Page 1: Biography
O'Shea, John Dempsey
This biography, written by John Reid, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2020.
John O’Shea occupies a decisive position in the development of the New Zealand film industry. He was responsible for the only feature production in New Zealand between 1940 and the early 1970s, and singlehandedly established a role for the independent filmmaker. In so doing he also enabled a younger generation to enter an industry which did not previously exist. O’Shea dedicated his professional life to creating moving images of New Zealand, convinced that, without them, New Zealanders would struggle to know who they were. In the words of an honorary degree citation, he showed ‘a tireless determination to establish an authentic film idiom … and has made an outstanding contribution to our cinema, to the development of film appreciation, to public education and to national policy’.1
John Dempsey O’Shea was born in New Plymouth on 20 June 1920, to John Joseph O’Shea and his wife Norah Frances Dempsey. John Joseph (‘J.J.’) emigrated from County Limerick in Ireland to New Zealand as a child with his widowed mother and two brothers. He found work with the railways and met and married Norah, also of Irish Catholic ancestry. They were a devoted couple with three sons and a daughter when John junior arrived; Norah died of septicaemia seven days after his birth. The baby was bundled off to live with his mother’s sister Lucy O’Meara and her husband, Ted. Growing up with the O’Meara family in Whanganui, he recalled regular visits to his other family, who had moved to Palmerston North.
Education and war service
O’Shea was a bright student and a prodigious reader, perhaps partly to compensate for a debilitating stammer. Speech therapy introduced him to drama, which in turn led to a lifelong interest in cinema. The O’Mearas had intended that he board at St Patrick’s College in Silverstream, near Wellington. The Depression prevented that, and for the Catholic O'Mearas the Anglican Wanganui Collegiate was out of the question.Instead O’Shea was enrolled at Wanganui Technical College until 1935. At the age of 16 he embarked on a law degree at Victoria University College, but later switched to arts and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. O’Shea was called up in 1942 after two years at Christchurch Teachers’ Training College, serving with the ambulance corps in the Pacific and then in Italy until the end of the war in Europe.
Film making and Pacific Films
O’Shea returned to New Zealand in 1946 and married Jean Cormie Douglas in Christchurch on 20 April; the couple had three children together. Settling in Wellington, O’Shea combined study for a Master’s degree in History with research work at the War History Branch of Internal Affairs. The prospects of post-graduate study at Princeton and a foreign affairs career were insufficient to deflect him from his interest in cinema. He became active in the Wellington Film Society, taking over the editorship of its magazine from Cecil Holmes in 1948, and the following year became a film censor, assisting Gordon Mirams, a job he described as his de-facto film school. There he met Mirams’ brother Roger, an experienced cameraman, who proposed O’Shea help him make a picture about Māori. O’Shea was attracted to the idea – he believed that the central drama of the New Zealand story was relations between Māori and Pākehā. He agreed to write a script on the condition he co-direct as well.
In 1950 Mirams and O’Shea registered Pacific Films Ltd (founded as the Pacific Film Unit in 1948), as a vehicle to develop New Zealand’s first dramatic feature since 1940, Broken barrier. The production, which tackled mixed-race relationships, was filmed during 1951 and released the following year to considerable acclaim. O’Shea left the Censor’s Office in 1952, saying he was ‘leaving the threadbare shelter of the Queen’s Service for the more colourful but equally threadbare cloak of private enterprise’.2
As independent producers O’Shea and Mirams faced the hostility of the government’s National Film Unit, which resisted private enterprise taking on government commissions. They secured private sector finance for a wide variety of productions, including regular New Zealand stories for Fox’s Movietone News and sponsored documentaries which, accompanied by their monthly newsreel Pacific magazine, provided a popular local addition to the first half of cinema programmes. Their coverage of the 1953–54 Royal Tour went worldwide, and they produced more than a decade of All Black test highlights as well as official coverage of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. By the end of 1956 they had one feature film and 109 sponsored documentaries and sports films to their credit.
Mirams departed for Australia in 1957, leaving O’Shea to pursue his vocation as a New Zealand filmmaker. In this, he was steadfast in his conviction that the filmmaker had first to decide what they had to say. The only finance available was for sponsored films, so O’Shea made the most of limited opportunities in that field. He created room for the filmmaker’s contribution by deftly imposing an editorial view – which he called a conscience – on public relations hyperbole. In so doing he navigated a perilous course between entertaining cinema patrons and satisfying business clients.
O’Shea had been producing films for nearly a decade before the arrival of television in 1960; with expectations of fresh opportunities in the new medium, Pacific Films moved to larger studio-based premises in Kilbirnie. Within a year he found that he and his fellow independent producers were exiled to the production of commercials, as the state run service dominated content production and exported many programmes from the UK and US markets. The company survived the next decade with a single programme commission from television.
In an effort to escape an unrelieved diet of commercials, O’Shea decided Pacific’s commercial revenue might be used to realise other film making ambitions. With his young staff, Tony Williams and Michael Seresin principal among them, O’Shea embarked on the production of his second feature film, Runaway (1964). Billed as the great New Zealand movie, it did not live up to the distributor’s hype and, with its implicit criticisms of New Zealanders’ attitudes and outlooks, it failed at the local box office. Undeterred, O’Shea embarked on another feature, and within eighteen months the musical comedy Don’t let it get you was in production. While it was popular, the impact of television on cinema attendances did little to help recover its budget.
The features attracted the attention of those interested in filmmaking, and the Kilbirnie studio became a hub for keen young film makers. O’Shea saw craft training as a necessarily on-the-job experience but despaired about the standard of film education in general. An inveterate consumer of cinema, he regularly screened films in his Ngaio home to his children and assorted friends. This developed into formal sessions in Wellington secondary schools and, in collaboration with the Film Societies and the Victoria Department of University Extension, many weekend film schools.
