Real Life

Nature’s best

Judith Curran is a Natural History New Zealand executive producer. So safe-sounding. Except that in the course of making award-winning documentaries, she’s been mauled by a leopard, laid low with Ross River fever and narrowly escaped a terrorist attack. Roy Colbert takes tea with the Dunedin small-screen storyteller.
Executive producer Judith Curran’s documentary series,  Our Big Blue Backyard, rated through the roof on TV One.

Natural History New Zealand executive producer Judith Curran has been on quite a roll recently. Her hit rate, in an industry where the miss rate is terrifyingly the norm, peaked at the end of last year with the extraordinary success of her latest TV series, Our Big Blue Backyard.

But she’s not on a roll right now in Dunedin, where she’s just been ticketed for parking her far-from-new Beemer halfway on the pavement and halfway on a yellow line outside her dinky little inner-city Pandora house. Forty dollars. She removes the ticket. Then sticks it back under the wipers. “How many can they give me for parking like this?” she thinks. “Surely only one.”

We go inside, pour some iced tea and talk about executive producers. What do they do? Producer seems such a wobbly word. The night before, I’d watched the long line-up of finalists in an Oscar category: five executive producers, more actual producers than you could shake a box of sticks at, and associate producers as far as the eye could see. Associate producers are, of course, an industry in-joke – one of those credits will settle a dispute or assuage an ego in a heartbeat. Factual television, which is what documentaries are called these days, that’s different, innit?

“Absolutely,” says Curran. “In factual television, it’s not just chasing the money. With our business, the producers, while being just one cog in a big wheel, are very creative and they oversee all of it, right through to post-production. There are so many strands to put together, and I’m constantly trying to make them all fit.”

NHNZ managing director Kyle Murdoch knows that he has a pretty good fitter in Judith Curran.

“All of our producers have to routinely sift through hundreds of hours of raw material to select the final 45 minutes of footage for a compelling story in a commercial hour. Judith’s single-minded focus on storytelling allows her to always find the essence of a narrative. What makes her stand out is that focus, plus a rare intensity and determination,” he says.

“Judith is one of the most hard working producers I’ve ever known. The best producers pour their heart and soul into a project, sometimes to the detriment of other aspects of their lives She has made huge sacrifices to produce great documentaries.”

Instinct. That’s what Curran thinks gets her through the sifting, the teeming mass of footage, stories, characters and sounds that fill her editing suite when putting a programme together. “Some sort of instinctive skill happens when I see a big creative story taking shape. I think that is possibly my biggest skill,” she says. That and an infinite respect for storytelling, the watchword at NHNZ since visionary ex-TVNZ producer Michael Stedman set up the production house in 1997.

“The storytelling is everything to me, so I get quite involved in it,” says Curran, whose team widened the eyes of both TVNZ and its viewers with the six episodes of Our Big Blue Backyard. The series rated through the roof with a 25 per cent audience share each Sunday night. That’s 700,000 to 800,000 viewers – that’s what One News gets.

The skill at achieving story from near-chaos, which has seen Curran enjoy a charmed run over the past eight years – two series of Orangutan Island (2007-2008) and Redwood Kings (2013) for Animal Planet; The End of the Wild (2013) for Chinese television channel CCTV9; two series of LA Frock Stars (2013-2014) for the American Smithsonian channel, and Primeval New Zealand (2012) for TVNZ – is not a difficult one to trace.

She began her working life as a radio journalist at 4XO in Dunedin, alongside a socially like-minded Pam Corkery, and then, as an aspiring playwright, at Australia’s acclaimed National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney, at a time when anybody who is now anybody cut their teeth.

“My first play got me into NIDA, then my second play, The Garage Sale, a one-act, had a rehearsal reading in front of agents and producers, which was terrifying. But it was produced, opened to good reviews and good houses with the Griffin Theatre Company at the Stables Theatre, then the Gulf War broke out, the first-ever televised war. Everyone just stayed home and watched that.”

Dancing Naked Among Roses – her third play and first full-length – had Cate Blanchett in the lead role. “Everyone loved Cate, she was amazing. She played a hermaphrodite. Her talent was immense, even then.”

Curran then discovered television, and one of life’s sliding doors came by, whether to continue writing drama or to direct documentaries. She decided to go off around the world and do documentaries. It was a coin toss at the time, but she doesn’t regret her call for a second.

She returned to New Zealand to work for NHNZ in 2001. “In drama, the script and so much else is already there. But in factual television, we have all this footage and sometimes we haven’t even found the actual story yet. It’s far more challenging.”

In 2004, Curran was attacked by a leopard during a shoot in Namibia.“It was horrendous, just a whisker away from the femoral artery and death.”

Challenging. Now there’s a word. Like when your leg is in a leopard’s mouth. This was a front-page story in 2004 when Curran was attacked by Akira, a hand-reared fully-grown male leopard during a wildlife documentary shoot in Namibia.

“It was just a freak accident. We had been working beautifully, but he was suddenly spooked, and just lashed out, which was a natural reaction for him. It was horrendous, just a whisker away from the femoral artery and death. And the aftermath was awful, some effects, like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] lasting years and years.

