Feb 05

The mysterious road death of Paul White hits the big screen
Truth, as is often said, can be stranger than fiction. Or as Pontius Pilate remarked, “What is Truth?” The search for truth, or at least a version of it, lies at the heart of all journalism and it is the centre thread of Geoff Murphy’s new local thriller, Spooked. IAN WISHART revisits his own association with the truth of this particular story:
The call came, as they often did, with an appropriate aura of cloak and dagger: “Ian, it’s Simon Mercep here at TVNZ. We’ve just had a call from the film director Geoff Murphy in Los Angeles — he wanted your phone number.”And then, just for good measure, Simon lowered his voice: “Wow, what’s that about, mate?”
The answer came in a long distance call just a few minutes later, and the legendary director of Goodbye Pork Pie, now on location in the US shooting an action thriller with Steven Seagal, was on the line.
“Yeah,” the voice croaked through the receiver, “I’ve been reading this book of yours, Paradise Conspiracy. I think it’d make a good movie.”
That was December 1995, just two short months after The Paradise Conspiracy launched itself onto the NZ top ten bestseller list and where it was to remain for 18 months. The success of the book had taken everyone, not least its author, by surprise. In hindsight, perhaps we should have seen it coming.
For a start, in a kind of cosmic harbinger, Mt Ruapehu awoke from a long slumber and exploded spectacularly the very hour that we pushed the ‘go’ button at the print factory.
And at a more down to earth level, Paradise lifted the lid on the multi-million dollar wheeling and dealing between politicians and big business. It implicated New Zealand in international arms trafficking, and it began by probing the mystery death of a small time computer dealer named Paul White. During the course of the investigation, my own home was broken into, a copy of the yet to be published manuscript stolen and delivered to Sir Michael Fay, and my vehicle sabotaged by a different party again.
Fay used his influence, and knowledge of the impending book, to warn off would be publishers. Suddenly, no matter which way I turned, no-one was willing to publish The Paradise Conspiracy. With $80,000 in private funding secured, 5,000 copies of the book were printed in Australia — we couldn’t take the risk of having it locally printed, both for issues of security and also to avoid having the stock fall within the jurisdiction of a New Zealand court if an injunction application was lodged.
Knowing that major publishing companies had been threatened if they handled the book, we made a decision to bypass bookshops as well. We couldn’t take the risk that we’d get 5,000 copies into the shops only to have them withdrawn from sale or left in back rooms.
And so, the birth of The Paradise Conspiracy was as clandestine an event as those within its pages: we booked radio ads for “an undisclosed product”, we hired an 0800 call centre, and then we let rip at 6am on Friday October 13th 1995 with the ad campaign and news stories on National Radio, the National Business Review and Radio Pacific.

By 9am that day, the call centre had already taken more than 2000 orders at $34.95. By 10am the major book chains, Whitcoulls and Paperplus, had ordered a thousand copies to cope with people walking in off the street demanding to read the dramatic new book they’d heard about on the radio, and by 5pm the entire first print run had sold out and we’d ordered another 5000 books. On Monday morning, the mailbox contained cheques and credit card orders worth more than $150,000 — an incredible payback on the high risk $80,000 I’d borrowed to get the project rolling. Ten years on, the 40,000 copy, nine print-run book has finally become celluloid, but not without its own plot twists and turns along the way.
Although Murphy was the first to officially show interest in the book, he wasn’t alone. The success of John Grisham’s The Firm in the US, and strong similarities in the “tax haven/dirty dealing/was it murder?” plot-lines meant that Paradise came to the attention of American agents fairly soon after Murphy’s first call. One confided that his interest had been piqued at a Hollywood dinner party where the conversation had turned to books and movies, as it inevitably does in America’s entertainment sausage factory. The agent remarked that the college student son of the host was on a break from the University of Wisconsin.
“He said, ‘if you want to know a book they should make a movie out of, you should read The Paradise Conspiracy’.”
It transpired that the student was studying tax law, and his professor had recently returned from Australia where he’d picked up copies of The Paradise Conspiracy to use as a class textbook.
“Mel Gibson’s a neighbour of mine,” the agent name-dropped shamelessly. Nonetheless, he gave up trying to sell the concept of a movie from “Noo Zeelin? Where’s that?” to the Hollywood set. This was, of course, the days before Peter Jackson became a household name.
On the local scene, film and TV producer Don Reynolds also expressed strong initial interest in Paradise, although the meetings in early 1996 ended in a “let’s talk further” that would take several years to be realised.
Murray Newey, who’d produced the Black Beauty TV series, asked for the movie rights but committed suicide the day before our scheduled second meeting.
Geoff Murphy re-entered the picture early in 2001. He’d spent much of his spare time crafting his own screenplay of the Paul White section of the book, and had big plans for it. Originally bracketed as an $8 to $10 million movie featuring Bladerunner’s Rutger Hauer, the deal fell apart at literally the last minute for a number of reasons.
