You could say that Toa Fraser was destined to make “The Dead Lands” from the time he was born. Although best known as the gentle storyteller behind such films as his 2006 debut “Naming Number Two” about a matriarch who has gathered her family to pick a successor for her Fijian clan or the canine comedy “My Talks with Dean Spanley” after honing his craft as a playwright, Fraser had been waiting to make a film that lived up to his first name, meaning “Warrior” in Maori that was given to him by his father from the Pacific Islands.
“When growing up, I felt my name was very weird,” recalls Fraser, who nonetheless did justice to it by becoming a devotee of the action adventure genre in the ’80s indoors and a rugby competitor outdoors. “Nobody else that I knew was called Toa and there was no Toa in “Indiana Jones” movies, so to make a movie in which the word ‘Toa’ is spoken with such pride, all that was a very wonderful fulfilling experience.”
In fact, Fraser has become the pride of an entire country with “The Dead Lands,” New Zealand’s rock ’em, sock ’em entry into this year’s Academy Award race for Best Foreign Language film, an epic story that not only depicts a side of the country that’s all too rarely seen in reaching back into the deep history of the Maori people before European colonists arrived, but an aspect of their culture that has never really been seen before on film in Mau Rakau, a style of martial arts that was developed by their tribes. So packed with action that a fire alarm during its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival paled in comparison, “The Dead Lands” tracks the story of a young man named Hongi (James Rolleston, grown up quite a bit since first appearing in Taika Waititi’s “Boy”) who is falsely accused of desecrating the land of his ancestors by a rival tribe and enlists the help of a legendary albeit long out of commission warrior (Lawrence Makoare) to clear his name and get revenge.
Although their journey gets complicated quickly as the two have to travel through the titular land of unpredictable jungle terrain and the ever-present spectre of ghosts, their travels may only be slightly more difficult than the road Fraser had to travel to get “The Dead Lands” made, fusing fierce hand-to-hand combat with the emotional story of two men trying to find their identity in a community where tradition often defines it for them. During a recent trip out to Los Angeles, Fraser spoke about mental and physical preparation he required of his cast and of himself to make the film, translating the Maori method of storytelling to the screen and having the opportunity to make a deeply personal film that’s also an action flick.
How did this come about?
My producer Matthew Mecca, who I have done two other films with, asked me to do it – he had Glenn Standring’s script and I really jumped at the opportunity because I had been an action adventure fan in movies like this. We did not know how good we had it in the 80s and 90s for those kind of things and I grew up watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and James Bond movies, and as a teenager, “Batman” and “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon.” But it also was a wonderful coincidence for me personally that it was Maori. I’m not Maori myself, but my daughters are and my father is from Fiji and our cultures are very similar.
Martial arts is a part of Maori culture that I don’t ever remember being depicted before. Did you actually know about it before getting the script?
Not a surprise at all. Maori is an official language of New Zealand, so it is very much an integral part of our identity and these kinds of big action stories of our ancestors is stuff that we all as kids and teenagers all imagine. It was very easy to get athletic action-oriented performances out of all the main cast because they had all grown up throwing spears at each other and using broomsticks as weapons. But it is totally unique [in how] ambitious it is and in fact, nobody has done a movie set in precolonialism before, which is crazy because the material is so rich. Our ambition obviously with this one was to make it good so that many more stories like this could get the opportunity to be made.
It seems like you made a real point of letting the story unfold as if it were one of those folk tales that’s passed on from one generation to the next. Was it tricky to translate that into visual storytelling?
My dad is from Fiji and he grew up with a very strong handed down storytelling tradition. His father was a sailor and he spoke nine Pacific languages and made three journeys across the world, so i grew up very much with that sort of mythic, folklore kind of storytelling. Not just stories of Ulysses in Greece and the classic European ones, but also very much the classic Pacific mythologies. He has passed away now, but he was a great academic.
In the Pacific, Epeli Hau’ofa, who was a friend of mine, wrote a book “Our Sea of Islands” and in the opening to his book, he talks about how the Pacific Ocean was never an obstacle for our people – it was always an exciting opportunity. When we tell stories about our ancestors, we tell them on a big, big scale and it was not [about the] details. There is one story about a warrior who threw a javelin so hard it went over the horizon, right around the world and came back and hit him in the back. So we wanted to tell this story in a way that I imagined our ancestors would if they had access to the kind of movie equipment that we have now.
How did you find your leads who could be convincing as warriors but also pull off the dramatic side?
I have to admit I had only seen Lawrence in “Lord of the Rings” and the James Bond movie [“Die Another Day”] and I was reluctant when Liz Mullane, our casting director, suggested him. He came in to do his audition and he did a version of one of the more moving scenes of the film, then I gave him a little bit of direction and he did another version that was amazing. He sat down on the floor crying, I sat down on the floor crying, then Liz – we all sat down on the floor cross legged in a circle because it was such a profound moment. At that moment, I really realized that we had found not just the guy to play that character but also the real way into a movie. There was a way to make this more of a Jean-Claude Van Damme/Steven Seagal-type movie, but Lawrence was able to bring a gravity that really turned it up.
