Toa Fraser spoke to screeNZ at the Toronto Film Festival about his intentions behind making The Dead Lands which has premiered at TIFF and now also been shown to NZ media.
Written by Glenn Standring (The Irrefutable Truth About Demons, Perfect Creature, Skitzo), The Dead Lands relates the coming-of-age quest of Hongi (James Rolleston) who seeks revenge for an ambush – a quest he’s ill-equipped to complete.
Steeped in the pre-colonial times and its mythical belief systems, The Dead Lands and its boy hero ventures into the haunted “dead land” which no mortal being dares to thread. There he encounters a beastly warrior (Lawrence Makoare). It’s an archetypal story in the best Joseph Campbell tradition.
Standring ”has a Māori background which he hasn’t particularly identified with in his life,” Fraser explained to screeNZ in Toronto. It’s not because one might be a half-Māori, degrees that Europeans commonly use to describe their varied ancestry (say, ”half Polish, half Jewish”, and so forth). ”We don’t really talk about fractions anymore. If you’re a Māori, you’re a Māori.”
That exploration of self and identity resulted in the screenplay which Standring sold to producer Matthew Metcalfe quite some years ago. The project wasn’t devised with Fraser in mind and it’s not known why Standring did not take on the chore of directing the picture himself.
”It kind of sat dormant for a few years,” said Fraser, who didn’t know about it until two or three years ago when he and Metcalfe brainstormed about another potential collaboration following Dean Spanley.
80s action movies meet Māori culture
Although Standring wrote it in English, the author’s intention was that it be spoken in Māori. Fraser gives Hollywood treatment to the material.
”Apocalypto was a reference to this, obviously,” said Fraser. The cast had a tough time adjusting to their native lingo. They only realized how hard it would be to spend an entire feature speaking in a strange language which they don’t speak fluently when they received the Māori-language script (after reading the English version) and couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Working in the mid-90s as an usher in an Auckland multiplex (not long after Metcalfe had left, coincidentally), Fraser had ample time to soak up the aesthetics of action-driven Hollywood cinema. ”We had to stay in the screenings, I can’t remember why.”
He saw the likes of Casino, Braveheart, Pulp Fiction many times. Fraser also acknowledged Michael Mann’s Heat as a reference for making The Dead Lands.
The film plays out as one big, unending martial arts extravaganza which obviously called for meticulously choreographed fight sequences. (The cast had 6 weeks to rehearse them during pre-production.)
”My initial thoughts were that there are a few ways to make it. It could be made in a sort of serious way, and I was determined to make it more as an action-adventure, fighting story. A really gritty, visceral, fun experience as well as having hopefully the depth that the actors were able to portray.”
This is apparently a ”graphic novel approach,” with a very singular focus on the kinetic energy of the performers. Fraser also had 300 on his mind while devising the tone and look of the film.
The protagonists cast menacing glances left and right. Their furor and the monsterish, growling intonation of their lines are definitely in The Lord of the Rings territory. It feels a bit mannered and overwrought at times, but the moving, soulful performance by Rolston thankfully delivers a layer of subtlety to the proceedings.
In his approach Fraser is perhaps more Hollywoodian than some Hollywood filmmakers. ”I’m happy to accept that tag. We had a really great time having fun with referencing films like Commando and Beverly Hills Cop. I don’t have to give these guys a lot of directions. Because I’d just say, ”Okay, it’s like the Commando moment, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Every one of them got that.”
”Growing up I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, the James Bond movies. I discovered recently a book that I had when I must have been 10 or 11, a film yearbook with critical studies of movies of the past year and they were all talking about how Rambo and Rocky IV, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the muscular hero had taken over from spaceships as being this prime commercial commodity in Hollywood at the time.” From steel to men of steel.
Gratuitous or not
How daring it is to turn a piece of Māori culture into essentially a comic book? ”I suppose the most obvious reference point would be Geoff Murphy’s Utu. I studied it at university.”
Other than that, there’s really kind of no precedent. ”When you say it like that, it sounds like a really crazy, ambitious idea, but on the other hand it’s kind of a dumb, obvious idea. There’s this wealth of mythological, physical and visceral stories that are waiting to be told in the Pacific. And it’s kind of crazy that nobody tried to do it before.”
”My heritage is Fijian Samoan on my father’s side. And growing up in a Pacific Island community and culture as a teenager we loved expressing ourselves physically.” Violence was always considered more healthy than repressing one’s energies. At a private school in England, ”I felt totally out of place. And very depressed. In New Zealand if you had a problem with somebody at lunchtime, you had a fight by going-home-time.”
But isn’t he afraid that the film may be labeled as one that revels in physical violence somewhat gratuitously? ”Not really. In an age when planes get blown out of the sky, and children get bombed from miles away? Obviously there is a flipside to violence, a darkness to it. On one hand the film says how cool violence is. There is no way getting away from it. And on the other hand, there is a journey where the two main characters discuss violence and talk about the consequences of violence and talk about redemption. I wanted to do a movie that doesn’t give one side of the coin, but both: the seductiveness of violence and the destructiveness of violence.”
After a delayed premiere courtesy of a fire alarm, Fraser was satisfied. Early reviews were mostly positive. Since those, Twitch’s Jason Gorber has added a thoughtful and positive assessment which concluded
An engaging film with strong commitments from those on screen, the visit to The Dead Lands is both epic and intimate. Audience expectations should be tempered, as the film defies easy categorization, and those expecting a simple action film may be disappointed. Still, for those willing to take the journey, and who are willing to be patient as it tells its tale with a mix of kinetic brutality and introspective spiritualism, The Dead Lands proves to be a memorable, rewarding experience.
The rating is likely to be R-16 in New Zealand. When we met there was no American distributor on board, although XYZ subsequently announced sales in Toronto to Icon Film Distribution for the UK (Icon also distributed Dean Spanley in the UK) as well as sales to France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the Middle East and China. Transmission will distribute here and in Australia.
Metcalfe confirmed to screeNZ that the film will be put forward for consideration as NZ’s submission for the Academy’s Foreign language Oscar, following last year’s White Lies and 2011’s The Orator.
The 30 October NZ release date won’t satisfy the Academy criteria, which include the requirements
The motion picture must be first released in the country submitting it no earlier than October 1, 2013, and no later than September 30, 2014, and be first publicly exhibited for at least seven consecutive days in a commercial motion picture theater for the profit of the producer and exhibitor.
… The picture must be advertised and exploited during its theatrical release in a manner considered normal and customary to the industry.
One assumes that, as happened withThe Orator, there’ll be some very quiet early screenings with no fanfare which, hopefully, will pass unnoticed so as not to interfere with the momentum toward the general release.