Toa Fraser on ‘The Dead Lands’, Uplifting New Zealand Cinema
Set in pre-colonial New Zealand, The Dead Lands follows a Maori boy (James Rolleston) who recruits a legendary warrior (Lawrence Makoare) to help him avenge his tribe and father, who were slaughtered in a violent act of treachery. Directed by Toa Fraser, the film is a brutal, grimy tale of revenge that focuses on Maori martial arts, a form of combat seldom, if ever, seen on-screen. It’s a rare representation of New Zealand culture in its purest form, as well as a thrilling beat-’em-up in the vein of ’80s and ’90s action classics like Rambo and Predator. We recently spoke to Fraser about representing New Zealand cinema, his partnership with Gareth Evans and the Raid crew, the tradition of physical expression in New Zealand, actors acting with their bodies, constraints fueling creativity, and much more.
The Dead Lands is out in limited release today.
Coming from an American perspective, The Dead Lands is unique on several levels, especially because my familiarity with the Maori is so limited.
Me and all the cast grew up watching Terminator 2 and Commando, so from our point of view, it was an opportunity to tell a story in our world in a way that we wanted to when we were kids, playing with broomsticks and smacking each other over the head, wondering what it would be like to be one of our ancestors. There’s a great storytelling tradition we grew up with, stories from the Pacific that have been handed down from generation to generation. They were told in a particular kind of way, and they often had this ghostly quality to them, as well as an athletic, muscly quality. We wanted to tell the story in the way our ancestors might have if they had access to the tools and equipment we have these days.
The film’s mostly been talked about as an action movie, and while it is, I think it’s better categorized as a martial arts movie. Is that fair?
Yeah, sure. We worked with XYZ Films on this and Gareth Evans was really helpful to me. I had a great couple of conversations with him. All of those Raid guys have been very supportive of us. There was this really awesome sort of conversation across the ocean between Indonesia and New Zealand during pre-production. New Zealand kind of sits in the middle of Western and Eastern storytelling traditions.
The fighting is really in-your-face and intimate, really small-scale.
We wanted to do that. There was a way to make this film with a bigger budget, with helicopter shots and wires and slow motion, but we wanted to keep it bare-bones, raw, and real, but with a graphic novel quality as well. It’s a film that draws from many influences across the world.
If I’m being honest, I’ve lived a very sheltered life. I’ve never been in a real fight, and I haven’t inflicted much physical harm on anyone else. So watching your characters, whose lives and culture are so ingrained in violence, is really fascinating to me. Can you talk about the psychology of your characters, who answer the call to violence so readily?
I suppose the most important thing that springs to mind while listening to you speak is this idea of there being a sense of a code of violence and combat in this world. That was really important to us when we were making the movie. There’s not just fighting, but a lot of pre-fight theatricality and dance and posturing, that tongue-waggling stuff, which is as important as the fighting, almost. My experience growing up as a teenager in Auckland…I was involved in fights growing up. It was quite a part of our culture. We were really aware that violence was a major part of the language of this movie, but at the same time we wanted to talk about the code around it as well.
I talk about this a lot: I think not enough attention is given to actors who act with their bodies. I think your actors are phenomenally expressive storytellers with their bodies.
That’s awesome. A great compliment. That comes from theater as much as anything else. A lot of these guys come from a theater tradition. In fact, there was a production of Troilus and Cressida in Maori at Shakespeare’s Globe in London about a year and a half before we made this movie, and a lot of the actors that were involved in that, their performances inspired the production of our movie. When we were in L.A. last week, James Cameron gave Xavier Horan a similar compliment. He said, “He moves so well.” It was a beautiful compliment. Our culture is very physically expressive: We love rugby and dancing, and it’s a very strong way of expressing ourselves, through physicality.
Whenever you’re watching the Academy Awards and they show clips of the acting nominees, we only ever see them doing these dialogue scenes in little rooms. We never see someone praised for expressing themselves with their bodies.
I did a dance film before this, Giselle, and I worked closely with Ethan Stiefel on that, the great American choreographer. He’s a martial arts guy himself, so we talked a lot about, for this film, the body language of a warrior and what he thought a warrior would move like. Low center of gravity, a lot of weight in the knees. I totally agree with you.
I think Lawrence Makoare’s physical stuff is great. Whether he’s beating people up or laying on the ground hurt, he’s a great storyteller. What discussions did you have with him about his physical performance before shooting?
I didn’t really know what kind of movie I was going to make until Lawrence came in and did his audition. He did a performance of one of the emotional scenes that was pretty good. I gave him a tiny bit of direction, and his next version was amazing. We all sat around on the floor crying. Lawrence, referring to his tears, said, “Don’t you think this will make me weaker?” I said, “No, it makes you stronger.” He was a long way away physically and linguistically from where he wanted to be for that character, so I trained with him and a trainer for four weeks. It was hell. When it came to shooting, we didn’t have to talk much. We had each others’ back.
You’ve said that movies done in pre-colonialism New Zealand don’t really exist, and that it’s an untapped time in history. Would you like to revisit the time period again?
I loved making this movie, and it’s very much in the tradition of the stories we grew up with. In terms of New Zealand cinema, this is only the second full-length feature film in Maori. We were very aware that we were tentatively opening a door, and we worked hard to make sure the door was opened properly.
You’ve also said that you’re a big proponent of creativity being born of constraints. Can you give me a specific example of how constraints helped your creativity on this film?
I guess I mentioned it before, but going for a very brutal, dusty, sweaty, bloody kind of style was born out of constraints. We didn’t have a massive budget, so we didn’t have drone cameras or helicopter shots. The whole ethos was born of a tight schedule and a desire to tell a story in a way that we feel is very much a part of us.
There’s a nighttime fight scene in the film that looks incredible.
That was a real collaboration over months to get that scene to look right, from the beautiful location of Piha Beach in Auckland to the post-production facilities in London. Raukura Turei, who plays Mehe, the only female warrior in the movie, had a big sense of responsibility herself. When she rehearsed the scene she was doing it on a nice clean floor, but I forgot to tell her we’d be doing it in a stream and that there would be rocks under her feet. But the real key to the look of that scene was Leon Narbey’s great cinematography, but also a very talented colorist in London named Sam Chynoweth. Grading and coloring movies is such a massive part of the process these days. When I found out he was working in the building, I said, “We need that guy!” Turns out Sam was one of the guys who colored The LEGO Movie, which is one of the massive achievements in visual pizazz in the last ten years. He worked really hard. We actually shot that scene in daytime. If you’re into the look of that scene, it’s largely down to a modest guy in a post-production place in London.