Bret McKenzie returns to NZ holding Oscar
FRI, 02 MAR 2012 11:24A.M.
By Dan Parker and Daniel Rutledge
Bret McKenzie arrived back in Wellington this morning holding his Best Original Song trophy from the Academy Awards.
The Flight of the Conchords star won the Oscar on Monday for his song ‘Man or Muppet’ which was used in The Muppets.
Speaking to 3 News as he made his way through the arrivals area, McKenzie called the last few days of his life “surreal”.
"It was an amazing night," says McKenzie of the Oscars ceremony.
"There was a big party and it's been sort of overwhelming for a few days so I'm back to chill out."
McKenzie spoke of how he celebrated his Oscar win on the night with members of Hollywood’s elite.
"Vanity Fair have this big after party,” he says.
“There's lots of people from the awards there and some fairly ridiculous celebrities like the Princess of Monaco and Buzz Aldrin. I hung out with Buzz Aldrin!"
The Oscar win has already created further Hollywood opportunities McKenzie says, although his immediate future will be spent relaxing.
"I'm here for a month or so to take it easy," says McKenzie. "There's lots of cool job offers because of that (the Oscar)."
McKenzie says he is likely to keep the award on top of his piano and will have a swim in Lyall Bay to relax.
One giant leap
MICHELLE DUFF 03/03/2012
Before he was winning an Oscar and taking America by storm, Bret McKenzie was a Wellington schoolboy who played the oboe, washed shop windows in Kelburn and busked in Cuba St.
That was before he played drums in The Blue Samanthas, had a raucous Fringe Festival play shut down by council and wore a velcro penis in public. Michelle Duff charts McKenzie's at times absurd – but always funny – path to success.
When Bret McKenzie leapt into the air on the Academy Awards red carpet, legs akimbo and arms flung to the side, it looked like a sweet move.
As photographers' flashes exploded, McKenzie's spontaneous leap of faith – with a stiff-looking Jane Seymour managing to squeeze half an emaciated elbow in the frame – mum Deirdre Tarrant wiped away a tear while watching the ceremony on TV while babysitting Bret's two young children in an LA hotel room and thought: "What a lovely jete [a ballet leap]."
"It's one of the trickiest steps of classical ballet," she explained this week in Wellington, where she is already back at work just two hours after stepping off a plane from supporting her son in Los Angeles.
"I was quite proud that his sort of way of expressing himself out there in front of the world was through movement. I was really touched by that."
Because one of the many things the world may not know about Bret McKenzie is that before the 36-year-old was an Oscar-winning musician, an actor and a comedian, he was also a dancer. A classical dancer in fact, perfecting the steps in his mum's dance studio and in theatres around the world.
"He could have been professional – he had that kind of ability," says Tarrant, a contemporary dance doyenne and director of Wellington's Footnote Dance Company.
But then, the oboe-playing, scriptwriting schoolboy had a lot of abilities – and no-one who knows him is really surprised that he ended up winning a top gong at Hollywood's swankiest showbiz extravaganza.
The musician-turned-celebrity won Best Original Song at the 84th Annual Academy Awards on Monday for his song Man or Muppet, one of the three tunes he penned during his role as the musical supervisor on The Muppets.
That's on top of the Emmy-nominated Flight of the Conchords series – and winning a Grammy Award for best comedy album in 2008.
Not that you can ever really predict your mate will win an Oscar, as fellow Wellington musician and Black Seeds lead singer Barnaby Weir points out. But you can sure as hell spot the talent.
"I grew up in New Zealand watching The Muppets on TV: never dreamed I'd get to work with them. I was genuinely star struck when I finally met Kermit the frog, but once you get to know him he's just a normal frog, and like many stars here tonight he's a lot shorter in real life," McKenzie told the glitterati at the Oscars.
Speaking to reporters later he spoke about the pressure of writing a song for the legendary Muppets franchise.
"A friend of mine said, when I got the job of working on the film, `You'll never write another Rainbow Connection [from 1979's The Muppet Movie]. And I said, `You're right.' And I didn't. Rainbow Connection didn't win an Oscar, but there's no doubt that their song is an absolutely timeless classic, and this song is nothing in comparison."
