When it comes to homegrown success stories, Phil Keoghan is right up there. The boy from Lincoln got his start in television shows like ‘Playschool’ and ‘Spot On’ before heading offshore to explore more global possibilities. And going global is exactly what he did with his top-rating, award-winning show ‘The Amazing Race.’
He spoke to Zara Potts about his beginnings in the bustling local television production scene, the importance of telling our own stories and how Ōtautahi shaped his outlook, and his success.
You were born in Lincoln?
I was born in Lincoln in 1967. My dad was finishing his doctorate at Lincoln University and my mum was teaching at Riccarton at the time. She’s also a pianist. When I was about three they got an opportunity to go to Canada – and I found a photo the other day of me leaving Christchurch in 1970 – and my Great Uncle Morris Marshall was there, who was a school teacher and poet and who lived in Christchurch, Morris Marshall, he was actually a bombing aimer in the Lancasters’ in WWII– if I’m not mistaken, Uncle Morris was an examiner for School Certificate exams for a number of years.
He was from Christchurch?
Well, he was originally from Westport but he lived in Christchurch. He had an amazing life story and some of his poems are just beautiful, talking about the coal mining on the West Coast, and he wrote a beautiful poem about my grandparents and a wonderful poem about being a bombing aimer in WWII – it’s quite haunting and you read it and realise just how vulnerable they were up there. He was a wonderful man.
You had quite a lot of creative people around you when you were growing up?
Yeah, my dad’s been writing some life stories for my daughter. She’s really interested in our family history so my mum and dad have been writing these stories and it’s quite revealing – you think you know a lot about your history but then you find out these little nuggets – and it’s weird to think we only really know two generations of our family and we don’t really know beyond that. Without those stories being kept alive, all of that gets lost. I found out through my dad that my grandmother had been top in her class and she was actually a very good writer but was not given the opportunity to go to high school because was asked to look after her brothers and sisters. All the rest of her life she continued to write, she was a prolific letter writer and she loved to write short stories and I have a number of them. You realise that if you don’t document those stories then they all get lost and they’ve gone. We think of ourselves as living on but the reality is that my daughter’s children’s children will not really know who my wife and I are… unless stories are kept alive.
It’s such a short lease isn’t it? You can see the importance of storytelling here in Ōtautahi, where a lot of stories have already been lost. And it’s important to capture those stories – even from as recently as the 1970s – because people are getting on and we’re losing them and that collective memory.
It’s so important.
Your mother was a pianist so did you play music when you were growing up?
I did. I learned to play the violin very early. After my Mum and Dad got this posting in Canada, my Mum got us lessons with teachers who used the Suzuki School of Music method where you were taught to play by ear –they’ve changed it now – I had to go through the difficult process at about nine or ten of learning how to read music and studying theory, which is much harder to pick up later because music is like a language. We moved to Antigua when I was about six and for a number of years, my sister and I would go to a music school outside of Boston for up to 9 weeks and when I was thirteen I came back to Christchurch to go to boarding school. I was meant to go to Boys High but there was no room in the boarding house. There was one spot left at St Andrews, and although it was a little more expensive than my parents could really afford, they found a way and I came back. During that time I played and did a lot of music and did a lot of theatre at school. I loved singing.
Were you in the choir?
I loved the assemblies. I loved it when you had 600 boys in the hall singing. It wasn’t so much the hymns, but it was just this idea of being part of this big powerful collective voice. During this time, I did a lot of theatre, initially motivated by meeting girls, we did West Side Story and Merchant of Venice and it was around that time that I got into doing debating and improv theatre.
Like Theatre sports?
Yeah, I did a lot of that. At that time there was a great teacher around by the name of Stuart Devenie, he was a wonderful actor and so we did a lot of improvisation and quite frankly for me it was a way of learning how to be a host or a presenter because you had to be quick on your feet and make things up.
So it turned out to be pretty good training for your future and The Amazing Race…
Very good training, yeah. There was a lot of pressure on me to go to university, partially because my grandparents never got a chance, and my dad has a doctorate and my mum has an FTCL which is the equivalent of a doctorate in music – so the thought was ‘why would I not want to go?’ and being the oldest I think it was just expected that I would go to university. I remember having these conversations with my parents saying ‘I know what I want to do but it’s not something I can study at university’. I wanted to work in television and at that time there was no degree to work in television like there is now, you just had to go and do it. I understand there concerns now but I didn’t then – ‘Well if you go to university and get a piece of paper, you can always fall back on it.’
I think all creatives have had that same conversation!
