Filmmaker Peter Young has been in the film and television industry for 30 years. He has credits for more than a hundred documentaries for networks such as BBC, Discovery and TVNZ. In 2012, he was named New Zealand Independent Screen Producer of the Year and, in 2020, he received the NZTV Awards’ Best Camerawork award for documentaries. His film ‘Last Ocean’ sparked an international movement and was instrumental in creating the world’s largest marine reserve. Jonathan Killick spoke to Peter at his home in Point Wells about his travels as a documentary maker…
I’m a Taranaki boy from a family with nine brothers and sisters. Growing up, I always wanted to be a farmer so I left school at 17 and travelled to the South Island to work on Molesworth Station, New Zealand’s largest cattle station. For the first year, I learnt the ropes – I milked the house cow every morning, fenced, drove trucks, killed sheep and shod a horse – all those essential things in life. During that year I slowly built up a team of dogs and became a stockman. We were stationed out the back and lived in a historic accommodation house made of mud. I rode a horse pretty well all day, every day. We cooked all our meals on an open fire and our only contact with the outside world was through the weekly mail run. Letters were a real highlight and I wrote regularly to all my friends up north. We spent most nights in front of the fire, drinking beer, talking and writing to our friends. In hindsight, each of those letters were little stories, and maybe that’s where the seed was planted for my later change in career. Molesworth was a simple but very rewarding life and an experience I draw from often. When I look at life for a 17-year-old today I feel for them and the complexity they have to navigate. I’m sure my parents thought the same – but it’s just getting a little more intense.
After Molesworth, I spent the next seven years shepherding, shearing and contract fencing, and then got a job as a dishwasher at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I had four months in the beautiful Ross Sea region and made a lot of American friends, so when it came time to do my OE, instead of taking the Aussie to England route, I turned right and headed to North America. Through friends of friends I got a job on a small family-run commercial fishing boat. We were long-lining for halibut and black cod in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. That was 1986 and the skipper had just bought a video camera. It was one of the very first to come out and I picked it up and made a home movie of our trip to Alaska. That’s when I thought, “This is what I want to do.”
When I returned to New Zealand, I put myself through broadcasting school and then got a job as a trainee director at the Natural History Unit in Dunedin. I worked for a show called Wildtrack and started telling stories about the plight of our native wildlife. After a few years directing I wanted to learn camera so I left the unit and got a job shooting for TV3 national news. Richard Langston and I spent two years doing the Otago and Southland round, and then I moved to Christchurch where I stayed for the next 25years.
One of the biggest decisions I ever made was to leave full-time employment at TV3 and start my own company, Fisheye Films. I was about 36, I had a young family and needed to borrow large amounts of money to buy my first camera. It was terrifying but I never looked back. Freelancing gave me all sorts of new opportunities. I loved the fact that you were only as good as your last job – it kept you on track and honest, and not long after I started Fisheye I was working on natural history documentaries around the world.
I filmed an episode for the BBC’s Blue Planet Series 1, which looked at the state of the world’s oceans, and worked on two giant squid films. At the time, the giant squid had never been captured on film and there was a race between Discovery and National Geographic to be the first to film it. A Kiwi marine scientist Dr Steve O’Shea, who was one of the world’s leading giant squid experts, said the only way we would ever be able to film an adult giant squid was to catch a small one and grow it in captivity. Discovery backed that idea and I was asked to film it. Steve had figured out where Architeuthis (giant squid) bred and where to find the larvae in the ocean (off the South Island’s West Coast and the Chatham Rise). He found the larvae but wasn’t able to keep them alive, so I am actually the first person in the world to film a live giant squid, but the fact that it was only one-centimetre shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment!
My partner Tracy and I met at the Natural History Unit when she was researching for a series called Wild Asia. They hired me to go to Siberia to film the salmon runs. We were based in Magadan, a city built to service the gulags of World War II. It was the early 2000s, the Russian ruble was very unstable and things were generally a little dodgy. A vessel was chartered to take us to the rivers where the salmon were running, but two days before departure, we found that it was actually a mail boat. The skipper, who looked very much like Russian mafia, said we could stop wherever we wanted as long as it was on the mail run. We didn’t have much of a choice so handed over large amounts of cash for a gold-toothed smile and a couple of glasses of vodka. To add insult to injury, we were asked to stay beneath decks when we left port. This very expensive mail delivery was saved by the fact that we found one river where salmon were running and bears were feeding. It was so close to being a massive disaster, though.
Tracy and I crossed paths again a few years after, joined forces and have been working for Fisheye ever since. Our first series together was the popular food/adventure show, ‘Hunger for the Wild’, which we made with our friends Al Brown and Steve Logan. We spent the next seven years on various series roaming the country hunting, gathering and cooking the best produce in the country. Those guys remain good friends. The characters we met, like so many in hospitality, were fun, warm and generous – it was tele making at its best really. Throughout my career, I have filmed for Country Calendar. I started 23 years ago with a story in the Hakataramea Valley and I have loved every shoot since – I’ve done over a hundred. It’s a nod to my farming aspirations without doing the hard yards.
The greatest achievement for me personally would be the Last Ocean, an environmental campaign and a documentary, that centred around protecting the Ross Sea. It was a seven year project and began with three of us – a Colorado wildlife photographer, US ecologist and I agreeing to work together to try and protect the Ross Sea from commercial fishing. We had no idea where the project would go, but we felt compelled to do it. Filming wildlife in the Ross Sea was the easy part. The challenge was travelling the world trying to film a story that many didn’t want to be told. We were up against the might of the fishing industry and nations with no interest in protecting the marine environment.
My latest project is Fight for the Wild, a four-part documentary series screening concurrently on RNZ and TVNZ. It looks at the predator-free initiative – why we needed something as big and bold as that, whether we will get there and if so, how? Essentially it’s about protecting our taonga species – and painting a picture of what it is really like for them out in the wild (not very good). I never know what project I will work on next – I don’t go searching for them, they seem to find me. But what I have noticed is that each of them will close chapters in my life that were opened decades before.
I feel privileged to have found a career that keeps me engaged all these years later. My life has been full and interesting, but most of my joy these days comes from simply being part of a community.
Adventure doesn’t need to be climbing the highest mountain – it’s anything that takes you out of your comfort zone and puts you on edge. When you’re there, you’re learning and life gets interesting. I think the most interesting stories are the simplest ones – a guitar and a voice, a heart-felt card or letter, a fire and a yarn.
Fight for the Wild episodes are released on Mondays on Radio New Zealand’s website and aired on TVNZ 1 the following Saturday.