McKenzie was a huge Jim Henson fan, and when his dad returned from a trip to the US with new-fangled video recorder in the early 1980s one of the McKenzie clan's favourite movies was The Dark Crystal.
"So my brother and I watched that movie at least twice a week for about five years. Definitely, Jim Henson influenced me. He's a huge inspiration and the other thing I love about the guy is he made children's films that I think he found funny. He was making them for adults. He didn't patronise the minds of children."
A tearful Tarrant could not have been prouder of her son when he referenced his home country in his Oscar speech.
"I loved that he started the speech with `I grew up in New Zealand'. It was just such a proud moment when he made that connection, and also mentioned the Muppets and growing up with that influence. He was a Jim Henson nut."
McKenzie was born in Wellington in 1976, a younger brother to Justin and – eight years later – older brother to Jonny.
The three little boys from a musical family quickly became a fixture in the Wellington suburb of Kelburn, practising their instruments in the Botanical Gardens when mum had had enough of their racket and trotting the streets to Clifton Terrace Model School. Rather than being a training ground for actual models, Clifton Terrace is so named for being "modelled" on the classroom size and philosophy of smaller, country schools.
The years the McKenzies attended, the school and its close-knit community was a hive of artistic activity.
McKenzie's fellow classmates included actors Jeremy Randerson and Antonia Prebble (Outrageous Fortune), musician Age Pryor and promoter Lauren Whitney.
"It was an incredible class that had nothing to do with me whatsoever," jokes Chris Arcus, Clifton Terrace senior school teacher from 1987 to 1989.
"It was a school whose community took a great interest in it, and it just grew and grew."
Arcus remembers McKenzie as the kid who was into everything, whether it be cricket, acting, singing or dancing. And he wasn't averse to combining his interests, like the time he took centre stage in a school musical about cricket. "I distinctly remember him bowling a cricket ball in this strobe light, as part of the production."
While Arcus thought it more likely McKenzie would go on to become a dancer, his main hobby at the time, he was sure the youngster would pursue something in the arts. This became more obvious when the 11-year-old began to compile his own portfolio of business investments.
"He told me he was building a share portfolio because he wanted to make some money, but the arts didn't pay very much, so he would have to do something else on the side," Mr Arcus says.
"I remember thinking, 'wow, how good is that'."
But this entrepreneurial streak was nothing new for McKenzie.
Taking a break from where he is helping to set up the Fringe Festival Performance Arcade space on Wellington's waterfront, McKenzie's older brother Justin, 39, says the young performer first took his busking act to Cuba St – as a 6-year-old.
"He took himself to the Wellington streets to busk with a snare drum and a high hat when mum was teaching ... it is always interesting when your little brother gets given a drum kit – it's loud," he laughs.
"I just remember him on the side of the street looking up at people with big doe eyes, and they would give him money all right. He played the oboe, the drums, the piano, the recorder, lots of instruments, and loved them all."
Later on, he created a job for himself as a window-washer at shops around Kelburn, wheeling around the winding streets on his BMX with the cleaning equipment lashed to the front. "I'm pretty sure he sold that business to a friend – or was it Jonny?", Justin muses. "He was very industrious."
That focus continued through to his high school years at Wellington College, where McKenzie won the Wellington regional heats of the Smokefree Rockquest with his band The Blue Samanthas, who played jazz and upbeat funk.
Joy Dunsheath, Wellington College's recently retired cultural adviser, says along with being a talented keyboardist and drum player the "charismatic" McKenzie was a great debater – mostly because of his ability to go off-topic.
"He was very involved in almost everything, but I recall debating because while he didn't always have a prepared speech, he was one of those talented people who could fudge it incredibly well.
"He scooped all the awards in the school in his last year, and he was a prefect – which in a large school like Wellington College is saying something."
Sipping his coffee in a Cuba St cafe, brother Justin remembers The Blue Samanthas – who would perfect their riffs in the McKenzies' lounge – sort of trailing to an end after Rockquest, before his brother joined The Black Seeds.
"The judges said they were amazing but they weren't rock so they couldn't win, which I thought was funny."
