Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Isle filmmaker makes
his triumphant return

David Cunningham plots his
next move after the success of
'To End All Wars'

By Tim Ryan

The last time I saw David Cunningham he was sitting on a brown folding chair under a blue tarp to protect himself from a Kauai downpour, an opened, dog-eared script on his lap, cell phones pinned to both ears, and he was giving orders to three assistants setting up scenes for his film "To End All Wars."

There was not an iota of glamour surrounding this independent filmmaker, born and raised on the Big Island. It was hard to tell whether he was sweating due to the humidity of the Lawai valley setting, or his exasperation in trying to raise funds, by phone, to complete it.

There were no smiles that day two years ago; now Cunningham is smiling a lot.

"To End All Wars" is completed, and received favorable reviews at the Toronto, Telluride and Mill Valley film festivals. Now the filmmaker is bringing his $14 million project home to Hawaii where it will open the Hawaii International Film Festival.

"I'm excited about showing it to all the people who worked on it," Cunningham said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "I want to try to stay as connected to Hawaii as much as possible."

Cunningham will travel to Hawaii with his wife and 14-month-old daughter who was born in Waimea on the Big Island. The in-laws and other relatives live in Hawaii as well.

Bringing "To End All Wars" to screen was a very tough experience, Cunningham said. The Sept. 11 attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York had just occurred when the Toronto premiere of the film was to be held.

"We had planned to do a big deal, but it ended up being extremely diffused," he said. "We didn't do the red carpet thing and (co-star) Kiefer Sutherland didn't come."

Many film critics didn't come to the festival either. "Now we're doing a million little screenings for critics and distribution execs trying to catch up with what we missed," he said.

The production ran out of money about halfway through filming when the stock market crashed and several dot-com investors pulled out. That meant that Cunningham and partner Jack Hafer had to shop a raw cut of the film until a British company, Gold Crest Films, put up the million-plus dollars for post-production. Even with this savior, financial problems added nine months to completing the film.

"It's so hard to mount a project of this size with no financing, but you do whatever it takes when you believe in the work," Cunningham said.

In spite of the film's title, Cunningham says "To End All Wars" is not a war picture. "A war is the backdrop. It's about men struggling, about justice, hatred and mercy; a lot of things our country is dealing with right now."

Having to get financing late in the project meant showing the film to financiers who made suggestions "when they shouldn't give suggestions."

"To get deals you have to go through that," he said. "I went through an extra layer of pain that will not happen again."

That's already proving true, as "To End All Wars" has already opened doors for him. He recently signed to direct a film called "Rebels," the story of Vermont founder Ethan Allen, who with his brothers took on the British. The picture is expected to begin production in spring.

Casey Silvers, president of Casey Silver Productions and former head of Universal, is producing the film; John Fusco, who wrote "Young Guns" and "Thunderheart," is writing the screenplay. Cunningham, who has just returned from a two-week scouting trip to Vermont with Fusco, also has signed with the William Morris Agency.

Cunningham calls the deal "my big break and a healthy transition into the studio world."

"I was never driven to get into the studio world because I didn't know how to do it," he said. "I was afraid things would never happen for me, that I would be standing in line with everyone else."

Cunningham, whose independent filmmaking career included making the Big Island-based "Beyond Paradise," said "there's no short cut" for learning the business. "I got my head around all of it, so strangely I'm not afraid anymore.

"Before I was always one of the guys who had to find funding and cut distribution deals," he said. "With 'Beyond Paradise' I even had to take the film to the theater and count the tickets."

Those days seem over, with backing for "Rebels" already in place, but Cunningham has no plans to buy the requisite Mercedes to signify his success.

"We're making do with just one car," he said. "We're keeping focused on the important things."

'To End All Wars'

On Oahu: 6:30 and 6:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Waikiki Theatres

On neighbor islands: 3, 6:30 and 9:15 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Keauhou Cinemas on the Big Island; on Maui, 8 p.m. Nov. 10 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Castle Theatre; and 6 and 8:30 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Waimea Theatre on Kauai

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