James [Rolleston] is an incredible young actor who I had not met before, but I was a fan of “Boy” and wondered what he might look like in four years time. He’s flourished into an athlete and a really charming young man. Interestingly, he is the first actor I have ever worked with that I realized quite quickly that his performance got worse the more I directed. Such a great intuition and great instinct, he really knows what he is doing. My job was to step back and let him go.
But in general, working with a lot of the guys who played the warriors, we all grew up with the same movies, so it was really easy to give them direction. For instance, when they take the lid of the weapons cache, it is made of polystyrene, but you’ve got to imagine that is like a scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and just as heavy. In fact, the scene where they throw like javelins, we only had like half an hour to shoot that whole scene, so I said to these guys, “Just chuck these spears, man.” They are like such athletes, if this was in any other hands, it would have been a lot longer shooting this.
There appear to be a lot of scenes shot at night, which must’ve made filming especially difficult.
We did not shoot that many nights in the end, but night shoots were tough. The toughest thing about it – and actually, it was a privilege – was that we shot in some incredible locations at night, [among them] a particularly beautiful farm in West Auckland. To get to a lot of the locations, you had to climb into these big massive trucks and go up to the top of the mountain, so it was an adventure going up through the jungle in the middle of the night in these big trucks. It was also cold and I have to say I admired all the cast who had to have their shirts off the whole time.
Did it actually take a lot of scouting to figure out which locations you wanted to use?
That was actually the hardest part of the job for me. I felt a little disappointed that I was not spending the amount of time that I wanted to with the actors because I was doing so much location scouting. But Sally Cherrette, our locations manager, was really one of the unsung heroes of the movie. She had a difficult task because we were a relatively low budget picture, so we had a limited radius that we could go out to. Most of the locations that we shot at were under an hour’s drive from downtown Auckland, but that turned out to be cool in itself to be reminded what kind of natural beauty there was right on our doorstop. You can be in downtown Auckland and be on a beach like the beach at the beginning of the movie within 40 minutes.
Your last film “Giselle” actually was the story of a ballet dancer, which made me wonder whether there was any crossover to “The Dead Lands” given the way you capture movement during the action scenes.
It was a great crossover and not just in the obvious ways. I had fantastic time working with Ethan Stiefel, the great American dancer who choreographed “Giselle” with Johan Kobborg, and I told him because he is a martial artist as well as a ballet dancer that I was going to go on to do a Maori martial arts film. We talked quite a lot about the body language that he perceived to be appropriate for a warrior and it was all about getting grounded and low center of gravity.
Ballet dancers are also such extreme athletes that that experience [on “Giselle”] really set a standard for me working with the actors on “The Dead Lands” – they all were going to have to be in incredible shape and do most of the action themselves. We put them into a four-week boot camp and I trained personally with Lawrence Makoare for four weeks prior to the boot camp, so the whole physical [preparation] was a very holistic approach inspired by the ballet process.
Is it true you developed a language of action with your fight coordinator?
It was a very fulfilling part of the process actually. It started bare bones and Lawrence was pretty out of shape when we started, so I committed to doing four weeks of training with him in this very low-fi, sparse car park-type gym, and Josh Randall, a physical trainer who is a mixed martial arts artist himself, gave us the kind of guidance in those four weeks that was really incredible not just on a physical fitness level, but on a deeper [level where] it digs deep into your psyche where you can feel where your edge is. Then I worked with our stunt coordinator Steve McQuillan and Jamus Webster, who is a Maori martial arts expert, and combining those two – the craft of the film stunts and the craft and spirit of the Mau Rakau martial arts was very delicate and very exciting process too.
Given all the epic battle scenes, was there a particularly crazy day on set?
We were on a relatively short schedule, so we were under pressure every day. But I suppose the craziest day was finding that balance of character and action in a couple of scenes towards the end of the movie. Xavier Horan and Lawrence had a very big fight to shoot that day and I felt bad for Xavier, who is a great friend of mine, because he was waiting in the wings to do his fight scene and we were doing all this drama stuff. In the end, we only had three hours to shoot his whole fight, but Xavier and Lawrence really brought it and now it’s my favorite fight of the movie.
Is it true you were able to take a two-week break in the middle of shooting to reflect on what you had shot?
That was great actually because I do not know how it is here [in the U.S.], but everything shuts down in New Zealand because Christmas is in the summer time. So we had to stop for a couple of weeks around Christmas and it was awesome because we had the big fight in the middle of the movie – it was shot in the first week – and having done that and then having a couple of weeks off, we could rethink the whole approach.
It was a great opportunity for Lawrence. I have to say I was worried because we had done two months of training and you think what are these blokes going to do at Christmas time? Lawrence went away camping with his family and apparently, he was training like “Rocky IV” every day, carrying logs and buckets of water. He came back in incredible shape. Everybody was blown away by his self-dedication. He wasn’t drinking, all his family [wondered],”What are you doing?” He was like “I’m training, man.”