Graham Reid | | 11 min read
Harry Sinclair who has lived in the States for the past 10 years – the last four in LA, years prior to that in New York – is still well known in New Zealand. His reputation rests on two significant poles: As one half of the music/performance duo The Front Lawn with Don McGlashan, and for his pop-up television series Topless Women Talk About Their Lives, 41 short episodes which were re-edited into the feature film of the same name in 1997.
During the Front Lawn period in the late Eighties -- which spawned two albums and saw them perform in Europe, Australia and the United States -- Sinclair made short films with McGlashan, notably the witty Walk Short filmed on Karangahape Road in which each played a dozen or so characters (see here), and the award-winning Lounge Bar and Linda's Body.
So in sense a career in film was a natural consequence.
The Topless Women television series was shot on the fly with no script other than a broad outline for actors such as Danielle Cormack (pregnant for some of it), Joel Tobeck and Ian Hughes.
These four-minute vignettes – with music by various Flying Nun bands and artists – appeared on TV3 and won a cult following, so Sinclair edited them into the internationally acclaimed feature film.
Even so, given his unorthodox working
method which relied on actors to improvise and grow within their
parts, that hardly suggested Sinclair today would be. . . directing
episodes of the smooth-running television machine teen drama that is
the series 90210.
This past month Topless Women Talk About Their Lives was given its first DVD release – the television episodes on one disc, the film on another and extras such as the Topless Women film-within-the-film and a commentary – and it is remarkable how they stand up as emblematic of New Zealand of that era, and of distinctive Kiwi humour.
To promote the reissue Sinclair did a high-profile interview with Kim Hill on National Radio (podcast available here) but Elsewhere took another tack, because some of Sinclair's recent short films such as the episodic Call Me and oddball Alien Dicks posted on his website are as witty and compact as the Front Lawn films. And in their own way they refer back to the low-budget, let's-get-mates-to-help ethic of the Topless Women television episodes.
Typically Sinclair has interesting insights into his life and work, and opens with a heresy.
You said on radio you enjoyed LA, and
that is woefully unfashionable because New Zealanders are not supposed to like Los Angeles.
[Laughs] Los Angeles is regarded as an unfriendly vast space of freeways and there is a fashion to say it's not great but most people I know who live here love it. People rave about the climate but for me it is too consistently sunny and I miss actual weather. But it's a very beautiful place and there is the desert nearby, and the beaches . . . It is a huge city city and you can spend vast amounts of time stuck in traffic, but once you know it you can find the things you like.
I've always liked Los Angles but any
good Kiwi joker is not supposed to admit to that, we're supposed to
say we love the landscape of the South Island.
Oh right. I do love the landscape of the South Island but I quite enjoy dry places like the desert. Joshua Tree. I love it. New Zealand is a pretty damp place.
Are you busy at the moment?
Right now I am writing and in couple of weeks I am starting on another 90210 episode.
You like that job?
Yeah, it's fun and totally different from anything I have done before, you are a director for hire and you enter a world where basically everybody is working on the same thing full time, so everyone else knows the show better than you do. Yet you have to be the boss and tell everyone how to say the lines and know where to put the camera. It's a very unusual role to play but it's very good for honing your skills as a director, to try to find interesting things to do while making the same television show as everybody else which is very proscribed.
So it's an interesting challenge. It reminds me of getting on the freeway. When I first came to LA I couldn't believe how fast you had to go to get from zero to 60 to get up to speed with everybody else, and it's kind of like that. It's like jumping on this very busy machine and I love it.
And you have to get that story in 52
minutes or whatever it is.
Yeah, there's a lot to shoot in a day. There's an expression that I had never heard before and the question people ask of a director is, did they make their day. In other words did you shoot all the scenes in the schedule. If the director doesn't do that, that the worst thing. You can do wrong rather than do bad stuff. It's less important if the acting is not great but you have to get it done within the schedule.
There's a the pressure to get it shot within a seven day schedule so you have to think on your feet and it's kind of fun. I get a kick out of having to really scramble and push myself. I would like to do it all the time, it's a buzz. Maybe it's like getting on stage, a very heightened thing like getting on stage and, 'What can go wrong?'.
But when the credits roll you have
walked away and are on to the next thing. This is very different from
how you originally worked and I want to talk with you about the
television version of Topless Women because it was so innovative. But
first, I just love the Call Me series you have done recently. It
struck me in this age of instant communication people really lack
communication skills. So to use cellphones and conversations as a
premise to tell these short stories is fascinating.
I finished it six months ago and did it over a spread-out period with friends here and I love to just make things rather than sit around talking about making things. So I did and showed it to some TV people hoping that someone might want to pick it up and give me money to make some more.
But everyone loved it and it has been well received by my friends, although I haven't done huge things to try and promote it.
I've always been fascinated by how people use cellphone and what a weird culture we are in where we are physically far apart but say bizarre things and leave strange messages for each other. It's just such a disconnected world for me.
(Interview continues below)
I like the fact that people can be saying the most intimate things on the phone, but while they are doing that they are cooking breakfast or driving.
It's so weird. You hear people in the supermarket having a fight with their girlfriends and there are no boundaries between what used to be the kind of conversation you might have in the bedroom at home, everything has strangely merged. I like to sit around with my friends and have a glass of wine and dinner and don't want to spend my life on the phone. But I am old-fashioned, I like to be with people. Call Me is not a critique of the use of the cellphone, but there's something absurd about the world of the cellphone and I've tried to capture that.
