I first met Max Quinn in 1950. Well of course I did as that was the year Max was born.
You see, Max is my younger brother. We were numbers three and four of five brothers in our family. We were all born in Te Kuiti and we lived in Benneydale where Dad was the manager of the local State Coal Mine.
After Dad died far too young in 1955, we boys were raised to adulthood in Wellington by our beautiful Mum Helen, on her own.
Of the five boys sitting in this picture I hope you remember me. I’m the ambitious 12-year-old sports commentator sitting on the left. Next to Mum is her eldest son George, these days Dr Quinn, retired Emeritus Professor in Asian Language Studies at the Australia National University in Canberra. Then in the centre is Harry who served all his working life with the New Zealand Police, rising to be Detective Inspector. And at the end of the row, James, the brother we grieved for when he died of cancer aged 35. James was unique too – as a poet, a writer and briefly a pro boxer who never won any of his six fights, boxing in Sydney as Irish Jamie Quinn!
So we were a rag-tag swag of boys, all of whom I am very proud of. But in this edition I would like you to meet in more detail the tallest one in the photo. He is Max, or more formally Maxwell, a resident near Port Chalmers for the past 35 years. This year, 2018, with his never-ending passion he has completed 50 years as a TV filmmaker, documentary and drama producer and cameraman. He has a bulging CV of global travel with achievements and adventures that you would not believe. In my life of following sports I have been lucky to go to quite a few places, but please come with me on these pages and meet my brother Max Quinn and learn of his life and achievements. I reckon he is our star family member.
Right from the start Max was an inquisitive, snowy-headed lad. He was a gentle soul and we brothers would shamelessly exploit that in our frequent backyard rugby tussles. Max leaned much more seriously towards listening to classical music on the radio or jumping around the front room with tennis rackets, imitating the Beatles – as we all did.
Young Max’s life made its career-changing switch when our George returned from his first overseas trip (to Indonesia with Volunteer Service Abroad) and he had bought a simple 8mm wind-up film camera. With his innate curiosity Max fell on it with glee, and soon he was filming around the house and the neighbourhood.
Max’s first film expression of note came when the tiny rolls of film we had saved up for, were swept into his lively dreams of storytelling. I well recall an early film he made called Lost on Mount Mornington which starred myself getting lost in a deepest, darkest jungle (the location actually was the gorse-covered hill only yards behind our place!). The film included two shots which Mum wanted edited out, showing yours truly, aged about 15, smoking a cigarette and swigging beer while resting in the wild. (The beer bottle was actually empty and the ciggie was made from rolled up pages of that day’s newspaper.)
Another film, a classic of its time in our house, was Monster from the Deep. It starred our older brother Jim dressed in torn clothes and some cardboard monster fangs, emerging horribly from the sea at Island Bay. The film then cut to him taking a jagged kitchen knife, and with great over-acting ‘murdering’ our younger brother Harry – who was later to become a hardened criminal detective in his own career.
Those films remain in Max’s possession to this day. Made by a 13-year-old they are priceless to him and our family. Essentially they were the origins of what was to become a lifetime of visual storytelling from the same snowy-headed lad.
Max and I followed similar paths when it came to a career after Wellington College. For our career choices we were both eternally grateful to our mother who allowed us to follow our personal dream choices. I went straight into a sports-reporting cadetship at NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation), and Max being a few years behind me also followed into NZBC, but his choice was into a camera cadetship.
Straightaway he showed good instincts and expertise. He recalls that soon after arriving at NZBC he was transferred to the cine-camera department in Christchurch. In fact he sailed down on the ill-fated Wahine overnight ferry. Days later he arrived for his first day of duty in the Christchurch newsroom on the exact day Wellington was being hammered by the most ferocious storm and the Wahine was foundering in the harbour. And the weather system was headed for Christchurch.
Not content with sitting around the dry newsroom as others did, Max took a Bolex 16mm camera out and around Christchurch, which was also being battered by wild gales and rainstorms. Although Max’s news coverage of that day, especially showing the Port of Lyttelton being pummelled, might have been overshadowed by events being shown from Wellington, he won kudos by having an early perception to make sure that for the local archives Christchurch’s weather battering went into the files too.
He had an early world ‘scoop’ when the 1971 British and Irish Lions toured New Zealand. Live TV coverage of the tour games was still in black and white at that time, but on the day of the second test against the All Blacks in Christchurch, Max accepted an assignment from the Welsh TV station, Harlech TV – they wanted news coverage of the game but had no TV rights to cover that test so they hired Max. He shot in film not video.
