Did you know that Cheryl West and James Bond once had a conversation in Marama Hall? That’s stretching it a bit … but English actor Daniel Craig, who later became James Bond, and New Zealand actress Robyn Malcolm, who later starred as Cheryl in Outrageous Fortune, did actually feature in a scene together in Sylvia, partly filmed at Otago in January 2003. At the time, most of the local attention centred on the presence of one of the best-known celebrities of that time (and this), Academy Award-winning American actress Gwyneth Paltrow. She made the front page of the ODT two days in a row. There was additional excitement for celebrity spotters as Paltrow’s boyfriend, rock star Chris Martin of Coldplay, joined her in Dunedin.
Sylvia is a biopic starring Paltrow as poet Sylvia Plath and Craig as her husband, poet Ted Hughes. The filmmakers – who included director Christine Jeffs, a New Zealander – chose some of the University of Otago’s beautiful stone buildings to stand in for the Massachusetts universities where Plath and Hughes taught in the 1950s. There are scenes of students wandering through the grounds around the Geology and Archway Buildings, Plath conducting a class in an old lecture theatre, and Hughes giving a public talk and attending a reception in Marama Hall. Further scenes were shot in Karitane, which became Cape Cod for the occasion.
This was not the first time that Otago stood in for an American university in an international film. 2002 Bollywood production Om Jai Jagadish also filmed on campus. About 35 Otago students got some out of the ordinary holiday work playing extras in scenes shot at Knox College. Have you seen this movie? I haven’t been able to track down a copy, so I would be intrigued to learn if filming took place elsewhere around the university as well.
The best-known film actually about the University of Otago is undoubtedly the comedy/thriller Scarfies (1999). The film is set principally in a student ‘squat’ (a creepy old house in Brown Street), but there are some brief scenes filmed on campus. These include the market day stalls where the scarfies spend some of their ill-gotten gains, and a law lecture (featuring a cameo appearance by Mark Henaghan, now Dean of the Law Faculty).
Though the University of Otago provided a setting for these movies, its own filmmaking is firmly focused on science documentaries. In 2001 the university began a collaboration with NHNZ (formerly the natural history unit of TVNZ), a hugely successful Dunedin documentary business, to teach natural history filmmaking. The programme then evolved into the Centre for Science Communication, which awards masters’ degrees with specialities in filmmaking, writing, and popularizing science.
A less serious kind of filmmaking began at Otago in 1990, when student activities manager Stephen Hall-Jones created the Mothra video competition, complete with ‘Fred’ awards for the best 15-minute student-made ‘bad’ movies. The competition survived until 2011, but then became a casualty of the cost-cutting required once students’ association membership was voluntary. Mothra had a purely recreational focus, but did spark an interest in some students who went on to make careers in film and television. Nowadays recreational filmmakers can enter the 48 hours filmmaking competition, a nationwide event not restricted to students.
Have you ever made a film at the University of Otago? Do you know of any other feature films with scenes shot on campus?