I didn’t want to fall back on anything – I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t understand the resistance, but now I get it. It was the audacity that I would not take that opportunity when that generation above me, above my parents, didn’t have that chance. I’ve been financially independent since I was 18, because my parents were like ‘if you’re not going to university then you’re on your own,’ and I remember I was signed up to actually go to Wellington to the polytechnic there and do some kind of general degree that you could do in Hotel Management and then two weeks before I was meant to go – an opportunity came up at TVNZ here in Christchurch to be a TVA, Television Assistant – and I was like, ‘I’m taking it.’
You leapt at it?
My parents were living in Mosgiel at the time and so I just packed up everything I had and I had a $100 motorbike, a Taka, and it had the top speed of 25 miles an hour, and I got on that motorbike and rode from Mosgiel to Christchurch. It took me ten and a half hours and I got off the bike walking like John Wayne. I arrived in Matai Street to live with the Gibara’s, couple who taught drama at Rangi Ruru, they had offered to rent me a room for $30 a week and I lived across the road from John Britten and his wife Kirsteen Price.
He would have been doing up the Stables at that time?
Yes, we had a number of meals over there, little did I know at that time, that I was in the presence of a genius, he was a lovely man. I remember going into their house, I remember him showing us around the place, his workshop, he’d done the most amazing job on the inside. The Stables was a great spot, I used to walk past it on my way to work from Matai Street, across Hagley park to Gloucester Street where TVNZ was.
What was that first day like?
I remember my salary was $6,999 – I worked seven days a week, and actually made more from overtime than I did my base salary. I worked on every outside broadcast that I could. I was surrounded by some very talented people who were very generous with their time and knowledge. People like Wayne Williams, Brian Allpress, Geoff Clemens, McPhail and Gadsby, Olly Ohlson.
It was the centre of Children’s Television at the time wasn’t it?
A lot of other shows too, there was an incredible amount of production coming from Christchurch. It was huge.
So you got this cadetship and this was really a great stepping off point for you – the fact that this kind of apprenticeship doesn’t exist now, that the whole television production in Christchurch has gone now – how big a loss is that?
I’m a big believer in apprenticeships. Louise, my wife and I, are doing a show that was inspired by my grandfather because it’s always annoyed me that because someone who didn’t have a formal education, or who maybe worked with their hands or worked in the trades, that somehow they are less educated… because they don’t have a piece of paper or they didn’t learn their knowledge from a lecture hall annoyed me. There are so many bright people who have amazing life skills and you cannot judge someone because of what they do rather than looking at the individual. And it’s especially true in the arts – you can have someone zero talent going to the best schools who may not be as good as.. I don’t know if you’ve seen the video of the guy in Brazil who does art with just his fingers and paint? Incredible – just raw talent.
I think that also plays in to that wider conversation about creativity –because often we can be very narrow in our definition of creativity – and we limit it to painting or music or sculpture – but if you look at someone like John Britten – there’s a very creative mind – but yet he’d be defined more as an engineer and not so much as an artist – and yet it’s very creative.
I think creativity is about solutions. To paraphrase Sir Ernest Rutherford, ‘We didn’t have money, so we had to think’ – when you haven’t got money and you’re forced to think because you can’t just pay for a solution, it speaks to the whole idea about what we talk about when we speak of Kiwi ingenuity. I remember my grandfather talking about getting parts for things, my grandfather had three sheds and these sheds were full of things, and they were things like parts from an old washing machine that he kept the pump from, and he’d take a part like that to complete and irrigation system or something. I try to think that way myself. It’s about thinking your way through things rather than just buying something to fix it. That’s creativity.
And it’s important to identify that in young people.
Exactly. It’s important to encourage individualism, not everyone fits perfectly into a particular box… say little Jane – what does Jane like to do? What is she good at? Where can we help steer her so she reaches her full potential? How do we tap into her passion and creativity to make sure that Jane finds a vocation that is best suited to who she is, what she loves and what she’s good at. Encourage creativity whatever form it comes in, Jane may have the next game changing idea for the world.
It’s a little bit like what you were saying about losing the stories of our older generations – we’re also losing some creative skills now. Look at upholstery – people don’t learn this craft anymore because now if the chair is broken, we just throw it away and buy another one. All of that art is being lost.
Even building walls. If you go down to Queenstown and look at all the walls that the goldminers built and you hear about this in Italy as well, where they’re running out of these skills that they’ve had for generations. When I was at school we had woodwork, we had metalwork – one of our projects was to build a car jack. We had to learn how to weld. We had to learn how to work with the grain of the wood. You learnt how to make things with your hands, even if you were in the top stream at school and you were studying Latin – you still went to woodwork class.
