SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
COURTESY CHRISTINA SIMPKINS
Chief Sielu Avea on the set.
The ‘Chief’ takes on Sundance
STORY SUMMARY »
Honolulu filmmaker Brett Wagner remembers the moment the iconic Sundance Film Festival accepted his 21-minute short into its wildly competitive lineup. No matter what went wrong in the next few days, the smile would not leave his face. "That's OK," he'd say. "We got into Sundance."
For the first time, Robert Redford's Park City, Utah-based festival will have substantial representation from Hawaii, as everyone involved with "Chief" -- on and off camera -- is locally based. Wagner wrote and directed the movie about a Samoan chief who, weakened from receiving a traditional "tatau" on his legs, is unable to save his daughter from drowning. So he flees his native land to disappear into a hermetic life as a taxi driver in Honolulu. There, he meets a young Hawaiian girl on the run, living a parallel existence and desperate for his help.
Dana Hankins, who produced "Picture Bride," which won the audience award at Sundance in 1995, produced "Chief." Paul Atkins, who shot the storm footage on the Academy Award-winning "Master and Commander" and spent decades filming for "National Geographic," served as cinematographer. His wife, Grace Atkins, co-produced and recorded the intricate sounds associated with a story that relies far more on ambience than dialogue. Jay Evans edited the film, which he and Wagner struggled to whittle down to the appropriate length to qualify as a short.
A trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center ignited the concept in Wagner -- but not immediately. After watching Chief Sielu Avea, Wagner decided that the funny, charismatic performer should be in a film. This notion floated around in Wagner's head until he "hit an idea for a story."
From New York University film school, Wagner brought what he calls a "Martin Scorsese kind of aesthetic" to the project. At the other end of the spectrum, Chief Sielu Avea can rub two sticks together and make a fire in 12 seconds. The collision of cultures resulted in a riveting film. Indeed, Wagner believes it looks like "20 minutes of a $40 million movie."
It sounds like the folks at Sundance agree.
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The character of the Chief's daughter, played by Valerie Fuimaono, runs to her father in the film.
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"Chief" includes the painful process of applying a traditional Samoan tattoo.
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The evolution of the short film "Chief" from inception to acceptance into the Sundance Film Festival is as storied and mesmerizing as the movie itself. It involved tremendous support from the community, and the confluence of a myriad of nearly impossible details.
Honolulu filmmaker Brett Wagner watched Chief Sielu Avea perform at the Polynesian Cultural Center, then asked to meet him -- where else? -- at Zippy's in Kaneohe. The actor, who didn't audition for what would be his first dramatic role, liked the story idea. So Wagner, 36, began writing and enlisted producer Dana Hankins to find an investor to finance the film, which was shot for $50,000 with discounted or loaned equipment and a crew that worked for "little to nothing," said Wagner. "The more important and crucial the person was to the production, the less they got paid."
Producer Christina Simpkins said that the opportunity to work with "the best in the business" encouraged all involved to waive their usual fees.
The community and crew assistance "makes it a grand representation of what Hawaii filmmaking is at this point," noted Hankins.
Longtime Honolulu resident and "Chief" sound recorder Grace Atkins agreed. "There's a creativity that's come of age here in the last five years," she said. "I would call us Tribeca West. There's been such a renaissance of not just filmmaking, but art making. Because of that groundwork, we were able to draw on those creative souls to become part of this film. I don't want to go to Hollywood; I want to be here."
The movie opens with Chief Sielu Avea's rich voice floating over the reel. "Every couple of days, I give the ocean a chance to take me, but so far the ocean is not interested," he says. "My life wasn't always like this ... obviously."
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Hanahauoli School student Kaalakai Faurot plays Pono.
COURTESY GEORGE RUSSELL
Cinematographer Paul Atkins works with director Brett Wagner on location.
Brilliant writing does not always translate to practical filmmaking, and Wagner admitted that when production began, the locally based cast and crew did not know how to execute many of the scenes.
