In episode five of Get It to Te Papa, a Lightbox Original made by The Spinoff, Hayden Donnell’s odyssey takes him to the front door of New Zealand’s only true living legend: Suzanne Paul.
On March 2, our TV crew pulled up to a big house on Auckland’s North Shore. It had been a tough few weeks. I’d probably contracted several diseases sifting through a rubbish dump for a nationally significant sex toy. We’d been let down by several fruit and vege shop owners, the mayor of Auckland, and Dave Dobbyn. José was barely speaking to me. We could never return to Huntly.
It was tense as we unloaded our gear. The afternoon was stiflingly hot. We walked past a pool and a manicured garden and rang the doorbell. A familiar voice shouted “coming”, the door swung open, and from that moment on, everything changed. This is the oral history of our life-changing encounter with Suzanne Paul.
PART I: THE BUILD-UP
Duncan Greive (executive producer)
When I first heard Hayden talking about Suzanne Paul’s involvement I was excited. She’s an iconic Kiwi, perfect for the series in the way she has profoundly shaped our culture while also being marginalised for her whole life.
That excitement drained very rapidly when I heard the concept. It seemed pretty clear that Hayden was out of his mind.
Amber Easby (producer)
The Suzanne episode was the most high concept of our episodes and in many ways, the most challenging. Hayden was uncompromising in his vision, particularly around the enclosure, and that lead to a lot of conflict internally.
Hayden Donnell (presenter)
I had a strange mix of excitement and terror meeting Suzanne. I’d really gone out on a limb for this one. But also, maybe some buried part of me sensed what was going to happen that day.
PART II: THE TRANSFORMATIONAL TUTORIAL
The first thing we did is head upstairs to her lounge so she could take me through a sales tutorial for the eye of Auckland’s Giant Santa. I wanted to start off getting her into her comfort zone, and me out of mine. It was a warm-up. But what unfolded was profound.
José Barbosa (director)
I was looking forward to this scene. As a filmmaker I’m always looking for opportunities to illuminate the world for my audience. This seemed like a great way to show people Suzanne’s sales technique and how it’s part science, part art form. Unfortunately what happened on camera was completely and disturbingly different to what I expected.
When we started the sales tutorial, I was reluctant. Holding back. Then something happened to me. I let go.
Louie (camera operator)
Even though Hayden’s idea was stupid, Suzanne’s sales tutorial went surprisingly well. He was a bit strung out on the drive over to Suzanne’s. I think he started improvising another fucking song about New Zealand to calm his nerves. Unfortunately this was common throughout this production.
Remember that scene in The Fly when Geena Davis gives birth to a gigantic larva? Something very similar happened here. Hayden, assisted by Suzanne bless her soul, birthed something horrific. As Suzanne tried to teach Hayden how to empathise with other humans, Hayden’s face became a hellish emotional battlefield as deep physiological forces fought within him. It was like watching an exorcism, except there was no salvation at the end: just black miserable grief.
When Suzanne made me smile over and over, it changed something in me. It was like I was straining to open the lid of a jar, and all of a sudden in popped off. I was free. Something inside of me was being unearthed. The darkest parts were coming to light. I wasn’t ashamed anymore.
I remember she quickly realised Hayden was pretty unhinged, and became very kind and accommodating towards him. She was a great teacher given the circumstances. She was delicate, yet honest throughout the tutorial.
If he started to creep everyone out too much, she would gently let him know. However – through no fault of Suzanne’s – I’m not sure Hayden came out a better salesperson. By this point in the production Hayden’s general concept of how to appropriately interact with other humans was just too far gone. It was nice of her to try.
Ultimately, the enclosure wasn’t even the surprising thing about that shoot day. I was most stuck by the effect Suzanne had on Hayden. Her relentless positivity was infectious, transformative even. There was a genuine connection between them. I almost want to say there was heat.
I believe Suzanne wasn’t just performing a simple sales tutorial. I mean it started out that way, but not long into it Suzanne decided she wasn’t just going to show Hayden how to sell cosmetics. She was going to try and save Hayden’s soul. Did she think about what that meant for her own soul? No, she didn’t. She threw herself into it without a thought for herself. What a jewel of a person. I’m so sorry I brought Hayden into her life. That’s my cross to bear.
PART III: INTO THE ENCLOSURE
After the tutorial was over we took a break and prepared to take Suzanne through the next scene we were going to film. This was the big one. The climax of our episode. I was going to use my newfound sales skills to pitch Suzanne on becoming a living exhibit inside Te Papa.