“I was so lucky. I had six surgeries. And while the horror, the surgeries and the long stay in hospital did give me a great story, and some scars nobody can compete with at dinner parties, something like this changes your brain, and it still affects me today.”

There have been other close shaves too. “We were once filming in a big marlin fishing boat in the middle of the Coral Sea, and the chopper pilot, being cheeky, thought he’d swoop real low and clipped the top of the tower. We were probably a centimetre off both helicopter and boat exploding in a ball of flame,” she says.

“In Bali, I cancelled a taxi for dinner on Jinbaran Beach the night of the second terrorist attack [in 2005]. Fifty were killed and hundreds maimed at that exact location.

And then there was the Ross River fever I picked up from mosquitoes while filming red kangaroos out in the Australian desert. That is one terrible disease.”

There could have been one more last year, when a 10th-anniversary return to see Akira was mooted. It would have been one of those tears and joy documentary moments that burst the walls of YouTube, but the investment money for the project was never found.

TVNZ hasn’t screened very much NHNZ product over the years, which remains a source of incredulity for those pointing at the company’s 300-plus international awards, including Emmys. But Primeval New Zealand and Our Big Blue Backyard certainly confirmed New Zealanders want to and will watch quality natural history television.

Primeval New Zealand’s ratings were right up with Our Big Blue Backyard, and the DVDs from both were in a lot of Christmas stockings. Curran says the amount of investment required can be beyond the national broadcaster. And the budget for the NHNZ programmes is normally a fraction of what overseas companies spend. It’s a tough industry, developing an idea someone else may already have found, and then going into a pitching battle with American channels, knowing they have so much more money in their back pocket.

However, just being Kiwis has proved a useful tool. LA Frock Stars was an idea prompted by the Los Angeles vintage clothing store The Way We Wore. All manner of famous figures in the entertainment world and their people have been going there for years, seeking unique couture for performance or red-carpet walks. But it was a long road getting the series accepted, funded and put to air.

“Our talented development team found this amazing woman, Doris Raymond, who ran the store, and had the idea for a series. She said she’d already been asked by half a dozen production companies and simply wasn’t interested. Our team spent a lot of time making a case, and eventually she said yes. Doris really liked us Kiwis, how professional we were, and how our way of doing the programme was so different to all the LA companies, who just wanted another reality show. But then, of course, we still had to sell it to a channel,” explains Curran.

“We got nowhere for a while and then, in Washington DC, one of our team was pitching stuff to the Smithsonian Channel with no joy, and they asked if he had something at the bottom of his bag he was never going to show them. He whipped out LA Frock Stars, they immediately saw its historical tie-up with the Smithsonian, and it was done. That sort of randomness is often how it works.”

The show was a surprise hit, and a second series was commissioned. And yes, there was a story there, once Curran emerged from the editing room. The clothes were the characters, staggering to the eye – from classic designers like Christian Dior and Pauline Trigère. The dearest items ran to $US50,000. Doris Raymond, subsequently grabbed as a judge for Dunedin’s ID Fashion Week this year – at Curran’s suggestion – and her staff were great characters, too. There are some spectacular shop assistants in Los Angeles.

Curran’s Orangutan Island series inspired a campaign to stop Cadbury using palm oil in its chocolate. Rainforest destruction to clear land for plantations is threatening the species’ survival.

Finding an idea for a show is becoming treacherously difficult. Michael Stedman had been very smart in guiding the company through waters not just rocky, but sometimes even devoid of the water itself. He realised early on wildlife documentaries would have a finite career on the screen – that David Attenborough, magnificent as he is, could not keep the genre going. So Stedman widened his company significantly. There are now even NHNZ feet in the online games apps door. High definition was chosen very early on as a likely future format, so NHNZ was consequently ahead of the pack when the change to HD came. And already NHNZ is working with ultra-high-definition 4K.

“The international scene has changed so much,” says Curran. “They don’t want a one-off, it’s all about a second series, a call-back. That’s why it was so great TVNZ asked for a second series of Our Big Blue Backyard. The spectrum is so wide now, too. At the end of last year, the Discovery channel put a conservationist in a special suit and announced he was going to enter the mouth of a giant anaconda, and they were going to film the whole thing, what it was like inside. I mean, that’s unbelievable.

“But at the end of the episode, after rolling in some pig’s blood and starting to be swallowed, he pulled out. It did show how far people are prepared to go to get money for their work – he was a serious conservationist – and it showed how far channels think they have to push the envelope now.”

All the more satisfying then for Curran to have had her two recent homegrown successes.

“TVNZ was surprised and thrilled with Our Big Blue Backyard. It was among the highest-rating shows of the year for them. I think it worked for a number of reasons. There is still a tradition of wildlife television here, and because of the way we structured it like a drama – it had classic soap opera techniques, like coming back to the same characters – the gentle humour and especially the narrative arc, viewers quickly got involved. And there was an ongoing reaction to the familiar species we used where people would say, ‘I did not know that.’”