“You have to be driven by more than just success. Success is not the measure of whether something is a good idea. You can have a really good idea but for whatever reason it just doesn’t fire. Probably the biggest misconception is that people who are creative always have the answers but there’s a lot of guess work, there’s a lot of gut instinct. The reality is that creative people make mistakes because creativity is not a science, it’s not an exact thing.I don’t think you’re being creative if you’re not making mistakes.”
So going back to your early days at TVNZ – what was it like in the cadetship? Was it a hive of creativity in those days?
It was amazing. There were lots of shows that were done in the James Hay Theatre and all sorts of outside broadcasts. It was an amazing environment but it was pretty tough as well. There was a cameraman I worked with, Ron Madden, who was pretty tough on me but not in a bad way. You really had to earn your stripes. Years later, a couple of years before he died, I was doing Amazing Race and I was in South America somewhere and I just randomly ran in to Ron Madden sitting at a bar –and I thanked him. I just remember being incredibly hungry and thirsty to learn and there were all these people who were happy to teach me.
You moved into the camera section quite early on?
I hadn’t even finished the apprenticeship when they put me into the camera section – you were meant to do the apprenticeship for three years – and I was in the camera section within a year. I became a film camera assistant at nineteen. Then I moved on to Spot On. I just remember it being a place where there was so much activity. We had Play School, Spot On, McPhail & Gadsby, Fast Forward, What Now?, After School, The Mainland Touch, Fourth Estate…
It was a huge production centre..
We had That’s Country, I worked on Country Calendar as an AC we had local news as well – I came in just as they were transitioning from film to video and so there was a film section and a video section and so I got that training in film because I’d had a darkroom – I was interested in photography when I was a kid – and so I got that training in film with Wayne Williams and then I was one of the hybrid camera operators who had learned the film skills but was then amalgamated into video. Geoff Clements was also very generous in encouraging me to strive for excellence.
As well as the camera departments there would have been other departments –like costumes…
Like the props! I distinctly remember as part of my apprenticeship, I had to spend six weeks in a different section. Six weeks in floor management, sound, lighting, props, staging…
That would have been great training…
Yeah, you’d get rotated around these different sections. I remember getting posted down in Madras Street –which was where the art department was – to make props. And I was told that my assignment was to make a frog. They gave me the dimensions, but no instructions, other than “everything you need to make the frog is here.’ So I shaped it, and then I got plasticene and started to make this frog but the leg wasn’t quite right.
What was the frog for?
It was for Play School. They would have an object under the clock. It was a shot that was timed for a segment of the show – ‘what’s under the clock today?’ – And then the camera would tilt down and there was a turntable with an object on it going round and round.
They were quite ingenious on that show. I remember Little Ted had to have some armour and they made him armour out of toilet rolls.
Yeah! That’s that creativity.
It makes you think outside the box and makes you think in a different way – even if it is just making a frog.
Right. I think McPhail & Gadsby was the most fun to work on because every week we were just doing some crazy things. There were some great people around in those days. Peter Rowley, Mary Jane Tomasi.
From what you learnt in those days – how much do you think it stood you in good stead for your career as it went on?
Oh hugely. Because everyone was so generous with their knowledge you really felt that anything was possible.
And it was to an extent?
There seemed to be no limit to what was possible and the enthusiasm from people – especially the outside broadcast units – we would go to Riccarton and cover the races or we would go to Lancaster Park and cover the rugby. I ran up and down the side-lines dragging cables. The passion and enthusiasm was infectious and I was given great opportunities to learn.
Was some of that simply the times do you think?
Well, I think when you grow up in New Zealand, there are talented people who are world class – there’s no doubt about that – it’s just there are fewer world class people and there are more opportunities because there are fewer people going for those opportunities. You found yourself getting opportunities that in a bigger city you wouldn’t normally get. For instance if you were trying to get into television in Chicago there’s a population there of 3 million people – to get into television there in Chicago at eighteen, I would have been up against many more enthusiastic 18 year olds competing for the job. So if you had the initiative and could prove yourself here –you were given tremendous opportunity. It was pretty humbling for me going to America from New Zealand and I’d walk into a room and there would be so many people going for the same job, it was a little overwhelming. It’s not like people in New Zealand are less talented, it’s just that there are fewer of them in population.
You talk about the generosity of the people around you – is that an essential thing for young creatives do you think? People sharing knowledge? What was essential for you?
