Tama, played by Tausani Simei-Barton, left, befriends Mahana, played by Fokikovi Soakimi, and when he leaves looking for a better life, he vows to return for her in "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," a small-budget film that posed many challenges for Academy Award-winning producer Jerry Molen.

‘Lingo’ gives
producer different

Academy Award-winning producer Jerry Molen is known within the Hollywood establishment as a quick study, someone who makes decisions rationally and fairly, and who treats everyone on a film from grip to star like he wants to be treated.

The films the 69-year-old producer has worked on -- "Hook," two "Jurassic Parks" on Kauai, "Schindler's List," "Rain Man," "Twister" and, most recently "Minority Report" -- have grossed billions of dollars. But last year, he was fed up with the stress that accompanies producing the typical $100 million "studio" film. He wanted to simplify his life and make a film he could take his grandchildren to without hesitation.

That film is "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," which played here briefly, developed from the short story "Johnny Lingo's Eight-Cow Wife."

"It was a lifestyle choice," Molen said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "I came back from shooting 'Minority Report' knowing in my heart that it was time to ... stay away from big-budget movies. I saw too many of my friends keeling over from the stress."

So Molen, who is no stranger to Hawaii, decided with fellow producer John Garbett to bring the Johnny Lingo story to screen.

In the film, an infant arrives on a South Pacific island during a storm. The natives accept him into their tribes but soon begin to fear that he is a bad omen, a product of the storm gods. Named Tama (Tausani Simei-Barton), the young boy grows up being shunned by most of the islanders.

Searching for more out of life, Tama decides to leave the island but promises to return one day for Mahana, a girl he befriends because she is also outcast because of her homeliness.

Tama's adventures begin when he meets the rich trader Johnny Lingo.

The film was shot over five weeks in New Zealand and the Cook Islands on a $2.5 million budget, and features several Polynesian actors who have appeared in films like "Whale Rider" and "Star Wars -- Attack of the Clones." Rawiri Parantene, seen as the grandfather in "Whale Rider," portrays the Malio Island chief, while distinguished New Zealand actor George Hanare plays Johnny Lingo. One of Polynesia's most accomplished screenwriters, Riwia Brown ("Once Were Warriors"), wrote the screenplay.

Although Molen says he loves Hawaii, especially the Garden Island, he chose to film in the Cook Islands to be true to the story. He was already familiar with the Cooks, having filmed "The Other Side of Heaven" on Rarotonga. This time around, he would film for two weeks on the beautiful and remote Aitutaki, an hour's flight north of Rarotonga.

THE SETTING FOR fictional Malio Island is New Zealand's dramatic west coast at the rugged cliffs of Phia Beach. The story is set on four distinct islands: the wild, rainy Malio Island; the untouched paradise of Johnny Lingo's island; and two islands that Tama travels to during his adventure.

The greatest challenge turned out to be the Malio Island location, where dirt roads and footpaths turned to quagmire in unexpected rain while equipment and provisions were being shipped to Aitutaki by boat with a two-month lead time, Molen said.

"When a large fish was needed as a prop, we were surprised that they were extremely hard to come by," he said. "Production assistants were dispatched to enlist the help of local fisherman. Eventually, the appropriate fish was found, but when it arrived on the set, the caterers thought the delivery was meant for them and prepared the fish for lunch."

Producers had to plan "very, very meticulously" for every scene. "You don't have the grip department or camera store down the street where you can just pick up a lens you need," Molen said.

The Aitutaki location also marked the appearance of Johnny Lingo's trading vessel. One of only a handful of authentic double-hulled canoes in the world, the Te-Au-0-Tonga appears in the film courtesy of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. (The "vaka" is used to teach sailing skills that have linked the Islands of the Pacific for almost 2,000 years.)

Small budgets create stresses and require crew to be problem solvers. "You become very creative with what you do," Molen said. "You make your choices and you have to live with them."

But in the long run, a picture's cost has little to do with whether or not it is a "success," he said.

"It's all about story," Molen said. "The amount of the budget is rooted in who the cast is, who the director is, what the locations are, how big the special effects are. A story like ours is only going to get made as what is commonly called a 'low-budget.'"

A perk of a low-budget film is the lack of ego on the production.

"Some filmmakers get to the point where in their own minds they become gods," he said. "That elitist attitude drives me crazy. The crews and the rest of us become secondary to their whims and desires.

"The actors on this film, in another time and another place, could be a Tom Cruise, but they'll never get that shot. ... In their world, they are phenomenal human beings who were completely professional."

Molen knows that G-rated films are hard to sell to distributors. Even those running family film versions told him "Johnny Lingo" isn't "edgy enough."

"It tells me the people running those divisions don't care what people see or how they affect our culture," Molen said.

"No matter how successful it is, John and I know we've contributed something to the entertainment world that has value," he said.

For the record, none of the top 20 films last year were rated above PG-13.

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