So when you did Call Me you were
hoping, like with Topless Women on television here, that someone
might pick it up for maybe a cable channel?
For me the important thing was to make something and I did show it to a few TV channels and had some small nibbles, but I didn't expect anything. You hope it might break through but it hasn't happened.
I would have thought Call Me would be
so enticing because they would recognise their world in these
snippets, in the same way as Topless Women did here.
[Laughs] It might still happen.
Topless Women in that regard and the
idea of putting fragments of people's lives out there? Five or six
years ago there was this period where cellphone companies were
putting mini-soap operas onto your phone, sometimes just as text
conversations . . . it almost seemed like the world had caught up
with what you were doing.
Yes, Topless Women were just four-minute pieces, that is what a web series is now. It's bizarre that is now a common thing but at the time was extremely odd.
When you first took that idea to
television, what was the response? Did they see a gap before the news
or whatever and felt they could drop it in?
I guess so. They just thought it was interesting and funny and TV3 just thought they could play it, and I was amazed because it was such an unusual thing to play. There was nothing else like that on TV.
As you mention with 90210 which is so
formulaic, I would have thought today they would be looking for
something different. But they are not?
They just want the formula. As I said on Kim Hill it is a very risk-averse industry.
Did anyone have any qualms with Topless
Women that where the story might go, or did you have the long arc of
the story anyway?
It was an unusual project because there was no plan whatsoever but no one seemed to mind, it was very strange and they just said, 'Yep, give us the next episode'. In that sense it was remarkable it even got on TV.
These days it is all done on You Tube.
Yeah, there was nothing like that available then but now everyone is doing it, and fair enough too because you can. It's just strange. 'Who is watching when everyone is making stuff?'
This is why so many blog sites are not
attracting the traffic they once did, no one is reading blogs because
they are so busy writing on their own Facebook page and posting
Yeah, it's more an interactive world than one where you are a consumer. That is one of the liberating aspects of the internet, but it's also a challenge for people who want to spend their time making stuff and wondering if anyone is going to see.
It the same with Alien Dicks? You
thought you would do it and put it out there?
That was a more out-there project and I never thought anyone would come to that. I had these wacky friends who had a techno band who appear in it and I thought ,let's do the wackiest thing possible with these guys . . . who are also aliens and private detectives. Obviously its a completely silly idea but we had a big party and played it and people loved it. Some people think it is extremely funny and some think it is extremely weird.
(Interview continues below)
So you are
constantly doing these short films in what we might call downtime
from the day job.
Yeah I guess so. Obviously I'm trying to get more feature films up but I love making things. It makes me feel good and I can't seem to stop.
When the Topless Women box set was
coming out did you sit down with it and wonder to yourself if it
really still worked these days? Were you happy with?
We had to do a new transfer from the original film to the digital format to make the DVD and preserve the film so we went through each shot meticulously and slightly altering the colour. And I quite like it am surprised I can still watch it. It had a bold uncompromising quality that makes me proud. It went out there and did it, and wasn't really trying to please anybody but had its own goofiness.
(Interview continues below)
You've been away from the country for a
long time now and we know when we go away we often see the place with
a little more clarity. When you were looking at Topless Women again
did you see a New Zealand drollness or humor or something that you
didn't see at the time because you were just doing it?
Interesting question. There's a kind of ironic relationship with life New Zealanders have which is funny to watch, whereas here in LA you don't experience that. People here say, 'Have a nice day' without any sense of irony. I don't know how to describe that quality but there is definitely a New Zealandness you can't be aware of when you are inside it, it's just who you are. And perhaps that's that the good thing about Topless Women, we were just expressing who we were without trying to be anything else and without imitating British or American humour or style.
So I think it has an authentically New Zealand quality because it came straight out of the lives of the actors and wasn't trying too hard. That was the unusual thing about it.
There is that understated quality New
Zealanders have. We have the Rugby World Cup here at the moment and I
remember when we lost one of the games previously the captain said,
'Yeah, the boys are bit disappointed'. I thought that was a masterful
example of Kiwi understatement at its best. That is such a Kiwi
thing, and we see that in Topless Women and Flight of the Conchords,
Yeah. People find it very charming because it is the opposite of the hard sell confidence of where I live now. The thing I noticed coming back this year was how funny everyone is, starting with people who are checking to make sure you don't have any fruit. They were just hilarious. I couldn't believe it. That's accentuated because no one is joking at Customs in the US where it is dangerous to make jokes. So I found New Zealanders very funny, and making fun of everything.
I understand you might be coming back
to shoot a movie.
Yeah I hope to make a film called Kiwiland which I have been working on for a couple of years. So that is the plan, to come and live back in New Zealand and be based there.
People like yourself could establish a
reputation in LA doing 90210 or sitcoms or whatever and make the
Yeah, although I don't like flying enough to commute, but it's not inconceivable. It's a very small world and you can work in more than one place.
I know this is an odd question, but do you feel part of an expat group of New Zealanders in LA.
Not really. When I was in New York I
used to see more New Zealanders but I lived a more social life
perhaps. Here I have a few New Zealand friends but it's a very
different world in LA and everybody is busy, and I don't socialise
that much. I am mostly at home hanging out.
If you wanted to hang out with New Zealanders you would stay in New Zealand. [Laughs]