Fiona Samuel, who was named an Arts Foundation Laureate in 2012, began as an actor and filled the downtime with some writing. Since then she has scripted, directed and acted in an impressive run of stories for television and film. With 2012 TV movie Bliss, she became the first and only woman to win Best Director for drama on New Zealand television.
Samuel was born in Scotland, though her parents were New Zealanders. The family relocated to Christchurch when she was six. In 1980 she graduated from drama school Toi Whakaari. Afterwards she acted in plays, including touring New Zealand with Miranda Harcourt in hit sisters tale Oracles and Miracles.
Starting in 1981 with soap Close to Home, Samuel began learning about the art of screen acting, following this with a role in yokels comedy Carry Me Back, father and son TV play Casualties of Peace, and a credit in car chase romp Shaker Run as 'Casey's Girl', the romantic interest of heart-throb Leif Garrett. She also impressed in Kathy Dudding’s adoption short Smash Dupe. In 1986 Samuel supplied two voices for the big-screen version of cartoon Footrot Flats, those of Wal's hairdresser paramour ‘Cheeky' Hobson and the freckle-faced kid Pongo.
Bored by the extended breaks that an acting career tends to involve, Samuel took up a friend's suggestion and wrote a radio script. Following some scripts for children, her first adult radio play Blonde Bombshell won a 1985 Mobil Award.
The previous year at a TV industry conference, Samuel had presented research showing a 70/30 male/female imbalance in local acting roles, and the narrow range of options available for actresses within that 30% of roles. Fresh from guesting in testosterone-heavy drama Roche, Samuel lamented. "If I saw ‘giggle' once more as a script direction, or had to roll around on a bed again, or lick my lips suggestively, I felt I was going to be sick."
The idea for The Marching Girls — a rare Kiwi show in which women took centre stage — was presented to TVNZ in 1985, as part of a job application to be a trainee director. The job went elsewhere, but Samuel was commissioned to create the show, and took a small cameo in the first episode.
The series follows the lives of a group of marching girls as they train for the North Island championships. The Marching Girls made Samuel keenly aware of the power the director has in shaping a piece, as she watched her words journey from page to screen. After screening in 1987, the show was nominated for Best Drama Series, and Samuel for Best Drama Writer, in the NZ Film and Television Awards.
The Marching Girls' debut in 1987 marked the year Samuel began her move into film. She started by working as casting director (and occasional composer) on madcap comedy Send a Gorilla, helmed by Marching Girls director Melanie Rodriga.
Samuel was also working on her first play, The Wedding Party, which she wrote after collaborating with Auckland theatre company Tantrum, and directed the first Wellington production. The Wedding Party recreated a drama-filled wedding in which the theatre audience found themselves playing guests.
Samuel then concentrated on short films. She starred in Christine Jeffs' Stroke, a no dialogue mini-epic of one woman and a swimming pool, which won invitation to 18 international film festivals, including Cannes and Sundance. She also appeared in the equally high-profile Lemming Aid, Grant Lahood's tale of bickering Kiwis on a Norwegian cliffside.
In 1994 she finished writing Face Value, a trilogy of one-off solo pieces for television, in which a woman tells a story directly to camera. The pieces featured actors Ginette McDonald, Davina Whitehouse and Carol Smith. The McDonald piece was a finalist at both the Banff and New York TV Festivals. Samuel made her screen directing debut with Smith's episode, 'A Real Dog'. The same year she worked with Smith again, when Samuel wrote and directed offbeat relationship drama Bitch. The short film was a sharp exploration of the complexities of female friendships and "the murky underlying emotions in them".
Samuel's second short as writer/director followed in 1997, plus a much longer work. The stylish Song of the Siren starred singer Janet Roddick as a stifled woman who dreams of glamour and freedom. It won one of the major awards at a festival in Bilbao, and was nominated at another in Portugal. The longer work was tele-movie Home Movie, in which Samuel moved on from the rituals and dramas of weddings, to a family christening. Home Movie began after Samuel was won over by the tone and truthfulness of the family depicted in Fiona Farrell's original short story of the same name. Home Movie would win NZ Film and TV Awards for best actor (Ian Mune), actress (Geraldine Brophy) and single TV drama.
In 2001 Samuel entered the world of documentary, as director of Virginity, after hearing that in 1918 one in three New Zealand brides was pregnant. The documentary features women talking about their first sexual experiences.
Since Home Movie, Samuel has written episodes for television series including Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons, Nothing Trivial, Rude Awakenings, and police drama Interrogation. Her script for Interrogation episode 'Girl in Woods' would win her a 2006 Screen Award.
In 2009 Samuel debuted a film she had nurtured for 10 years: Sunday Theatre tele-feature Piece of My Heart, whose impressive cast features Annie Whittle, Rena Owen, Emily Barclay and Keisha Castle-Hughes. Piece of My Heart was adapted by Samuel from the Renee novel Does this Make Sense to You? The then-and-now adoption tale is based on the emotional fallout affecting a young unmarried mother in the 1960s. The NZ Herald's Michele Hewitson called it "a beautifully produced, moving piece of drama, with terrific performances from all four leads".
Samuel's next project took only a year from first pitch until the last day of filming. With tele-movie Bliss she explored the "untold story" of writer and teenage runaway Katherine Mansfield, in the period leading up to publication of her first short story collection. "I have no idea why this story hasn't been told," she told journalist Sarah Murray, "but I was delighted to get there first."
Listener reviewer Fiona Rae praised Samuel's "excellent" script — and for allowing "her Mansfield to be witty, passionate and outspoken without belabouring the status of women in 1908". The telemovie won Samuel the 2012 NZ Television Award for Best Director of a Drama or Comedy. Starring Kate Elliott in the main role, Bliss screened on TV One in August 2011, and was later released on DVD.
In 2014 Samuel wrote the script for Consent - The Louise Nicholas Story. Based on Nicholas' allegations that she had been raped by four police officers, the TV movie was originally developed by scriptwriter Graeme Tetley and director Robert Sarkies. When Tetley passed away in 2011, Samuel joined the project, starting over with a fresh take. Consent went on to win an NZ Film Award for Best Television Feature, and an NZ Writers Guild Swanz award for Best One-Off Drama.
Samuel is currently developing three feature projects.