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Pip Hall at her Auckland home. Photograph: Edith Amituanai
Pip Hall at her Auckland home. Photograph: Edith Amituanai

Pop CultureAugust 29, 2020

Pip Hall is the writer who always says yes

Pip Hall at her Auckland home. Photograph: Edith Amituanai
Pip Hall at her Auckland home. Photograph: Edith Amituanai

As she preps for season two of hit thriller One Lane Bridge, Pip Hall – TV and theatre writer, basketball player, aqua ballerina and Mariah Carey fan – tells Michelle Langstone why, aged 48, she feels like she’s only just hitting her creative stride. Portraits by Edith Amituanai.

Spoiler alert: Contains plot points from season one of One Lane Bridge

Pip Hall finds a chunk of amethyst in her back pocket halfway through our photo shoot and gives a loud exclamation, holding it out for us to see. It’s about the length of her palm, deeply purple, and big enough that I’ve got to wonder how she managed to forget it was there. She’s frisking around her back garden like some kind of very tall pixie, and the amethyst perfectly matches the flowered top she’s wearing. I ask her why she’s got the rock and her eyes twinkle, and she says she’s “read about amethysts being good for when you have to talk” so she carries it around when she needs to express herself. The light in the garden is making a halo over her head, she’s grinning and turning the crystal in her hand, and the whole thing is slightly fruity, but then, Pip Hall, award-winning playwright and screenwriter, is slightly fruity. If you look at what she’s done in the last 20 years of her life there’s no real thread that connects everything in an ordered way  — it’s a kaleidoscope of writing for theatre, performing aqua ballet, writing for TV, competing in basketball, parenting, and evidently a fascination with crystals. If anything bundles it all together it’s Hall’s curious nature, and the fact she always says yes.

At her home in Westmere, which she shares with her husband Peter and kids Billie and Tamai, she navigates a broken fridge and crowded kitchen to make us the strongest coffee I’ve had in my life. She’s flitting around trying to find milk, laughing while she shows me the iced-over fridge, and telling me about how writing is going on series two of TVNZ’s supernatural thriller One Lane Bridge. In contrast to her bubbly nature, she has a gaze that could cut holes in you it’s so observant, and she frequently stops what she’s doing to make eye contact. I’m familiar with Hall through work – I had a small role in One Lane Bridge – but I’ve never really seen her in her natural environment, and I feel I’m being examined, like an animal she’s decided she wants to study. That watchful nature is part of what compels Hall, 48, to write. “I feel I am a quite curious person,” she concedes. “A lot of my work comes from a question that I want to know the answer to. What must it be like to do this? Or: why did they do that?” 

Hall is an unusual mix of both happy-go-lucky extroversion and a deep streak of emotional intuition and broodiness. In the 90 minutes I spend with her she is animated, bouncing from topic to topic with great enthusiasm, and then in moments when she pauses, a reflectiveness comes over her, and she gets a look in her eyes like she’s gone far away. It’s a little like watching a river: busy on the surface, with deep currents pulling underneath. Right now she’s occupied figuring out the strands of story for the next season of One Lane Bridge, the highest rating local drama in over half a decade. The success is a coup for Hall, not only because the show was competing head to head with online streaming sites, but because it’s the first show she’s created from the ground up, rather than being called in as a guest writer for hire. Her byline is scattered across many New Zealand shows like 800 Words and The Brokenwood Mysteries, and telemovies like Runaway Millionaires and Jonah, but One Lane Bridge is all her, and she’s clearly thrilled to have another season funded. She flushes pink when she tells me she was nervous about how it would be received. “I was worried it might be a show that the industry loved and the public might not be sure. I guess because it’s a bit different from what we make here, and it’s not dialogue-driven.”

Dominic Ona-Ariki and Joel Tobeck in One Lane Bridge

The genesis of the show was a script Great Southern Television’s Phil Smith had written, that didn’t get funding. He asked Hall to take a look at it. She liked some of the characters, but spent a lot of time wondering about why it was called One Lane Bridge, and eventually turned the story around by adding a police officer with matakite (second sight, or vision), and a haunted bridge, shifting the genre from drama into supernatural thriller territory. “Then what I did, which is really unusual, is I just wrote a pilot script with no idea what the story was going to be. No planning.” Often in television you are required to provide an arc for the whole series, so that when you begin to write episode one, you already know where you are going. Hall grins as she tells me: “I had this luxury and privilege of going ‘I just have to write a really great script’ — I didn’t worry about going ‘How are you going to pay that off’ — I just tried to write a really dynamic script.”

