How I Make It Work: Film Is Both Craft & Calling For Brandon Te Moananui

Documentarian and film-maker Brandon Te Moananui. Photo / Manihera Te Hei

Image-making is a lifelong passion for Brandon Te Moananui, and he’s built a career from that childhood love of film. In a notoriously demanding field, how does he build balance?

Independent storyteller, documentarian and film-maker Brandon Te Moananui sees two sides to his trade. “Documentary is my calling, and film-making — in drama, comedy, commercials — is my craft.”

He started exploring image-making in childhood, when a friend gave him a camera for his birthday.

“We literally just started taking photos and videos with that, and I never looked back. It’s been 14 years since I did my first film job.”

Now with a career in the industry, Brandon balances craft and calling by working professionally across different roles in film and television; director, producer, director of photography, editor and writer.

Recent work includes directing the Matariki commercial for Mahi Tahi Agency, an NZTA drug commercial, and colour grading Not Even season two, which will be out on Neon and Sky later in the year. Two more projects will be filmed and edited this winter, and there’s a campaign he directed with Te Whatu Ora and coming out.

Brandon’s next documentary project will be released later this year on TVNZ and TVNZ+. It started back in 2022, and “gives a voice to the young ram raiders in Papakura, South Auckland, their whānau and the community that have wrapped around them”.

What influences his work?

“I find a lot of my inspiration from my family, my upbringing and the communities that I most care about — I’m Māori Chinese, so I’m always searching for connections in these communities through my work.”

He’s a big believer in telling stories that come from the heart. One of his first television jobs was on Songs From The Inside. “We went into Christchurch prison and had local artists teach prisoners how to make a song.”

The award-winning Songs From The Inside followed inmates at Rimutaka and Arohata prisons making music with mentorship from artists such as Anika Moa.
The award-winning Songs From The Inside followed inmates at Rimutaka and Arohata prisons making music with mentorship from artists such as Anika Moa.

“My father was in prison when I was younger and I felt really comfortable in that space. My nana made sure I visited him every second weekend. I knew these people and the environments they came from, and I was surprised how comfortable I was, as it’s a very volatile environment. That experience told me that I can work with the most vulnerable people in Aotearoa, and I continue to do so now.”

That is what drives his documentary making to date.

“The most rewarding thing is when I’m giving people a voice, when they might not get a chance to [have one], and also changing the perception of an audience. I’m always excited to film documentaries as I get to meet people I would never get the chance to.”

His most significant piece of work so far is being part of The Māori Sidesteps group.

“We are a collective of writers, directors, actors, creatives and artists in Wellington — focused on the contemporary Māori and Pākehā relationship. We use satire and comedy to ignite tough conversations,” he says. They made two web series, a TV series and “a tonne” of online content between 2016 and 2021.

“It’s the most significant because of those tough conversations we had throughout creating the content and after it went out to the world and our audience.”

“Relationships, communication and transparency are all key components of what I do. Being creative is a sliver of expression, as it truly takes a village to get your concept to delivery, and the way you do that will give it a good life force, or it won’t.”

He recommends staying true to yourself, and to your values. “Don’t worry about trends and what other people are doing.”

And he shares advice he says is “cliche” but true: don’t be afraid to give it a go.

“But, always be ready to let it go,” he says. “Respect your relationships and be honest with your approach.”

He keeps an ideas bank, building it up with things that land in his brain. “I’ll always check in at the bank when I get free time and see what’s worth developing.”

With so many things to pursue, Brandon also has some wisdom for making creative choices.

“When I’m developing ideas and concepts with other people, I always challenge the team to not write too many notes — because if it doesn’t stick [in your mind], it’s not worth it.”

Where does he want his career to go next?

“I don’t have any specific goals right now. I just want to tell stories I care about,” Brandon says. “I believe my calling is documentary-making, so I will continue to tell stories in that form. I also love comedy, as it has a deep rawness to it and you get to have fun and laugh.”

What does a standard workday look like?

