With Mahana (aka The Patriarch), Lee Tamahori has brought together some of New Zealand’s finest talent for his first film on home ground since 1996’s Once Were Warriors. Re-teaming with Warrior's producer Robin Scholes and actor Temuera Morrison, Tamahori helped adapt Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera’s semi-autobiographical novel, “Bulibasha”, with the film’s Sydney-based screenwriter John Collee (Master and Commander, Happy Feet).
Morrison plays Tamihana Mahana, the proud and forceful head of a 1960s Maori sheep-shearing family who is constantly competing with the nearby Poata dynasty, for more reasons than just the sheep. Seasoned theatre actor Nancy Brunning, 42, impressively plays his long suffering wife Ramona, mostly as an older woman, and there’s yet another new Maori kid on the block, Akuhata Keefe, as their grandson Simeon, an opinionated character loosely based on Ihimaera during his East Coast upbringing. As with Taika Waititi’s 2010 hit Boy, we see the action through the youngster’s eyes.
This is quite a traditional historical drama coming from a director who has been known for action movies.
Lee Tamahori: It’s more a nostalgic piece for me because it’s about the time when I was growing up. Simeon is only five years older than I was at this time and my father is from the East Coast where the film was made. Temuera’s character is modelled on the men I have observed and known all my life, specifically my grandfather who was a very authoritarian Anglican minister. He was part of a vanishing breed of hard taciturn men who said very little and were men of action. They fought in the wars and came back quietly and got on with the job of raising families and doing the hard work.
Why did you come back to make a film in New Zealand?
Lee Tamahori: It was always part of my plan to go back to New Zealand. I have been living there for five years. I actually came back in 2003 (after Die Another Day) but the minute I got there, and set my roots there, I was back in America making xXx2: The Next Level and then came back to do Next and then The Devil’s Double (in Malta, with largely Belgian financing). Now I’m concentrating on making films in New Zealand because I want to stay home for a while. There’s so much more talent behind and in front of the camera than before I left.
Why did you want Scottish-born John Collee to adapt the book rather than a Kiwi writer?
Lee Tamahori: He is Australian by way of Scotland, though he could be from Iceland for all I care. What I was looking for was a writer who could write a good screenplay out of this. Any writer can write for any culture if they understand the story they are telling. In any case Witi’s book provided all the frames of reference and he had myself, the actors and Witi to keep him on track with the cultural aspects of the story.
Any writer can write for any culture if they understand the story they are telling.
John Collee: Temuera brought this whole dimension to the character of Tamihana Mahana. He changed him from being an aggressive patriarch to somebody who was really holding the family together with a dogged forcefulness. In those days the Maoris were up against an incredibly aggressive European invasion, which was still playing itself out. Suddenly, the tough heads of families managed to resist that and still resist that.
The film has aspects of a western.
John Collee: Witi grew up watching movies on a sheet strung up in a barn. He was enormously influenced by westerns, and when we first discussed adapting the book Lee said, “This is a western,” and he wanted to give it scale and expansiveness and also the moral tone of a John Ford western.
How did you come to be in the film?
Akuhata Keefe: I just got the call one morning that they were looking for a young Maori boy to play this part. Three hours later I was in the audition room. I’d only briefly gone over my lines.
When did you make the film?
Akuhata Keefe: In the summertime. I was 14 when I made the film and I’m 15 now.
James Rolleston was 11 when he made Boy. He’s 18 now. Have you met him?
Akuhata Keefe: No, I want to though. When I first saw Boy I thought it was cool seeing a young Maori boy from around where I’m from on the big screen. He was my idol – and still is. I loved The Dead Lands because it’s got kapa haka [Maori performing arts including the haka] and the ways that the Maoris used to live back in the day and I think he played that part really well.
Do you want to do more acting?
Akuhata Keefe: Definitely. There’s something about being on set, the vibe that everyone has. I’ll just walk into work feeling good and won’t have any hang-ups.
What was it like meeting Tem?
Akuhata Keefe: When I first was going to meet him I was quite intimidated. I thought he was like the character he played in Once Were Warriors. But when he came up to me and said, “Hello,” I was like, “Oh, you’re nothing like Jake the Mus.”
Temuera, what was it like working with Lee again?
Temuera Morrison: I’m a bit of a clown in real life but I always get to play these wonderful characters, who have a bit of backbone, a bit of sternness. These roles very rarely come along in one’s career. I knew it would be wonderful working with Lee again. Sometimes with a director you have a real connection and I totally trust him. I’m loose enough so we can sculpt and create the character together.
What was it like filming in the countryside?
Temuera Morrison: It was wonderful to go back to the farm work I did with my grandfather in my youth. It was a slice of life from the ‘60s, even how my aunties used to bake the Maori bread.
Was something lost through the move to the cities, so that Maori culture is trying to regain some of the old traditions?
Temuera Morrison: After the Second World War, a lot of the Maori had to move to the city for work and a lot of the farms were left unattended. But now there’s a draw back to their own land to keep the home fires burning. With my own family, my grandfather wasn't as hard on us. He was quite a gentle man, but when it came to the work ethic he was very hard about that.
Could you shear a sheep?
Temuera Morrison: No, we were more dairy. So we were up at 4 o’clock milking the cows.
You’re physically fit and have a great posture.
Temuera Morrison: I worked on that; I needed that. Mahana was an ex-shearer. Fortunately he never saw me shear a sheep!
What was it like on set?
Temuera Morrison: We had a wonderful Maori cast. Some were more experienced than others but there were no egos. Everyone had to share the common room, the guitar would come out and we’d all have turns. We’d all sing and be told to shut up as we were making too much noise. Having Lee back home after 20 years it was exciting to be in his film. In the back of our minds we knew it was a great opportunity for all of us.
Have you been working in Australia?
Temuera Morrison: I’ve done bits and pieces, nothing huge. I did a sci-fi film with Shane Abbess called SFv1, strange title, but I really enjoyed that. I play a badass prison warden. And I went to Thailand and did an American action film, Hard Target 2. I need some younger roles. I’m too young for this kind of stuff!
See all of our 2016 Sydney Film Festival coverage