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January 2011 Issue
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Patient filmmaker

Clive Neeson spent 45 years making a world-acclaimed eco-adventure film, writes Maina Perrot

When adventurer, scientist and film maker Clive Neeson got the chance to use Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington to remaster old and new footage of the antics he and his friends have got up to over the years, he jumped at it. After only a few months, his lifetime’s work, Last Paradise, which he says has “coined a new genre in documentary filmmaking using the hook and fun of extreme sports pioneering to educate mainstream audiences”, was being viewed in universities and colleges in America. It was then shown to sell-out audiences at last year’s Adventure Film Festival in Queenstown.

“Making Last Paradise has been the fulfilment of my own filming passion since a teenager,” Neeson says. “It embodies all the passions I’ve had through life, in lifestyle science and adventure and the people I have shared [these passions] with.”

Neeson was only 15 when he bought an old, clunky camera which he repaired and decided to mount on the front of his surfboard in a homemade water housing. Already the idea of a film which would illustrate his delight in exploring unspoiled beaches and mountains was forming in his mind.

Last Paradise features a young Neeson as he and his friends – a group which includes bungy jump pioneer A.J. Hackett, extreme wave surfer Ton Deken, skiing and hang-gliding expert Jeff Campbell and Allan Byrne who experimented with the first wakeboards and all of whom, years later, became leaders in the fields – to explore new ways to enjoy the playgroup that is the New Zealand wilderness.

“The wilderness was our home and daily adventure became the comfort zone,” he says.’We were misfits and there were very few people then who were involved in adventure sports. Rugby ruled so our alternative exploits were quite frowned upon by mainstream society, but we found acceptance and lifetime friends out there chasing our own dreams.”

Their dreams took them to Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Bali and Australia and back to New Zealand. 

“International surfer Miki Dora was one of the first bohemian travellers,” Neeson says. “He vanished from the limelight of Hollywood searching for his own concept of paradise and found it in Raglan in 1973. As a local teenager, he influenced me to travel the world with backpack and cine camera.”

Neeson’s keen interest in science also led him to work as a scientist, helping create the first climate monitoring systems and working around the world as a consultant physicist and electronic engineer. So while filming, Neeson tried incorporating all he know to find new angles from which to shoot the action and include the “science behind the sports” they were experiencing. The film was also completely self-funded right from the beginning, when two hours of digging veges in the 60’s paid for only one minute of film.

“I started filming the places and activities which a certain perspective, and capturing the perfect shot was a great motivator. That’s why so much of the footage came to be relevant to the story.”

But then a few years later Neeson and his companions revisited the countries they had travelled to and saw the changes from over development and huge numbers of visitors that had occurred in their favourite surfing spots and previously untamed places, Neeson decided to use his film as an environmental and educational tool.

“We all accept the world we are born into as the norm and with each generation we have gradually lost sight of what a paradise this planet used to be,” Neeson explains. “The objective [of the movie] is to give the audience a firsthand experience of how the world used to be and discover for themselves how dramatically it has changed over 45 years.”

The film cost $500,000 to make over 45 years but Neeson says he wouldn’t have put it together earlier had he been able to – the story has only now come of age.

“The world has changed so much so as to validate the story,” he says. “We used to watch the penguins come ashore here at sunset, now we watch the dog fights. It didn’t have to go that way.”

While he travels a lot, Neeson still practices surfing and other extreme sports three times a week or more. He has changed; he is wider, yet still just as passionate.

“Adventure sports are still the core of daily life as it is for most of my friends here and overseas,” he says. “Our childhood playgrounds have shaped our dreams and our dreams were what subconsciously steers our life’s choices.”