Given his multitude of roles and the nature of film-making, Brandon’s day-to-day activity can vary widely.

Working from home helps foster balance. “If I’m editing, planning or writing at home, I will usually start my morning with some movement, good food and a coffee. Then open up the door to my office and get stuck into what I have planned,” says Brandon. “I’ll spend a couple hours in the morning before heading out for a walk and lunch, and then finish my day in the office before my partner gets home.”

Shooting looks a little different, and even that can vary from genre to genre, job to job.

“If I’m filming a documentary, I try my best to fit in movement, stretch, run or walk to start my day and get the whole body ready for the day. These days can get up to 16 hours, sometimes more,” Brandon says.

“You have to be on the pulse, ready to adjust and react as you go. You could be in the water filming on a waka, and then you’re in someone’s house and garden, meeting the whole family. So you have to be ready for anything really.”

Scripted film-making is more predictable, though still demanding. When shooting a drama or comedy, the days are set to a schedule, so he can plan out an hour or two of movement (depending on how late they finished the previous day).

He often builds in some time for a head start. “I’ll get to set a little earlier so I can get my head into the day and speak with the team about the day. Then we spend the day trying to achieve our plan and schedule.”

In morning preparation on-set, it may take one to two hours to get the first record of the day, he says. “Then you are flying forward from there. There are always challenges and that’s what I love most, being in the heat of the moment, bringing all your experience to the forefront and making a decision to help your team move forward.”

Brandon Temoananui regards documentary-making as his calling and he plans to continue exploring the form. Photo / Manihera Te Hei
Brandon Temoananui regards documentary-making as his calling and he plans to continue exploring the form. Photo / Manihera Te Hei

How does he maintain balance?

When he’s not at work, Brandon tries to be in nature.

“I love the garden and growing my own kai,” he says, “I like to get out in the environment and go for walks, runs and sometimes just sit in the presence of our taiao.”

Nature is also where he goes when struggling with creative block. “I find concept inspiration when I’m in nature, whether that’s on a walk through the bush, next to the water or in my garden.”

A big reader and a fan of podcasts, Brandon seeks these out when there’s time.

Whānau are important too. “I like to visit family when I’m close to them and just eat, catch up and hang out.”

Having some non-negotiables is the key to balance. “Mine are movement, stretching, eating good food and drinking heaps of water every day. I’m not perfect at all, and sometimes slip up. I had a pie for breakfast this morning,” Brandon says. “But I always feel the consequences, so I try hard every day to attempt my non-negotiables.”

Doing things with his partner helps too, hikes and going to the beach. “Or just clean the house together,” he says. “That keeps my mind off the list of things that sometimes feels never-ending.”

Most recently based in Mangawhai, Northland, where his partner is from, they’re relocating to Wellington this month — most of Brandon’s work comes out of there — and making a new home in Ōtaki.

Most recently based in Mangawhai, Northland, Brandon Temoananui and his partner are relocating to the Wellington region this month and will live in Ōtaki. Photo / Manihera Te Hei
Most recently based in Mangawhai, Northland, Brandon Temoananui and his partner are relocating to the Wellington region this month and will live in Ōtaki. Photo / Manihera Te Hei

Brandon Te Moananui’s favourite things

Right now I’m excited by ... Mā, who is a local musician, creative, artist. I’m inspired and excited by her storytelling through her unique sound and vibe, and how it’s related to her own story. I’m also working on a doco and music video for Waiata Anthems, with her soon, so I’m excited about learning and vibing with her.

A new movie I love is ... Not a film but a series — Baby Reindeer on Netflix. It’s one of those stories that stuck in my head, leaving me to wonder for days, weeks and now months. To me, it’s about shame and the effects of shame that can send you on this course of destruction.

My favourite classic films are ... Growing up I loved Adam Sandler movies like Big Daddy, Happy Gilmour. I was in hospital for three months when I was young and watched these over and over on VHS — as these were the only tapes they had lol. His films set me up to work in comedy. Ice Cube’s Friday; this was also on repeat in my household. It was a reflection of us urban Māori living in the suburbs, the characters and experiences reflected a lot of my family and I loved the real and rawness of it and the use of comedy to make us feel.

