Jim Oxborrow is standing in his living room. Located in Waiehu, the house is decorated with nautical models; framed deck plans of ocean liners like the Titanic and Andrea Doria hang on the walls. Off to his left, two people are staring intently into laptop screens. Another is doing the same on his right. Ahead of him in the spacious kitchen, one woman is carefully weaving dark extensions into another woman’s hair. As Oxborrow looks around the room, it’s clear from his expression that it’s all good.
These people, and many more, have been in and out of Oxborrow’s house for four days now. They’re the cast and crew of the new Maui-made movie Kuleana. I teasingly ask him if they’ve trashed the place, but he shakes his head. “They’ve been so respectful it’s amazing,” he said. They even gave Oxborrow, an actor himself, a bit part. “I play Lt. McFoler in the movie,” he said. “We shot scenes last week.”
In production for the last few weeks, the story of Kuleana comes from Director Brian Kohne, who’s been working on the script here and there for a decade or so. Unlike the slapstick comedy Get a Job–Kohne’s first Maui movie, which he directed in 2010–Kuleana is a thriller. Set on Maui in both 1959 and 1971, the movie tells the story of two Hawaiians, Nohea and Kim, and how they deal with a powerful land developer named Victor Coyle. The movie is ambitious, touching on a variety of concepts and themes seldom seen in motion pictures–even those set in Hawaii: statehood, the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, the U.S. Navy’s use of Kaho‘olawe as a bombing range and the Hawaiian language–both its near-extinction and its comeback.
“For me, growing up on Maui–having been alive when they were bombing Kaho‘olawe–these things are still heavy on our conscience,” Kainoa Horcajo, a Hawaiian cultural specialist who also has a small role in the movie (“Bill Kanekoa”), told me later that afternoon. “[The movie] is part of a larger societal discussion that we need to have on the future of Maui.”
What’s more, at a time when Hollywood routinely casts whites as “locals” (Emma Stone in Aloha is the most recent and appalling example), Kohne has cast actors like Sonya Balmores and True Blood’s Kristina Anapau (she plays “Rose Coyle” in Kuleana, and is the Executive Producer) who are originally from Hawaii.
In 2013, I interviewed Kohne at length about his script, which he was still preparing (click here to read that story). At the time, he anticipated shooting the movie in 2014, then distributing it to film festivals in 2015. That schedule didn’t work out (because of that age-old friend/enemy of filmmakers: money) but a few weeks ago, Kohne finally got to the point that he could make his film. After inviting me to visit the set, I stopped by Oxborrow’s house–which the crew was using as a “base camp” on Thursday, June 9, which was the last day the crew was scheduled to shoot on Maui (they flew to the Big Island on June 10 to film some underwater sequences, then wrapped the whole production).
After arriving at 10am, Kathy Collins, who’s working as an associate producer as well as location manager, met me outside. She quickly introduced me to actress Sonya Balmores, then left to get back to work.
While chatting with Balmores, makeup artist Judy Cunningham did the actress’ hair. Balmores plays the adult version of “Kim”– “I can’t pass for 10 anymore,” she joked. She told me that she knew Stefan Schaefer, who is both Kuleana’s producer and one of its stars (he plays “Victor Coyle,” the land developer). According to Balmores’ IMDB page, she’s previously appeared in the Bethany Hamilton biopic Soul Surfer, the TV series Beyond the Break and a 2014 episode of Hawaii Five-0 (she played a tour bus robber). Balmores grew up in Kauai, but has lived in Los Angeles for the last two years.
“There aren’t a lot of local Hawaiian stories,” she told me as Cunningham weaved extensions into her hair. “I wanted to be part of that. Other films in Hawaii may have a moke or an aunty in them, but here, my character speaks Hawaiian.”
Though a full-length feature, Kohne has opted for a tight shooting schedule–a mere 15 days. “I’ve never done a shooting schedule this tight,” Director of Photography Dan Hersey told me later that day. When I mentioned the schedule to Balmores, she simply smiled. “Sooo busy!” she said. “Every day for the last month. We finished at 11 last night. But when they offer you a job in Maui for a few months, it’s hard to say no.”
