For as long as we have been telling stories there are still those first moments within storytelling that bring with them a sense of historical importance. Speaking with STARBURST, filmmaker Toa Fraser reflected on encountering this responsibility that he found to be mixed with joy. “This is only the first original Māori language feature film… It is a real responsibility, but at the same time a real joy to be able to celebrate language, traditions and customs.” Fraser is a filmmaker that creates an impression of a storyteller using cinema to look to both the heritage of the past while keeping one eye on the present and future, telling us: “The Dead Lands was an opportunity to use the amazing contemporary tools of moviemaking that tell a story in a way that our ancestors would have told their audience.”
During the course of the conversation, Fraser reflected on his youthful encounters with cinema and his attention to the process behind the magic, while offering his thoughts on the theatrical influence on his approach to directing and the role of music and movement within his cinema.
STARBURST: Why did you choose a creative career? Was there one inspirational or defining moment?
Toa Fraser: I suppose the slightly personal answer is that I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark with my nana in Southend when I was around six, and since then I knew that I wanted a career in the movies. As most people do, I underwent the questioning of whether that was a wise thing to pursue in my late teens and early twenties.
I just started writing for theatre at the University of Auckland and I had a couple of plays that were very successful, and so I kind of fell into it. I lucked out really quite early on, and I managed to maintain that vision. I am pleased to be able to say that The Dead Lands has a very strong relationship to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the movies I enjoyed as a kid and as a teenager.
The moment of realisation that films are created is an important moment in our relationship with cinema. Can you recall the point when you realised the experience films had on you were actually created by an entire team of people?
I was always aware of the mechanics of filmmaking. I talked about Raiders, and I remember seeing Star Wars when I was three. I can remember going to the Odeon, Leicester Square and seeing The Empire Strikes Back. Before the age of DVD commentaries and such, there was a whole bunch of behind the scenes stuff available for these kinds of movies - really cool books about the making of the movies. So growing up, I was into the mechanics of moviemaking, and when I was twelve, I wrote to the James Bond producers to ask them if I could make my own James Bond film. I got a letter back from their lawyers in California saying that I couldn't!
But I suppose the moment I thought of when you were asking me the question was when I was working as an usher at a multiplex in Auckland in the mid-nineties. When I first started, there were some incredible movies that were playing: Casino, HEAT, Braveheart and Pulp Fiction. As an usher, one of the things that you had to do was to go in five minutes before the end of the film to wait for the movie to finish in order to open the doors. So I saw the last five minutes of Casino twenty times before I saw the whole movie, and it is quite a cool lesson about watching a movie with objectivity when you know how it is going to end. So if anything, that was the moment that I started watching movies with an objective eye.
How important a role has theatre played in shaping you as both a filmmaker and storyteller? Do you think you would be a different filmmaker without the experience of having worked in the theatre?
I think of myself as an actor's director, although I have worked with some really fantastic cinema technicians and artists; people that have a whole bunch of skills and knowledge about the practical aspects of camera work and making the light look awesome, and the sound sound great. But for me I started my career working with actors in front of audiences, and so on the film set I put the actors first at the start of everyday. The whole mode of working when I am directing is about prioritising for performance, and that ease with the actors comes from my work in theatre. I know that there are directors who are far more comfortable with the tools of filmmaking, but the key tool for me is working with the actors.
You were brought on to direct The Dead Lands by producer Matthew Metcalfe. Can you elaborate on the backstory that led to your involvement with this project?
Yeah, that's right.The producer, Matthew Metcalfe and I met a long time ago now; about seven years ago after I had made my first film Naming Number Two. He asked me to direct My Talks with Dean Spanley, which we made with Peter O' Toole, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown. It was a fantastic, wonderful and beautiful experience, but it was a very different film - dialogue driven with a lot of interiors and very quite formal and classical I'd say. But after that, I wanted to change direction and do something more athletic. It took me a long time to figure out how that was going to manifest. After Matthew and I had had a conversation about it, he came back to me with the idea of making a movie based on a raw New Zealand production of Giselle, with Gillian Murphy the great American Ballet Theatre dancer. So we made that in 2013, and we had a great time doing it. At the same time, we started talking about choreography and an approach to an athletic style of filmmaking that would fit really well with this script that he had: The Dead Lands, written by Glenn Standring. So we became excited about that and he asked me to make it, and I am very grateful that he did.