Photo / IMDB.
Photo / IMDB.

The film that had the biggest influence on me is ... Taika’s Boy impacted me a lot when I started out on this journey. Because I loved comedy, this film just had it all for me. The heart and warmth, mixed with the humor was what made it seem possible for me.

A scene from Taika Waititi's movie Boy. Photo / Supplied
A scene from Taika Waititi's movie Boy. Photo / Supplied

The media I follow is ... I’m the worst at keeping up with media and subscribing — so I find YouTube is a great source of everything for me. I make sure I expand my listening by not shying away from media and conversations that make me uncomfortable, I think that’s important so we aren’t stuck in our own bubble.

Things I rewatch ... I don’t rewatch stuff anymore, I’m watching cuts and filming stuff most of my life so I give myself a break and only watch something once to be honest.

A favourite book is ... I don’t have a fave. I’m currently reading The Mind-Gut Connection by Emeran Mayer. It’s teaching me about the importance of food and what’s in my gut, so I can have a good day and a fresh mind. I’m more into biographies, non-fiction and self-help type books.

A podcast I’m enjoying at the moment is ... Mandate. Made in New Zealand, it’s a great podcast to feel inspired by people who are making moves in their field. Mainly Pasifika and Māori people.

An Instagram account I enjoy following is ... Geloy Concepcion; his approach to photography and the rawness inspires me every day.

A favourite artist or creative ... At the moment, Matt Brown, who is also known as My Father’s Barber, also known as She Is Not Your Rehab. He inspires me to use my creative skills for my people.

My favourite music is ... I don’t have a favourite, but what comes to mind is SWIDT’s The Most Electrifying — it has something for all of me and my emotions. I can listen to it to get me up, motivate me or make me reflect if I’m feeling down.

Music I listen to to start my day, and to work, includes ... I’ve got a broad selection. I don’t have a go-to, but I’ll either find something I’m feeling on the day or just put a random playlist on and let it run. As I’m writing this — Pollen playlist on Spotify is playing.

The best time of the day is ... 5am. I love mornings as my mind flows and most free at this time. It also gives me a head start that makes my day easier. I always get emails saying “why are you up replying so early” lol.

My favourite building in Wellington is ... I’m not really a person who likes buildings, I’m more into the outdoors. The building that has the most significance to my life is my grandparents’ house in Stoke Valley. I think about that house all the time.

My favourite region in Wellington is ... Lower Hutt is my home. I grew up around Waiwhetu, Stokes Valley and Petone. They hold all my childhood memories, some good and some bad, and I’ll always cherish them and be inspired by these places and memories for life. I also love Ōtaki, it feels like home to me. My partner and I are moving back there in July.

I’d love to travel to ... Venice, Italy. I’d love to explore on the water and also live next to the water.

The international city with the best buildings is ... I recently went to Vietnam, and the old buildings in Hoi An were epic!

The most cinematic place in the world is ... I recently went to India where the expression of culture, people, and history was really cinematic to me. We travelled to Rishikesh, at the bottom of the Himalayas. Everywhere you turned, you could stare and feel the people and place.

A favourite bar, café or restaurant is ... Seashore Cabaret is my go-to spot when I need a place to write. The customer service is always on point, matched with views and it’s perfect.

The brands I depend on are ... Because I’m out filming a lot I have a closet full of appropriate items like Carhartt, Kathmandu and Levi’s to keep me comfortable.

A piece of clothing I bought recently is from ... Awa Hawaiki — When I do buy, I’ll buy local artists clothes and clothing with a purpose.

The skin care I use is ... The occasional Nivea men’s moisturiser.

A favourite place for a walk is ... At the moment I love walking around Mangawhai — you get water views, bush and the suburbs all in one.

My favourite region in Aotearoa is ... Lower Hutt; it’s my home and I’ll forever feel connected there.

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