As we talked, it started to rain. The crew gathered around the living room began wondering aloud how it would affect the shoot, which was taking place just down the road. “Will they film in the pouring rain?” one crew member asked. The answer, of course, was yes. Though the crew has already shot scenes in Waiehu, Ma‘alaea and other areas of Central Maui, rain was a new wrinkle they had to deal with.
“Today’s the first day it rained,” Balmores said. “But that’s what’s fun about filming in Hawaii–you cannot control the weather.”
A few minutes later, Makeup Dept. Head Natalie Bruce, production assistant Felippe De Souza and I are in a minivan headed down the road to the actual set. Setting the movie in two distinct eras (there are also special effects requirements) poses a challenge for Bruce–1950s curls vs. more hippie hairstyles. Still, she was undaunted. “I can do any era of makeup,” she said as De Souza slowly drove us down a dirt side road.
Known by the crew as “Grandma’s House,” the set was a grassy field beside a wooden house that dates to the 1930s. Trees ring the property, which sits above a tributary of the Waiehu Stream. It’s a gorgeous piece of property, though not all of Kuleana takes place in such lush locations. A few hours after the shoot here ended, the crew caravanned back to Oxborrow’s house to shoot a few scenes in a nearby jungle. There, decaying mangoes covered the ground, which made the air heavy with flies (bug repellant was plentiful).
But that was later. At Grandma’s House, a dozen people were clustered around a bright red ‘57 Chevy Bel Air with a sign saying “Coyle Construction” on the door.
“The sign was originally much larger,” Jack Grace, a local photographer who’s taking all the movie stills for the production told me a little while after I arrived. “But it wouldn’t stick to the bottom of the door, so they had to cut it down.”
It’s the third day the crew’s been at this location. It’s still drizzling, and the crew is huddled under umbrellas (at one point, I was surprised when a production assistant suddenly materialized at my side with an umbrella as I was scribbling in my notepad). The sky is gray, but the overall light is diffuse, an advantage to the crew. And the rain stopped a few minutes after I arrived.
There are people all over–prop assistants, lighting assistants, makeup designers, sound people. Everyone, it seemed, had a radio hookup.
“It’s highly regulated,” Horcajo told me. “Everybody has their task–not to be cliche, everybody has their kuleana. And the more everyone does their job, everything goes smoothly.”
The scene being shot was simple: Coyle (played by Schaefer) is leaning against the Chevy, reading a newspaper blaring the headline “STATEHOOD” when the younger versions of Nohea (played by 11-year-old Ryan Ursua) and Kim (11-year-old Kealani Warner, who was also a classmate of Ursua’s) talk with him briefly. It’s a straight-forward scene, 30 seconds on the screen at most, but it was fraught with challenges, some typical to motion pictures, others unique to Maui filmmaking.
Kohne wanted a variety of angles in the scene, which took time. The scene called for Coyle to smoke, but because Schaefer’s a non-smoker, he stood awkwardly with the cigarette between takes. Over and over, the actors–including the kids–repeated their one or two lines as the track-mounted camera films them from the front, behind, the side and afar. The scene also called for Ursua, who is carrying a rather sharp wooden spear, to thrust it through the newspaper Schaefer’s reading. Grace, who stood next to me for some of the shoot, audibly winced as the spear punched through the prop paper towards Schaefer’s face.
“We only have three prop newspapers,” Production Designer Burt Sakata told me. “It was tough getting them printed.” That meant the prop people had to prepare the papers carefully for each shot so the audience wouldn’t see that they’d already been punctured.
Keeping that–and myriad other details–straight from shot to shot is known as “continuity” in the movie business, and it’s of supreme importance, especially in a film that jumps between two distinct historical time periods. Seeing a character suddenly wearing slippers when previously filmed with bare feet, or spying the VW bus in the background of a shot set in 1959 would immediately cause the audience to “suspend disbelief,” as movie people like to say, and propel them mentally out of movie.
Keeping that from happening in Kuleana is the responsibility of Darren Corrao, the script supervisor. As Kohne moved between the cast and a video screen draped in a black sheet that allowed him to see what the camera was recording, and 1st Director Justin Hogan yelled “Quiet!” and “Action!” and made sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing, Corrao stood a few yards away under a small shelter in front of a laptop that displayed both the visuals being filmed and a copy of the Kuleana script, turned to whatever scene was being filmed. On his shoulders rested responsibility for spotting continuity errors.
