Talking Story With Filmmaker Brian Kohne About His New Movie, The Suspense Thriller ‘Kuleana’

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Standing in his living room, Brian Kohne has a view right out of a movie. The house–which Kohne calls “Malama Pono”–is in Wailuku Heights, and from there he can take in everything between Kahului Harbor, Kihei and Upcountry. At night, with all of Central Maui’s streetlights illuminated, the house must seem like one of those mansions perched in the hills above Hollywood.

This is in many ways perfect, because Kohne is trying to make a living as a movie-maker right here on Maui. He and his production company Malama Pono (same as the house) have already made one film–the crazy independent comedy Get a Job, which starred musicians Willie K and Eric Gilliom–but now he’s setting the stage for something far more ambitious. Not a sequel to Get a Job (though Kohne says he’s often asked when that might come about), Kohne is planning to make a suspense thriller called Kuleana set during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s.

But jumping from a contemporary, light-hearted comedy cast with Maui locals to a tense drama rooted in Hawaiian history and corruption isn’t the ambitious part. And no, the ambitious part isn’t even Kohne wanting his new movie to make a profit, though that is very ambitious.

No, the ambitious part of all this is that Kohne wants to make a new movie that brings in a profit and is the result of a Maui-made movie production. Not a Hollywood mainstream production that just flies out here to film some scenes, but a film that’s the product of a legitimate filmmaking industry right here.

“My family was fortunate to move to Maui in 1969 when I was five years-old,” Kohne wrote in a press sheet for Kuleana. “I‘m fascinated by indigenous issues, and driven to nurture our precious multi-ethnic community. One of my kuleanas is to contribute to the growth of an island film industry as both a local artist with unique insight into the contemporary culture, and as a business person creating jobs and entertainment products in the islands.”

To do that, Kohne has already made one picture. That Get a Job didn’t make any money is typical for first-time movies. But now Kohne needs to make a movie that’s financially successful.

“This one is a commercial venture,” Kohne told me recently. “Get a Job was about building community, empowering our production team. Kuleana is about kicking some ass–by that I mean making some money. It’s gotta make money.”

In Hollywood, that means Kohne needs a far bigger budget than the $200,000 he spent on Get a Job. And while an official Kuleana press sheet Kohne sent me mentions that Gilliom and Willie K have signed on to act in Kuleana, making money means casting bigger names. According to Kohne, that’s already begun.

“Kristina Anapau will be in it,” Kohne said.

That would be the same Kristina Anapau who has a recurring role in HBO’s True Blood and has also appeared in TV shows like The Glades, Monk, CSI:NY, Without a Trace and General Hospital as well as movies like Black Swan, Cursed, Cruel Intentions 3, Madison and 100 Girls.

“She’s from Hilo,” Kohne told me. “I met her at the Big Island Film Festival in 2011. Get a Job won an award, and she was being honored. A lot of people I’m working with are people I’ve met along the way. When you talk about the importance of first films, it’s true on so many levels. Ultimately, it’s about having a film that you can travel and network and meet people in the industry.”

So what’s the new movie about? Kohne would only talk about the story in general terms, though he did email me his official press packet, which includes the following synopsis:

“Childhood friends Nohea and Kim discover the true meaning of kuleana in a deadly clash between traditional Hawaiian values and the American Dream. Nohea, a tough young local, struggles to reconcile his old-fashioned upbringing with the future he hopes to provide for his family, and is forced to face up to his responsibilities as the chosen protector of his Grandma’s property and his family name. Kim, long presumed dead after her tragic disappearance at the age of seven, has mysteriously returned to her childhood home on a mission of her own. Like her mother, she was not born of native blood, but has adopted the Hawaiian culture as her way of life. On decidedly different paths to salvation, the unlikely pair share a common nemesis: unscrupulous businessman Victor Coyle, whose tools of trade include bribery, blackmail, and murder. Coyle blatantly exploits the land and the people he has managed to usurp and control. Ancestral spirits and modern day warriors contribute to the fight as Nohea and Kim learn the most important lesson: kuleana is not a burden; it is a privilege.”

That’s a lot for any moviemaker to tackle. Thrillers typically involve hero-types (sometimes with flawed motives), crooks, gorgeous women and, far too often, the thinnest of plots. Here Kohne is seeking to take all of those elements and weld them to a framework of Hawaiian tradition, land development and perhaps even a little magical realism thrown in.

When you think that Kohne’s previous movie was a slapstick comedy about a guy who hated work but kept trying to find a job, it seems doubly difficult. But Kohne says he started working on the story nine years ago. He also says it deals with themes he’s thought about virtually his entire life. And, perhaps most importantly, Kohne has calculated that he can make his new movie on a $1 million budget – $100,000 of which will be set aside for marketing (by contrast, Get a Job had no marketing budget).

“KULEANA will be shot for approximately $900,000,” Kohen wrote in his press sheet. “This budget falls under the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) ‘Modified Low Budget Contract,’ using their ‘Diversity in Casting Incentive.’”

Because Kohne’s production team and cast is largely of Polynesian descent, they qualify for the SAG incentive, which allows him a great deal more budget leeway than typically afforded the independent filmmaker. Kohne also says that he’s planning to start “principal photography” on Hawaii Island sometime this month, with the bulk of shooting and production to take place in 2014. He’s anticipating circulating the film through film festivals a year later.

To do that, Kohne needs money. Lots of it, and soon. Not surprisingly, he’s looking for investors.

“We’re still growing into our shoes,” he told me. “At a million dollars, I know I can strengthen production values, work with great talent and produce a film that’s marketable.”

Still, Kohne is only looking at a million-dollar movie at this point–he said amping the budget past that point doesn’t interest him. “If I talk someone into giving me $5 million, that’s five million reasons I have to make their movie and not ours.”

Right now, before shooting has begun, it all sounds great. But Kohne and his Malama Pono production team are at a critical juncture–movies live and die on their ability to find financing.

Put another way, if Kohne can’t make Kuleana work, then there’s no hope for a sequel to Get a Job. And he does want to make the sequel.

“That will happen,” Kohne told me. “It will happen when market conditions make it happen.”

Brian Kohne would like anyone interested in investing in Kuleana to email [email protected]

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