As a producer, I’m used to unique requests. But having to approach enclosure specialists and makers of museum displays with Hayden’s strict specifications, was an arduous task. Frankly, it was embarrassing.
I work in TV and I’ve seen some fucked up stuff before, I once saw Russell Brown wrestle a trestle table nude, but I was shocked once I realised what Hayden had in mind. You can’t house someone in a glass case, no matter how many feeding tubes or waste buckets you provide. There’s something called Human Rights and I’m pretty sure they don’t allow that.
Alice Webb-Liddell (intern)
Look, I try to be as understanding as possible when it comes to peoples quirks but Hayden Donnell is seriously messed up. I didn’t at all know what I was getting into, but then I guess, quite literally, neither did Suzanne.
Freya Drawbridge (intern)
The enclosure had caused stress for all of us leading up to the day with Suzanne, so having to actually construct an enclosure that captured both José and Hayden’s far-fetched ideas was going to be difficult. Amber and I had spent a long time discussing it and I had even suggested that we just write it out of the script completely because I honestly thought it was a fucking stupid idea.
I was nervous about pitching the enclosure to Suzanne. I could sense it wasn’t popular with everyone on the team. But after my sales tutorial, I wasn’t just fearful the scene would be a dud. I was scared of a more painful rejection; losing my connection to Suzanne. I had skin in the game. Then I remembered what Suzanne had taught me. You have to believe in yourself.
Honestly, once Hayden realised what his ‘quest’ was he became very serene. It was fucking disturbing. I’d catch him staring at me with his bug eyes and my blood would run cold.
The Day we went to film with Suzanne Paul was extremely nerve-racking for me because it was finally time for my pride and joy to make its TV debut. By pride and joy I mean the paper mache replica of Suzanne’s head that I had spent hours making.
I went outside to check Suzanne’s enclosure. Alice and Freya, our interns, had prepared everything perfectly. The glass was clean. The effigy looked beautiful. I truly believed Suzanne would understand.
My main task for the day was to stand around with a bottle of glass cleaner and a cloth and scrub fingerprints off the glass case Hayden had prepared to display Suzanne in. It was scary. He was so meticulous, studying the display with such a close eye for any blemish that I would then have to scrub away.
He practised getting in the case himself to make sure Suzanne would be comfortable, and in doing so would smear the glass again and again for me to wipe clean.
When it came time to show Suzanne her enclosure, a kind of calm fell over me. I knew she belonged in Te Papa. I knew the only way to capture her essence would be to do a live exhibit. And I knew it seemed strange to put her in a glass enclosure with a feeding tube, but after that sales tutorial, I knew I had to believe I was doing the right thing for her to believe we were doing the right thing.
I took her blindfold off, smiled like she told me to, and delivered my pitch.
I wish I could say the air was electric or some shit like that, but the truth was it was all a bit sad. He went on this long diatribe about how she deserved to be in Te Papa and on and on, which was obviously meant to be a grand speech or something, but it was quite pathetic. I can still hear his droning voice babble on like a gaseous bog of shit burbling away. At one point I was thinking “you’ve really got yourself in a hole here, don’t you?” Everyone on the crew just averted their eyes in shame to be honest.
I still don’t know Suzanne wouldn’t see what I was trying to do. I spent hours going over it in my head. What if I’d said this sentence differently? What if I hadn’t put the waste bucket in the demonstration exhibit? What if, what if, what if.
At this point I think she knew she’d lost all hope of forming Hayden into a functioning human being. It was just a step too far. So she let him down gently, which was a classy move. If it was me I would have punched him in the sack and thrown him in a gully like a bag of rotting potatoes.
In the end we’ll never know why I failed.
PART IV: THE DEBRIEF
I felt a bit embarrassed about the whole thing.
Whenever production tried to tell me what happened that day I just walked away. As an executive producer, I have legal obligations. I was deeply concerned about what they were implying had happened.
After it was all over, I had a lot of time to reflect. I realised something: Suzanne’s life hasn’t been one non-stop sale. She had to deal with rejection thousands of times. For every person who bought Natural Glow, there were dozens who didn’t. Now I was dealing with my own failure. Even in rebuffing me, Suzanne taught me a powerful lesson. Maybe that was her plan all along.
I’m just glad Suzanne seems to have gotten out in one piece.
Maybe Suzanne Paul won’t be preserved forever inside Te Papa, but this experience will be preserved forever inside our hearts.
We achieved nothing. We added nothing to the culture. In fact I’d say we actually managed to take something away from the culture. We literally hurt New Zealand filming this episode.
Get It to Te Papa is a Lightbox Original, made by The Spinoff. All six episodes are streaming now on Lightbox.