Interview: Toa Fraser Talks THE DEAD LANDS, Tension, Tradition, And Even STAR WARS
Directed by Toa Fraser, The Dead Lands is a unique and powerful film, mixing aboriginal myths and customs with more universal tales of heroism, compassion, and sacrifice. It's also a kick-ass action movie, with plenty of well-choreographed fight sequences that play both narrative and visceral dividends.
The film is told in the Maori language, and it's but one of the film's unique aspects. As I wrote in my original review:
"There's a musicality to the language, with both percussive elements and soothing cadences, that feel well in keeping with both the setting and style of storytelling. Given that Maori battle culture is entwined with its language, the chants and battle cries very much part of its dance-like form of martial arts, the producers were wise to never push the film to become more mainstream, as it would have diluted much of its impact."
I had a chance to speak with Fraser via Skype from New Zealand earlier this week, only an hour or so after a trailer for a certain cultural phenomenon with archetypical storytelling elements landed. Given that he's some sixteen hours ahead of me, I was worried I'd disturbed his sleep.
ScreenAnarchy: Are you awake?
Toa Fraser: I'm just awake.
Have you watched the STAR WARS trailer yet? Should I call you back?
No, I watched it, twice!
And what did you think?
It was awesome man, awesome. I really believe in what that [J.J. Abrams] guy's doing. Along with the rest of the world, I wasn't a big fan of the previous trilogy, so it was great to see it going back to its roots.
I see a great deal of connection at least between the stuff that Lucas was attempting to do with STAR WARS and the stuff that you brought to THE DEAD LANDS in terms of the archetypical Campbellian journey. Is that the kind of theme that you approached when you were crafting this story, trying to create a universal fairy tale within the highly specified storytelling of the Maori legend?
Yeah, I'm thrilled that you picked up on it so clearly in your review.
The script came to be pretty formed. Glenn Standring had written it maybe 5 years ago, so it was certainly something that I responded to in it. And very much so that I grew up with all of the Star Wars movies being a massive influence on me when I was a kid. You learned about all of that Joseph Campbell stuff when I was at university. When I was at Auckland University doing linguistics and learning a lot more about the Pacific and my place in the world and I found all of that stuff fascinating so it was a real joy to be able to talk about it in The Dead Lands.
There's also echoes of archetypical kung-fu films and action films and other elements that play in to that too. So you're not only drawing upon foundational myths, you're drawing upon foundational action movies. I'm wondering if you could talk about that and your approach as a director in creating something new in action while still appealing to a wider audience?
Very much so, I felt strongly that we sit in the middle of the Pacific, drawing influences from both the Western cinema tradition and the Eastern. Working with XYZ as well, especially, we had a dual approach, which isn't new. George Lucas was being heavily influenced by Kurosawa when he did Star Wars, and Kurosawa was himself influenced by John Ford and great Westerns. I was very aware that Glenn had written a script that had echoes of the Western and the Eastern tradition.
[Raid director] Gareth Evans was really helpful to me in the lead up to pre-production. I had a great chat with him about his approach to action and he was very helpful.
Yeah, that Gareth, such a terrible guy, huh? Never generous with his time
[Laughs]. Yeah, he talked to me about his process. People ask him about it a lot of times but he was very clear about what he does. I didn't want to copy Gareth ,and our process ended up being quite different because not all of our actors were adept with mau rākau, the [Maori] martial art. There was a very different sort of learning curve for them than there might have been for Gareth's team, but at the same time, it was very useful.
What was your own connection to mau rākau? Could you tell audiences that might not be that familiar what what are the unique features of this particular form that looks like a mix of essentially fighting and dance?
That's pretty cool to say the fighting and dance thing I mean dance is still a very important component of Maori expression.
James Cameron, when we were in L.A. last week, gave Xavier Horan who plays Rangi the ultimate compliment. He aske "Who was the guy that plays the second in command? He moves so well!"
Of course I had worked on [Giselle], a ballet movie before this so we really embraced the sort of dance connection when I came to working with mau rākau.
I knew very little about the martial art itself before working on the movie other than the fact that we all as teenagers, children and teenagers, we all grew up with these kinds of stories. As children of the Pacific we all imagined what it would be like back in the day when you had your incredible weaponry and told our stories and played around with broomsticks like that.
We worked with Jamus Webster, this young bloke from Rotorua [on the North Island of NZ] who is young but a foremost practitioner of the martial art. He was one of the actors in the movie too, the guy who ends up getting chopped up early on in the forest. So they underwent a 6 week boot camp with Jamus and the stunt team to learn how to use all of the weapons and to learn the fighting style.
With your film you have the balance between the incredibly specific and the international, you have the distance between the language but still speaking in a universal way, you have the balance between it being an action film and a relationship and a story film, and you have the balance between the story of an individual and the story of a group. What were the decisions about striking the right chord, at making sure you're checking all of those boxes so that it works on all of these myriad levels and not just as some superficial action movie?
That's a great question man, such a great question. And really talks to my approach to all of my movies, which I only began to articulate over the last few years. Largely inspired by a book about Westerns by Jim Kitses ["Horizons West: The Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood"].
In that book, he identifies a set of dichotomies like those that you've just been talking about that define a Western. Things like the gun and the Bible and the new and the old. I was very conscious of working with these - you generously called it balance, but the reality of it was more of a "tension" between classical and innovative.
I should say the key one for us was walking the line of tradition and innovation, so we were very much anxious to be responsible. Authentic is not quite the right word, but we have a sense of responsibility to the culture and yet at the same time a responsibility to be inspired by great action movies of the 80s and 90s.
