His last movie was all ballet, the previous one a period drama involving an adorable spaniel. And, of course, Toa Fraser's film directing debut was about a cute grandma in Mt Roskill.
His latest is The Dead Lands, a thumping Maori martial arts epic set in pre-European Aotearoa. It comes with more scenes of mortal combat than any other New Zealand film not involving a Hobbit.
"Nanna Maria in No2 wasn't that cute," counters Fraser when asked why his movies have suddenly got so much tougher.
"She was a cigarette-smoking, gin-and-kava-swilling, overdemanding matriarch who chased pigs and her grandkids around the backyard with a machete."
Quite, but The Dead Lands is a movie of patu and taiaha-wielding (mostly) men following through on the intentions of their haka.
That said, Fraser filming the Royal New Zealand Ballet production of Giselle was a good primer for a film requiring its own choreography. RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel offered him advice when Fraser mentioned he was doing a Maori martial arts film next.
"He was excited and demonstrated the body language he recommended I use, for me and for the actors.
"He said it's all about getting grounded. Low centre of gravity, and interestingly, very similar to the warrior pose in yoga."
Watch: Full trailer: The Dead Lands
The Dead Lands came from a script by Glenn Standring - writer-director of horrors The Irrefutable Truth about Demons and Perfect Creature - who is also a producer on Fraser's film. Standring discovered he had some Maori ancestry, which inspired the story of a young warrior on a quest to avenge the murder of his family and tribe, which he wrote in English then had translated into Maori.
"I love language and I love like Crouching Tiger, The Raid and Seven Samurai. We just thought it would be cool," says the director of the reasons for rendering the movie in te reo with English subtitles. Fraser had gone back into Maori history before as the co-writer of Vincent Ward's colonial conflict story River Queen.
Fraser's long-time producer Matthew Metcalfe had seen potential in Standring's approach -- a te reo film featuring the traditional fighting arts of mau rakau.
"No one had ever brought mau rakau to the screen before, and that it was in te reo worked for us, not against us. Apart from the fact it means the story could only exist here in New Zealand, if it was in English, it would just be a poor cousin to a US action film."
So far, audiences, buyers, reviewers at the Toronto International Film Festival and London Film Festival - as well as local media who have seen the film - seem to agree the action-meet-arthouse combination works.The film has already been bought for the United States, Germany and Britain and finally gets its New Zealand release next week.
The film might be set in a primitive world but it comes with plenty of 20th-century cinematic references and an intriguing 21st-century soundtrack (see sidebar).
It's easy to spot at least one homage to Apocalypse Now in one scene. But Fraser says there's plenty more of that film as well as Bond films to The Searchers to The Empire Strikes Back. London-born, Auckland-schooled Fraser may have started out as a playwright and a theatre director but you get the feeling his heart lies in big cinema -- his next film is 6 Days, an action thriller depicting the 1980 hostage crisis in London's Iranian Embassy.
Still, he will hard-pressed to get as much action in his next film as in The Dead Lands, a film which, stylistically offers a contemporary interpretation on how pre-European Maori may have dressed. Although it's a film which resounds with haka, it's a film that reminds that the ritual wasn't just pre-match entertainment.
"We walked a tightrope between tradition and innovation and made some bold choices about things like costume, haircuts and music." says Fraser. "I like what somebody on Facebook said: 'It's a movie, man.' It's not supposed to be a history lesson."
The film stars James Rolleston - in his second major role of the year after The Dark Horse - as Hongi. The young chief son's only hope in his vengeance mission is to seek help from one-man fighting machine The Warrior, played by local screen veteran Lawrence Makoare.
Here the imposing Makoare swaps his Middle-earth Orc make-up for a full face moko and a fierce expression. Rings and Hobbit casting director Liz Mullane recommended him to Fraser but it wasn't Makoare's ability to play macho that got him the part.
Fraser: "I was unsure when Lawrence came in for his audition to perform one scene, a particularly emotional scene from the movie ... We did one version that was good and then I gave Lawrence a very simple small direction and the next take was incredible. I cried. Liz cried. Lawrence cried. ... we all sat on the floor cross-legged and didn't say anything."