So, the question on everyone's lips – what's it like to see a family member win an Oscar?
At Miramar's Roxy Theatre on Monday afternoon Justin watched with Jonny and dad Peter McKenzie – himself a part-time actor – as McKenzie thanked his wife, Hannah Clarke, who was at the Los Angeles ceremony, and children Vita, 2, and Leo, 1, "for all their love and support".
He also thanked his parents for "never telling me to get a real job".
Peter McKenzie laughed at his son's quip.
"That's the truth, " an elated Mr McKenzie said.
"That is what I told him. I always said to him when he decided not to go to university ... after leaving Wellington College. I told him there would always be a bed for him at home. I told him to go out and chase his dream. He's done it."
Justin agrees the win is incredible, but says it won't change his brother at all.
"It's really amazing, for him it's amazing. For us it's a lot of pride, but he's still Bret, you know. The biggest thing is I'm really proud of him with his kids and Hannah and that, he's really awesome."
Along with Jonny, Justin owns Wellington bar The Hawthorne Lounge. Before Flight of the Conchords hit the big time, McKenzie used to come in and play piano there, escaping any notice from the punters.
After the series aired in New Zealand, McKenzie played again to quite a different reception. A woman approached the bar and, in hushed tones, asked Jonny and Justin if that was the Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. "No," they replied in unison. "That's our brother." EVEN back when Flight of the Conchords were beginning to make waves in the international comedy scene, hitting the big time in America seemed like an impossible dream.
"The idea of us going to Hollywood is just so ridiculous," McKenzie said in 2002, when he and Jemaine Clement became the first Kiwi comedians asked to play at the 1400-seat 20th Century Fox theatre in the United States.
They had been spotted by a Fox talent scout performing their folk comedy show, strumming acoustic guitars and singing comic songs, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two months earlier.
The Conchords were born after Clement and McKenzie met at Victoria University, both vaguely attempting to study subjects like music and English and theatre and film. They gave up, and by 1998 were flatting together in an old villa in Mt Victoria and performing in local productions, mainly comedy.
One of these was So, You're a Man. Imagine McKenzie, Clement, Taika Waititi (Boy), along with David Lawrence and Carey Smith strutting the Bats Theatre stage in flesh-coloured tights adorned with velcro penises, and you've got the crux of the show.
Supermodel Rachel Hunter got her start in a Trumpet icecream TV commercial – and one of Bret the actor's earliest and best-paying acting jobs was in a Fruju commercial.
McKenzie was later a founding member of popular Wellington reggae band The Black Seeds, playing keyboards. But he and Clement decided they wanted to learn the guitar and started writing songs.
They began playing at the Indigo Bar, caught the eyes of the world at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2002, and by 2003 were being described as "this year's buzz comedy act" in British newspaper The Guardian.
Around the same time they wrote a pilot for a comedy TV series and sent it to TVNZ – which (in)famously turned them down.
All the better for FOTC, who were forced to head overseas to find work – where their quirky talents were quickly recognised. At this point McKenzie had already achieved some measure of fame, albeit bizarrely, with his cult fleeting appearance in one scene in the Fellowship of the Ring. His three-second appearance as an elf spawned a cult following around the globe, and led to a speaking part in The Return of the King.
And as if he didn't have enough on his plate, in 2004 McKenzie released The Video Kid, a solo album which received a four-star review from The Dominion Post's arts editor Tom Cardy.
"The Video Kid caused concerns that it was going to be a slightly self-indulgent 'side project', consisting of half-thought-out ideas. Instead, McKenzie has delivered a remarkably tight and mature work ... if this is more evidence of McKenzie's talent, he should be in the next New Year's Honours List," Cardy wrote.
In 2005, when FOTC landed a six-part BBC 2 radio series, McKenzie left The Black Seeds to focus on the comedy act. In the ensuing four years the duo went on to win a Sony UK Comedy Award, were declared the best alternative comedy act at the US Comedy Arts Festival, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and filmed two hit comedy series for American cable network HBO.
While The Black Seeds were gutted to lose their keyboard player, their mate went overseas with their full support, frontman and friend Barnaby Weir says.