In practical terms it was a real genuine tension. You can see that based in some of the cinematography - some of the shots are very classical, with that proscenium style images and a lot of them are zoom lenses and hand-held, all that sort of I suppose kinetic, contemporary stuff.
That tension existed throughout the whole process of every single stage of the game up until the sound and the music and the grade [aka colour timing].
The grade is such an important part of the moviemaking process now that the colouring process ended up taking a lot longer than we thought it would. One of the most exciting things about the whole process for me was that we were able to work with the young guy, Sam Chynoweth in London who had coloured the Lego Movie of all things.
Don't say of all things, that movie is a masterpiece.
Well, that's what I mean, you know I found out he was in the other room grading something else and I said we want that guy. It was awesome. When I say it took a long time, he really worked on it in his own time and brought a real passion to it.
The palette of the film feels both nostalgic and at times extremely contemporary. It seems to sweep between something that feels like a long time ago in film and then there are moments where it feels almost documentary. Things become more and more vibrant or less vibrant, become slightly more digital or slightly more analogue for lack of a better word.
Yeah, totally. And that was a key area where that tension was forefront in our minds.
The colour blue was quite a controversial choice for Wirepa's crew. Barbara Darragh, who designed the costumes and I talked a lot about the tui bird, which is a native bird in New Zealand and it's actually the sound, the sound of the tui is the sound that accompanies Mehe in the river.
To choose blue was quite unusual, and again it went back to that tension between tradition and innovation thing.
I was inspired by the artist Shane Cotton's work which uses a lot of vivid blue and I liked the idea of it painting out of the more natural colours of the bush.
In that sense, that was very contemporary and quite an unusual choice, but we made lots of different choices. The haircuts are another thing. Wirepa's crew all have Mohawks, that was an unusual choice again, but we wanted to, we walked that fine line between tradition and innovation.
I've argued that it's not just a good film, it's important in very fundamental ways of telling a very specific and very localized story in an international setting.
We were really aware that we wanted to make an awesome action movie and at the same time we were very aware, yet didn't want to get overburdened by, [the fact that] this is only the second ever full length feature in Maori, and indeed the first really original story.
The first feature was an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, so this was the first story that was set on the ground in these islands back in the day. Ultimately my answer was to say that this was a story we wanted to tell in the way that our ancestors told stories. We've been handed down stories through the generations, through our families. We hear stories for instance about Dakuwaqa the Fijian shark god - Epic, ghostly, mythological stories that I grew up with my dad telling me. Ultimately, we wanted to tell a story that our ancestors would have told in the way that they would have told it if they had access to the kind of tools that we've got access to these days.
That responsibility to share the Maori story could result in a provincialism, where you have notions of "purity" of source in the hopes of unadulteration from outside influence. Of course that's not how stories work. When you have dominant Anglo culture in New Zealand, that's subsuming many of the stories, it's not like there's a pure, Polynesian story that's endemic strictly to New Zealand. All of these stories floated, just as the people floated, island to island. I think what's remarkable about the film is that balance that you are drawing from all of these different springs, these different wells, this story that feels intensely Kiwi, intensely Maori, but obviously has a greater universal fold.
What can I say man, that's very flattering.
For example, some of the weapons that look particular brutal are in fact used in more musical or performative ways normally, no?
The thing that springs to mind listening to you ask that question was Lawrence's audition. Until Lawrence Makoare came in to audition, I was still feeling the tension very strongly.
It was a way to make it that's one very much further of making it a Jean-Claude Van Damme sort of cast a sports star. Wairangi Koopu, who is one of the featured extra types, one of Wirepa's crew, was sitting there as kind of an option for the warrior.
I was aware of Arnold Schwarzenegger and people who had come through as sort of a sports background to end up handling movies like this so at this stage I didn't quite know what type of actor we were looking for. But Lawrence came in and he did this audition scene, a version of one of the more emotional scenes that he had in the movie. His first version was really amazing and I gave him a tiny little bit of direction, a really tiny bit of direction and his second take was incredible. He cried, I cried, Liz Mullane our casting director cried and we all sat down on the floor in a circle and didn't say anything until something like 15 minutes later, at which point Lawrence said in relation to the tears that he had cried, don't you think that would make me weaker? And I said no man, that makes you stronger.
It spoke a lot about the fact that he could be a warrior and vulnerable and be a stronger warrior for being vulnerable. That tension was really key as well. We canI suppose, our softer side and our harder side at the same time, that's very important to me.
Once again, like with the props, you're not locked into expectation or tradition, while still respecting what's come before.
Yeah, the traditional weaponry is so strong here that a lot of the weapons that are used in dance now were weapons originally or are weapons. I like the fact that the soft side and the hard side sit within the culture very easily.
You've shown the film now to Kiwi audiences, Maori audiences and now international audiences. I'm wondering what you've seen differently in seeing the film through the eyes of various people and what you've seen that is shared?
Well, the big achievement for me really was that something like 10% of the whole box office take in New Zealand was taken at one cinema in Manukau in South Auckland. There's a large urban Maori population in that particular part of Auckland, and the fact that it was so embraced by that audience I take a lot of joy from.
At the same time, I was thrilled last week to watch it again in L.A. with James Cameron who said some really beautiful things to me. I've only really seen it in Toronto and Los Angeles internationally, so I love the fact that people are fascinated by the culture. For them it opens a door but at the same time, they can enjoy it on the straight out action movie way that we aimed to make it.