In the early 1970s O’Shea finally managed to prise television programme commissions from the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and, with the production ensemble he had sustained through advertising work, Pacific Films entered a prolific period of television production. Tony Williams directed five documentaries for the Survey series, two of which won awards, and a spectacular film on motor rallying won a third. Barry Barclay (Ngāti Apa) contributed work on the Opo legend and, in partnership with Michael King and under O’Shea’s tutelage, they embarked on the largest single television production to date, the six-part, ground-breaking Tangata whenua series (1974). Pacific’s output in the space of four years changed the face of television and, to O’Shea’s satisfaction, publicly vindicated his belief in the value of independent production on local screens; he hoped it might provide the opportunity for him to make his long-cherished series, ‘In search of Pakehatanga’. In recognition of his contribution to New Zealand film production, Victoria University of Wellington conferred an honorary doctorate in Literature on him in 1977.
Within six months of the transmission of Tangata whenua, television finances were seriously affected by Broadcasting Minister Roger Douglas’ broadcasting reforms, which effectively excluded the independents from television production. O’Shea hung on for as long as he could to keep his production ensemble employed, but within two years his team had virtually all disappeared into freelance commercial production.
Navigating the shallows of private initiative in a state-dominated industry, O’Shea was convinced what was really needed was a logical and comprehensive policy (film and television, state and private) that overcame the infirmities of ad hoc Government decision making and the potential wastage of public investment. In concert with Bill Sheat, O’Shea promoted the formation of a National Screen Organisation to support the local film industry, a proposal well received in arts circles. The Minister for the Arts, Allan Highet, was encouraged by this and, fortified by the sudden output of independent feature film making, announced the formation of an interim Film Commission in 1977. In recognition of his role in its design, O’Shea was appointed an interim board member and then a member of the fully formed New Zealand Film Commission in 1978. He served his first term until 1980 and a second term as an alternate Board Member from 1982 to 1985. He was simultaneously a champion for and ongoing supporter of the developing New Zealand Film Archive, and represented the Minister for the Arts on its first board.
O’Shea returned to his first preoccupation, New Zealand feature film production, aware of the differences between the production climate of his work in the 1950s and 1960s and that of the late 1970s and early 1980s. By then he was the only producer with feature film experience, which, coupled with his age, meant his influence was not always appreciated by younger film makers eager to fulfil their promise as tomorrow’s new flavour. In 1979 he produced Sons for the return home (directed by Paul Maunder) but withdrew his credit after differences over the completion of the film. He persevered the next year with Pictures, directed by Michael Black, an epic about the colonial photographers the Burton Brothers. An adaptation of Maurice Shadbolt’s novel Among the cinders, directed by Rolf Hädrich and co-produced with German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk, followed in 1982.
O’Shea vigorously opposed the exploitation of local tax loopholes by international producers because, he argued, the productions invariably lacked merit and held the industry up to taxpayer ridicule. In addition, they were inflationary and monopolised sources of funding better used for indigenous films. When the Government was persuaded to close down the tax shelter, O’Shea scrambled to complete two films started under the old conditions. The neglected miracle, directed by Barclay, was an ambitious feature length documentary shot in a number of countries in local languages, dealing with the politics of plant gene engineering and its impact on the world’s food supply. The second, Leave all fair, directed by John Reid, was shot in France in 1984 and featured John Middleton-Murry’s distorted memory of his wife Katherine Mansfield.
In 1986, with Barclay directing, O’Shea embarked on Ngati, written by Tama Poata (Ngati Porou). Set on the east coast during the late 1940s, it was shot a short distance from where O’Shea started his film making 35 years before with Broken barrier. The production deliberately combined both Māori and Pākehā values in its working methods, and Barclay was particularly keen to introduce a style of working he felt honoured Māori kaupapa. Precarious funding and tight schedules proved frustrating, though the finished film was well received and was selected for International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987. It was only New Zealand film and the first by an indigenous director to be so recognised.
The critical success of Ngati allowed O’Shea to make headway with his next production with Barclay. Titled Te rua, its story centred on the repatriation of Māori taonga from a German museum, to which end O’Shea sought and secured investment from the Berlin Film Senate. Te rua was shot in 1990, with O’Shea celebrating his seventieth birthday on location in Berlin. This might have marked the pinnacle of his career, but relations with Barclay broke down in post-production. Te rua, O’Shea’s final feature, was completed in 1991.
Later life and legacy
O’Shea reluctantly faced the closure of the Kilbirnie studio after the release of Te rua, and the Film Archive began the task of cataloguing his film production library. It was the country’s largest private collection, spanning more than 40 years, and covering nine features and more than four hundred sponsored and commissioned documentaries. O’Shea’s work captured the character and look of New Zealand during the postwar decades, its industry and commerce, its politics and its sport and leisure.
In 1990 O’Shea had been honoured with an OBE for services to the film industry, as well as receiving the New Zealand Commemoration Medal. Two years later the Film Commission presented him with an outstanding lifetime achievement award, and he was the subject of a 1992 documentary; he published a memoir, Don’t let it get you, in 1999. He continued to develop feature projects, and as late as 2000 was still producing draft screenplays which brought with them the comfort of approaching each new day with things to be achieved. Cormie (Jean) O’Shea died in 1999, and their son, cameraman Rory, died the following year. John died in Wellington on 8 July 2001, aged 81, survived by daughter Kathy and son Patrick, both of whom also worked in the film industry.