by Helen Martin
Growing up on a 350-acre dairy farm in Woodhill with her parents Rhonda and Thomas and sisters Gaylene and Lynda, Robyn Grace had a wonderful country childhood. She enjoyed her time at Kaipara College (“I was the drama and singing and dancing and making speeches girl”) then, because there were no film schools at that time, she took herself off to Victoria University to do a BA in English literature, drama and film. After graduation she found work at the Depot Theatre in Wellington, where she was the lighting technician, then the Marketing Manager, before directing her first play. She then went overseas, met her partner in London and produced four sons (the eldest was born in London, the other three in NZ).
“When the boys were little, I was suddenly a single mother and I decided to do something that would make me happy and give me enough money to raise four children on my own. So, in 2000 I sat in the foyer of Pacific Renaissance Pictures in Auckland in my best outfit, which was a maternity dress and all I owned, and I waited until someone agreed to see me. I hit it off with one of the women there who had some influence and after letting me work unpaid for three days, they offered me a 3rd Assistant Director role - I didn’t even know what that was,” says Robyn. “I had very little confidence then, but I just had this idea in my mind that was what I wanted to do.”
Taking on the demanding role of assisting 1st and 2nd Assistant Directors during film shoots while still breast feeding her youngest child was a big challenge, which Robyn met by moving back to Woodhill so her wonderful mother could help by being there for the boys during her work hours. As well as enabling Robyn to follow her dream, the move meant the boys could, like their mother, have a country childhood with all the benefits that provides. Working very long days, Robyn eventually trained as a First AD on South Pacific Pictures’ ‘Shortland Street’, then became a freelancer, moving from project to project with US companies such as Warner Brothers, Disney and MTV, who produce many films here for theatrical and television release both here and overseas. Seven years ago, she met her partner Rory MacGillycuddy and they now have a house in Woodhill, not far from where Robyn grew up.
While life as a film maker is exhausting, it also offers rich opportunities. Jobs Robyn has worked on include 2nd AD on the 2009 Peter Jackson-produced feature ‘District 9’, which was shot partly in South Africa, 1stAD and Associate Producer on the 2015 feature ‘Deathgasm’, New Zealand film maker Jason Lei Howden’s spoof on death metal, which was shot in West Auckland, Associate Producer on the television feature drama about the Teina Pora story, ‘In Dark Places’ and the yet-to-be-released comedy action feature ‘Guns Akimbo’, which stars Daniel Radcliffe (of ‘Harry Potter’ fame) and was shot partly in Munich. Over the years she has also, among other things, had the opportunity to direct a few episodes of television drama.
For some time, Robyn has wanted to be a feature filmmaker so, after the Munich shoot, she stayed on in Europe and, while in Italy, wrote her first feature film script. But, as NZ filmmakers know only too well, it’s very hard to get funding to make a feature in this country. “As a middle-aged woman in New Zealand it’s very hard to be heard,” Robyn explains. “I was advised to do a short film first, so I adapted a short story I like, Marian Keyes’ ‘A Woman’s Right to Shoes’ and paid for it using the crowd funding website Kickstarter.” So far it has been selected for exhibition at Palm Springs International Short film Festival and 35 other international Film Festivals.
Robyn has now completed a rough cut of her second short ‘Oranges and Lemons‘, which was funded through Boosted and is the first short film she has written. It’s set in 1973 and is a story of Robyn’s childhood. Most of the film was shot on the Bradly farm in Helensville- the original Grace farm no longer exists - and, as with her first short, most people worked on it for nothing.
In 2017 Rhonda Grace, a much-loved member of the community and of her family, was lending a helping hand to a family of old friends in Kumeu when she was hit by a car and died at the scene. “Mum’s death was shocking,” says Robyn. “She was so much part of this house and our lives. It was bloody hard. Something like that makes you realise that life is so short and if there’s something you want to do you have to do it, before it’s too late. I want to make feature films. I’m not after going to Hollywood or being famous, I just want to tell interesting stories.”
by Helen Martin