Several deaths occurred for the film No. 2, but no one seems to agree on the numbers. About eight, says director Toa Fraser. Closer to 14, reckons actress Mia Blake. More like 18, says another. Vegetarians might disagree, but at least the pigs killed for the film's banquet scene didn't die in vain.

"A whole bunch of my cousins were extras," Fraser hoots. "Which was handy for the leftover food."

A major coup awaits this small Kiwi film. No. 2 premieres tonight (NZ time) at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Which could mean success story No 2 for New Zealand cinema at the festival. Whale Rider was catapulted on to the world stage after winning the audience prize in 2003.

"It's huge for me," says Fraser, holidaying on the Coromandel a few days before the trip. "A lot of the films and film-makers who have really influenced me come from Sundance - Hoop Dreams and When We Were Kings, Tarantino and Soderbergh. It's really amazing to be in that sort of calibre of film-maker."

By now, Fraser will have hob-nobbed at the Sundance gala that kicked off the 10-day event, his eye peeled for festival founder Robert Redford, film critic B. Ruby Rich or sexy actress Rosario Dawson. The experience will likely remind him of when No. 2 the stage play wowed crowds at the Edinburgh Festival in 2000.

"This is different because it's in the movies and it feels like really high stakes," he says. "It's difficult to think of it in terms of a competition. For me it's about hanging out. I'm going with an open mind, hoping we just have a really cool time. But on the other hand I hope it goes off and is really well received. It's nerve-racking."

Fifteen other films are competing with No. 2, making Fraser's story as vibrant as a hibiscus flower in a bleak, war-torn terrain.

The story revolves around Nanna Maria, an elderly Fijian woman who has grown disillusioned with family life. What happened to the big parties? Why don't the children come together and drink till all hours and laugh and eat and fight and dance and sing? Where has the life gone?

She demands her grandchildren put on a feast. No outsiders. And not just any feast. There will be a pig. And dancing. This will be a huge and magnificent party at which she will name her successor. And yes, she wants it today!

No. 2 began life seven years ago when Fraser, a Fijian-New Zealander, sat down and wrote a stage play, or as he puts it, a "love letter" to his family, friends and life.

But in Fraser's mind, the story began much earlier, when he was a boy growing up in England.

Ambrosia


He imagined Mt Roskill as a "mythological place where immortals sat around drinking their ambrosia and parties started at 9am, ending 48 hours later". When he got there at age 14 and met his extended family, including his grandmother who comes from Levaki in Fiji, he found his imaginings somewhat accurate.

Even now, it's not unusual for Fraser to cruise around to his Uncle Albert's house in Mt Roskill, just around the corner from the film's location, and drink whisky on the deck with his cousins.

Whereas his stage play was performed by a single actress - Madeleine Sami - Fraser visualised No. 2 as a multi-character film. In 2001, he went to Fiji to start the screenplay.

"I've been hoping to become a director just about all my life. My grandmother bought me a clapper board when I was about 10 and books about film directing when I was very young."

No. 2 producer Tim White says Fraser wrote about 20 drafts before it was ready. "There were some darker moments when it seemed like we were travelling backwards or sideways," he says, "but there was very much a commitment to the spirit and the story he was telling."

Fraser knew the actress who played Nanna Maria would need to portray a combination of strength, vulnerability, cheek and eccentricity.

"She's heightened and operatic so her character demands that the film goes somewhere."

He planned to cast a Fijian actress in the role but realised how much he wanted African-American screen legend and activist, Ruby Dee. Her role as an insightful old woman in the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing (1989) inspired him to write the character of Nanna Maria in the first place.

So when the 80-year-old, Harlem-based, award-winning actress agreed to spend six weeks in a country on the other side of the world, working with a first-time director, Fraser was thrilled.

"The day she arrived was a very exciting day for me."

Excitement shortlived


The excitement was shortlived. Less than 24 hours later, Dee had a phone call to say Ossie Davis, her beloved husband of 56 years, had died in a Florida hotel room. The 87-year-old actor and fellow activist had been working on a film called Retirement. Dee flew home immediately for the funeral.

