The Pa Boys: Lights, camera ... reggae

By Lydia Jenkin

The stars of music-powered local road movie The Pa Boys talk to Lydia Jenkin.

The way both lead actors became involved in upcoming local film The Pa Boys are typically Kiwi stories.

"I was in my third year at drama school, Toi Whakaari, in 2009, and I was at a party, and I bumped into the director Himiona Grace, and he asked me if I could play the guitar, and I was like 'yep', and he asked me if I could sing, and I went 'yep', and pretty much since then I've been involved" laughs Matariki Whatarau, who plays Tau in the film. Whatarau has most recently been seen on the small screen in Go Girls, while also performing in the Modern Maori Quartet.

"So I didn't really audition formally, but I was there for all the readings and workshops and so on, and I think through that, he got a vibe that I might be alright for the role. We'd had a couple of parties by then, and thrown down a couple of garage sessions."

Being able to throw down some tunes at a party was a pretty non-negotiable skill for the role, because The Pa Boys is about three young men who form a reggae band (called The Pa Boys), and head round the country on tour. Which is why Francis Kora, who has spent most of his life playing in Kora, was perfect for the role of Danny.

"I was approached by [actor] Taungaroa Emile, who was living in Paekakariki at the time with Himiona, and yeah, I didn't audition either, it was the same kind of process" Kora explains.

What most people won't know is that Kora also studied acting at Toi Whakaari. It was a fair few years back, and he hasn't had much opportunity to put those skills to test before now, but he was very happy to be asked.

"It was a strong script eh" Kora nods, citing the support of the director's wife, playwright and screenwriter Briar Grace-Smith. "So to have her support, I think, helped to give the script a lot of weight too. It felt really strong."

"Yeah, Himiona had been writing the script for a good seven years before we had a look at it" Whatarau adds. "So it was already in good condition. I think all he said when he pitched it to me was, 'It's about three bros, they make a band, start in Wellington, and tour up the country'.

"And I was like 'ok, sweet'. But then you have a look at the script and realise it's about a whole lot more than that. And that's when I really started getting interested.

Indeed the "tour down north", which they embark upon with their drummer City Boy (played by Tola Newberry), his girlfriend Jo, and Danny's ex-girlfriend Puti, is only the basic framework around which Grace has woven a few other more serious themes. It's the first feature by the director who has long been involved in the film industry as a stills photographer. The film is produced by Ainsley Gardiner and is her first feature since Taika Waititi's runaway hit, Boy.

The Pa Boys is made of sterner grown-up stuff. It deals with themes of identity and belonging - Danny was adopted as a child, and knows nothing about his roots, doesn't speak Te Reo, and struggles with some unspoken anger around that.

"It's a Maori story, but it's universal too, because a lot of people don't know their roots, or their bloodlines, or who they're connected to, where they fit in," Kora explains. "And there's plenty of modern-day Maori for whom it will ring true - you know, I can't speak Te Reo, and I don't know all my roots, I don't know my whakapapa very well, even though I was brought up around plenty of Maori. There's heaps of us like that, and I guess this issue is something we all think about at some point."

Of course there's a good old fashioned love triangle too, and plenty of stunning coastal scenery to wrap your eyes around, but the main story arc which converges with the themes of identity is to do with a curse, or makutu. While Tau has a deep connection with his ancestry, and knows all about his culture and his place, he's also burdened by it.

"He's spent most of his adult years looking for someone like Danny. And he's very spiritual, he doesn't go around asking people, but he's been looking, and now that he's found him, he has to find a way to subtly draw Danny into his life, and to be part of Danny's life."

In many ways, Danny needs a family too, and needs Tau's help, so he's willing to be drawn in.

"He's a bit of a connector, old Tau," laughs Whatarau, "but he's not blatant about it. He just cruises around, and does it through song, or prophetic rantings."

The filming process sounds like it had a real connected, family vibe too - it was a small cast and crew, and they all went out on tour together, shooting it all in just five weeks, and using locals from the various towns they visited as extras.

"It was like a real band tour, with cameras" Whatarau nods.

"Yeah, we played in Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Te Teko, Whangarei, Ahipara, and Wellington," Kora adds. "And it was really cool because we had some prerecorded sound from the rehearsals that we'd done, but everything was played live during the shoot, and we used some of those recordings in the film too."

The three band boys lived together for two weeks before shooting started, rehearsing and arranging the songs (which were mostly written by Grace, who used to be in reggae bands Survival and Dread Beat and Blood, along with Warren Maxwell, who also provided the score), and spent time making sure the songs sounded like them.

"They were very Warren Maxwell-ish sounding initially" Whatarau explains, "because he put down the guide tracks.

"So they sounded very Trinity Roots-ish, and they were great, but we didn't want to try and emulate that, we just wanted them to sound like us, to sound like The Pa Boys."

"The best thing about the music is the ruggedness of it" Kora adds. "Nothing is perfect, there's no autotune, what you see is what you get. That's the realness that I really like."

And all that time spent rehearsing isn't going to waste either - the cast and crew are heading back to all the locations in which they filmed to show the completed movie, and play another gig for those who were involved in the shoot.

"We're really looking forward to taking the film back to show all of them, to share it, and show them what they made. And we've got to go party with them again, and play for them again" Whatarau smiles.

Who: Francis Kora and Matariki Whatarau
What: The Pa Boys, upcoming New Zealand feature film
Where and when: the official premiere is being held at Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae in Gisborne, and will be in cinemas nationwide from Waitangi Day (February 6)

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