Q&A WITH TOA FRASER

Playwright, filmmaker, and screenwriter Toa Fraser was CPIS’s Fulbright–Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer-in-Residence for 2009. On 25 September 2009, he showed his awardwinning film Naming No. 2, in which the celebrated American actress Ruby Dee plays an aging Fijian matriarch in New Zealand who orders her fractious extended family to come together to prepare a traditional Fijian feast, at which she will name her successor. After the screening, which was cosponsored by the UHM Academy for Creative Media, Fraser answered the following questions from faculty,
students, and community members about the film and his approach to filmmaking.
Q: How did you put the movie together and get funding?
A: We are very lucky in New Zealand because we have the New Zealand Film Commission, which is a governmental body funded for the development, production, and sale of New Zealand feature films, and through that body, which I think was founded in the late 70s–early 80s, New Zealand has seen real success on the national and international stage, particularly with Once Were Warriors, and Niki Caro’s film Whale Rider, so I not only had the opportunity to ride on the coattails of their success, but also Peter Jackson’s work with the infrastructure that he brought to New Zealand with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. . . . King Kong was going into the same post-production process two weeks after us, so King Kong and No. 2 were very much on a parallel path to the big screen. Obviously it is a very different movie, although some of the same actors were involved in it, in very different capacities. . . . Also, the play [on which No. 2 was based] was very successful. I had written a play and started in theater, and Madeleine Sami, for whom I wrote the play, had toured all around the world. It was a one-woman show originally; she played nine characters and toured to Fiji, Mexico, Holland, Australia, London, Jamaica—one of the highlights—and on the back of that success, I was able to meet the right people and get the film made. But it was a real struggle to meet the right people and to convince them I was capable of directing the movie, particularly given that I wanted to make the movie—that street that I shot the movie on was virtually around the corner from my Auntie Clairlene’s house in Mount Roskill. The family in the movie is very similar to my family, so I wanted to make the film with a real sense of responsibility and connection to the neighborhood, and that was a challenge in itself—a challenge but also a real strength as well. Lots of my cousins participated in the movie—most of the extras were related to me—and whenever there was a problem that an ordinary film crew couldn’t solve, my cousins were just a text message away. Like the scene where Erasmus breaks into the car, nobody on the set knew how to break into the car! (laughter).
Q: Do you have any tips for writing?
A: Yes, I do, I’ve got a lot, because I started as a playwright. . . . It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship, I think, most writers’ encounter with that particular discipline—and it is a real discipline. When I was writing No. 2 for the screen, I’d write from 10 o’clock in the morning to 2 o’clock in the afternoon every day, have a break, and then start again at about 8 o’clock and finish at 2 or 3 in the morning. And I did that for four years, five days a week. I wouldn’t recommend that as the most healthy writing regime, and looking back on it I think I probably didn’t do all that much writing during those hours. So these days I spend far less time in front of the computer on any given day. That’s the idea—make the time you do spend in front of the computer a lot more intense. . . . The thing for me about writing is that it’s a real solitary existence, and, as you probably noted from the film, I like people, and my inspiration comes from the street, it doesn’t come from sitting with my back to the world. So the great thing about directing for me is that it is a social thing, it is athletic. I can be in a room with carpenters and lawyers and accountants and make-up artists and actors and musicians and all kinds of people from all over the world and all walks of life, and if I didn’t have that balance to writing, I’d get sick of writing pretty quick. So that and eat lots of fibrous vegetables and protein shakes and drink lots of water, not too much coffee and not too much whiskey!
Q: I think this is a great film. You built a lot of empathy for the characters and showing races and cultures clashing. It reminds me of my own family—it has the essence and real feeling of family; it reminds me of the picnics we used to have . . .
A: Thank you very much. It is interesting that you say that— that it reminds you of picnics—because your saying that reminds me of Poetic Justice, John Singleton’s movie that he made with Janet Jackson straight after Boyz n the Hood. I was very influenced by African-American cinema of the late 80s–early 90s, and there was a picnic scene in Poetic Justice, which I really responded to in a similar way. But talking about those movies I was inspired by, obviously Spike Lee was a really major influence on me in my early writing in my career, and Do the Right Thing . . . was a major influence on No. 2, and you can even see the similarities are pretty obvious. It is all set on one hot summer’s day, and Ruby Dee, who played Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing, and who came to New Zealand to participate in our movie . . . Ossie Davis was involved in Do the Right Thing as well, so I learned a little bit about both through my admiration for Spike Lee’s work, and it was a great honor for me to talk about how do you get a movie made. Rene Naufahu, who plays Erasmus in the movie—he is a filmmaker himself—he’s got a great metaphor. He talks about a limited number of happy and sad vouchers that you have. If you got excited and disappointed at every opportunity, you’d be a wreck, so you only whip out a happy or sad voucher occasionally. The day that Ruby Dee arrived in New Zealand and Auckland was the day I pulled out a big happy voucher—it was like, man, the movie is really going to happen, because we had looked all around the world for a woman to play Nanna Maria, and if we didn’t find that actor, we didn’t really have the movie. She arrived, and it was a very exciting day. She had never been away from her husband, Ossie Davis, for that long, or she hadn’t been that far away, and when I met her, she was on the phone to him. I went home; I got a call in the morning of the next day to say that Ossie Davis had died that night. We were obviously very supportive of her going back to New York to take part in Ossie Davis’s . . . what turned out to be a virtual state funeral with Bill Clinton, and Harry Belafonte, and Wynton Marsalis. And we thought the movie was going to fall. But she came back two weeks later, and one of the things that she said to me before she left, after having met the actors and my family, was that she was looking forward to coming back to the Pacific and celebrating life with us, and that is something that will always stay with me. And something else that she said to me that will always stay with me, as a filmmaker of color, or a Pacific Islands filmmaker. She said, “you have to use your voice or somebody else will use it for you.”
