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Film Producer, director and writer Michael Firth has shown his versatility by mining drama in everything from high energy ski footage to school teachers kissing in the rain.
Michael Firth got hooked into filmmaking aged 19, after experimenting with super 8 film and making a documentary about a tribe of Indians, while living with them in the Brazilian jungle.
A passion for alpine skiing lead Firth to directing his first feature Off the Edge, nominated for best documentary feature at the 1977 Academy Awards. Likely the first New Zealand movie born on a French ski field, Off the Edge began when Firth invited two friends, American skier Jeff Campbell and Canadian Blair Trenholme, to fly to New Zealand, so he could film them skiing and hang-gliding in the Southern Alps.
Off the Edge's relatively wide local release and box office record-breaking sales helped spearhead the late 70s renaissance of New Zealand film, alongside Sleeping Dogs, which was released just a few months later.
Seven years passed before Firth's next feature, psychological drama Heart of the Stag. Bruno Lawrence starred as a man traveling in the King Country, who encounters an antagonistic farmer (Terence Cooper) and falls for her daughter (Mary Regan).
Actors Lawrence and Regan workshopped and contributed to the script, alongside Firth and the late Martyn Sanderson. The Los Angeles Times praised the result as "electrifyingly good", and Lawrence's
performance also won good notices. Metro magazine voted it the best Kiwi film that year.
Firth reunited with many of the Heart of the Stag crew the following year: this time
for Sylvia, the second film based on pioneer Kiwi educator Sylvia
Ashton-Warner (the first was 1961 Hollywood studio effort Spinster, starring Shirley MacLaine). English actor Eleanor David won the lead role, while Kiwi actor Mary Regan took away a Film and Television Award for her portrayal of Sylvia's friend Opal.
Firth worked with Ashton-Warner on developing the film, but she died before seeing the result. The NZ Herald called it “a milestone in the history of New Zealand film making.”
American critics were similarly impressed. Village Voice scribe Andrew Sarris called Sylvia one of the best films of 1985, praising Firth for helping make Ashton-Warner "fallibly human', plus the "breathtaking" ensemble work of the four leads. Meanwhile feminist critic Molly Haskell praised star Eleanor David for conveying "the complex contradictions of the seemingly fragile, intuitive, and sensual woman" found in Ashton-Warner's writings.
Firth's next feature saw him jumping back into the world of outdoor adventure. The
Leading Edge was a more commercially-orientated take on Off the Edge. The film featured many of New Zealand's star skiers on a fictionalised road trip through the country, and on an Alpine Iron Man race. The film featured a cameo by Billy T. James.
The Sunday Star called The Leading Edge “the expression of a man pouring his artistic creativity into recording the mountain wilderness that he loves in all its awesome moods of magnificence. Firth and Dryburgh take their cameras where no-one has gone before”.
Firth went on to produce and direct Vulcan Lane, a contemporary love story featuring Jo Davison and Martin Csokas. The first feature-length Kiwi production shot in the digital format, Vulcan Lane sold successfully to cable networks in the USA.
Firth has always been drawn to sport. He went on to produce 52 episodes of extreme sports TV series Adrenalize, which sold into 50 territories world wide.