Murdered by ‘love of his life’

Film director and murder victim Mark Willis on the set of his independent film, Blind Panic....
Film director and murder victim Mark Willis on the set of his independent film, Blind Panic. PHOTO: ANTONY KITCHENER
A Dunedin born film-maker has been named as the victim in a fatal stabbing at the hands of the "love of his life".

Mark Henry Willis, 58, will be remembered as a "brilliantly talented guy" and a loving, gentle man with a real passion for storytelling.

Mr Willis’ brother, Eion, spoke to the Otago Daily Times after Mark Willis’ partner pleaded guilty to a murder charge yesterday in the High Court at Dunedin.

"You’ve got to accept that it’s happened and I know that sounds easy ... but it’s very tough, to be fair.

"The good thing about a guilty plea is we can move forward and it won’t be a long drawn-out process with a trial. That in itself is a godsend.

"Sudden events like this have a huge impact on family.

"I think the guilty plea is most appropriate given the circumstances," Mr Willis said.

At 4.33pm on May 18, Mark Willis returned to his Tainui home and decided to run a bath.

Just after 5pm, his partner, described as "the love of his life", armed herself with a 10cm-long kitchen knife.

She entered the bathroom and stabbed Mr Willis 22 times.

Matthew Mawkes, a longtime friend of Mr Willis, spoke to the ODT detailing the loss felt by the New Zealand film community.

"It was very shocking news. It was hard to understand ... hard to grasp," Mr Mawkes said.

"Mark was eccentric.

"He was very loving, gentle and had a wicked sense of humour.

"He was a movie buff and much loved by everyone who knew him ... much more so than I ever think he realised."

Born and raised in Dunedin, Mr Willis worked alongside well-known film-maker Robert Sarkies, becoming a "really strong, close collaborator" and friend for over 30 years.

"There was a real gentleness to Mark, which I find highly ironic, considering the way his life ended ... which has been very difficult for all of his many friends throughout the country," Mr Sarkies said.

Mr Willis contributed his love for storytelling and special effects to Mr Sarkies well-known production, Scarfies.

"You could really rely on him to create extraordinary things."

He moved to Wellington in 2000 where he spent 23 years honing his craft, directing his first short film, Splinter, in 2004.

Mr Willis had just signed off on the final cut of his first feature film, Blind Panic, which he wrote and directed with Mr Mawkes.

"It’s a crime thriller, which feels a little bit ironic, but that was the kind of thing he loved.

"He really was a very talented screenwriter.

"The movie has been a real labour of love," he said.

"Before he died, he came up to Wellington and signed off on the final cut.

"I am so, so pleased and delighted that he at least had the opportunity to do that," Mr Mawkes said.

"A lot of us also knew [the defendant], and as a couple.

"They were very close. They seemed very happy. They were always laughing."

Mr Mawkes said the couple had stayed at his Wellington home a few months before the murder.

"My partner and I didn’t detect anything at all ... For his friends it is totally impossible to understand."

The couple’s neighbour provided a glimpse into Mr Willis’ final few months at home.

"I saw him sitting outside a couple of weeks before with his head in his hands, looking kind of desperate," they said.

Mr Mawkes said despite having a few months to "deal with it", he did not feel the need to find an explanation for what happened.

"For me personally ... I am just remembering Mark.

"We are finishing the movie in his memory and that is what we are focused on."

Mr Sarkies echoed the sentiment, conveying a sense of sadness rather than anger.

"The end comes to us all at some point, but the last minutes of his life should not define his life ... It isn’t all about how you die, it should be about how you live."