Courage Above All Things: Interview with Toa Fraser and The Dead Lands’ Warrior Saga

Savage and beautiful, Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands (2014) is a gripping warrior’s tale. A tribal chief’s young son finds himself the only survivor of a massacre, and vows vengeance. But to have any hope of repaying the grim blood debt, he must enlist the help of a mad warrior, feared by all. So begins a remarkable Maori action epic, featuring the little known art of mau rakau, a Maori martial art based in part on the brutal wielding of a serrated paddle called a patu. Kind of like a nasty ping pong paddle, properly wielded it can slit your throat or bash your brains right the fuck out. I was fortunate to be able to interview director Fraser, from a safe distance. Let’s leap into the fray, after the jump.

Toa Fraser takes his directorial talent in bone-crunching new directions

Fraser’s first name Toa actually means “warrior” in Maori. Growing up he played rugby and worshipped at the altar of 80s action films, but The Dead Lands is the first chance the four-time director has had to directly embrace his apparent birthright. It’s an interesting deviation from his earlier films, but there’s a path to be teased out looking closely. He debuted with Naming Number Two (2006), drawing on his Fijian roots to tell the story of a matriarch uniting her unruly grandchildren in order to name her successor. His second feature My Talks With Dean Spanley (2008) featured heavy hitters like Sam Neill and Peter O’Toole in a curious father-son drama entwined with a loose fantasia on the reincarnated memories of a dog. And his third film veered into near-documentary status, beautifully capturing the ballet Giselle (2013). With The Dead Lands, Fraser explores new territory, but draws on all that has gone before, with a warrior action pic laced with intense familial bonds and the fantastic commentary of ghostly ancestors. Watching the film, one gets a powerful sense of pre-colonial Maori culture and the world they inhabited, both brutal and poetic.

James Rolleston is determined and convincing as the unproven warrior seeking vengeance

James Rolleston is quietly emphatic as Hongi, the son of the chief whose tribe is slaughtered through duplicity. Hongi is the one who uncovers the plot to unseat his father, but he is saddled with the blame, as the ambitious visitor Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka) accuses Hongi of desecrating his ancestors’ graves. The lie is a pretext, for Wirepa craves a warrior’s glory of conquest, and that night his warriors return to slaughter Hongi’s tribe. Fraser isn’t remotely shy about the violence, and blood flows freely in the action scenes that follow. The martial arts choreography is superb, and the unique Maori posturing, bug-eyed with flickering Gene Simmons tongues threatening, is disquieting and intense. Hongi escapes the rout, and vows vengeance. Returning home, Wirepa’s warriors decide to save time and cut through forbidden territory, the Dead Lands haunted by an unspeakable monster. That monster is Hongi’s best hope, for he’s an exiled warrior of exceptional skill. The catch, because there’s always a catch, is he’s as inclined to eat Hongi as he is to help him (Fraser is matter-of-fact about the Maori’s prevalent cannibalism; it’s just what they did, yo). Lawrence Makoare is wonderfully harrowing as The Warrior, and the imaginatively eagle-eyed might recognize him as the orc Bolg from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or the Witchking of Angmar from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (Okay probably not, but the man is BADASS.) The movie becomes a long-winded chase, as the unlikely companions hunt Wirepa and his warriors across the gorgeous encroachments of the New Zealand jungle. The pace veers between slow and pastoral (sometimes too slow), and fast-cutting, red-spattered, visceral action. All told, it’s a wild ride, and one Fraser was eager to discuss.

Congratulations on a gripping warrior’s tale! The Dead Lands has a unique spin on the classic action film, with its historical setting, and Maori culture and martial arts. Mau rakau is fascinating and brutal. Did the cast have to undergo significant training before filming?

Big time. Mau rakau specialist Jamus Webster worked alongside stunt coordinator Steve McQuillan and trainer Josh Randall to push the cast through an intense, holistic eight week bootcamp. It was brutal and beautiful, and very much cast led. A lot of the actors are also accomplished sports people – rugby especially – so it was very competitive. But it was also very poetic. There was a lot of karakia (prayer) and singing.

Te Kohe Tuhaka is all clenched arrogance as the usurper Wirepa seeking glory

How did Giselle, your previous ballet film, influence your approach to the bone-crunching action of The Dead Lands?

I talked to Ethan Stiefel the great American ballet star, who choreographed Giselle, about my approach to The Dead Lands. As a martial artist himself he was right into it. We talked a lot about the body language of a warrior, and the crossover between dancing and fighting.

You’ve noted that 80s action films were a big influence on you growing up. Any specific movies or moments inspirational for this film?

It was awesome to be able to work with a whole bunch of guys who’ve grown up watching the same movies. I could say to somebody like Xavier Horan, “This is like the scene in Commando when he straps on all the weapons,” or “Imagine that thing is going to make a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of noise.” We talked a lot about Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Terminator 2. There are shots straight up stolen from Apocalypse Now, The Searchers and Dr. No. But I should say too that Gareth Evans was really helpful during preproduction and his work on The Raid was inspiring too.

The cast is superb and believable. Was it hard to find the right people for each role?

The thing was until Lawrence came in to audition I didn’t know what kind of movie this was going to be. His audition blew me away. We all cried in the room, and after he finished we all sat down on the floor crossed legged and couldn’t speak. Finally Lawrence asked, “Don’t you think tears would make me weaker?” It was a beautiful moment of vulnerability that was very important to me.

There’s a strong veneration of stories in the film; the warriors all want their stories to be told, whether they live or die. And at the same time, their ancestors are alive, talking to them in a sense. Can you talk a bit about the ways you captured that in the film, and where it comes from?

For me it’s the way we’ve been brought up. We’ve grown up hearing stories of our ancestors, legends, myths. We’ve grown up with a sense of ancestors communicating to us from beyond the grave. I wanted to express this in a way that was cinematic but quite natural.

Not exactly the Karate Kid as young Hongi learns the art of mau rakau from the deadly Warrior

One of the classic tropes of action films is the passing of skill from the master to the student. The Warrior’s backstory makes this set-up especially rich. Did James Rolleston and Lawrence Makoare feed off each other in a similar way as filming progressed?

They didn’t, actually. They’re very different people, and different to their characters. And neither of them is very method. James would finish a shot and be straight on to checking his phone. With Lawrence, I had to really learn that the performance was there and I couldn’t see it. He has a beautiful profound relationship with the camera.

***

Classic. Acting, new school and old. I confess to being pretty amused at the thought of James Rolleston’s intense warrior youth whipping out his mobile between takes. The Dead Lands is an intense action film and a window into a fascinating unfamiliar existence, without unduly romanticizing the harshness of a native warrior culture. While it occasionally tarries too long on its meandering jungle paths, the action is frenetic when it comes, the cast deadly committed and the setting never less than rapturous to behold.

The Dead Lands is currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto with a special critic’s screening featuring Jason Gorber (Twitch TV, CTV News) on Monday, April 20th at 8:45pm. (For info and tickets, see here.) The film is also playing festivals across the USA and elsewhere throughout April and beyond.

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