"That was a devastating time for her, and I confess it was a devastating time for me," says Fraser. "I gathered up the cast next day and we had a big old drink at the pub. We all agreed we were optimistic Ms Dee was going to come back. She said to me on the way to the airport that she was looking forward to coming back and celebrating life - just like No 2."

True to her word, Dee returned to New Zealand two weeks later, ready to work. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny filled another hole when the actress cast as a grandson's girlfriend pulled out at the last minute. Novotny auditioned via webcam and was on a plane to New Zealand within two days. But there was little to celebrate for Madeleine Sami, who missed out on a part altogether.

Keen to accelerate the bonding process and make the festive atmosphere as real as possible, Fraser held a cast party at his Uncle Albert's house as part of the rehearsal process. The boys were put in charge of cooking the pig while the girls were put to work in the kitchen.

"For the actors it was a great thing," says Miriama McDowell, who plays Hibiscus, the family drama queen, "because we had Toa's nieces and nephews and cousins right there. So we could say, 'Which one is most like Hibiscus?' I could sneak off and watch her. What a gift for us. We felt like we were a part of their family."

"Having a piss-up and a feed in the backyard is not a foreign environment for us at all," agrees Pio Terei, who sidestepped his usual comedic roles to play the somewhat serious Uncle Percy.

"We got the guitar out and had a party and Toa said, 'Everybody sing some songs'. That's not strange to us. European, Maori, Fijian, Samoan, whatever - there's so much crossover between our cultures; it's applicable to all of us."

Just as the preparation was important, Fraser knew it was vital to wait before shooting the intimate, emotional scenes between Nanna Maria and granddaughter Charlene.

"She's the one who puts her to bed when she's fallen asleep in her chair after having too much gin," says actress Mia Blake, for whom the role was especially poignant. She still recalls the moment of anguish when, aged five, she waved goodbye to her distraught grandmother as she set sail from Tonga to New Zealand.

"The people who you love the most, you can hurt the most. They're very complex relationships. I was lucky to have the time to develop that [in the film]. You go through this big journey together and by the time you get to the end you've got to the nerve of it, the rawness of it. I was ready to release a lot of that."

When No. 2 was complete, Fraser and White flew to New York to show it to Dee.

The screening was held in an old Miramax screening room with 40 of Dee's closest family and friends.

Afterwards, she stood up and spoke about how proud she was to be involved in the film, says Fraser.

Now he is looking forward to seeing his actress again at Sundance.

No. 2 is not his only big film on the horizon. Fraser was also a writer on Vincent Ward's long-anticipated River Queen.

He worked on the film for a year in 1999 before getting his teeth into No. 2.

"It was really intense, a real challenge to work with someone of Vincent's level of expertise and commitment. He works very, very hard.

"I'd probably like to work a few less hours in the day. I'm a bit more of a hang-around-in-the-backyard kind of guy."

Fraser is also, says McDowell, a director who wears his heart on his sleeve, despite his ambition to remain somewhat aloof.

"He never distanced himself from us too much. He had a really intimate and passionate knowledge of the story and the characters.

I remember him walking into the wardrobe one day and the head of wardrobe said, 'What's this character like?' And he goes, 'This character wears a hat like this, a bracelet like this on this arm with a shirt tied up to here'. Really, really specific. He had a technical vision of film but he was also able to relate with us as people."

Fraser's Sundance campaign will be somewhat simpler.

"I like the work to speak for itself."

LOWDOWN
What: No. 2, the Kiwi film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.
Director: Fijian-New Zealander Toa Fraser, who was also a writer on River Queen.
Starring: Ruby Dee, Mia Blake, Miriama McDowell, Taungaroa Emile, Tuva Novotny, Rene Naufahu, Antony Starr, Tanea Heke, Nathaniel Lees, Pio Terei, Xavier Horan.
Cinematographer: Leon Narbey (Whale Rider).
Music: Don McGlashan.
Theatre: No. 2 began as a stage play which won the Festival First Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2000. It has since earned rave reviews in Australia, Britain, Jamaica and Mexico. Fraser's other plays of note are Bare, also performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and Paradise.
Opens in New Zealand: February 16.