Among those cast as Rolleston's extended whanau were George Henare and Rena Owen. His and Makoare's warrior opponents included former Shortland Street regulars Te Kohe ("TK") Tuhaka and Xavier Horan (who featured in Fraser's No2 and Dean Spanley).
Before heading into the bush to shoot, all the blokes (who included former league Warrior Wairangi Koopu) underwent a mau rakau boot camp - presumably with no boots.
The preparations were a challenge for the older, bigger Makoare.
Director Toa Fraser on the set of his latest film, The Dead Lands.
"It would be the hardest movie I've ever done, especially physically. I had to eat six meals a day. I like my bread and salt and stuff like that and I had to cut everything out because I had to drop a lot of weight in such a short amount of time. God, I missed my food ..."
Tuhaka also had to undergo some discomfort to take on the role - 10 weeks before boot camp he shattered his tibia.
He auditioned in a moon boot and did the film with some newly installed hardware of two plates and 11 pins in his leg.
"Toa asked would I be ready and I said yes and I did everything in my power to make sure I was ready. That's how much I wanted to be a part of this story ... that's how committed I was. That's the warrior gene."
But for Rolleston the biggest challenge was te reo, which he isn't fluent in. He read the part in Maori but had the English script for reference.
"So it was great to have all the other boys on set who know a bit more than me and they really helped to understand."
Fraser says Rolleston's previous experience and natural screen ability made his job easy.
"When it came to directing him I had to realise the more direction I gave him the worse his performance became. It's the first time I've had that experience. I just felt like 'okay, he knows what he's doing ... the first take is the best. I'm not gonna tell anybody the first take is the best. We're gonna do three just so I look like I'm in charge'. Whereas he was really in charge the whole time.
"On the last day of the shoot I said to him, What do you reckon? He said, I reckon the audience is gonna get pretty sick of shots of us running. I reckon we should wrap early so I can go home, buy my school uniform, go hunting. So we wrapped."
Anglo-Fijian Fraser doesn't speak Maori either, although he has had lessons and his two daughters and their mother are Maori. "So I have a very strong sense of responsibility to them to make this film work."
James Rolleston's natural acting ability shone through.
"My name means warrior. When I was growing up there were no Toa in the James Bond and Indiana Jones movies I was watching. It's personally thrilling and humbling to hear my name being pronounced so well and so proudly throughout the movie."
Music to go clubbing by
The Dead Lands
doesn't sound like it belongs in the past. Long-time Toa Fraser collaborator Don McGlashan took a heavily electronic approach to help create a menacing high-voltage atmosphere for a pre-electronic world, to score fight scenes of whirling taiaha and patu.
McGlashan's Dean Spanley score had been recorded with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and his work on No. 2 resulted in the Hollie Smith-sung hit Bathe In The River. But on The Dead Lands, Fraser and editor Dan Kircher pointed the songwriter-composer towards the synthesiser-heavy soundtracks on Nicolas Winding Refn films like Drive, Only God Forgives - both by Cliff Martinez - and Valhalla Rising.
McGlashan says his brief was to avoid being reverent and historically accurate, but help create an exciting, fantastical action drama.
That also meant out went an early idea of having sounds from field recordings being digitally manipulated - save for a sound that was once the Muriwai gannet colony in full cry before going through the sonic wringer- to be replaced by rhythmic synthesisers with acoustic strings and percussion to flesh things out.
McGlashan also got help from a bevy of musical mates - From Scratch founder Phil Dadson and his self-invented instrument, the "waterphone"; Sean "SJD" Donnelly as synthesiser tutor; Dutch sound artist Sjaak Overgaauw who has a way with guitar loops; some musicians from the APO.
"After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, Matthew and Toa got the score they wanted, and I've worked with them enough to completely trust their instincts. It was a big challenge, and it led me in some directions I didn't expect, but I think it works well."
- Additional reporting from Helen Barlow at the Toronto International Film Festival.