Kiwi director talks 'nostalgic' new film Mahana

By Helen Barlow

Lee Tamahori talks to Helen Barlow about returning to New Zealand to direct the family saga, Mahana.

It has been more than 20 years since Lee Tamahori put Maori cinema on the world stage with 1994's Once Were Warriors. After Warriors, went to Hollywood to fulfil his boyhood dream.

He made the well-regarded gangster yarn Mulholland Falls and eventually Die Another Day, which remains one of the biggest-grossing Bond films.

Now, with the backing of Warriors producer Robin Scholes, he has returned to New Zealand film-making with Mahana, based on Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera's semi-auobiographical novel, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.

It tells the tale of the sheep-shearing East Coast Mahana family and their rivalry with the Poata clan. Meanwhile, patriarch Tamihana Mahana (Temuera Morrison) is caught in a battle of wills with his teenage grandson Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe), and shares an uneasy relationship with his wife and the whanau's matriarch Ramona (Nancy Brunning).

Mahana is featured on the cover of this week's TimeOut:

"Returning to this style of film-making is part of a plan I've had for a long time," Tamahori admits.

"When I made Mulholland Falls I was immediately thrust into an overseas high-pressure environment, but I always knew I was never going to stay in it because I love what independent film-making allows, and the American studio environment doesn't do that anymore."

It had been Scholes' dream to bring Bulibasha to the screen. "It's the most extraordinary and filmic novel," she says, and she knew it would be a perfect for Tamahori to direct.

Lee Tamahori on the set of Mahana. Photo / Supplied
Lee Tamahori on the set of Mahana. Photo / Supplied

"We just took every step to make that happen. Lee is kind of coming back to his roots but also I knew that in his personal life his mum and dad were ill and, over the course of the film's development, they in fact died. So for him, it was also an honouring of that generation, because he had such a great upbringing. Then I got Lee and Witi together because they share this common history of where their grandfathers and fathers grew up - and that sealed the deal."

For Tamahori it made sense to put some distance between his two Maori films.

"Once I made Once Were Warriors, they kept expecting me to be doing the dysfunctional Maori family story," the 65-year-old says. "One might say that this is another Maori dysfunctional family story but it's not, really. It's more of a nostalgic piece for me because it's about the time when I was growing up."

"Simeon, the young man at the centre of it, is only about five years older than I was during this period on the East Coast area where my father is from. As you do with films like this, you put little bits of your own life into it. I did it in Warriors and I did it with this one."

Mahana. Photo / Supplied
Mahana. Photo / Supplied

While with Warriors his experience was more observational - "I grew up in hard, tough pubs like the ones in the film but my father was a Maori social worker." Mahana's patriarch, played by Warriors star Temuera Morrison, is modelled on Tamahori's grandfather.

"He was an authoritarian Anglican minister. No one was allowed to talk at the dinner table - total silence, very harsh, corporal punishment and ran the family with an iron fist.

"He was a kind of pillar in the community, a sportsman, a beautiful Maori speaker, but people could never really unlock who he was."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Another influence on Mahana is Tamahori's love of Westerns and the movies he grew up with. He was pleased to discover that Ihimaera also grew up loving Westerns, which were screened on a sheet hung up in an East Coast barn.

"The story we're telling shares some of the facets of a Western landscape and rugged loners like the patriarch, a self-made man. But more than anything we hadn't made a large-format Western in New Zealand and I want to put the landscape as a character once again. I love landscapes, especially the New Zealand landscape."

One of his favorite Westerns, 3:10 To Yuma, is on at the local pictures in Mahana in a scene where one of the locals rides a horse up the aisle.

Mahana. Photo / Supplied
Mahana. Photo / Supplied

It's not part of Ihimaera's novel though it could have been. "The overblown sequence is just so the girl could kiss the boy!" Tamahori chuckles. "The guy riding a horse into the cinema is something I witnessed on the East Coast when I was about 8 or 9."

Tamahori has been living in New Zealand since 2003 though has often been away making movies, like the Belgian-financed The Devil's Double. He is currently waiting to finish his second Belgian production, Emperor, a 16th century action movie about a young girl seeking revenge on the Roman Emperor, Charles V (Adrien Brody).

Since Mahana he has concentrated his work in New Zealand. "I want to stay home for a while," he says.

Mahana. Photo / Supplied
Mahana. Photo / Supplied

He has two films he plans to shoot here, though one is a European production about the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre in Southern Utah, where a Mormon militia attacked a wagon train, killing more than 100 migrants.

The second film will be a local story. "I can't say much about it but I'm writing and directing and it's very modern and it's a violent road movie. A very nasty, violent road movie because I think the landscape is perfect and we've forgotten about how good the road movie was as a genre. I've always loved them and I want to do one myself.

Mahana, he says, has benefited from the progress in New Zealand film-making since he left.

"There's a huge wealth of talent behind the camera and in front of it. It's fantastic to see. I had so many good casting choices, which didn't exist when I made Once Were Warriors. Back then it was very tough going, there were very few Maori actors and now there are heaps and heaps. It's a great thing to see. In front of the camera and behind, the technicians are all excellent. On Mahana I was working with people I've never worked with before. I am the old guy who they think might still have a few ideas in his head."

Mahana. Photo / Supplied
Mahana. Photo / Supplied

Who: Lee Tamahori
What: Mahana, starring Temuera Morrison, Nancy Brunning, Akuhata Keefe. Adapted by Australian-based Scottish screenwriter John Collee from the novel by Witi Ihimaera
When: Opens March 3

- TimeOut

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