At one point during that morning, Corrao noticed that he could see a hole in the newspaper Schaefer was holding before Ursua had punctured it. When shooting shifted to a scene involving Balmores playing with a dog (Lucy, who was actually Oxborrow’s dog), Corrao made clear that the dog couldn’t wear a collar because there was no collar in previous scenes.
He also noticed that Schaefer did not pull a Polaroid camera out of the car at the end of the scene, even though earlier scenes included the camera. In fact, the camera was gone–an understandable oversight, given the tight shooting schedule, complex time period changes and the fact that Kuleana (like most movies) was shot out of chronological sequence.
To help, Corrao took many, many continuity shots with a smart phone, which allowed him to quickly check what an actor was wearing during previous shots. This helped immeasurably during one scene when Corrao noticed that the shirt worn by lead actor Moronai Kanekoa (who plays the elder “Nohea”) didn’t have enough sweat on it to match its appearance in two scenes shot a few days earlier. “So we had to spray the shirt,” Corrao said.
When you have so many people working so closely for such long hours, accidents will happen. I was in the house just a few minutes before someone mentioned “the toupee incident” (I found no shortage of cast and crew members willing to corroborate the story). While filming a dramatic scene at Waiehu Stream, Schaefer ended up losing the toupee he’s been wearing in the water. Though crew members jumped in and tried to grab it, they were unsuccessful. Where the toupee ultimately ended up, no one could say, though Schaefer later told me that Kathy Collins brought in one of her wigs, which after trimming, worked just fine.
Schaefer moved to Maui seven years ago. He met Kohne in a way that, to use a cliche, is straight out of a movie: he answered a Craigslist want ad for a movie producer. The ad was for Get A Job (he had a small role in that movie as well). Many of the crew members worked on Get A Job, or for Schaefer when he produced movies in New York in the past, or both.
“We have a terribly ambitious shooting schedule,” Schaefer told me when his scenes were wrapped up. “It’s only working because we have so many people pitching in. Shooting seven to eight pages a day is aggressive in a studio setting. In the elements, it’s lunacy. But we’re pulling it off so far.”
“I’m lucky production’s still talking to me,” Kohne half-joked between takes. “It’s just a really ambitious project. The shooting schedule is dictated by money.”
Kohne refused to talk to me about the specifics of the movie’s budget. In 2013, he told me he could make Kuleana for $1 million. On the set itself, he would only say that his budget is less than that amount. This is hardly surprising, given Kohne’s story–do you want to go pitch a movie in which the antagonist is a land developer to potential investors on Maui?
Still, Kohne insisted that having the full million wouldn’t have made much difference. “I can’t say that we would have made a better movie,” he said. “I don’t know how anyone could’ve done what we’ve done here. It’s the result of the commitment and passion of so many.”
Still, Kohne said it’s better than his experience on Get A Job. “With Get A Job, we were all going through it for the first time,” he said. “This time, I knew what to shoot, and what not to.”
As everyone was wrapping up the shoot at Grandma’s House (which involved a dozen or so vehicles up the road to Oxborrow’s place), Kohne thanked the property owner for the use of the place.
“So when I can go to the mall and see the movie?” he asked.
Kohne hesitated. “Not sure it’s going to be at the mall,” Kohne said. “We’re going to focus on international festivals first.”
Kohne estimates that he’ll be editing the movie all summer, with a final cut ready in October. Willie K will score it.
Given all that Kohne has taken on himself, it’s remarkable he’s made it this far. Not only has Kohne made a motion picture, but he’s nearly finished with a second one in a completely different genre–all filmed here in Hawaii. This isn’t a big studio flying an expensive, big-name cast to the islands for a few exterior shots, then doing the rest in Southern California sound stages. What Kohne is attempting to do transcends merely making a movie on Maui–he’s trying to make a Maui movie industry. One dedicated to letting Maui people tell Maui stories. It’s been difficult and expensive, and though Kohne said he has been able to use Hawaii tax credits for local film productions, the rest of the work and support comes from himself and his crew.
“It’s a real leap of faith,” Kohne told me. “This is not for the timid. But if Kuleana inspires one filmmaker or one writer to take a leap, then we’ve achieved our goal.”
Cover photo: Jack Grace
Cover design: Darris Hurst