When I met up with filmmaker Brian Kohne for lunch in the conference room of Tasty Crust in Wailuku, he admitted it was his first time ever being in that room. “Kathy Collins and I come here for lunch to talk story, but I’ve never been in here,” he said. It filled me with pride to show him one of the few spots on Maui he’s never encountered. Since Kohne specializes in capturing and depicting Maui in ways moviegoers have never seen before, it’s fitting that the back room of his beloved diner offered a new experience.
Back in 2011, audiences were in for a big surprise when Kohne unveiled Get a Job, his madcap comedy that was shot-entirely-on-Maui with local talent. Kohne’s professional film debut (following comedy shorts he made while a student at Baldwin High School) has been adored and winning awards at film festivals worldwide.
While Get a Job was a creative offshoot of the Barefoot Natives albums (featuring Willie K and Eric Gilliom) that Kohne produced, his latest film, Kuleana, is a drama. Over some crispy fried chicken and a Local Omelet, I spoke with Kohne about the making of his eagerly anticipated new film, which premieres at this year’s Maui Film Festival. The conversation also leaned towards the state of Hawaii-based independent films, what happens when you cast comedians in dramatic roles and his Maui upbringing.
MAUITIME: Get a Job was a slapstick comedy. What inspired you to write something so different in tone?
BRIAN KOHNE: I actually started writing Kuleana first, 12 years ago, and it too began as a comedy with a far different title. When we were working with the Barefoot Natives and ultimately Get a Job, we poached many of the concepts from the early drafts (the character of Merton, for example). Five years ago, when I started back on the story, it too was very comedic, as Brothers Kuleana. Around draft five, it became apparent that the drama and mystery was what was working best–it evolved into Kuleana. It was frankly a very difficult growth exercise, having to learn and trust drama; I’d only ever done comedy since high school. But I’m happy I didn’t chicken out. I would love to shoot Get Another Job as a musical/comedy some day; hopefully while Willie, Eric and I still have our teeth.
MT: You grew up on Maui during the time Kuleana takes place. How autobiographical is this story?
BK: When my family first moved to Maui in 1969, we lived in Ma`alaea before the condos. Every day and night, we’d watch Kaho`olawe get annihilated, and it made a deep impression on me. Not only was it violent and sensational and yet so close, nobody seemed to really care. In MauiTime‘s recent cover story on Elmer Cravalho (“The Giant,” Oct. 13, 2016), it was mentioned of the time a 500-pound bomb (that didn’t go off) was accidentally dropped on Maui. I remember that, too. My father was a young attorney on isle, and went to court on Oahu on behalf of Life Of The Land for Kaho`olawe. The case was thrown out. Being here in the ’70s and feeling the incredible regional music (C&K, Kalapana and many others) empowered us all to dream bigger. Of course, the loss of Kimo Mitchell and George Helm in 1977 created a greater sense of importance around the subject of Kaho`olawe, and the urgency to protect and preserve the culture and the ‘aina. I visited the island on an access around 1983. That made a huge impression, and my family was involved in the PKO [Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana]. So, even while away, it was always something I kept up on. My father’s death (at age 50) in 1989 was an incredible and painful experience. I was blessed to be with him down the stretch. I moved back to the mainland afterwards, determined to learn more, grow and someday return to make movies in Hawaii. So the story is autobiographical, in the sense that it conveys how I feel: my love and devotion for the islands, the culture, the indigenous people and perhaps also channels the pain, anger and hope I bear moving forward.
MT: Has this been a harder film to make than Get a Job or was it easier with experience?
BK: The second movie has been way harder in every conceivable way. Probably a result of setting the bar higher–there was certainly no reason to do what we’d already done successfully, so perhaps the reason the second is harder is because responsible filmmakers make it so. This time around, we had a great advantage as a team having worked together before, and I think I was far better prepared to work with actors. That’s perhaps the frustrating part about being an indie director. You’re very aware of your shortcomings, yet the only way to improve is to actually do it. Yet, it’s a challenge to get a project in production on a regular basis. If I knew it would take five years to complete the script and produce Kuleana, I likely would have chosen another project. Or another field, entirely. Like, as a sword swallower or lion tamer. You know, something easier.
MT: What are your plans with showing Kuleana and are you thinking about a third film?