From Geoff Murphy’s point of view, the overseas investors wanted a formulaic thriller that would directly appeal to the US and European markets, but that wasn’t the movie he was wanting to make. Instead, he wanted to tell it as a New Zealand story, in a New Zealand setting, with local actors. Although local producers, including Barry Everard — now the chairman of the Film Commission in New Zealand — tried hard to make the project fly, a deadline imposed by the Europeans was missed, and Paradise, or Spooked as Murphy was now calling it, remained stillborn.
It was June 2001. Enter Don Reynolds again. “Mate, we like the way you write, and we’re wondering if you’d be prepared to write an international TV series for us on the intelligence/CIA themes. We’ve got a co-production deal going with Canada, Australia and Britain, and we’re going to try and sell it to TV3 as well. Can you come up with a treatment [filmspeak for a programme synopsis]?
“Yeah, no problem,” we responded. Reynolds wanted the treatment for the first episode in his hands by the first week of September 2001 to send to network executives in Canada who were driving the project.
Drawing from material in The Paradise Conspiracy, and early Investigate articles, we plot-lined 13 potential episodes of a new drama series with the working title ECHELON. This was a not very veiled reference to the network of electronic eavesdropping stations first referred to on page 61 of the original Paradise and
later developed into a book of its own by Nicky Hager.
Sadly, although we regarded ECHELON as some of the finest screenwriting we’d done, the project came to a crashing end. You’ll see why when you read the following extracts from the first episode, sent to Don Reynolds on 8 September, 2001:
EPISODE 1, TWIN TOWERS (loosely based on true story)
ECHELON’s US bases intercept 45 seconds of a phone call originating from Auckland to a number in Kabul, Afghanistan, they pick up the words “explosive”, “tower” and “Sydney”, and a date — four days hence. Is it a plot to blow up Sydney’s Centrepoint tower, or is Auckland’s Sky tower the intended target? With only four days’ warning, RACHEL Johnson and her team must mount a TransTasman security crackdown without panicking the public or the media: find the terrorists, identify the target, disarm the bomb, or bombs, and find out why the hell information from an earlier intercept wasn’t passed on by the Americans. So in the middle of all this, when someone claiming to be a journalist dials her unlisted mobile number and starts asking questions about an organisation that doesn’t officially exist, she just knows it’s going to be one of those days.
The beat of a chopper blade and the shadow of the machine itself carve a hole in the otherwise sparkling nightscape of the city. The dashboard clock shows 1.53am. The routine crackle of crime on the police radio is interrupted…
For those who still doubt that God can give foreknowledge, consider this: The treatment was on Don Reynolds desk on the morning of September 8. The opening paragraph referred to attacks on the “twin towers” four days hence – September 12 NZ time. And in the first scene of the episode, the time on the clock is 1.53am – the exact moment in NZ that the first hijacked plane struck the first of the World Trade Centre towers…on September 12 – or 8:53am New York time, September 11.
Oh, and the culprits in the Twin Towers attacks episode were Osama bin Laden and his al Qa’ida group.
The treatment had been sent on by Don to Canada. It arrived there on September 12.
And that was the last time Don Reynolds ever asked me to write a TV script. The whole ECHELON concept went out the production window, along with dozens of similar action/thrillers out of Hollywood that had to be canned while they were in production out of sensitivity to
the situation.
Negotiations with Murphy resumed in 2003, but I didn’t realise until the launch party for Spooked that Don Reynolds was a co-producer. After all this time, both he and Geoff Murphy had come through.
And so to Spooked itself. Apart from a cameo appearance by the author, and copious amounts of kiwi vernacular, the film stays remarkably close to events in The Paradise Conspiracy. The first time I saw it, I was in shock. You see, I’ve never actually read a finished copy of Paradise. Most authors, after going through draft after draft of their manuscripts, never want to read them again, and I’ve never read one of my own books. And so the surprise at seeing part of your life on screen through someone else’s eyes is eerie.
Cliff Curtis, who plays journalist “Mort Whitman” in the movie, spent several hours over coffee picking my memory of events, trying to get a feel for his character and how he might react in given circumstances. It paid off. Curtis’ performance of anger, frustration and being reluctantly sucked into the swirl of intrigue and paranoia was right on the nail.Chris Hobbs, playing Paul White’s character Kevin Jones, gives a masterful portrayal of White being railroaded into a psychological black hole, and John Leigh and Miriama Smith are respectively irrepressible and suitably cynical in their roles as White’s friends.
Variety magazine in the US calls Spooked “a stylish, conspiratorial nail-biter. Self-confident and jazzy.”
Leaving aside my personal involvement, I’d have to say it is easily the most watchable New Zealand movie I’ve ever seen.Director Geoff Murphy posits the still-burning question: who killed Paul White, and why? His suggested answer is provocative. You’ll have to see the movie to find out.
SPOOKED, Rated M, Contains offensive language, in cinemas from February 3.