During the game, when Ian Kirkpatrick the All Black flanker raced 50 metres to score a great try, Kiwi viewing audiences saw the moment only in black-and-white coverage. On the other hand Max had filmed the same great run in glorious colour. His version went only to Welsh viewers. In Max’s modest style he whispered a personal satisfaction to me that his version was way better than TVNZ’s.
There was an upshot years later when I was on an All Blacks tour to the UK. I was in Cardiff at their Harlech TV base editing a news piece for TVNZ and I casually asked the local editor if ‘umm, perchance’ he might have Ian Kirkpatrick’s try from Christchurch in 1971 to include?
The editor disappeared and came back from his archives and there it was – my brother’s film version of the try. Never before seen by a Kiwi!
Of course I was proud as punch – though I didn’t say so there and then. My producer and I waited until the Harlech staff generously let us include the classic ‘coloured’ version in our news story. So now, like a precious Māori Taonga, it has come home to its native land!
In fact Max and I worked together ‘officially’ only once. That was when he filmed me doing a programme intro’ in the days preceding the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. You can see how his adult height behind the camera (he’s 1.95m tall; 6ft 5in) makes him have to seriously bend over to capture me at my eye level.
Those early family-acted dramas pulled at Max’s interests during the 1970s, and he moved on to a number of drama experiences next. As a 26-year-old he was Director of Photography at many of the initial TV productions of significance during the burgeoning New Zealand TV drama scene – such as the Richard Pearse feature-length film of 1974 and three years later on the 13-part Hunter’s Gold kids drama series – as well as other films which are hugely significant in the New Zealand film industry’s story, like The Mackenzie Affair and the Ngaio Marsh Theatre. All were exciting and innovative efforts masterminded by the likes of directors Tom Parkinson and Peter Muxlow. Max was getting a reputation for his talent and commitment in making their scripts and direction come to life.
However, our Max was a man of his own beliefs and in the late 1970s he veered off and lectured in filmmaking techniques at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. But as we in the family suspected, that did not gratify his lust for the actual art of making documentaries and stories. Soon he was back behind the lenses.
After some time in popular children’s stories and TV studio work on What Now and Playschool, as well as a series of his own invention called World Of Sport, he had a hankering to move into the TVNZ Natural History Unit in Dunedin. All of this was being achieved while helping his wife Carol (herself a top film editor) raise their family of two children, Jeremy and Ellen. Carol has been wonderfully supportive while Max has been gallivanting (as he describes it) round the world. For instance a wintering-over Antarctic trip meant he was 11 months away from home. Another time he was on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic when our Mum died; it took Max five days to get back home.
His move across to filming in the outdoors started him on a sequence of many trips to the southern oceans. With sound man Don Anderson he wintered over in Antarctica to make a serious study of the life cycle of the Emperor penguins. Max has many stories of lying flat on his tummy and not daring to breathe while holding the camera steady as the penguins marched past his face. And then on other days wandering back to their tiny cabin to find that that day’s snow had crept in under the doors to totally fill their single-cabin room. They then had to dig out to find a space to eat and sleep until the filming cycle began the next day. Another time he and Don slept for seven weeks in a tiny tent through winter months on Campbell Island.
As he sent it to me for this story, Max’s CV runs to nine pages of close-typed A4. It is all details of films and documentaries made locally and in far-flung places. Many of them I never realised he had been at, such is his natural humility. He never brags in any way – though Max says his wife Carol would disagree!
Max has had so many great experiences. I’m always telling him we’re waiting for his book to come out. He went to the Antarctic so often, he became pretty good mates with Sir Edmund Hillary. So much so that when Sir Ed and I met briefly one time at a sports dinner in Auckland, where the great mountaineer and explorer was one of the honoured guests, after greeting each other nicely Sir Ed said next, “and tell me Keith, how’s Max?”
Max spoke at the Dunedin Memorial service after Sir Ed’s death in 2008.
In his body of work many of Max’s programmes have played on Channels like PBS USA, Discovery Channel, National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet and TVNZ (his original employers under their new name). A number of his shows went on to be winners at Film and TV Award shows around the world.
