Getting extras for a race-meeting scene in Came A Hot Friday was a gamble in keeping with the theme of the 1984-made movie. Kiwi actor, writer and moviemaker Ian Mune says between 250 and 500 extras were needed to fill the stands of the Waverley Race Course.
"There's no way we could afford to pay those people extras' rates" he says, explaining how, at $50 a day per person, it would've blown the film's meagre budget. "But Larry Parr, the producer, came up with a wonderful idea and that was 'come on out, have some fun being extras in a film, we'll give you lunch and there'll be a draw and the winners get a holiday in Hawaii’," Mune says. About 250 people turned up for a snatch at passing stardom.
The costume dilemma was solved by asking the race-goers to wear clothing that wasn't too brightly coloured. "And if they [the fellas] had their dad's hat to wear it and if the women could find their auntie's races hat, to wear that. We picked out about 50 who would be close to the camera and ran them through make-up and they had their hair cut and that sort of thing, and a bit of wardrobe and smartened up to look period" Mune says. "And then the 50 behind them, we made sure they looked OK from the waist up, and then the people behind that were pretty much making up the crowd."
Then came some clever movie-making techniques to increase crowd numbers. "There's some windows right up the top at the back of the grandstand, so we put cut-outs in front of those," he says. "So when you look at it, there's figures and it looks as though there's a thousand people there." This was years before the new era of computer-generated special effects.
Mune says the south Taranaki racecourse was perfect - and apt - for Came A Hot Friday, an adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's book of the same name. The writer, who died in 1972, lived his whole life in Hāwera and could well have envisaged the Waverley track while penning the novel.
His work of fiction (and Mune's take on the tale) is about a couple of swanky con men, whose plans go awry when they try their slick moves in small-town New Zealand. In this case they swoop on Eltham, chosen by the moviemakers for its well-preserved good looks. The town and Bridge Street fitted the bill, especially in regards to the films 1949 timeslot. It also had an empty lot, perfect for building a facade that would later be burnt down. "The other thing was you could see the main street in one shot from the pub and the fish-and-chip shop and down past the second-hand car sales yard that we built in. You could see the road go down and disappear into farmland and the sunset off the end of the road" Mune says.
They still needed more shots - more sensational locations. With the town and racecourse ticked off their must-have list, they went in search of a river with deep sides, an old, large woolshed, a good Kiwi pub, a local hall and a view over a racecourse (they found this in Te Awamutu).
Using a plane, boat and automobiles, they buzzed around south Taranaki, Whanganui and even further afield for these backdrop props. "They don't only have to look right, you have to be able to get crew and actors to them and gear, and if you've got any special effects you've got to be able to get all that to them and all that." Mune says the hall was found in Kai Iwi, the woolshed north-east of Wahnganui and the pub in Eltham. The chosen drinking establishment was the Coronation Hotel on the corner of Bridge and York Streets, which was built in 1902.
Eltham historian Don Drabble says the hotel was painted for its movie role. "I think it was red, believe it or not."
The filmmakers had to go a wee way south to find a suitable place for the bridge scene. The Whangaehu River, which flows down from Mount Ruapehu into the Whanganui district was perfect for the dramatic finale. The waterway is best known for its part in the Tangiwai railway disaster. On Christmas Eve 1953, the Wellington-Auckland night express plunged into the flooded river, killing 151 people. In Came A Hot Friday, only a hat was lost in the water. But not just any hat…
When Mune asked England-based Kiwi actor Peter Bland to play the part of con artist Wes Pennington, Bland agreed - with a proviso: "That I'm allowed to wear a hat of my own choice." Mune agreed to the costume request and Bland signed on. "And he brought his hat out and I loved it on sight; it was just perfect for Wes" Mune says of the white, fine-straw hat. "But the problem is, in a movie you always need to have two of everything in case one gets dirty or run over by a truck, you know, or burnt. Well, it was impossible to get a replacement for that hat - it was an absolute one off, hand-made in Brazil."
So Bland's hat got star treatment. "We just looked after it like crazy and the only time we had a problem was when the chaps went into the drink and fell off the bridge, and the Tainuia Kid watching through the rushes, sees the hat floating down the stream and thinks that Wes must be dead" Mune says.
But Mune wasn't letting the Brazilian masterpiece go near the water. "No way! No chance! We had to find a replacement that would look good enough floating down the stream." So, the wardrobe department chopped up two hats and used paint and glue to create the fake. "Going down the river it looked OK, but you couldn't have put it on anybody's head" Mune says.
Alongside the be-hatted Wes, is fellow fraudster Cyril Kidman, played by Phillip Gordon. Together they take on the town, which harbours a whole bunch of folk even more unusual than themselves.
The standout nutter is The Tainuia Kid, played by the late, great, Billy T James, who died in 1991. "He's Te Whakinga Kid in the book" Mune says. "We called him The Tainuia Kid because the joke wouldn't work on Americans." Mune says Billy T was a perfect gentleman to work with. "He was very quiet, very focused and really wanted to do a good job. He was very, very professional. He was very nervous about all this."
Came A Hot Friday was the Māori comedian's first film and his first fully developed character. He asked Mune for advice on playing the part. "I said, 'Well, he's a guy we've all known, or known of. Every community has got one, particularly rural communities. He's not quite the full quid, but he's absolutely passionate that he wants to be where the heat is. His passion is westerns, and the cowboys have adventures, and he wants to have adventures. Until the arrival of Wes and Cyril he has to make up his own adventures so he goes around trying to frighten people at the river bank with his toy cap pistol'."