Yes, there were plenty of “I didn’t know” moments. Children, who never forget anything, are now poised to enter adulthood inordinately enriched by Our Big Blue Backyard, while even the educationally-challenged Kiwi Male, who traditionally watches television only for sport with a beer in each hand, must now be a far more intelligent human with the knowledge that barnacles have penises. Barnacles, in fact, have the largest penises in the natural world relative to body size. You could win money in a bar knowing that. Or that when dolphins make love, the woman is always on top. Like always, the Kiwi male sports fan might say. Knowledge!

“There was a sense of nostalgia in Our Big Blue Backyard, of ‘Oh, we grew up there.’ A sense of recognition. And I think nostalgia is a massive trend in the world at the moment in the face of the tragedies and disorder we’re having to endure. A programme like this makes the audience feel they’re benefiting in some way. It wasn’t the mindless pap we see so much of on television.”

It was also beautifully shot, which I guess is what you get with $400,000 cameras that shoot at a thousand frames per second (the human eye sees just 24). OBBB was so good to look at you hardly needed a commentary. Or sound. But I don’t say this to Curran. No, for her, the music in factual television is absolutely crucial.

“It’s not just the musical tracks you choose, it’s how you work with them, how the phrasing reflects the narration and the storytelling beats. These days we don’t always have the luxury of composers working with us, though we have used some extremely talented New Zealand composers. Now, having done so many searches of music libraries for different shows, so many pieces have been committed to memory, and again, it’s instinct. You suddenly recall something that would be just right.

I played violin in junior orchestras, and my mother taught the piano, so that has obviously helped. Music is another version of storytelling. When I see a beautiful film and hear bland orchestral music, it just leaves me cold. Music needs to have an emotional connection to the story.”

Chinese national hero and former NBA basketball star Yao Ming, who’s 2.28m tall, was filmed with baby elephants for Curran’s series The End of the Wild, which explored the contentious issue of elephant and rhino poaching for their tusks and horns – to meet a demand largely driven from China.

Primeval New Zealand was an offshoot of another Curran-produced series, Life Force 1 – six episodes and very expensive. “We realised we could do the New Zealand episode as a separate programme, so we talked to TVNZ, and they really wanted it, but not with an American narrator. Enter Peter Elliott. He loved it and did a great job. Again, I think we just got the tone right.”

The merging of US and New Zealand expertise has been an ongoing learning curve. With America putting up the money, they obviously have a right to influence the narrative. And Americans tell a different story to us. But Curran says NHNZ has nailed it now. Interestingly, Americans aren’t big on wildlife with eyes on the side of their head – something to do with wanting both eyes to be visible on a TV screen. Germany doesn’t like snakes or apes. And the Japanese are very cold on spiders.

Curran expected quite a bit of heated discussion over The End of the Wild for China’s CCTV9 last year. The subject was contentious – the inhumane poaching of elephants and rhinos in Africa for tusks and horns, a demand largely driven from China. Key Chinese Communist Party officials viewed the 90-minute documentary, but in the end they merely insisted other countries be mentioned as being part of the same practice.

It helped that former NBA basketball star Yao Ming – a Chinese national hero – fronted the programme, all 2.28m (7ft 6in) of him. Yao Ming’s body, wrecked by basketball, required all manner of physical subsidy to get him through a day’s filming. Bending down to the baby elephants was particularly difficult, so they shot Yao on a stool.

“He was no actor, but his very real no-nonsense persona made the programme compelling. The show was watched by many millions and the images of him walking with baby elephants were stunning – fed all around the world,” says Curran.

“The programme got to the younger generation, which was exactly what we were aiming for. And Yao Ming was incredible. He is staying with the cause too, which is wonderful. He is such a massive influence in China.”

Curran is also one who stays with a cause. From the Orangutan Island series came a consumer campaign to stop Cadbury using palm oil, the production of which is destroying orangutan habitat. Cadbury eventually backed down after vigorous protest from Curran and Auckland Zoo.

The fight for a cause is strong in the Curran family. Sister and Labour MP Clare Curran tramps all over the fiscally-challenged Dunedin South Dunedin electorate, and has been a tenacious MP, although that’s not always helped her climb the party ladder. The third sister, Katherine, is a teacher and former union organiser.

“I guess we get that from our parents,” says Judith, who’s the eldest of the three sisters. “My mother is very determined in everything she does, and my father, a highly respected court administrator, always insisted on doing the right thing. He had a strong sense of justice, even if it sometimes ran against his personal views.”

Curran took her first real holiday for a long time this January, back to Australia. While 2014 may have been as successful and rewarding a year as she has ever had in television production, the unpredictability of the industry produced monumental workloads from simultaneously occurring series. We live across from NHNZ in Melville St.

Lights are often shining in that building all night. “I have burnt the midnight oil a few times in my office,” she admits, “but usually I’m doing that downstairs with an editor. I’m not behind the lights you see; those editing rooms are like dungeons.”

Curran returned to work in February; there are so many projects already lined up for 2015 and 2016 – including fulfilling a lifelong desire to do something with the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya. Maybe another orangutan series, definitely another look at our big blue backyard. A couple more simmering possibilities, secrets, but she knows they will hack their way through the industry jungle and work. Instinctively.

Words by Roy Colbert

Photography by Alan Dove

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