MAHANA – interview with Lee Tamahori


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Mahana is a powerful new period drama from New Zealand exploring themes of masculinity, Maori identity and pride. It is the new film from New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, best known for the powerful Once Were Warriors. It is his first film shot in New Zealand after nearly two decades working abroad on big budget action films like Die Another Day, etc. Greg spoke to Lee about the film, which reunites him with actor Temuera Morrison.

Twenty years ago Lee Tamahori gave us one of the best films to come out of New Zealand with Once Were Warriors, an exploration of masculinity, violence, family and Maori pride. After spending over a decade working overseas with actors of the calibre of Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman and Nicolas Cage on large scale big budget Hollywood action films like The Edge, Mulholland Falls, Along Came A Spider, the Bond adventure Die Another Day, XXX: State Of The Union, etc, Tamahori returns home for this powerful, uplifting and moving drama set in rural New Zealand in the early 60s. Based on a novel written by close friend Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), Mahana shares a number of similar themes, although it is nowhere near as gritty or disturbing.  A familiar theme of Ihimaera’s is that of the young having to seize their time from the old, who will not give it up willingly.
“I’ve always wanted to do one of his stories,” Tamahori says. He confesses that he was offered the chance to do Whale Rider, but turned it down having just made Once Were Warriors. “I didn’t want to do another Maori story so quickly after that,” he adds. “I’m really happy that Nicky Caro picked up the reins on that one and made it what it was, because I would have made it differently.  But I would wait forever for a good story from Witi to come up. Mahana came along when I least expected it.”
Tamahori worked closely with John Collee (writer of Happy Feet, Master And Commander, etc) to adapt Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha: King Of The Gypsies. “I really loved getting in the trenches and shaping up the screenplay,” he adds.  “Books are usually pretty impossible to film because they’re huge and cover a large cast of characters. In the book on which Mahana is based there’s something like 146 characters, so you’ve got to strip them down and make it more palatable and tell a story that runs two hours long.
“I wanted a good writer to write the screenplay, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it had to be a New Zealand writer who understood Maori. Because we had the source material from Witi I made a case to my producer that anybody could be capable of doing this if they were a good writer.” She suggested Collee. Tamahori was working on another film at the time, but he met John and worked out the parameters of what they needed to do, then went away back to making his film. “I think probably we did at least six drafts. That took up two years before I came back and shot it last year.
“I loved working with John. We met and I really liked his sensibilities, and we got down to work. I said to him: ‘Don’t worry about any of the Maori aspects of the story, we’ll fix that up. What I need you to do is fix the character and narrative structure of the picture.’ It was a great process and I enjoyed it immensely. I would love to work with John again because we had a great time.”
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Mahana reunites Tamahori with his Once Were Warriors star Temuera Morrison, who has a fierce, commanding and intimidating screen presence as the strict patriarch. When it came to this film Tamahori was a bit reticent about hiring Morrison because his portrayal of Jake Heke in Once Were Warriors looms so large. “I didn’t want people coming into the cinema thinking it was the same character,” he admits. “But in the end I thought of the time difference – it has been 20 years and he’s become older – and this is an entirely different kind of story. They’re not similar at all.
“He’s a tough character but not a brutal character. I thought this would give him a chance to play another version of himself, a very patriarchal character, and I think he did it with great aplomb. Jake Heke was a man who didn’t give a damn about his family. He always felt that they should stand on their own two feet to survive because it’s a tough world out there, and they could go to hell if they couldn’t. In Mahana his main mission in life is to keep his family – his large sprawling family – fed and in good shape. In order to do that he becomes very dictatorial and authoritarian, but he kind of likes that side of things as well. But he’s a very different character and there are very few similarities.”
Both Morrison and Tamahori have enjoyed successful careers in Hollywood, and the pair compared notes about their experiences during the shooting of Mahana. “We’d laugh about a few things,” Tamahori says with a rueful laugh. “Actually Temuera is better known for playing Jango Fett, the bounty hunter from Star Wars than he is for Once Were Warriors. He’s far more better known for that than he is for his any of his roles in New Zealand.” In Star Wars Episode II: The Attack Of The Clones, the second film in George Lucas’s rebooted franchise, Morrison was cast as Fett, a renowned human bounty hunter, assassin, mercenary, and the “father” of Boba Fett. Morrison laughs at the fact that he attends all these Star Wars fan sites and ComicCon conventions, says Tamahori.