I think creative people in general are driven by passion not just the pay check. It was like you were part of a theatre production. You knew that the production was only as good as the stagehand or the props person or the lighting person – it was a collective. It was a pooling of collective resources to achieve a goal so people wanted you to do well because it meant they would do well. I never felt that it was a competition. Also to me, people who are really good at what they do – generally speaking – they’re the most comfortable at imparting knowledge because they don’t feel threatened.
Do you think Christchurch has a lot of talented people for its population size?
I felt like I got pulled into a family in Christchurch and it stemmed from the top. It filtered down from my immediate superiors, their attitude filtered down through the ranks and we benefitted from that.
What was the best piece of advice you received around creativity and your work – was there one piece of advice that stuck with you?
The best bit of advice didn’t actually come from those early days, but subsequently, and I think it speaks to creativity – which is ‘it’s not about being right, it’s about being effective’ and that requires creativity because when you’re younger you’re driven a lot more to be right because you’re more insecure and you feel the need to prove yourself so you tend to want to prove that you’re right. As you get older and you get more secure, I think you realise that yes, you can prove yourself right – and you may know you’re right – but then you have to take yourself to that place – ‘I’ve just let that person know I’m right, how did they feel at that point?’ – has that shut them down? Or caused some resentment? And ultimately made them less effective by proving myself right. That to me requires creativity because you have to find a way to sometimes let somebody else feel like it’s either their idea or that they have a large role to play. That can require a lot of creativity.
And diplomacy as well.
Sometimes it’s really hard.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about your work – or creative work in general?
Probably the biggest misconception is that people who are creative always have the answers. there’s a lot of guesswork, there’s a lot of gut instinct and Malcolm Gladwell says that anything new and different is most susceptible to market research so creative people tend to be the ones who take risks and do things out of the ordinary and the assumption is that because they may have made really great creative choices in their life, that they always get it right.
If you actually look at how many stumbles creative people make, it’s a lot more – they don’t necessarily get the attention of the successes – but the reality is that creative people make a lot of mistakes because creativity is not a science, it’s not an exact thing. It’s not like Maths where numbers always add up to the right answer.
Did you make a lot of mistakes before you got to your success?
I did and I still do. I don’t think you’re being creative if you’re not making mistakes. I think the biggest issue with getting older is knowing more – the more you know the more paralysing it can be with creative thought because sometimes you’re drawing on experiences where you’ve tried something and it hasn’t worked, so you can be more reserved. When you’re younger you don’t know what you don’t know and so you tend to just boldly go where you want to go. I look back to when Louise and I went to New York without knowing anything about how to work in America, now knowing how hard it is, it would be a lot harder now to just get on a plane and go than it was when I was 24. I was so naïve, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know how competitive it was – but actually that’s what enabled me to take a chance.
Do you think that was the biggest risk you took?
It was a big risk but what had happened was that in 1988 Julian Mounter came into TVNZ and it was a horrible day. We were at the cafeteria and they literally handed out pink slips in front of everybody. Now you think about it, it was just horrendous. People were crying –the show that I was on at the time, Spot On, was cancelled and the camera section had shrunk so there was no job there. There was no work anywhere, so I went to university for a little bit – basically to prove that I could get A’s –but after the first round of examinations I was actually offered three jobs within a week up in Auckland and that’s when I left Christchurch. I packed everything I had into my Honda Civic.
A step up from the motorbike!
Yeah, this time it was the Honda. I drove to Auckland and ended up working on 3.45 Live and then That’s Fairly Interesting. I think I was 22. That was probably the best thing I could have done at the time. I worked with Neil Roberts and learnt a lot from him – he was a great story teller. That decision led onto a lot of other things.
It speaks to the making mistakes concept – you don’t really know what’s going to come from any situation.
If you look at Mark Burnett in the states – he’s probably the most prolific reality TV producer – but if he look at how many shows he’s launched, very few of them have been successes and none of them have ever topped Survivor.
It’s similar to writers and rejection letters. How many best sellers have had multiple rejection letters before they’re published… But it’s hard to keep going when you feel rejected.
The thing is you never really know. You think you know but you don’t really know. Some of the things I’m most proud of are the things that didn’t get as big an audience as I would have liked. You have to be driven by more than just success. Success is not the measure of whether something is a good idea. You can have a really good idea but for whatever reason it just doesn’t fire. It’s so subjective. It’s like looking at a piece of artwork. You and I could look at a painting on the wall and you could say ‘Oh my god, Phil, this is such a beautiful painting’ and you want it in your house and I might look at it and appreciate it, but I might not be enamoured of it like you are. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the painting, it just means we have two different interpretations of the work.