They were a tight group of friends, some who went back to Wellington College days, and had toured throughout New Zealand and Australia together – and they were all stoked to see McKenzie's star rise.
"He's a talented guy. He's always been really dedicated to his music. His success is really from working his arse off for many years. He was in The Black Seeds playing keyboards for a number of years, for five or six years and he's a great keyboardist and drummer.
"He's got a great sense of humour, always has. He was always in his plays or writing music for a show at Bats or in a show at Bats or working on a script. He's always had a lot on. He's a gem and he's done well," Weir says. "We're all proud."
When FOTC decided they were going to America both McKenzie and Clement were incredibly driven, he says.
"I remember that time well, and they were just action and focus and it was just, `We are going to do this.' We were really stoked for them, it was a good decision."
McKenzie winning an Oscar for his music is not unbelievable, considering his talent and how hard he has worked, Weir says.
"If anyone could do it he could do it. The only way to do what he has done is to have that raw talent, and having the desire – not to be famous, but to create good work. He's never had that desire to be famous or to be the man. He just is the man and he's created good work time and time again over the years."
Director Rob Sarkies chuckles down the phone. "Are you struggling to find someone who will tell you he's an arsehole? Because you won't find that person," he says.
"I find it quite heartening really to see lovely people find success. There's a trend, really, for arseholes in Hollywood doing well, but Wellington proves it doesn't have to be that way."
Sarkies worked with McKenzie last year, directing him as one of the lead actors alongside Hamish Blake in feature film Two Little Boys. The comedy is co-written by Rob and his brother Duncan Sarkies, and based on the book by Duncan.
It was received to critical acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival last month, and will debut here later this year.
In it, McKenzie plays no-hoper Nige, who has to figure out how to cover up an accidental crime with the help of fellow Invercargill bogan and best mate Deano, played by Blake.
Filming took place in the remote Catlin Islands and Invercargill this time last year, so it's lucky McKenzie wasn't nominated for the Oscar then, Sarkies says. "He would have had to have beamed himself in."
While there's no doubt it will be good for the movie to have McKenzie on board, that wasn't why he was asked, Sarkies says.
"There was already a relationship there. I guess that's the way Wellington works, with a bunch of creative people who hang out together and in a way grew up together. Bret's just always been around."
And despite his success, McKenzie has stayed completely grounded, Sarkies says. Take the beginning of last year, when Sarkies rang him up to ask if he'd like the role of Nige.
"His reaction was like I was giving him something, he was so delighted. I mean, he loved the script and thought it was funny – I think he had read a lot of American scripts and didn't like anything. It makes sense that he would love it because it contains Duncan's writing.
"The thing is, it's fantastic because making these New Zealand films what you're looking for is a way of making them more international, without making them less Kiwi, and having Bret in it was a way of doing that."
There's no doubt McKenzie is fiercely proud of being a Kiwi. He still lives in Wellington, and calls New Zealand home.
But as much as he might eschew the trappings of fame, he's now got the physical proof it's there – in a whopping 3.8 kilogram golden statue, which puts him in a select group of New Zealanders alongside Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Sir Richard Taylor and Anna Paquin.
And that statue is heavy, his mum says.
"Unbelievably heavy. I never realised how heavy it was. You always see people lifting it above their heads ... obviously you get superhuman strength once you get one."
When the McKenzies were growing up and Tarrant was dancing internationally, she would often bring the kids along with her. They spent a lot of time backstage with their mum, travelling the world – something parents back home used to whisper about.
Now, she can happily say: I told you so.
"It was an organisational nightmare, but it seems to have worked, anyway. All of those people who said that was no way to bring up children are going to have to eat their words now, aren't they."
In the Air New Zealand Koru lounge on the way back from Los Angeles, McKenzie passed the Oscar around so everyone could have a hold – which brought to mind The Lord of the Rings, he said. "It reminded me a little bit of the ring, like everyone wants to touch it and once they did they didn't want to give it back."
Bret wrote:"It does sort of make you think that anything can happen, you know what I mean – for people who are starting out in the arts. If I can win an Oscar, then anyone can win an Oscar. I guess I've worked over the years but you know, it felt like an accident."
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