Mune says Billy T soaked up all the details of the word portrait, saying: "Oh yeah, I know that sort of person." With his arms behind his head, Mune grins as his mind replays visions of Billy T in full comic flight. "He just played it for all it was worth - he was just beautiful."
That slapstick, offbeat humour is the essence of Came A Hot Friday, a story that had been on slow burn in Mune's mind for 10 years before he began the project. "It was such a loopy story and such great characters and it just sort of leant itself to such wonderful visuals."
He says the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Dean Parker over a year, ended up being much lighter in tone than Morrieson's book. "We tried all kinds of things - I did one version that was so black I wouldn't want to watch the movie myself. Eventually it all just fell into place, pretty much at the end of '83, just before we started shooting."
While Mune understood the humour and tone of the movie, it took a while for some of the picture people to catch on.
On the first day of the shoot, the director listened in amusement as the movie crew began to react to the action unfolding before them. He retells a part when Wes and Cyril pull up in their "old rattletrap" and spot the beautiful Dinah (Erna Larsen) going in to see her husband in the car sales yard. "Wes gets out and goes up to the young fella there and says, 'who is that vision of maidenly delight?' And the young fella says, 'that was Dinah Smelton, the boss's new wife'. So already the language is pretty fruity" Mune says. "And some of the crew who'd all just come of serious movies went, 'Oh my God!'"
When Mune gets Bland to adopt a Groucho Marx-like walk he's been clowning about doing, and then gets Phil to shoot his cuffs, some of film folk cringe. "I overheard a member of the crew saying, 'Oh my God, if it's all going to be like this, we're in terrible trouble'."
Mune says it took a while for the entire crew to cotton on to what the movie was about. "Once they'd started to see rushes and see the footage, they started to get a feeling of how it was working on screen, and they started getting into it."
The movie's genre is difficult to pin down. While loosely described as a comedy, Mune describes it as one that pays homage to Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton and a whole lot of other on-screen funny people. Plus the film teeters on the absurd, swinging between pathos and humour, and action and comedy. "It was an awkward balance that was quite new to people at the time."
The residents of Eltham embraced the film - especially the making of it. "Generally, everybody was very supportive and certainly the shop owners - who were put out to some degree by our presence, it tended to frighten off shoppers - they were marvellous." But of course there were some local lads who did some drive-by tooting. "Just louts, going by, hooligans, yelling out and things" Mune says.
On the night the building facade got burnt down in Bridge Street, the townsfolk turned out in force. They were allowed to watch as long as they stayed quiet and didn't use camera flashes. Some spent the night perched on the roof of the bank opposite, waiting for one of the fiery scenes of Came A Hot Friday to ignite.
From a director's point of view, the timing of this scene was crucial. It involved a lot of bit-part actors, who had to be in the right place at the right moment. Under pressure, Mune's temper began to flare. "Whenever you're working with fire you have to be very meticulous about who lights it, who stands where, when it's lit, how long you keep it lit for, are the hoses on standby, are they all ready, fire extinguishers. It's a big complex production and then we had vehicles and stunt driving and all sorts of stuff all happening at once" he recalls. "To get all that happening - and it was a night scene so there was lots of lighting, massive - we really were struggling to keep the extras organised."
The extras had to be bussed to and from the set, to fit in the perfectly with the shooting schedule. "We were just falling over ourselves and I just started getting a bit shitty with people. But somebody slapped my wrists and I backed off."
That somebody was the director of photography, Alun Bollinger, whose film-shooting credits appear to cover the entire scope of New Zealand-made films. You'll find him in the credits for the Taranaki-based film, Vigil and a line-up of Peter Jackson movies, including Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There were some other big names of New Zealand film helping to burn down that Bridge Street building back in '84. One was producer Larry Parr, who has continued to work his magic on Kiwi movies for the past two decades. Another was first assistant director Lee Tamahori, who broke into Hollywood after his directing success with Once Were Warriors.
Backed by such talent, Mune's facade eventually went up (and down) in a blaze of glory. "It all worked out very well - a very efficient team. We just had a bit of trouble on the timing of getting the extras back and forward." Timing was also a factor in the other Came A Hot Friday fire. In this scene the woolshed gets the heat treatment.
"Word had got around town that we were going to blow up the woolshed and a lot of the locals wanted to come along for a look, and that was fine because we could put them all up in the amphitheatre there on the hillside. And they'd get a good view and they'd be quite safe" he says.
The blast was originally meant to go off at 8pm, so the local folk turned up about 7.30pm. "But we don't blow it up 'til about 10.30, just because we're doing other stuff. And every time I walked through the crowd on the hill, going from one place to another, the wafts of dope got thicker and thicker and thicker and by the time the building went up everybody was having a wonderful time! None of my crew or actors were allowed to go near them!" he chuckles.
One of the stars of the party shoot was the late Prince Tui Teka, who died in 1985. He led the band that set the woolshed jumping and was also filmed playing his saxophone on a veranda of the Coronation Hotel. "The Prince," Mune pauses. "Again, the perfect gentleman, very quiet, very agreeable, amused, I think, to be in the production, and he just said, 'What do you want?' And we told him and he delivered. He liked the music."
Stephen McCurdy wrote the soundtrack, which included a country-and-western waltz that Prince Tui Teka took a liking to. Mune says the tune appears on some of the Prince's albums. "And it had a bit of air time."
So has the movie, which was released in 1985. Mune says it did well at the box office in New Zealand and spent many years on the top-10 list of Kiwi-made films.
Nearly 20 years on, Mune's still got a soft spot for Came A Hot Friday - his movie-directing debut. "I had a look at it a little while ago and thought, 'it still holds up, still works'. The style was right" Mune nods.
Morrieson, R.H. (1964). Came a hot Friday. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.