Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Filmmakers paint
new isle images

Paradise gives way to the dark side
of local life in "The Tattoo"

By Tim Ryan

Will audiences embrace a Hawaii film that shows much of the underbelly of paradise rather than the stereotypical image of coconut palms, white-sand beaches, turquoise water and smiling girls in bikinis?

Three Hawaii filmmakers think they will and are putting their time, energy and money into producing a screenplay adapted from "The Tattoo," a book by Oahu writer and college instructor Chris McKinney.

Bob Gookin, a writer and supervising producer on "Baywatch Hawaii," production coordinator/producer Angela Laprete, and fledgling screenwriter William "Chico" Powell obtained the film rights to McKinney's 1999 novelette this summer from Mutual Publishing.

"It's a terrific book that tells stories about Hawaii people have never seen," said Gookin, who will executive-produce and share screenwriting credits with Powell. "Our commitment is to do justice to the book the way Chris wrote it."

The story is set in contemporary Hawaii, tracing the life of Ken Hideyoshi, a young man with a troubled past. Orphaned by his schoolteacher mother at a young age, Ken is raised by an abusive, distant father unable to communicate anything but anger. Eventually, the boy is drawn into Hawaii's underworld where he works with strippers, hookers and pimps, only to fall in love with the daughter of a rich and powerful Korean woman. The story is narrated by the protagonist from inside Halawa prison. The ultimate question is, Do people have the power over who they become?

A second draft of the screenplay has just been completed, focusing on the relationship between father and son. Laprete compares the intensity of the story to the New Zealand film hit "Once Were Warriors," which cost $7 million to make and grossed more than $100 million. (The 1994 movie, set in urban Auckland, New Zealand, told the story of the Heke family. Jake Heke is a violent man who beats his wife when drunk yet obviously loves both her and his family. The movie shows several weeks in the family's life showing the effects of Jake's frequent outbursts on his family as his youngest son get into trouble with gangs and the police.)

The production of "Tattoo" is in its infancy stage, but Gookin is certain the film will be made.

"This will not be a very expensive movie," Gookin said. "One way or the other, we're determined to make it."

The film will be shot entirely in Hawaii with local crew.

"We believe there's a way to film in Hawaii without crews having to take pay cuts," Laprete said. "You just have to be ingenious and smart and not greedy about perks."

The book came to Gookin's attention while he was vacationing at Molokai Ranch and he found a "dusty copy" in a store there.

"I couldn't put it down," said Gookin.

Gookin is shopping the script in Los Angeles in search of two Asian leads, directors and distribution companies that handle independent films. There has been interest in the project, but the producers decline to reveal names until contracts are signed.

The independent route is best considering the film's subject matter and minority characters, while allowing the filmmakers to maintain control, Gookin said. But without "name" actors or a director attached to the film, even the budget hasn't been finalized.

"We're ready to start as soon as we get the attachments," Gookin said.

The other hope in getting the film made is changing Hawaii's image in Hollywood as strictly a backdrop location.

"Too many projects come here to use Hawaii incidentally rather than for the unique, intrinsic stories of the people who live here," Gookin said. "It's a place that can sustain a lot of drama."

"The Tattoo" will be produced by Gookin's TFE Productions and LaPrete's ALaprete Productions.

As for Oahu-born and raised McKinney, he isn't planning on buying that new Mercedes just yet. And he'll keep his day job as an instructor at Honolulu Community College.

"The Tattoo" was McKinney's first book and master's degree thesis at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. After taking some Asian-American literature courses, McKinney saw that many of the stories did not represent his experiences here.

"There was a real possibility for other stories to be told," he said from his Diamond Head home.

"The Tattoo" took McKinney 18 months to complete while working and attending school. Submissions to mainland publishers were all rejected, then local company Mutual Publishing stepped up.

"I never had any huge expectations; I wasn't running out to the mailbox every day," he said. "Very few fiction writers can live off these earnings, especially when you're not a pop fiction writer.

"Teaching is what pays my bills," says the author, whose next book, "Queen of Tears," is due in bookstores in October.

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