Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Once Were Warriors: Twenty years on

Twenty years ago a film mixing social realism, gangs and domestic violence became the most successful movie ever made here. Greg Dixon talks to Once Were Warriors stars Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison and Julian Arahanga about why the film was so special and why it remains a classic.

The Heke family in 'Once Were Warriors'.
The Heke family in 'Once Were Warriors'.

In the plush lobby of an Auckland hotel, Jake the Muss is schooling me.

"When you're working with Rena Owen," he says, staring at me hard, his voice low and ever-so-slightly menacing, "you're faced with a lot of what we called 'ihi'. I - H - I. Ihi."

"Which means?" I giggle nervously.

"Which means 'wehi' ... W - E - H - I. Wehi, Ihi - which means 'wana'. There is ihi, wehi and wana. Three words. When the All Blacks do 'ka mate, ka mate' there is a moment when they crescendo. The crescendo moment in the haka - ihi, wehi, wana. Those three elements. It's the inner emotion, it is the energy that makes those hairs on your neck prickle a little bit. It's the heebie-jeebies crossed with a little bit of inner spirituality. Rena had that - in vast amounts."

This performance over, Temuera Morrison slumps back into the lobby couch, his neck disappearing as he hunches his shoulders. Dressed in baggy dress jeans, a heavy sweatshirt and a beanie pulled down to his eyebrows, he's got a cold and sounds a bit glum. But he's obviously not feeling so crook he can't have a little fun instructing a dim pupil like me in what it took to make make Once Were Warriors, the film that made careers, made money and, despite its terrible grimness, made us proud.

Adapted from Alan Duff's brutal and controversial novel, directed by Lee Tamahori and starring Morrison, Owen and Cliff Curtis, it is the story of the Hekes, an urban Maori family destroyed by alcohol, violence, rape and suicide. Even by the then rather gloomy standards of storytelling in New Zealand films - the "cinema of unease" Sam Neill called it in a documentary made the next year - Once Were Warriors was a bleak and difficult watch.

But word of mouth made it huge. By the time it finished screening in New Zealand cinemas, one in three of us had seen it. In an era where earning $1 million at the New Zealand box office made a film a hit, Warriors blew away previous records by earning more than $6 million (one estimate has its final local box office at $8 million).

Offshore it earned more than $25 million and, after wowing screenings at Cannes and other festivals, it and its cast were garlanded with awards.

Once Were Warriors became a phenomenon and it remains an impossible-to-forget classic, even if the film's title quickly became a byword for domestic violence.

Proof, if it was needed, that audiences still hold it in the highest regard happened in January this year when Warriors was voted, in a local online poll, the best New Zealand film of all time, ahead of Boy, Whale Rider and Goodbye Pork Pie.

It is now 20 years since it premiered in a drought-hit Auckland one Thursday night in early May, back in 1994. To mark this anniversary, Maori Television will rescreen the film tomorrow night and, on Monday, the channel celebrates it again with a documentary Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now? (directed by Warriors' star Julian Arahanga) which reunites all the Heke family - Jake, Beth and the five kids - for the first time since the film was made.

Who'd have thought? Not Morrison. The film's future status as a classic would have been one hell of a surprise to him (among others) if he'd heard about it when he was filming Warriors. While Owen says she knew even before production on the film began that it had potential to be great, Morrison remembers having no such confidence as he filmed scenes where his Jake bashed Owen's Beth bruised and bloody.


The cast of Once Were Warriors, twenty years on.

"I was wondering," Morrison says now, "'Who the bloody hell is going to watch this?'"

It was a damn fine question. Duff's book, his first, published in 1990, became a contentious bestseller, not least because of his political views. And the dark material of his story, not to mention its structure built round interior monologues, made it questionable whether it could be filmed, says Arahanga, who was cast as the Hekes' eldest son, Nig.

"The book was a great novel and reached a big audience, but [the thinking was] the way the book was written, you could never make a movie," Arahanga says.

The television company Communicado, which had never made a film, picked up the option on the book anyway - and not just because it was a hit. Warriors producer Robin Scholes, a principal at Communicado, tells Arahanga in Where Are They Now? that she had been searching for a project that reflected her experience (in the early 1980s she had been grievously beaten by serial rapist Mark Stephens) and of women like her, and with Warriors she felt she'd found it.

However, a package involving an ultra-violent, possibly unfilmable book being made into a film by television company with no film experience, with a TV commercial maker as its director, failed to excite the funders at the New Zealand Film Commission. Once Were Warriors was repeatedly turned down.

In an interview with On Film in 2004, Scholes said she believed that it was only an impassioned speech on the project's importance by then-Gisborne police commander Rana Waitai that finally convinced the commission to change its mind.

