The time is right for Hawaii to unleash a project of this nature. We have the talent in front of the camera, the experience behind it,” says writer-director Brian Kohne. A Baldwin High School alumnus, Kohne says he spent 27 years abroad learning how to make movies so he could return home to tell Hawaii stories and focus on the what and why. It worked—Kohne, with his creative partner, producer Stefan Schaefer, has accomplished something special, something everyone said could not be done.
From the flicker of just the first few frames, you’ll see: Get A Job is going to change everything anyone’s ever thought about locally made films. “About us, by us,” as Kohne says, this independent feature film is so far—and by far—the best fiction produced on our isles, from our isles. It was shot entirely on Maui over 21 intense days this spring, and features 175 local castmembers (of 180). It isn’t the end-all be-all of Maui movie making—there’s always higher heights—but it is a wonderful beginning of something that’s long overdue.
Documentaries aside, the few and far between projects preceding Get A Job have been so bush league, it’s become too easy to automatically dismiss all local efforts. But this film is the antithesis of amateurish—though it is a raucous contemporary comedy wrought with slapstick silliness—and manages to convey a convincingly heartfelt story, one that doesn’t belong to the characters alone, but to every mixed-bag Mauian who hustles to make ends meet, who aspires to achieve what’s worthwhile and who wants somebody to love.
Two Maui icons tackle the lead roles of William (Willie Kahaiali‘i) and Merton (Eric Gilliom). It’s a pairing that Kohne calls “the dichotomy of two dudes.” Antipodal though the characters may be, their interaction and antics explore how no one’s journey can be mutually exclusive from another’s, especially once paths collide. (In this case it’s literal, as William plays good Samaritan to Merton, who’s suffered a mango-picking bike accident.)
William, an employment agent, is tasked with turning Merton into his company’s against-all-odds success story, to secure a promotion and thus the financial security he needs to tie the knot with his longtime girlfriend Laura (Carolyn Omine, an executive producer and writer for The Simpsons). But Murphy’s Law is king in Merton’s life—or rather, William’s life with Merton in it. After hitching his wagon to Merton, a fruit-bartering savant of simple pleasures, William finds himself unwillingly single, homeless, unemployed and with his cruiser (already just making it by “on a hope and a prayer”) jacked-up on cinder blocks.
“At first you want to disassociate yourself from him,” Kohne says of the Merton character. But, through William’s compelling and thoroughly likable resoluteness, Merton’s charms become evident.
“Willie is a unique talent,” says Kohne as we screen the film in his home theater. “He’s primarily self-taught and there’s no one like him.” Kohne says that it’s easy to take Willie K’s talents for granted, but that his performance “is what allowed Eric to really delve into the manic side of his character.” And it’s true—were it not for Willie’s rooted realism, the Ace Ventura-esque lunacy of Eric’s portrayal might have strained the suspension of disbelief. Like salt sprinkled on pineapple or ketchup on scrambled eggs, they’re a pair that ought not go together, but is somehow so ono.
Get A Job has broken boundaries, proving it’s possible to create a quality Hawaii story, by Hawaii people. But the film is just a piece of a well-thought-out package years in the making—and the genesis of this “miracle movie” helps explain it.
Kohne and Gilliom are longtime friends, classmates and purveyors of performing arts, and it was Gilliom who introduced Kohne to Willie K about eight years ago. Kohne had a concept—what was to become the Barefoot Natives—about which Willie was finally convinced after reading another script by Kohne called Brothers Kuleana. But Brothers, as well as the local industry in general, “first needed a credibility exercise,” says Kohne—and that was Get A Job. But Kohne’s master plan was wider still, in that the Barefoot Natives needed to precede the film, to develop a strong identity and body of music (the film highlights 18 Barefoot Natives tracks, plus other local musicians like The Throwdowns).
If you’re not familiar with the group, the Barefoot Natives aren’t merely a musical pairing of Gilliom and Willie as themselves. The Natives are fictional characters—theatrical, multimedia performances—and Get a Job is the first chapter in their story. Long-term, Kohne envisions creating a TV series, and this new movie proves the worth, and viability, of that idea.
So there’s more. A lot more. And that’s just the William and Merton story, not the myriad other stories Kohne and company have to tell, or the stories they hope to see spring from Hawaii at large. And that’s exciting. Even more exciting than seeing friends, family and familiar famous people cast in Get A Job, because it heralds a future where this is not a one-off anomaly, but a sustainable industry we can create together.
Here’s the catch: Get A Job, for all its intrinsic value, still needs to be commercially viable. The production team is shopping it to film festivals around the world, so the upcoming Maui premier and party (on Sunday, November 28, 6pm at the Castle Theater) will be the only opportunity to see it for a long, long time. Besides, no sense wait for it to return home with the Mainland stamp of approval (that would be some shame, eh?), it is our movie after all.
Though ticket sales to an event like this could go to help the flick’s bottom line, the team just wants to throw a party (complete with a concert from the stars et alia). So 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit the MACC’s arts in education programs, and it’s also a drive for the Maui Food Bank (bring donations). “Maui wanted this film,” says Kohne, “and Maui gave this film in so many ways.