That's why it required 16 days of shooting -- a lot for a script of this length, according to Wagner, who shot his 90-minute feature "Five Years" in 24 days. This did not include the three-month hiatus to find the actress to play Pono, a runaway girl the chief finds in Honolulu.
"She's a very old soul," Hankins said of Hanahauoli School student Kaalakai Faurot, who landed the role of Pono, her debut performance on film. "There's something incredibly special about her. We really saw magic with a little 8-year-old girl, which could have gone in many different directions."
Wagner added that "by the third shot, she was inventing little bits of business and was incredibly natural." She understood that performing was less important than "being someone else and absorbing the circumstances of the character as your own."
Not so easy in a movie with minimal dialogue. Primarily, Wagner uses short bursts of voice-over that take you inside the main character's head. "It felt like a visual story," he explained. "It seems very natural that it all takes place without words."
Hankins concurred. "We're so used to seeing dialogue-driven scenes," she said. But she trusted that Wagner was "the kind of filmmaker who could do something different from the stuff we see and do here all the time. The environment, the feeling, the visuals were really a character in the script, and it takes a very special talent to tell the story without a lot of explanation."
Because of this, locations became a key part of the project. The 70 settings included the jungle in Nuuanu, three different beaches (in and out of the water) and the dark streets of Honolulu. No two were repeated, and each one presented its own problems.
"Every day was a brand-new place that we had to figure out," said Wagner. "It was an accumulation of a million challenges. Every image feels hard won."
The drowning of the chief's daughter, for instance, carried its own risks. Because they could not use a child actor, they were unable to move forward until they found a petite stuntwoman who resembled the actress playing the young girl.
Chief Sielu Avea's performance at the Polynesian Culture Center inspired Brett Wagner, pictured, to write a movie for him.
Sundance Film Festival veteran Dana Hankins produced "Chief."
The bloody and quietly dramatic "tatau" scene that begins the film was another detail that needed to be authentic. In this traditional ceremonial process, the tattooing implement resembles an adz, with a needle attached to a wooden handle. The tatau master dips the needle in liquid ink and applies by tapping on the implement, cutting the skin. Sea water is used to wash away the blood.
By chance, a renowned tatau master arrived in Honolulu for a previously scheduled appointment right when filming began. Wagner asked for permission to record the process.
But again, simplicity eluded him. The artist arrived in a lavalava and a bright pink polo shirt -- not the image Wagner had in mind. But Wagner gently asked, as deferentially as possible, if the artist would mind removing his shirt. Directing someone who had no interest in acting, but simply agreed to let the camera roll, was like "steering a submarine," said Wagner. Slowly, he got what he wanted for the pivotal scene of the movie.
Weakened from the grueling tattooing of both legs, the chief fails to save his daughter. "They say there is no pain worse than receiving the tatau," the character says. "But I can think of one."
Working with Chief Sielu Avea, a bona fide Samoan chief and fire knife performer, turned out to be a rewarding aspect of the experience.
"It was a different actor/director relationship than I've ever had," said Wagner, who has directed five films. Method acting fell by the wayside as Sielu asked Wagner one question before every scene: "What's the feeling?" It made Wagner realize that "in any given moment in your life, there's just a feeling. I wish every actor would ask me that. It was a real education for me."
Another education (in frustration, perhaps) involved the tricky task of locating props.
For the specific taxi he wanted, Wagner combed the streets of Honolulu, leaving notes on every 1970s-era powder blue "land yacht" he saw. Obtaining the right one was essential because the car became a character with its distinct appearance and layers of unique sounds. A friend saw the perfect vehicle in Palolo Valley and chased down the driver with an offer to buy it.
In the end they wound up with 17 hours of footage -- and little dialogue to guide the placement of images.
Wagner and editor Jay Evans cut it to 35 minutes. But one reel lasts 21 minutes. Wagner realized that presenting two reels at Sundance diminished their chances in the competition. With much contemplation, they arrived at 19:24. To complete the glossy, professional look, they handed the final cut to Steven Szabo for the final polish.
The story itself seems to resemble the process of creating it, according to Wagner's description. "It's a quiet film," he said, "even though it's full of big emotions and big events."