Q: What kind of advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers; what kinds of stories should we tell?
A: Well, I wouldn’t give advice as to what kind of story one tells, the only thing I would say to aspiring filmmakers is that nobody is going to let you tell your story unless you really believe in it. And every step of the way, and I have learned this more since No. 2 really, because I don’t really question how much I believe in No. 2, I absolutely did. But in the aftermath of that, I was kind of at a loss for a while there, trying to figure out what to do next, and I really learnt that if you don’t know what to do then nobody is going to figure it out for you. So the overriding thing that I would say is figure out your voice and figure out your story. Voice was something I struggled with for a long time, and I really have Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt to thank for that. They were my creative writing teachers at Auckland University, and Witi and Albert did a lot of work encouraging my voice. You know when you come from these mixed-race backgrounds, and it is true of everybody in the contemporary world where I’ve been, there are so many different influences, it is really easy to lose yourself in the middle of all of that. And I think it is a real challenge for a storyteller of any form to figure out what “I” have to say.
Q: So much of this story is told visually, through looks and reactions, and that fantastic tracking shot of the house at the end of the movie–that is obviously not how you can tell a story on the stage. How did you make that transition from a dialogue-predominant stage production to a visual production?
A: Thank you, that’s a real compliment. Talking about getting a movie made, that was probably the biggest obstacle when people asked me how I was going to make it work for the big screen, how I was going to take the play and turn it into a visual story. The first thing I would probably say about that is that I grew up with movies. I feel like I fell into the theater by accident, and my first play, No. 2, even though it is dialogue heavy and driven by one actor, I feel it is quite cinematic, and the fact that it was only one actor playing all
the characters meant in a way that it could be . . . to me it felt like a more cinematic form of theater than other forms of theater. I got frustrated trying to write a piece of theater in more traditional form, with lots of actors, because with one actor you can kind of switch between scenes in a lot more cinematic way. So there was that, initially, but at the same time I had confidence in my visual aesthetic, and, as I say, I grew up watching movies—all my earliest influences are Raiders of the Lost Ark and James Bond movies. But at the same time I worked with an incredible cinematographer, Leon Narbey, who is one of New Zealand’s—one of the world’s—great cinematographers. And it was a real joy for me to come in at the end [today] and see that on the big screen. I haven’t seen it on the big screen for a while, and there are some beautiful pictures in there. He’s a real artist, that man. The thing I mentioned about Spike Lee, as well—a lot of people think of his movies as being quite doco-realistic, you know, his subject matter lends that sort of suggestion to his work, but if you look at especially something like Do the Right Thing, they are very theatrical. He’ll paint a whole wall red and do very heightened, theatrical tricks with the camera, so I feel like I had a very solid inspiration for my work.
Q: Did you always have in mind making the film, and had you had much experience in film production?
A: No, I had no experience behind the camera—I hadn’t directed anything before. I had done a few film papers at university and a video production course, not very much. I had a great friend, Allen Guilford, another cinematographer, who was like an uncle to me growing up, and given that he knew I loved movies, I used to hang around with him on film sets when I was a kid, so moviemaking to me didn’t feel like a closed door, if felt like a very accessible thing. But in
answer to your question, yes, I always wanted to make it as a movie, from the get-go. And I remember being at my uncle’s house—Uncle Albert, just around the corner, he was in the movie, one of the early scenes—I was there with my cousins, we were all having barbeque and stuff, and I remember my cousin Drodrolangi, about fifteen. I was telling her about this movie that I wanted to make, but I was going to write it as a play first, and she was, like, “yeah, right.” And the reason I wanted to do that from the get-go was that I had sold the option on my first play, Bare, to a production company in New Zealand. I was fresh out of university, and they offered me a little bit of money for the option, so I said, yeah, buy me a new stereo—and I regretted that pretty quick, because I felt like I had signed away my golden ticket. I think in the Pacific we are really aware that intellectual property . . . all over the world it is important to own your ideas, and knowing that I was going to write No. 2 as a play, I really felt if I was successful and held on to it, that I’d have a chance to make it as a movie.
Q: This is such a moving, and also funny, film; even though there is a lot of drama, there is also a lot of humor.
