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Meet the real Lee Tamahori - locals speak up for shamed director

12-Mar-2006 • Bond News

As film director Lee Tamahori prepares to start a community service sentence for his antics with an undercover cop in Los Angeles, Kim Knight goes in search of the man behind the headlines - reports Stuff.

At the South Seas Hotel, Stewart Island, the carpet smells like backpackers' feet and they keep the Lindauer on the top shelf. Lee Tamahori isn't on the pub's roll of honour - but a handful of locals remember when he called the island home.

"He actually crashed the fishermen co-op's tractor," says Gordon "Fluff" Leask. "He crashed it over the wharf. He's pretty famous for that."

Not quite as famous as he got directing Once Were Warriors. And not nearly as famous as he became in January when he donned a black, off-the-shoulder dress and offered oral sex to an undercover police officer.

But fame is a tricky business.

"We had a great time when he was famous. But now he's infamous," says his mother, Pat Tamahori.

The weight of 80 years sits behind her voice. It's the day after her 60th wedding anniversary and she can't believe she is still taking calls about the son she named Warren Lee Tamahori.

"He was a wonderful child, I might tell you that. I think he's a good director... and we're not ashamed of him. He does what he does."

Did his family know about the cross- dressing?

"No we didn't.

"I'd heard about the tall poppy syndrome. But I really experienced it. And somehow they make it so terrible. It's legal here, and it's not over there.

"If he'd killed somebody, I might say something else."

AdvertisementAdvertisementHere's how she wants to be quoted: "We love him and we're very proud of him."

Lee Tamahori scores 865,000 Google matches. You can lose a day reading the interviews that followed his James Bond flick, Die Another Day. Thousands of media appearances that talk about the product - but few that describe the man.

Some basics: the son of Pat and Piripi (Phil), he went to Tawa College in Wellington, then worked as a junior commercial artist for a Wellington advertising company. In the 1970s, he put his backpack down for a bit on Stewart Island. He was a boom operator when the New Zealand film industry was being born. Graduated to first assistant director on Utu. More movies. Television commercials. Once Were Warriors. Los Angeles.

Expat Kiwi journalist Susan Chenery watched him on the set of Mulholland Falls, working with Nick Nolte and John Malkovich, and wrote, "the celebrity cult, actor worship, means absolutely nothing to a Maori from New Zealand. Sycophancy is not a feature of the warrior-race".

In 1996, with the movie wrapped, Tamahori told this newspaper, "I wake up every day and wonder how I'm getting away with this.

"Some sort of change is inevitable but look, I'm 45, I'm not going to turn into a wanker! Well, I might do, but people would pull me up - I hope. I don't take myself seriously, I'll never believe I'm this great artist who should be treated with deference and I just don't take Hollywood seriously either."

Four years later, he admitted he missed New Zealand. "I know it's small. I know it's tiny and I know everybody bitches about this and that but I like it. I like coming home from here to that because it keeps me in balance."

There were no interviews last week. None since the solicitation scandal broke.

"We're in a do nothing mode," says Brian Kassler, head of Flying Fish, the production company he and Tamahori formed in 1986. "Let's just say nothing, do nothing. No one really cares."

Tamahori, 55, is still a shareholder, but Kassler says it has been at least five years since his friend worked for the company.

Those were the days. Tamahori's Instant Kiwi advertisement, where the hero bungee jumps for trout, won commercial of the decade. He made us fall in love with the Anchor butter family - and the Hekes.

There was the audience, bathed in the golden weather. And there it was again, weeping at the screen. When Lee Tamahori pulled his camera back from a picture-perfect billboard and revealed Once Were Warriors' Beth Heke pushing a shopping trolley, he laid this country's underbelly bare.

Nothing, the opening shot said, is what it seems. And now life imitates art.

Last month, Tamahori plea-bargained solicitation and loitering charges back to a single count of criminal trespass. He was sentenced to 15 days' community service, and is likely to have to clean up graffiti and pick up rubbish for the Hollywood Beautification Project.

"Cook me some eggs, Lee," joke the bloggers, referring to his toughest character's most famous line. But Alan Duff, the author who created Warriors' Jake the Muss, couldn't care less. "Most certainly Tamahori and I were never going to be bosom pals," he wrote in one column. "We're too different." And today?

"If Tamahori wants to sleep with hippos or practice a weird religion, who cares? It is of no interest to me."

But the media cared. From Los Angeles, unnamed sources told papers: "No one was surprised when Lee was arrested for a sex offence.

"He was a regular on the scene and it was an open secret. He definitely liked the alternative side of sex with black, tight latex costumes, uniforms and so on..."

But Hollywood's open secret came as a complete surprise back home.

"I never saw him getting around in any girl's clothes, that's for sure," says Chris "Shorty" Short. "If people had seen him doing that around here, people would have known. People talk about that stuff, but I don't know anyone that knew about that."

Short worked with Tamahori on Warriors, but the pair go all the way back to the Ian Mune movie, Came a Hot Friday.

"You kind of respected him because he knew what he was doing and what he wanted to do and how to approach it and he never f–-ed anyone around and he was just completely focused.

"He was an extroverted, incredibly personable person, that loved going to parties. He always had plenty of girlfriends and had good relationships with people."

What will the Tamahori he knows do next?

"I don't think it'll matter a damn, he'll just have a laugh and go `that was a bit stupid' and just carry on boxing on like he always does."

In the celebrity world, when scandal breaks, everyone has an anonymous friend. Tamahori's friend alleges that during the filming of Die Another Day, the director would dress in latex and go to fetish clubs with his girlfriend, Croatian actress Sasha Turjak. The actress, listed as Tamahori's assistant on three of his big-budget movies has, apparently, diversified into directing.

"Murder Ballads was conceived as a series of short films involving murder and women, whether they are victims, murderers or both..." says the internet blurb that credits Turjak as a director. The Sunday Star-Times found no evidence of a completed movie, but the project's still photographer was Steve Diet Goedde. Go to his website, click on the bit that guarantees you are over 18, and enjoy the work of the man whose publishing history includes books like The Beauty of Fetish (volumes one and two). Click your spindle-sharp heels. We're not on Stewart Island now.

The fact is, says Tamahori's long-time friend Mune, "this is a crazy f–-ing world".

"Lee has been living in a particularly lunatic world for some years and has been surviving very well. Where that takes him, in terms of his own activities and entertainments and predilections or whatever, I have no idea. But I know it's not going to be comprehensible to somebody who holds a nine-to-five job in Grey Lynn."

Mune says that when the director is home, he spends time with his family. Morag, his first wife, still lives in New Zealand. His second wife, Kuniko, whom he met on the set of Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, is based in the United States. Both have a son to Tamahori.

Friends from Stewart Island remember Tamahori as an energetic man with longish, black hair, who did whatever jobs were going - track cutting, paua diving and working in the fish sheds. He shared a house with Noel McLellan and Michelle Squires.

"He was very enthusiastic," Squires says. "He'd rush around and do this, do that and he'd take some amazing photos.

"Somewhere I've got photos of the Ferndale fire, which was when this big house up the road burnt down. He stayed up there for hours and photographed that and did a really good job. He took two lovely photos of my dad's boat taking off from the wharf and he just captured the movement of the water."

It was, say the pair, a long time ago. And Stewart Island, they agree, is as far away from Los Angeles as you can get.

Squires: "It's a very sophisticated place over there."

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