The result was a final budget of US$1.2 million and a shooting schedule of just 34 days.

In the meantime, the original script from Duff had been binned and young Wellington playwright Riwia Brown (who'd already been asked to help structure Duff's draft) was hired by Scholes and Tamahori to completely redraw the story's point of view. If the book (and original draft of the script) were Jake the Muss' story, the final film was to be Beth's.

Brown's new script was a cracker. Tamahori told the Herald shortly after Warriors premiered that the film needed a woman at its centre. "It was a far better yarn that way.

You couldn't have it be a story about a mindlessly violent thug. I was more fascinated by a story of a mother who makes efforts to rise above her circumstances and create a life for her children."

Brown's script also ended on a less bleak, more hopeful note. "Because of the hard-hitting and dark nature of the material it was essential to script an 'up' ending," Brown wrote in 2008. "One of my favorite scenes is when Beth gives her 'once we were warriors' speech to Jake before she and her family drive away and the audience is left thinking - 'I think the Heke family will be all right!'"

The next big question, of course, was who were the actors who could pull it off? As it turned out, Once Were Warriors was a miracle of casting.

Rena Owen's voice catches as she remembers. "I went to the depths of despair for Beth," she says, audibly close to tears. "I put my body on the line, I took a lot of bruises. I did whatever I could because I knew that I had the role of a lifetime."

For Owen, who'd trained as actress in London and had nearly a decade of theatre and television behind her when cast as Beth, it was a role she'd coveted since reading the book three years before. Indeed, in a bid to have herself considered for the role, she invited producer Ross Jennings - who did script development on Warriors - to see her in a similar sort of role in a play called Whatungarongaro.

Coincidently, she'd also done a live reading of passages from Duff's second book, One Night Out Stealing, at a Wellington bookshop launch, with Duff in attendance.

"I'll never forget it," she says by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "He was very sceptical of this whole reading of an extract from his book and he pretty much snubbed me and kind of had his back to me, but I just started to read the passage that had been chosen. Pretty much within a minute he turned around and he watched and listened.

"And he came up to me after that reading and said 'you read that exactly the way I wrote it. How did you do that?' I said 'well, I'm an actor' ... He said 'have you ever read my book Once Were Warriors? Because you would be a great Beth.' I said, 'Absolutely I've read the book and it's a role I'd love to audition for'. He got the bookshop to give a him a copy of Warriors and he wrote in it: 'To Rena, maybe my Beth one day. I hope so'."

Two years later she was finally auditioned for Warriors by the late, very great Don Selwyn, the film's casting director and acting coach. "I didn't know this until after we did publicity for the film with Lee Tamahori," Owen says, "but Lee said once he saw my audition, that anyone who was going to come in for consideration had to top my audition.

I didn't know that at the time: I went home and said my prayers, morning, noon and night, because it was a role that I really, really wanted."

Morrison says now that Owen's ferocity and fire were crucial. "With Rena, she was blessed that she had a deep well to draw on. Plus," he smiles, "being in the theatre, she knew a little bit about the acting stuff, too."

However, her depth of experience was a surprise to many, according to Owen. "Most people in New Zealand thought they'd found a real life Beth Heke in a pub and put her in movie," she says.

"I could not have done what I did in that role without the nine years' hard work prior of learning my craft and having a respect for acting.

"That's why I ultimately got the role. There were a lot of Maori actresses in the country who had the right look but they didn't have the craft. They didn't have the skills that I had. Lee knew that not only did I have the personal strength to carry the role, I had the professional hard yards of learning my craft and knowing exactly what I was doing."

It remains a scandal that Owen did not win the best actress gong at the next New Zealand Film and Television Awards because, Arahanga says, she was the power in Warriors.


Beth and Jake in Once Were Warriors, left, and Rena and Tem today.

"She carried the film - and that comes out in the documentary. She really was Beth. And everybody else around her could feed off that. She gave everyone a real anchor point. She's very, very professional, Rena - she had come back to New Zealand [from London] with classical training and it was really, really apparent on the set."

"In case you wanna know, it's Jake - Jake the Muss." When Morrison uttered these words up there on the big screen, a moment after swiftly punching and kicking a bigger opponent to the ground, we believed him: Morrison was Jake the Muss.

However, it is the great irony of the film that when Morrison was cast as Jake - and even during the film's production - there was doubt the diminutive actor could pull off such a tough guy role.

Owen was on Easter Island filming Rapa Nui when she heard. "I got the fax, because there were faxes in those days, that they'd finally found Jake the Muss and it was going to be Temuera Morrison. My first impression was 'oh my God, it's going to look like Beth is beating up Jake!' I'm taller than him!"