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Standing up to Morrison’s authoritarian grandfather is fourteen year old Simeon (played by newcomer Akuhata Keefe), who begins to question some of his beliefs. The consequences of his defiance though lead to rift in the family but ultimately to a reconciliation and the revelation of some long hidden secrets about the truth behind the family’s long running bitter feud with their neighbours, the Poata family. Tamahori explains that they found Keefe through an open casting call. “We were dealing with a lot of nonprofessional or semi-professional actors because we don’t have a lot of professional actors under the age of 16 as they are still in the school system,” he recalls.
“I was auditioning a lot of people from the main cities who had worked on commercials or on films before. I’m always wary of those youngsters because they’re very confident. But they’ve learned a lot of mannerisms or tricks, and you can see them acting, and didn’t want that. I wanted a natural character. And Artura walked in off the street.” Apparently Keefe’s aunt had seen an ad in the paper looking for an actor, and suggested that go and try out. “I just loved him straight off the bat, and he had every essence and quality that I was looking for.”
Tamahori admits that he was a meticulous stickler for period detail on this film, because it actually mirrors aspects of his own life growing up as a youngster. “We wanted to be as authentic as possible,” he says, “especially when it came to the clothes, the hair and the make-up, and the way people talked and the cars they drove. You’ll notice that there’s a car chase, featuring a bunch of English vehicles. I was very adamant about that. I said that at that period of time there really were no Fords or Holdens, there were American or British cars, Vauxhalls, all those kind of junky cars.”
Mahana has the feel of an American western, and Tamahori says that was very deliberate because the Maoris loved that genre more than any other at that period of time. There is a scene in the film where the Maori audience is watching the 1957 western 3:10 To Yuma. “I’m a great fan of the original,” he says. “It’s one of my favourite films. It’s written by Elmore Leonard, the crime writer, and it was one of his first writing gigs in Hollywood, and it has such a simple story.” The film was remade recently into a high octane piece with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. “But that’s not the film I wanted to reference at all,” he continues.
“The original film was much simpler than the remake, it was very much a low budget B-grade western shot by a director called Delmar Daves. Van Heflin was one of my favourite actors from the 1950s and I’m a great lover of the American western. I’m not that fond of Glenn Ford but this was definitely one of his better roles. They were both so good in this.
“And getting the rights to the material was not difficult at all,” he continues. “In fact Van Heflin’s estate was shocked that someone was wanting to get the rights to use his father’s image, and that was very encouraging indeed. I think they were very pleased to do that. And the same with Glenn Ford’s estate. The trickiest thing was actually getting the music rights to the song 3:10 To Yuma, which is always fraught with peril because there are some many players and collaborators and you’ve got to track them all down. The negotiations were very simple for the rights to use about ten minutes of cinematic image. It only cost so many thousands of dollars.”
The sheep shearing contest is the centre piece of the movie, and there is a big revelation during the middle of it. The sequence itself took a whole week to shoot, and the crew went through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sheep. Tamahori often had to do multiple takes. “Once you start shearing a sheep and you cut the camera half way through the sheep is half shorn, you can’t pick it up from where you left off,” he elaborates. “You have to start again, finish the shot of shearing the sheep, send it down the chute and get another one in and start again. We brought in real shearers and we taught the actors how to shear and look authentic. It was really a well oiled operation. I loved it. I don’t know what the Australian landscape is like any more for shearing. Sheep shearing used to be a very unionised and rugged part of the Australian landscape, and probably still is, and it still is in New Zealand, but it’s changed. It’s a young man’s game now, and even a young woman’s game nowadays; there are champion gun shearers who are female now.”
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The film looks gorgeous thanks to the widescreen cinematography of Ginny Loane (Shopping, etc). Tamahori wanted to work with a whole new crew that he’d never worked with before. “I feel that it is quite refreshing and innovative,” he explains. “You have to reteach yourself every time you do that rather than fall back on regular collaborators. Because once you work with the same dop and designers all the time you tend to fall back into using the same old tricks.
“I’d been away from NZ for twenty years and I was looking for a new dop, someone with a new eye. Ginny had shot a small independent film about five or six years ago, and she had done a beautiful job and gave it a great look.” Tamahori met her in the Czech republic when they were both working there on different projects. He liked her work and hired her on the spot. Tamahori noted with pride that she recently won cinematographer of the year for her work on Mahana. “Cinematography is one of the last bastions of male dominance of the film industry and it’s great to see women coming through and breaking through that glass ceiling.”
Tamahori reflects on the fact that Mahana hasn’t performed well at the box office, especially amongst the younger cinema going demographic in New Zealand. “It’s a period film about a bygone era and it deals with the older generation, so young people didn’t go and see it here. There was nothing there to attract them to go see it,” he concludes pragmatically.

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