A: Thank you—I’ve struggled . . . I think Alexander Mackendrick, the great British film director, said don’t try comedy until you’ve really mastered drama, and I don’t feel when I am writing that I’m writing comedy, but I am always delighted when I have written something that I think is funny. . . . I mean it is a joy to have written something that I find I can go back and laugh at. I can say that kind of
objectively because, as I say, my inspiration comes from real people, so when I read the script that I have just written back to myself, it is real people that I’m laughing with. I mean anybody that knows Pacific Islands families like the family in No. 2 is aware that where there are tears, there’s laughter. It’s hard for me to watch No. 2 now. I made it a few years ago—2006—and a lot has changed in that neighborhood since then. People have died, and people got pregnant, and kids have been born. . . there have been a lot of happy stories but a lot of sad stories, too. So I really feel like No. 2 is kind of a little time capsule of a really joyous time in a lot of people’s lives, including mine.
Q: How does it feel to get awards for your work?
A: It’s cool! (laughter) We went to Sundance for this film, and Ruby Dee came from New York. You know, you go to film festivals, and it’s a wise thing to do to take some of the actors with you—and we won the Audience Award at Sundance, so we did a good job on the audience. Ruby Dee was there, and she charmed everybody. But Mia Blake, who plays Charlene, also came, and she got all the free stuff! . . . You know those awards are cool, but the real awards—like this one—the reason I am here in Hawai‘i is that I’m the visiting writer-in-residence thanks to Fulbright and Creative New Zealand. It’s a three-month award, and it gives me the chance to be in a place that is really inspiring. I’ve just spent the best part of two years in England; I made a film, Dean Spanley, and that was a fantastic journey, too, but it is really fantastic to me to be back in the Pacific. . . .
Q: What was the total budget for the film and how much time did it take to film?
A: The total budget was something like four million New Zealand dollars, and I don’t know whether that is much. It was my first movie, and I had a great producer, and a great line producer, and a great AD, people that really kept me on track . . . I am not great with numbers so I am not one of these directors that sit down to figure out how we are going to fit the budget. Having said that, constraints are really important to me; I think that comes from having worked in
theater, especially working in the kind of theater I was working in where there was one actor. I really learned that this created an inspirational thing, to work within the boundaries of whatever constraints you have. So whether or not the budget was that big, we worked within it, and I think the shoot was 33 days and we went over by about two days, which didn’t seem all that controversial at the time. We shot everything in Nanna Maria’s bedroom on the
last day, and, as you know, a lot happens in that room, and it’s kind of the real heart, and the emotional core, of the story, including the scene with Charlene and Nanna Maria, which I think is seven minutes long—it’s a big chunk of the movie. So we had a lot of work to do on that last day, and I think we finished about three o’clock in the morning, after having started at six in the morning. We had gone from being a very big social activity of the whole neighborhood—people would drive past in cars, boys in the neighborhood would
come out and watch the cranes, the floating helium light balloons—but by the time that we got to the bedroom scene, it had shrunk right back down to its theater roots. There were only . . . four guys sitting on the floor watching these two incredible women—actors—portray those characters in that incredibly heart-felt scene . . . it was a real joy for me. We shot that on film, which is a sort of fading piece of
technology, but I remember I got hauled out of the bedroom late at night because one of the producers had heard me—I think he must have picked it up on the microphone—he had heard me say to Mia, who played Charlene, “take as long as you want,” which is a great piece of directorial advice for an actor, for very often actors feel like they have to be in a rush. So I said “take as long as you like, we are going to roll this as long as it takes.” I think it was a Sunday, like midnight, and Tim White, the producer, was like, “we are running out of film and there is no Kodak shop open” . . . so we tried not to let that go on too long. But having that experience informed my work on my next film, Dean Spanley, which we shot on digital. . . . There are lots of pros and cons to digital, but from my point of view, being able to say to the actors, “we might shoot this for twenty minutes,” is a real asset. For me, as director, I feel like my real passion is performance.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the project you are working on now?
A: Yes, I’m writing an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Beach at Falesa, which is a story set in Sa¯moa in the mid-1860s. Alan Sharp, who is a very experienced Scottish screenwriter—he wrote Rob Roy and Ulzana’s Raid and The Hired Hand and a whole bunch of cowboy movies in the 70s—has been writing it on and off for about fifteen years or something like that, and I first heard
about the project when I started in theater. Philippa
Campbell, one of the producers of No. 2, told me about it, and, given my Pacific heritage, it sounded like a fantastic
movie, something that I wanted to be involved in. And coincidentally, or through serendipity, I worked with Alan Sharp on Dean Spanley, my last film, so we’ve kind of come together. I didn’t do any writing on Dean Spanley, but one of the things about The Beach at Falesa that was really important to me was that it have a very strong Pacific voice, given that it is set in the Pacific. For some reason I ended up being the one to write that stuff, so now I am engaged in my second draft, I think, of that story. It is a tough thing to get right—so tough that I had to go to Maui, and hang around with a whole lot of beautiful women! (laughter)