So what’s your advice to creatives in the face of rejection?
My advice is the ultimate job you want is the job where you feel like you would pay to do it. That’s got to be the measure. Then find ways to get some fulfilment in what it is you’re trying to achieve. Don’t have someone else be the measure of whether you’ve done something well. It can’t always be about the acknowledgement of others as a measure of whether you’ve done something well. You know when you’ve done something well..
So what are the things that you’re most proud of that haven’t necessarily been the most acknowledged?
Lots of things. The most successful thing that I’ve worked on is The Amazing Race – I’m very proud of that. It’s 20 something years of work. It’s been the most commercially successful thing I’ve been involved in. But Louise and I made a film called Le Ride, which premiered at the Isaac Theatre Royal here in Christchurch – and I used to walk past that theatre every day as an 18 year old kid going to work every day – little did I know that in 2017 I’d be there premiering our film at the New Zealand Film festival. That film was made on the smell of an oily rag, it had my mum, my dad, my brother, Louise, myself in it – one camera, no soundperson, no production – brutal shooting schedule and no budget and that film ended up winning a number of awards as well as screening at the SXSW Film Festival. But if you look at it compared to other documentaries, it’s not necessarily a big commercial success, but I’m so proud of it. I’m also extremely proud of Tough as Nails which got a critics choice nomination in its first year and we’ve done four seasons in less than two years for CBS, one of the network television stations in the US, and it’s not as big as some of the bigger shows but I would put it up against any other reality show that’s out there at the moment. It’s not necessarily reflected in the numbers -and again it’s my opinion…
But you feel really good about it.
I feel really good about it and I can’t be responsible for people turning up to watch the show. As the President of CBS said to me once, ‘Your job is to make us a good show, it’s our job to bring the audience to the show.’ Our numbers are solid and the people that turn up and watch our show stay on it and don’t turn off the show. But in this world that we live in where the voices are spread so far and wide to grab a big chunk of audience and say ‘here watch this one show’ and to cut through all the clatter of all the other stuff- it’s unbelievably difficult. So all I can do is just know that if anyone puts on an episode of Tough as Nails – that it was made with passion, with heart and I feel very proud of the content. I’m not looking for anyone else to acknowledge it, although I know things like that live and die on how many people turn up to watch, but you can’t worry about that part of it. You have to stay focused on executing the creative properly and doing the best you can and being proud of what you’ve done. Sometimes it hits and sometimes it doesn’t and it’s not a science.
You left Christchurch as a young adult, but are you glad you spent a lot of time here – do you think it’s helped in any way in your career?
Yeah. I’m very proud of my New Zealand passport. When I think of my hometown, it’s Christchurch and I think of the Christchurch scene and having gone to high school and started my career here, so I have tremendously fond memories of Christchurch and was very sad when the earthquake happened.
And yet there’s an example of the force of creativity that came out of a destructive thing…
So much. The green spaces, the containers.
People had to think creatively and collectively – which is what you were talking to before.
And it speaks to connections too. The film we made Le Ride is about a guy called Harry Watson who is a New Zealander, who comes from Christchurch. And at one point before the earthquake we were trying to get a tribute to him as a Cantabrian we feel should be honoured in some way on one of the cycling paths. A lot of people don’t know, but the first New Zealander to ride in the Tour de France is from Christchurch and he was the NZ cycling champion seven times. He’s this humble man who would go overseas and win all these competitions and he’d come back and there wouldn’t even be a story in the paper about him and because he was so humble he never told anyone.
The amount of people who have come out of Christchurch, who have done amazing things, some of them we know, and some we don’t know -and we don’t really know our own stories here and I think that’s crucial for a community to know its own story –you would know that in terms of how important that is – do you think we ned to get better at telling our own stories here?
I think we’ve got better at acknowledging ourselves. For a long time, you just didn’t show off, right? That’s why Harry Watson won all those races and just never said anything.
Because we don’t like to skite.
It’s skiting to do that. Even now, New Zealanders have got better at celebrating success but we’re still a bit reticent about it. In the states, you know that a New Zealander is always going to undersell themselves. They exceed expectations. Certain nationalities do the opposite – they oversell themselves and then they under deliver. Kiwis don’t do that, they always exceed expectations. I know for myself, I get nervous when people have high expectations of me, I much prefer them to think I’m going to do less and then I achieve more because it’s a very kiwi thing. You don’t want to be the person who’s overselling and then under delivering – that’s the worst.
That’s true – we are masters of the understatement.
I like the way we are but do think we need to be better and celebrating our successes in an inspirational way… without being an obnoxious skite.