He is such a good man my brother; he and I get on so well, as he does with the other ‘bros’ too. We don’t ask him when he’s going to hang up his light metre – filming and visual storytelling are in his blood. I rarely tell Max I love him, because we brothers come from a time when men didn’t do that. That sort of mushy stuff is just mutely understood. But I will tell you this – we four remaining Quinn boys, when we get together for family gatherings, have to suffer one galling experience. And it sums up Max totally. All of the Quinn wives without exception always say, “Max is the one we should have married!”…
My favourite Max Quinn stories
1] One time I hadn’t spoken to Max at his home in Dunedin for a few weeks. I rang him over some small matter and he answered his phone with a sharp, annoyed tone in his voice. “What do you want?” he snapped. I said, “What’s the matter with you? Where are you?”
He said, “Don’t speak so loudly. I’m on my stomach in a tiger’s enclosure in Gold Coast’s Tiger Island waiting to film a female tiger who’s about to have triplets; it’ll be a world’s first captured on film. Call me later!” And he hung up!
2] Another time Max took on filming a show in Florida called ‘Venom 911’ in which it was basically his job to drive a fast American car behind a high-speed light-flashing vehicle called ‘Venom 1’ that was used to aid members of the public whose venomous pets had bitten them.
With his wife Carol assisting, Max kept his distance but stoically filmed the owners in their time of emergency. Max soon became familiar with the various critters he had to be wary of, like the ‘western diamondback rattlesnake’, the ‘African black mamba’, or the ‘water moccasin snake’ among others.
Max rated that a fun one to do, but remains mystified as to why anyone in their right mind would want to import highly venomous snakes into a private collection. Many people apparently do in Florida.
3] Then there was the time he was chased by a polar bear in the Arctic circle. This was because Max and his camera was deemed by the bear to be too close to her baby cubs. An assistant had fired tranquilliser drugs but they had not hit to maximum effect. The rather angry momma bear then left her cubs and sniffed the air trying to find this possible new food source. Max had been given a rifle in case of trouble, but true to his craft he kept filming instead. The bear finally sagged into the snow just in time with Max perhaps only 20 metres from real danger. He was OK though – his effort through the lenses looked great! Talk about an ‘up close and personal’ story!
4] Too many more to mention, but in small detail how about the time when he ran with the Saami people of Northern Norway as these Laplanders herded their reindeer. And his latest major work, which you might have seen, was on Abalone Wars which screened on the Discovery Channel. Basically this series was about rival abalone divers from Port Lincoln in South Australia. Competitive boats battled for the best catches of the expensive delicacy we call paua, while warding off the dangers of Great White Sharks. The hard-living, hard-drinking fishermen liked Max and he did four seasons with the series.
5] My favourite story of Max’s commitment to ‘getting the shot’ came when he was making a documentary series which wanted to visually capture the difference between Antarctica and the Arctic circle. Word came to Dunedin that there would be a perfect chance to show the difference and it would happen at a future date in Alaska. Max already had shots showing that Antarctica was an icy frozen land mass – if you drilled down you found dirt and rock, etc. But how to show the frozen ice mass of the Arctic circle?
Max soon followed up on the tip. He flew to the most northerly point of Alaska and there he joined some American scientists. All were then flown on a US Navy ski-plane over the frozen ocean towards the North Pole. There was great excitement as they reached a pre-selected white expanse of emptiness. Max was then assigned a spot and set up his gear. As he recounts the story, “We then all counted down to a set time and rolled our cameras. At the exact instant there was a huge roar and the deeply embedded ice began to crack before and below us. Then out of the exploding snow and chunks of bulging, cracking sea ice, arose – a nuclear submarine!”
It was the US Navy’s Hawkbill, which had been cruising under the polar cap waiting for the exact instant of the rendezvous ‘upstairs’. It was assigned to emerge in a massive show of force. I wonder if it crossed my brother’s mind that here was a second edition of his first Monster from the Deep film.
The Hawkbill could only stay in vision for a few minutes before it had to descend again but that was enough time for Max Quinn to get the shots that were needed to make the documentary’s point – and to widen the eyes of the rest of the envious family.
To hear my brother tell the story of trying to achieve that exact shot is to see a man describing the story of his life. Max has packed a massive amount into a lifetime and he is still doing it. And doing it so effortlessly. He didn’t even seem to mind that on the one night that TV1 News did a story about him, pointing out that he was a unique New Zealander having seen three new millennium sunrises in 24 hours (in Antarctica, Kiribati and the Arctic), Judy Bailey announced to the nation that “Max is Keith Quinn’s brother!”
When I sat down to write this piece Max was off to film a nature series in Taiwan for a National Geographic Wild series – having just completed stints in Mexico, China and Tibet. Will this cheerful, lovely man – whose grandkids call him ‘Funny Max’ – ever stop?
At this moment in time we in the family doubt if he will ever know how to.