To follow-up on your point about movement and choreography, we have always perceived film to have a musical, rhythmic and melodic quality. Therein you can look at film as being choreographed, which leads to a comparison to dance, and the action scenes in The Dead Lands tap directly into the musical and choreographic nature of film…
Yeah, that is really apt and really true. As I said, I worked immediately before this on a classical ballet film Giselle, with one of the world's best practitioners of ballet, Gillian Murphy. Her finance, Ethan Stiefel, choreographed it. He’s an amazing choreographer and dancer in his own right too. So the relationship between the action and the dance of Giselle was very much at the forefront of my mind when we began working on The Dead Lands. Not only that, but also the style of martial arts that Jamus Webster, our martial arts specialist, brought to his work and our work was very performative. It had a real musicality as you say, and a dance like element to it as well. All of the actors were awesome dancers and so there was a very strong relationship between dance and action. For me, music is very important and I use a lot of music in my movies. Don McGlashan, who composed the soundtrack for The Dead Lands, he and I have worked together on all of my movies, including a small piece that he wrote for Giselle. So it was a great opportunity to take our collaboration to another place.
Matthew Metcalfe has said that it was essential to take the audience on a journey with The Dead Lands. The negotiation with an action film is to circumvent the inherent weakness of action as being potentially less stimulating than the interpersonal moments. With The Dead Lands, it struck us that you circumvent this by creating that essential journey in which the action punctuates the personal story and experience for the audience. How do you perceive the challenge for the contemporary action film to balance action and human drama in order to make it compelling for an audience?
It’s a real compliment because obviously the risk with makinga movie with a very strong mandate for it to be an action movie is that we could have ended up doing a performance art sort of thing without any story. But also I understand the boredom thing. For me, the comparison is with the James Bond movies. I am pretty familiar with all of those films, and I kind of get bored at the two thirds of the way through moment when it sort of stops existing in the real world, and it just ends up at the baddie headquarters where the plot sort of stops and the big explosion stuff starts. But having said that, Skyfall was a real inspiration for our work on The Dead Lands. What Sam Mendes and the whole team achieved with Skyfall was similar to what you are talking about - making the action work in concert with the character work. The other comparison I suppose is with musicals which I dabbled with a little bit in theatre. It’s a tricky thing to make sure that the story keeps working through the music and songs, especially when you are working on one of those musicals that has dialogue and songs. So I was aware of the pitfalls.
Does travelling into and recreating the past liberate your imagination in a way that working in the present day does not allow?
Absolutely, and I felt liberated making this movie! Dean Spanley is set in a fantastical historical time to, but this is in total myth mode. The time is some random time in the mythical past, and there are a hell of a lot of Joseph Campbell archetypes that permeate the film. I felt very strongly that although it was based in a reality that was far more of a myth for my father, who is from Fiji - which is also in the Pacific, the storytelling traditions are similar to those of Māori, and so those mythical stories that my dad told me growing up of Dakuwaqa the shark-god of Fiji and The Lady of the Falls, for instance, were the kinds of stories that were told between generations. I feel that The Dead Lands was an opportunity to use the amazing contemporary tools of moviemaking to tell a story in a way that our ancestors would have told their audience.
This idea of the use of contemporary technology to keep the past alive so that it can be both discovered and rediscovered by audiences is a significant one.
Well, I realised that it is a real privilege. The Dead Lands is the only second full-length feature in Māori, and the first was the adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. So I believe this is only the first original Māori language feature film. So in terms of what you are talking about, it’s a real responsibility, but at the same time a real joy to be able to celebrate language, traditions and customs; cool weapons and other cool things from the past that a new generation will be able to get excited about.
One of the rewarding aspects of world cinema is the encounter with other languages. The Dead Lands sees you introducing audiences to the less familiar Māori language. Therein, you are using cinema as a means to introduce us to language and sound, which in itself is a privilege.
Yeah, and for me it has a very profound and personal reason behind it because my parents called meToa, which is a Samoan word. It’s a very common word in the Pacific, and in Samoan, Tongan and Māori it means the same thing, which is warrior. But I grew up in Hampshire, England in the countryside, and for me as a kid the name Toa was a very lonely kind of a name. There were no other Toa’s in my class and there was no representation of Toa in James Bond or Indiana Jones movies, which were the kind of things that I was into. So I knew where it came from, but it was a very foreign name. So to have kind of come full circle having now made The Dead Lands and hearing all the actors use the word Toa when they are talking about warriors, and indeed in addressing each other as Toa, for me that feels like a very tangible, profound impact for what we have achieved with this movie. This is just a small example, but I can imagine that there are people who are going to be very thrilled to hear the Māori language spoken in such a beautiful and cinematic way.
THE DEAD LANDS is out now on DVD<iframe style="width:120px;height:240px;" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" src="//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&OneJS=1&Operation=GetAdHtml&MarketPlace=GB&source=ss&ref=ss_til&ad_type=product_link&tracking_id=starburstmaga-21&marketplace=amazon®ion=GB&placement=B00U3PW4AQ&asins=B00U3PW4AQ&linkId=ICAVWKD3IOF2OTDB&show_border=true&link_opens_in_new_window=true"></iframe>