It wasn't just Morrison's height and size that were at issue (though he improved the latter through lots of gym time with fight co-ordinator and agent Robert Bruce and by eating whole chickens). He'd also spent the previous couple of years on TV soap Shortland Street playing the opposite of Jake, a smooth operator called Dr Hone Ropata.

"I could feel the tension [on the Warriors' set]," Morrison now says, "I could feel the uneasiness as if to say 'have we got the right guy? Is he going to completely f*** this up?' So I just did my scenes and went home again, did my scenes and went home again ..."

Owen says the biggest challenge for Morrison was he'd always played the good guy, always won the girl. "The biggest bridge for him to cross was giving himself permission to be ugly, to behave in a way that he, as a person, would never behave."

However, it seems to have taken a hard word from Owen to make that happen in one of the last of the night rehearsals before filming.

"We're getting close to when we start shooting," Owen recalls. "So all these extra sessions with Tem are taking away from my rest time and my own preparation time. I'll never forget this night Lee has us do the biggest confrontational scene where Beth first turns on him and says 'you're not going to hurt my babies anymore' and, of course, I just let it rip at Tem. And at the end of it he's standing there and he's still smiling like Dr Ropata.

And I stayed in character: I said 'what the f*** are you smiling about?' I said, 'haven't you heard one single word I've said to you Jake?' He kind of went 'oh, oh, oh, sorry mate'. You could literally see him physically stepping back. And I tell you, Lee had us do it again, and Temuera just finally opened up and let it rip. We all left that room that night with big smiles on our faces because we finally saw Jake the Muss."


Beth in a scene from Once Were Warriors.

Morrison remembers the night well. "She let everyone know," he chuckles, "there were a few F-words ... Even Lee, once he decided to go with me, had to have the faith because we couldn't really see Jake until the weekend before filming."

Jake the Muss' boots are now in a museum. Communicado donated the steel-capped leather monsters - "Jake was all in the boots and in the haircut," Morrison says - to the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington some years ago.

It says much about Warriors' place in our film culture that the boots have been preserved. It also says something for how the film survives in our collective imagination.

While Warriors the film was Beth's story, it is the ungodly Jake the Muss who became the icon.

Morrison's partner, Ashlee Howden-Sadlier, tells me - when Morrison pops to the loo - that he is still Jake to the public.

"We walk down the street and people still go 'oh, there goes Jake the Muss' and then do a double-take because he's so small. Then they start arguing between each other, 'yes it is', 'no it's not', 'yes it is', 'no it's not'. You hear them when you're walking past, which is funny. He still hasn't shaken that character after all the movies he's [been in]."

Morrison himself says he does worry a little that Jake may be "looked up to".

The redoubtable Owen, who has well over 40 film and television credits, also had to deal with typecasting - "they can only see you as Beth Heke" - and at first naively thought every film production would be like her experience on Warriors.

"From a professional perspective it ruined me in a lot of ways, it spoilt me," Owen says. "I knew at the time, that it was going to be very, very hard to find something that could match, let alone top that performance. It came in my first decade, I had the ultimate female lead role."

However, the film also did wonders for her career, and for many of those involved.

Tamahori more or less went straight to Hollywood. Cliff Curtis, too, has never looked back even though he didn't want the role of the rapist Uncle Bully. It was accepted on Curtis' behalf by his agent Robert Bruce; Curtis only went through with it after consulting his kuia.

"The piece of advice my kuia gave me was there are always jobs on the marae that no one wants to do but they have to be done, like cleaning toilets, which I did. So you do the best job that you can and people will remember not what you were doing but how well you did it."

Arahanga, who now has his own television production company, says the film was a showcase for Maori storytelling. "It is a Maori story with mainly Maori crew and cast. It was a breakthrough in terms of Maori film-making. But the subject matter it tackled became hugely important as well, showing a side of our society that nobody really talked about too much, that everybody turned a blind eye to. From that we learned, it was a universal story."

However, the film remains controversial for some. Academic Dr Leonie Piham, in an essay published in Film In Aotearoa New Zealand a few years after Warriors was made, wrote she didn't doubt it was a movie with a story that needed to be told. "It is also a production that has contributed significantly to highlighting the immense creativity, talent and ability within the Maori community ... However, in terms of Maori representation to the world, its political and cultural implications are disturbing."

Still, it remains a timeless, classic film, Owen says. "The fact that it got voted the number one film of all time in New Zealand this year is really testimony to the power of that film.

My feeling is that there is always a power that comes in a certain truth. There's a depth of emotion in that story. I will also say about Beth Heke that it was absolutely my privilege - but not my pleasure."

Once Were Warriors screens tomorrow night at 9.30pm on Maori Television. Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now?, the first of the new season of Pakipumeka New Zealand, screens on Monday at 9.30pm on Maori Television.

- NZ Herald

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