Real Life

From school friends to screenwriters

Thirty years after meeting in high school, Kiwis Russell Crowe and Mark Staufer are making movies in Tinseltown.
Mark Staufer

Russell Crowe was just an average teenager when he took the new boy at school, Mark Staufer, under his wing. Fast forward three decades and the pair are now making movies together. Russell and Mark, both 48, became friends at Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland when they were 15. Mark went on to make a name for himself in Auckland breakfast radio, while Russell is one of our most famous actors.

Mark, who is now working on a film project with his old school mate, will never forget the kindness Russell showed him on his first day at a new school. “I was kicked out of Onehunga High School and I started Mt Roskill Grammar School halfway through Form Six (Year 12). You can imagine what it’s like going to a new school. Russell literally came up to me on the first day and took me under his wing. We have been fast friends since then,” says Mark from his home in Los Angeles.

“We clicked straight away, the longer you know someone the better. It’s been a really fruitful friendship for both of us. We started off being in a band and working on the school newspaper and all these years later we’re still working together.”

Their current project is a screenplay about legendary US comedian Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer at 32. “Russell was originally meant to play Bill, but we’ve been working on the script for so long that he’s got too old. But he’s now directing, which in some ways is better because it will be his directorial debut,” says Mark. “Hundreds of thousands of scripts are written here [in LA] every year and never get made into movies. We’ve both been fans of Hicks ever since we can remember.”

Russell and Mark’s friendship dates back to their school days in Auckland when they were in a band together

Mark rose to fame in Auckland radio as one of the “Top Marks”, when he and co-host Mark Kennedy took 89 FM to the top of the breakfast show ratings in 1988. He also worked on late night news show Newsnight with Marcus Lush and Alison Mau. Since Mark left New Zealand 16 years ago, his friendship with Russell has stayed strong.

While reports of Russell’s temper have frequently made headlines, Mark says he’s not seen any sign of it himself. “I’ve known him for over 30 years and I’ve never been on the receiving end of any of that sort of stuff. But he is a perfectionist and people who are perfectionists are passionate. It’s not easy being someone like him in the public eye. People single him out and have a go.”

Russell has put $31,000 towards another project close to Mark’s heart, a multimedia book for adults he is writing called The Numinous Place. It’s a supernatural thriller that readers will be able to download and the book uses technology such as links to videos to tell the story. “It makes the story incredibly realistic. If I can tell you that something happened and show you a news report of it happening, it all seems really authentic,” says Mark.

There’s also a lesson on lucid dreaming – the practice of attempting to control a dream while you are dreaming. “The lead character has to learn how to lucid dream as part of the cosmic detective story. As he does this, the character will teach readers how to lucid dream with video instruction and online community help,” says Mark, who has learned how to lucid dream himself. Mark is launching his book in October at the Frankfurt Book Fair and also wants to publish a print version that can be used with smart phones.

Mark and his wife Sarah, along with Anouk (left) and Milo, are currently based in LA

Mark and his wife Sarah Backhouse (40) have two children Milo (6) and Anouk (22 months). They have been living in LA for eight years while Mark has been writing screenplays, but the Bill Hicks project will be his first one that’s produced. Breaking into Hollywood is a dream come true for Mark, though he says he’s increasingly missing New Zealand.

“I come back to New Zealand more and more often for funerals. As the years go by I miss New Zealand more, strangely. When I first left I don’t think I did very much at all because the world was such an exciting place. “But there are certain things about New Zealand I really miss – the smell of the bush, the sound of the tui, pohutukawa, Bluff oysters and kumara.”

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