Prelude to Kiwi fame in the film industry

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 22/03/2014

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Twenty  years ago today a Lower Hutt girl stood on a stage and gulped nervously.

In that staggeringly endearing moment the world knew Kiwis could make world-beating films, even if the film in question was technically Australian.

It was March 22, 1994, when The Piano won Jane Campion an Academy Award for best original screenplay, Holly Hunter won for best actress, and 11-year-old Hutt Valley girl Anna Paquin won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

The film would also see Campion, a New Zealander living in Australia, become the first female film-maker to receive the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Paquin's award was arguably the lesser of the three Oscars but it is the one that has stayed firmly in the public mind now for two decades.

In her category, she was up against Emma Thompson for In the Name of the Father, Winona Ryder for Age of Innocence, Rosie Perez for Fearless, and Holly Hunter for another film she worked on that year, The Firm.

When presenter Gene Hackman read Paquin's name out as the winner, the shock on the 11-year-old's face was genuine. On stage, the nervous gulps lasted for 21 seconds before finally, in a very-Kiwi accent: "I would like to thank the Academy . . ."

She had just become the first New Zealander to win an acting Oscar. An audience of more than one billion around the world saw it.

It was "pretty cool", she told reporters back stage.

She was asked, what next? "What do you mean?," she replied.

Years later, when she won a Golden Globe for her role in vampire television series True Blood, she said: "I don't even remember that, it was very blurry and crazy . . . This is quite blurry and crazy, too, but at least I'm old enough to drink and stay out past 10pm."

Sam Neill, one of the stars of The Piano, yesterday said while there was no way during production of foretelling the film's upcoming success "I knew we were making something of considerable depth and significance".

Ironically, because it was not technically a New Zealand film - Campion lived in Sydney, the film was produced by an Australian and financed by the French - it got no New Zealand awards.

"It's New Zealand by inclination but not by pedigree."

While he never worked closely with Paquin - Hunter and the young star-to-be were like "two amoebas that hadn't quite split yet" - he had since watched her success with "delight".

"She was a sort of natural."

Neill said The Piano was "a bunch of people making a film in northern New Zealand - it wasn't like a big leap for New Zealand."

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New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Dave Gibson said that though The Piano was not technically a New Zealand film, its Oscar wins were an early indicator New Zealanders could make it big on the world movie stage

"At that stage your average New Zealander imagined it wasn't possible for New Zealanders to win an Oscar."

The movie was filmed in New Zealand and - in an early indicator of the tourism generated by Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit - people would go to visit The Piano locations, such as Bethells Beach, west of Auckland.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW

Before The Piano Anna Paquin's only acting experience was in a school play, as a skunk by some tellings. She only auditioned for The Piano by chance when she went along with her older sister. Paquin's agent in New Zealand at the time, Gail Cowan, said the Oscar win saw floods of movie offers coming in. Roles that followed included parts in the X-Men franchise, but her biggest break since 1994 was starring in the True Blood television series, which started in 2008 and continues to run. Paquin these days has baby twins and is married to her True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer.

United States actress Holly Hunter got her big movie break in the Coen brothers' 1987 film Raising Arizona. After winning her best actress Oscar as a mute bride in The Piano, she went on to a number of roles, including teaming up with the Coens again in O Brother, Where Art Thou? then Jane Campion again for TV mini-series Top of the Lake.

Before starring in The Piano, Harvey Keitel was an established actor having worked on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver in the 1970s. His star faded in the 1980s but he re-emerged as Mr White in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, then Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant before his role in The Piano. His list of movies since is extensive and includes Inglourious Basterds, Smoke, and From Dusk Till Dawn.

Born in Northern Ireland, Sam Neill was raised in New Zealand. He had a couple of roles before starring in Roger Donaldson's New Zealand movie Sleeping Dogs in 1977. Having worked on the likes of Hollywood blockbuster The Hunt for Red October in 1990, he was already a highly-bankable star when he signed on to The Piano. He has had a multitude of roles since but the one he is most known for is his starring role as Alan Grant in the Jurassic Park franchise.

Born in Wellington, Jane Campion began film-making in the early 1980s. She has largely worked and lived in Australia. The Piano saw her become the first woman ever to win the prestigious Palme D'Or at Cannes, not to mention the best original screenplay Oscar. She went on to make Holy Smoke, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, then more recently made television mini-series Top of the Lake, again teaming up with Hunter.

- The Dominion Post

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