Throughout the year of 1992, on the bus that took us both out to Sacred Heart College in Glen Innes, Toa Fraser and I debated many important topics: Is Lethal Weapon 2 or 3 the better film? Is Hudson Hawk secretly genius? Is Predator a masterpiece?
Fraser's lifelong devotion to the cinematic arts is evident in the films he's directed so far (No. 2, Dean Spanley, Giselle), but I really got a sense of the VHS-devouring lover of hardcore action that lurks within him when I recently visited the set of his upcoming movie The Dead Lands, for which some imagery has finally been released.
The "action epic" (written by Glenn Standring) is set in pre-colonial New Zealand, and follows Hongi (Boy star James Rolleston, soon to be seen in the highly anticipated Kiwi feature The Dark Horse), a Maori chieftain's son who following the massacre of his tribe, must face the feared and forbidden Dead Lands, where lurks the mysterious "Warrior," (Lawrence Makoare) a ruthless fighter who has ruled the area for years.
As if it didn't sound cool enough already, the film will feature the Maori martial art of 'Mau Rakau'.
Where has this movie been all my life? I talk a lot in this space about New Zealand needing to focus more on genre films, and the existence of The Dead Lands shows I'm not the only one who feels that way.
Before I visited the set, my anticipation was already feverish, and it was only emboldened by what I saw that day.
In a particularly vertiginous corner of Mangere Domain, the production was filming a critical confrontation between Hongi and two adversaries. I can't reveal exactly who they were for risk of spoilers, but I can say that the fight involved some of the above mentioned Mau Rakau, and it looked insanely cool from where I was standing.
The look of the two bad guys was total Apocalypto, Maori-style. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Once the film is released, these two are gonna join Master Blaster and General Grevious in the pantheon of coolest-looking bad guys ever.
The rocky, enclosed location was authentically enhanced by old-style Pa fences, and gave off an air of unnerving menace that served the drama of the scene. Everything about the filming screamed 'untapped cinematic potential'.
The film's producer, Matthew Metcalfe (Nemesis Game, Beyond The Edge), told me earlier that day that when he sparked to Glenn Stranding's (The Truth About Demons, Perfect Creature) original script for The Dead Lands, he saw in it the potential for something "Kurosawa-esque". Which is a rare reference point for action movies these days, but all good.
Developing the script with Standring, they injected a lot more action and fight scenes (nice!) and Metcalfe recruited an enthusiastic Fraser, having just worked with him on Giselle.
The Dead Lands secured early support from American sales agents XYZ Films, a rare feat for a Kiwi feature. Metcalfe says it wasn't just the action elements that enticed them, but the originality of the project.
"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."
What I witnessed on the set that day ably demonstrated that The Dead Lands is not going to be a poor cousin to anything. It all seemed severely bad-ass, with a slick filmmaking edge.
Just before the third take of Rolleston taking on his intimidating antagonists, Fraser offered up some spirited verbal encouragement to his leading man: "F*** 'em up James!" he shouted from behind the camera, with the unfettered glee of a true action movie fiend beaming off his face. This movie is going to rule.
Incidentally, the answers to the questions in the first paragraph are, respectively: 2; No; and Yes.
* Amped for The Dead Lands? Like what you see in the pic above? Comment below!