It did pay off, though. From the memorable opening shot in the first episode, which took in the bridge, the river, and many dead bodies, the tone was set for a series that was ambitious. “I wanted to write something cinematic, because it felt right with the landscape. Great Southern were awesome, because from very early on they’d decided it was going to be filmed in Queenstown. So you know that when you are painting the mountains in the script they’re actually going to be the real mountains, rather than somewhere like in West Auckland.” One Lane Bridge was filmed entirely on location, and the land itself became the central theme of the story, as the Ryder family face the loss of a family member and the loss of their land. Those southern landscapes are familiar to Hall, who grew up in Dunedin. Her grandparents owned a dairy farm, and Hall spent a lot of time out on the land with them. She’s confident she knows the archetype of the Southern Man, and one of the things she wanted to do was address that specific culture: “I felt like we were trying to rip the Bandaid off the systemic racism and homophobia of small town New Zealand, and that’s quite confronting for people.”

It brought the show some criticism on social media, because the violence against gay farmhand Dermot was sustained and graphic, and then Hall went on to make him the murderer. Critics of the show felt unhappy that the only gay character was vilified for his sexual preference, and then salt was added to the wound when it appeared the murder could be construed as a crime of passion. Hall understands the criticism but says “I don’t think the show is homophobic, I think the characters are homophobic. I think sometimes, especially with New Zealand content, it’s hard to make that distinction.” She thinks we would have accepted it if it was an international production, but close to home it felt perhaps uncomfortable.

She sighs when I ask her how she deals with bad reviews, resting her head on the back of the couch for a moment. “Basically, it depends on how robust I’m feeling. I feel like if you’re going to read reviews you have to take the good with the bad. Or you just don’t read reviews.” Admirably, she says what she does do is look for common themes of criticism, and if she finds one, she takes it on board: “If everyone’s going – oh this bit was really dumb and this character was unbelievable – then you’ve got to listen to that.” She’s flexible in her work, taking no particular routine, following her impulses, and listening for ideas.

Photo: Edith Amituanai

Her approach to writing is a bit like a magpie — she’s attracted to shiny, interesting things. Her office is like a nest lined with treasures. The wall is partly covered with a wooden bracket housing many curiosities, among them thimbles, teaspoons, a mother of pearl dove and a beetle, sunglasses and a scrubbing brush. Her seated desk has framed photographs, many more trinkets, and a bowl of crystals. She sees me looking at them and laughs, calling them “entitled white middle class energy bullshit” before telling me that she finds them comforting, and loves to hold them if she’s mulling something over in her work.

Hall also listens to a lot of music. She listened to Mariah Carey’s ‘Always Be My Baby’ 1253 times when she was writing her play Up North. If it sounds excessive, well – it probably is, but for Hall, it’s part of how she accesses character and story. Music is a shortcut she uses for every single script she writes. In the case of Up North, a play about a young girl who falls pregnant and is sent away to a farm to have her baby, there was something in the melody and the feel that belonged to the story, despite the difference in decades: Up North is set in the 1950s and Carey’s song landed in 1996. She shows me the playlist she made when she was creating One Lane Bridge and it’s a moody, swooning swoop of songs — Lana Del Ray, Kate Bush, and Cat Power. She says that this season she’s mostly listening to the Bishop Briggs song ‘River’, which suits the feeling of where she is taking the show. I ask her how she knows when she’s got dialogue right. “Sometimes it feels like I’ve got the character sitting here,” she says, patting her shoulder. “That doesn’t happen all the time, but when I’m in the zone it does.”

Hall admits she has always been a “yes” person, and it’s partly why she finds it hard to turn down opportunities to experience new things. “I have this real tendency to burn out. I just go go go go go! Then I’d be on very thin ice and it would all come collapsing down.” As she gets older she says she is being smarter with her energy, but that trademark enthusiasm has meant she’s done some unique stuff in her adult life. She is one of the founders of Wet Hot Beauties, an aqua ballet troupe of women of all ages, who perform joyful and irreverent routines for the public in swimming pools. It was an opportunity for Hall, who is also an actor, to perform again. Hall gave a Ted talk about the formation of the troupe back in 2012, appearing on stage in Sydney in a bathing suit and cap. It’s a charming talk, and poignant, with Hall expressing her struggle with identity as she ages: “I’m lots of labels. I’m a mum. I’m a writer. I’m a wife. I’m a middle-aged woman and I live in this world where youth and wrinkle-free is the currency. Where do I fit?”

Wet Hot Beauties was part of an evolution towards finding where she belonged, and that’s also something she’s applying in her writing. In One Lane Bridge, most of the female roles are over 40, and one is in her 50s: “Those twenty-somethings get enough work and that’s not particularly where my life experience sits. I’m late 40s, I have a teenage daughter, and I know that world.” Hall is looking to bring the complexity of the women she knows into the roles she creates. “There are so very few archetypes for women characters. I’m tired of seeing this gratuitous male gaze that we’ve seen a million times before.”

