The old expression in the film industry is ‘lights, camera, action’. In Queenstown it should be ‘lights, camera, Brett Mills’, because the lifelong local’s been more responsible than anyone for fostering the local industry by hiring out gear so productions can be based here. He tells PHILIP CHANDLER how he got into the business, and suggests what’s needed to reinvigorate it
If anyone can claim to be the godfather of Queenstown’s film industry, it’s Brett Mills.
He joined the industry some 43 years ago, then, since ’87, has enticed countless producers of TV commercials, dramas and feature films to shoot here, to the economic benefit of the region, because of his huge investment in equipment like lighting and cameras.
Born in Queenstown in ’55, he can trace back his local roots to 1912, when his great-grandfather was a provedore to the Earnslaw steamship which launched on Lake Whakatipu that year.
‘‘But I always kind of feel if you came here after 1900, you’re not really local,’’ he says.
The son of well-known skier Johnny Mills, who was ‘‘definitely a character’’, Brett attended Queenstown’s primary school and district high school.
His last year of schooling was at Southland Boys’ — ‘‘the teachers formed a delegation in Queenstown to tell me if I came back they wouldn’t teach me any more, I said, ‘you never f…ing did anyway’.’’
The young Brett was fascinated by radio — ‘‘Queenstown was a real small town to grow up in, and once I had shortwave radio, all of a sudden you knew there were people outside of this place’’.
He did an electrical apprenticeship with the-then local power board.
His introduction to film came when he was asked to look after a generator for Grahame McLean’s 1980 production, A Woman of Good Character, which the latter set in a restored old hut, McConnochie’s, in the Moke Valley behind Queenstown.
Brett, now 67, says he was elevated into the gaffer’s role — chief lighting technician — but wasn’t very good at it.
However, he met actor Bruno Lawrence, ‘‘who liked the cut of my jib’’ and encouraged him to move to Auckland to work on his movie, Utu, as a generator operator.
Over the next five years or so, Brett worked his way back up to gaffering, finally, on Lawrence’s The Quiet Earth.
‘‘In those days, they used to say you weren’t entitled to an opinion until you’d done 10 films, so I did 10 then came back to Queenstown.’’
Brett used to see film crews coming to town with their own gear, so decided in ’87 to buy a 6K light for a not-inconsiderable $27,000.
‘‘People went ‘wow, a 6K in Queenstown’, ’cos at that time it was the biggest light you could buy.’’
About ’88, when actor Robert De Niro was here shooting scenes for Midnight Run, Brett recalls his director of photography saying, ‘‘this place is amazing, there’s seven shades of green, buy gear, buy gear’’.
He went on, eventually, to buy lighting cranes and then cameras ‘‘to complete the circle so then we were a valid film town’’.
He says New Zealand’s film industry had formerly been based only in Auckland and Wellington.
‘‘All the Wellingtonians got their noses seriously out of joint because they all made their money travelling to Queenstown to shoot, and then all of a sudden there’s this upstart setting up — they tried to put me out of business.’’
In addition to his premises in Frankton, he and Queenstowner Roger Norton own surrounding land where visiting film crews pitch up their vehicles.
‘‘This is a fantastic piece of dirt — we own the entranceway to Queenstown.’’
Brett’s continued reinvesting in equipment, estimating he’s spent $600,000 a year over the last two or three years.
While Queenstown’s had a flourishing film industry, with TV commercials being its bread and butter, he believes the resort needs to promote itself more for location shooting.
‘‘The biggest problem, I think, is the world at large, the Netflix people, don’t know we’re here so we’ve got to advertise ourselves.’’