With the feverish 1992 romp Desperate Remedies returning briefly to the Civic’s big screen, the film’s co-director Peter Wells revisits the making of a “wilfully camp” masterpiece.
Understandably, perhaps. Desperate Remedies is unlike any other film this country has produced. A madly over-the-top melodrama set in a feverishly overwrought hothouse version of 19th century New Zealand, its fast-moving story is as colourful as its costumes, and its costumes have to be seen to be believed. NZ Listener’s Philip Matthews called it “a hallucinogenic soap opera vision of sexual and political intrigue in colonial New Zealand... wilfully camp and deliriously exaggerated”. It was the last film Wells directed; it marked the end of his long-term relationship with his co-director and co-writer, Stewart Main. It starred Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Michael Hurst, Lisa Chappell and the late Kevin Smith as a smouldering, winking piece of pure beefcake. It helped launch Cliff Curtis as a big-screen star. It played at the Cannes Film Festival and around the world.
And now it’s back, with a digitally remastered version screening on November 28 at Civic Theatre, the home of the 1993 premiere. “I do feel rather thrilled,” says Wells. “You do a lot of work in your life, but it’s not everything that gets revived.”
Article continues after gallery. Photography by Jackie Meiring
Not that Desperate Remedies ever went away, exactly. “One night a few years ago I sitting at home grazing across channels, and there it was on Maori TV,” says Wells. “I started watching and I just shouted with laughter – and pleasure, if I’m honest. Because it was just so incredibly outrageous, everything about it. It just seemed wonderful. A friend was telling me they showed it a couple of years ago to some young people, and they were galvanised. They said, ‘Well, where can we see the other films that are like this? Where are they?’ And my friend had to tell them, ‘No, sorry, this is it.’ ”
A brilliant one-off: Wells’ friend could have been describing Wells himself. When he appears at writers festivals and the organisers ask him for a brief bio note they can run in their programme, he has to throw up his hands: he’s done too many different things.
Film director? Well sure, but not lately. Novelist? Yes, several times now, but not in the “So when’s your next one coming out?” sense. He also writes short fiction, various flavours of non-fiction, personal memoir and family history. “It’s just sort of moving around to whatever area interests you next, really. Writing’s easy that way, you go where you like.”
He’s shy and private, but he’s also an activist. He was first-wave in the gay liberation movement, and he once made a lush feature documentary (The Mighty Civic) purely to stop the Civic from being demolished back in the Rogernomics 1980s when that was a thing politicians could seriously consider doing. He’s an editor, a historian, and in 1999 he and his good friend, novelist Stephanie Johnson, decided a city the size of Auckland should be embarrassed not to have its own writers festival. So they founded one. (“That was the baby we had together.”) The Auckland Writers Festival is now one of the major annual arts events in Australasia; he’s still one of its creative directors.
A more succinct way of describing Wells: he was born in 1950, when New Zealand’s official story about itself was very small and confining, and he has spent his life helping create spaces where the larger, less boring country that was always here as well could stretch out and breathe. In his childhood, even being a writer did not seem a possible option. “We had Frank Sargeson, we had Landfall, but when adult friends and family would ask, ‘What do you want to be?’ I was always in a state of perplexity – I couldn’t say I wanted to be a writer. And I adored film, but every film we ever saw in those days came from England or America. I knew I wanted to write from very young, but it seemed an absurd ambition.”
The other thing he knew about himself growing up was that he could not tell his family was that he was gay. “To a degree, those two secrets were intermeshed,” he says. The current of family expectations floated him to the University of Auckland, where he began a degree in history as history was unfolding around him. “Basically I was lucky enough to arrive at university when gay liberation was happening. That was an explosive, exciting, molten period. But meanwhile I was still unable to say what I wanted to be. Heading for being a lecturer in history, I suppose.”
He got a scholarship to Warwick University – “I chose it because Germaine Greer had taught there” – and the distance gave him the perspective he needed. “I realised I was sleepwalking into a career I didn’t want. While I was over there I sent my first short story off to Islands, Robin Dudding’s literary magazine, and he published it, and at that point I thought, ‘OK, I’m a writer’ – in my own mind, and then slowly in fact.”
He came back to Auckland and almost immediately met and fell in love with Stewart Main. (“It was one of those very traditional New Zealand things. Actually, what happened was I moved into a flat where he happened to live.”) During his absence the film industry had caught fire – these were the early years of Roger Donaldson and Geoff Murphy – and Main was part of that world.
Through the 1980s, Main and Wells were partners in film and in life: pioneers in two ways, making some of the country’s first LGBT films and living as an openly gay couple. “In a time of illegality very few gay men were out – astonishingly few.” Getting funding for work perceived as not merely non-mainstream but transgressive was a constant struggle. “Stewart and I were living in a perpetual obstacle course in terms of funding. You had to be an immovable object. You had to keep saying you wouldn’t go away.”
In the end, it became exhausting. “Because you’re also human. My brother Russell died of HIV/AIDS after I had made a film about a group of friends looking after one of the first New Zealanders to die of HIV/AIDS.” This 1986 film, A Death in the Family, screened on primetime TV and was groundbreaking for the way it featured HIV/AIDS in this context. “These issues didn’t exist in a separate world. And you pay a price.”
Desperate Remedies was the last film Wells made, and the last project he and Main worked on together. “What can I say? The relationship had played out.” After an agonising and lengthy pre-production period, the actual filming was exhilarating. “Utterly exhausting, of course. The money ran out a week before the shoot ended. We kept things afloat by breaking down the sets and rebuilding them. Reuse, adapt, recycle. It was all shot in this giant warehouse – the only landscape-free film in New Zealand history – and we were almost insane by the end of it. But there was a feeling that we were doing something nobody had done. After that I was done. I wanted to get back to the quiet of the page. It wasn’t a bad note to go out on.”
Desperate Remedies Remastered has a red-carpet screening at Civic Theatre on Mon 28 Nov.
Tickets are available at ticketmaster.co.nz.