Hall is mindful of gaze and representation, and not just of women. She argues that diversity in storytelling is tokenistic if the story is still always being told through a Pākehā filter. When she signed on to help write Jonah, the Jonah Lomu story, she was concerned that her Pākehā gaze was not the best lens on the story. “I only agreed to do it because Nua Finau was a co-writer.” Finau was also the Tongan advisor on the shoot, and Hall’s authenticity gauge. “We’d have these almost psychological discussions. He’d read a scene I’d written and say ‘This is not authentic.’ And I’d say ‘Great! So when you were a 19 year old Tongan guy moving out of your family home, and you did something your family didn’t approve of, how would you behave?’ And he’d unpack that, and then together we would craft a scene that was authentic for the characters.”

Accessing the psychology of a sportsman like Jonah was also helped by the fact that Hall is a basketball player, and understands the pressures of competing at a high level. “I loved it so much and I worked really hard at it – every waking moment,” she says of discovering basketball in her early teens. She made rep teams at school and played at a high level, but gave it up to study drama at Otago University. Being in a sports team is not dissimilar to being part of a theatre show, she says. “You come together, you’ve got a common goal, you practise, you have a game plan, you’re up and you’re running and you’ve got to go with what happens.” Now she plays in a team of women from all over New Zealand, whose ages range from early 40s to 50. All of them have been reps in the sport at one point or another. In the last World Masters Games in 2017, the team won gold in their division, something Hall is hugely proud of. She leaps up from the couch to go rummaging through a bureau for the medal, bright with excitement. “It’s usually here, and sometimes when I have a few wines I get it out and wear it!” She lets out a peal of laughter. Her team will be in Japan for the 2021 Games if Covid-19 constraints allow, where they hope to defend their title, albeit in a social grade this time.

Photo: Edith Amituanai

Being part of a team is something that brings Hall alive. “Working together and spending time together creates that simpatico, those relationships. You’ve got to work things out, and you like some of your team and you don’t like some of your team, but you’ve still got to work together.” She wants to be part of the whole creative process, and ultimately, would like “a seat at the table” which potentially means becoming a producer as well as a writer. That way she will be able to collaborate with directors, actors, and head of departments as part of the core team, not just leaving her writing at the door, hoping for the best. “It’s kind of like you birth a baby and you have to let someone else raise it, and often you’re not even allowed to be an aunty” she says, looking mournful. Happily, Hall is now part of a built-in creative team with her husband, film director Peter Burger. One Lane Bridge is the first time the pair have worked together. “I think we both really buzzed out watching how the other worked. Often we don’t get to see that, only hear about it second hand.” Burger set the tone for the show by directing the first three episodes. He’s back for series two, and will direct the entire season.

The second Covid-19 lockdown in Auckland is markedly different from the first for Hall. “I found the first lockdown really horrible and hard the whole time. I think the work just didn’t seem that important. It just seemed like: the world’s imploding, how do I look after my family?” There was also the pressure of development, where Pip and the team were getting an application together for funding, as well as waiting to see how audiences responded to the first season. “It felt like it was all riding on my shoulders to get a series two. If I don’t do my job properly it’s six million dollars down the tube.” This time around she’s loving it. Her Dry July has extended into August, she’s sleeping better, and she starts her day reading a book in bed instead of checking social media. After that, all she has to do is write. With Burger up north filming a Hallmark movie, there’s been one less person in the house, and Hall admits, through a wide, naughty smile, that she’s loving the space, and the chance to find her rhythm.

It takes me until the end of the interview to bring up Hall’s dad. I didn’t want to begin by asking her about her famous father, Sir Roger Hall, arguably the country’s most popular and enduring playwright. It’s something Hall seems to appreciate: “I don’t mind it being asked. I just object when it is the leading question! It’s just lazy. Men never get asked up about their relationships with other men.” The comparisons are natural — his are big shoes to fill. Hall, winner of the Adam NZ Best Play award and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award has undoubtedly inherited his gift for storytelling, but she’s on her own path, carving out a place for herself in our TV canon. She’s in a good wicket: “I’m in this sandwich, and it’s a real sweet spot: both my parents are still alive and their health is good, the kids are teenagers and they’re amazing, and my work is going well, and so it has all kind of landed.” She catches herself, and is careful to add, frowning: “I feel like I’ve spent ages building where I wanted to be, and now I’m here and I’m going to enjoy it, because things will keep moving on.” No doubt Hall will keep moving with it. You can’t hold back a river.

Alert level note: This profile was conducted in two  parts: a full interview in level one, and then a photo shoot and follow-up, during which time the photographer and author were in PPE, socially distanced and outdoors.

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