They had talked about making a Fred Dagg film months before, while filming Clarke's cameo appearance in Wild Man
as the travelling quack, Dr Frederick Z. Daggenheimer.
Together they decided to unveil one of the world's best kept secrets.
The New Zealand Government once put a highly trained sheep into space. Some say it was in answer to the Russians' putting a dog into orbit. Others say the dog was sent up by the Russians to round up New Zealand's sheep. The full story may never be told.
The film reveals for the first time that the rocket containing the sheep crashed on re-entry. The badly injured beast was rushed to an eminent team of surgeons, who reconstituted it as the world's first bionic ram. When the ram went missing, Fred Dagg and the Trevs were called in to find it.
"It's more or less obligatory to see this film," says Clarke/Dagg. "It concerns national security and it's an adventurous story. It shows what could happen, and in fact what did happen, when certain stalwart citizens stepped in and saved the country. I think that in a phrase we saved the country. It didn't make the papers at the time because of course it was secret.
"The country was in considerable peril at the time when the lads and I were called in ... and we pulled it off with our customary dash and class ... I don't think that's too big a phrase to put on it."
Murphy was working on three different feature films and Clarke had work in Australia on radio and television. They had only five days free in which to shoot the film.
They was supposed to start shooting at 8 o'clock on Monday morning, but couldn't start until lunchtime because the money wasn't jacked up until then. That meant they had only four and a half days left.
"Everyone was caught up in the rather childish excitement and delight of doing it," says Clarke. "All sorts of people are in it ... Derek Payne, Michael Wilson. They all had good ideas.
"Derek and I wrote the script for our scene in our heads on the way in from the airport, then did it. If someone wanted to fall off a 50-storey building, we'd find a reason to do it. As a result, their attitude was the same as ours - they enjoyed being in it. They weren't told, 'Here's a piece of paper, that's what you do'. If they had an idea, we'd try to use it."
Murphy's approach is similar. "When I'm working with an actor and a script, I don't spell out what I want, I let him have a bash at it. I mostly find he offers things that have never occurred to me. But with John Clarke, he starts into it and you realise you've got another five minutes of material.
"We kept shooting until we ran out of film stock."
Murphy didn't have to fill a predetermined time slot with this film, so he cut it on its merits. "We scripted the film to be absolutely sure of at least 20 minutes of material," he says. "We found we had so much good material it made nearly 40 minutes."
The final scene of the film was shot at the Mon Desir motel in Takapuna. Shooting didn't start until one in the morning, after the lights and camera had been set up. It wasn't a loud sequence, just conversation at a table, but one of the motel guests couldn't get to sleep.
"We were quite sorry about it," says Clarke, "but we couldn't really see what the trouble was. He was jumping up and down in his desire to register a complaint, and demanded to see the manager."
As it happened, the manager was playing a part in the film as a waiter. He was wearing a T-shirt and a bow tie, and had a parrot on his shoulder.
"He explained to the chap what was going on and invited him to write to whoever he bloody well liked," Clarke recalls. "The chap went to bed secure in the knowledge that the manager was as big an idiot as all the people making the film."
Barnett and Murphy see Dagg Day Afternoon
and Wild Man
as an entertainment package, so that people can sit down in a theatre and enjoy themselves. As far as Dagg Day Afternoon
goes, however, Clarke disagrees. "It's really a serious programme. It concerns national security. It's not just fooling around in the agrarian sector but getting New Zealand out of a real spot of bother.
"Within a year of this film going on we should see people like Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson coming out and having a pretty close took at Taihape as a backdrop to making films here. It should put New Zealand on the map as a major film-producing country.
"That's another thing that'll bring an awful lot of money into New Zealand. It's a very public-minded programme when you come to think about it."
He finishes up: "I think the film's a cracker, I think it's a beauty, I'm very happy with it. With any luck and a good tail wind, it'll be a boomer. That's my opinion of it, not having seen it since four o'clock this morning."
New Zealand Listener