BK: It figures to be the kind of movie embraced by film festivals, so we envision a nice run. Optimally, we land domestic and international distribution and position to support the motion picture to market, however we can. As far as my next movie, assuming the world even wants to hear from me again, it’ll be another work that I’ve been writing for over 10 years. As much as I have committed to production in the islands, it’s frankly very difficult and, as a local producer, we really don’t have an advantage over the outsiders–except for the love and incredible support of the community, which is something we can’t put a price on. Ideally, Kuleana will be well-received, a wider audience for my particular style and voice is established and a few doors open. I can say with certainty the next is truly the best and most marketable story I’ve ever conjured, so perhaps things will get easier… and if things don’t go that way, and I don’t make another movie? I’m cool. Because Kuleana says everything I want to say about Hawaii, and that, to me, is of the greatest importance right now.
MT: That’s an interesting statement: that everything you have to say about Hawaii is in Kuleana.
BK: Yeah, I think it’s true. That’s how I approached it as a write and throughout the production. I just want to get it all out there. If this is the last opportunity to tell a Hawaii story, I want it all to be there. I’ll move forward and hopefully have more to say but for now, its’ all there. This is it.
MT: Kuleana opens with the production logo of Hawaii Cinema. What does that mean to you?
BK: Hawaii Cinema is a brand and company I created that would be more friendly to outside audiences. It serves in two ways: somebody sees “Hawaii Cinema,” they already know what this product is. It’s gonna be cinema from Hawaii, cinema defined as the art and business of motion pictures. There was a commercial decision to create a brand that would serve the greater good. My vision is–aside from presenting Kuleana into the marketplace–I want it to introduce the brand so that Hawaii Cinema as a website, a Facebook page and Twitter feed, starts to become a place I can share film. Not just the movies I’m working others as well. For example, there’s two movies presently being shot on Oahu: one called Waikiki and Go For Broke, which is about the 442nd. Another indie was shot on the Big Island last year, called Joe the Medicine Runner, by some Big Island friends, starring Matt Dillon. This is just an example of the brand I want to create with Hawaii Cinema. I want it to become a news source, if you will. In addition to serving our own motion pictures, it could be something audiences and others can turn to for information about other motion pictures.
MT: Did you have filmmaking influences in mind when you made Kuleana?
BK: I’m sure it was influenced by films I love. But… it was an amalgamation that led it organically where it wanted to be. I’m at ease with letting my art be what it wants to be. Once we go into production, it becomes 500 people and what they feel about it. Post-production, it goes through another transformation. Adi Ell-Ad, my editor, steps in and tells the story how he sees fit. The final result is a collaboration with Adi, as well as Willie K’s score, which causes the story to shift. It’s going to be as much a discovery for me as everyone who attends the Maui Film Festival screening. Fewer than 100 people have seen it in test screenings in various versions. The cast and crew hasn’t seen it. The final version is profoundly different than any of the versions that anyone has seen. I don’t know what to expect.
MT: When you’re done making a film, is it locked or do you consider a Director’s Cut or Special Edition?
BK: Not in this case. When it’s done, it’s done. On Get a Job, I went through a certain process where it was done and then I did film festivals for a year. Prior to taking it to cable, DVD and digital, I did have the opportunity to do a full re-edit. I was able to trim it down by several minutes and tighten it. The benefit of being on the film festival circuit was seeing the audience reactions. On Kuleana, the difference is we now have a sales agent that’s screening the movie to buyers at the Euro Marketplace at Cannes. We’ll find out in the next few weeks what the reaction is to the material internationally.
MT: Do you allow improvisation on your sets?
BK: In the case of Kuleana and Get a Job, it wasn’t practical. There wasn’t time. Twenty-one shooting days for Get a Job, which seemed really brutal, and then 15 for Kuleana, which was near-impossible. So, with improvisation, there’s just no time for it. We’re in a position where we hit what we’re after and move on. Time was our enemy. Improvisation represents a potential deviation from plot or storyline. You’re not going to have time to figure out how it affects other scenes, let alone react to them. The performers have the freedom to express, but as the writer, I strive to get the material so strong, the actors believe in the material. A line that is misspoken could have a direct impact on other scenes. I try to write at a level of precision, which some tell me is impractical at the low budget level. I see no other way. Get a Job would have been even funnier if we had that luxury to relax and improvise. The only character in that movie that had a lot of latitude in that way was Augie T’s, because he was going to bring the mania of that character to life in a way I couldn’t. There’s a couple of lines that Eric, playing Merton, improvised and they happened to be my favorite lines in the movie. So… maybe improvisation is pathway to superior results.
MT: In Kuleana, you cast Augie T and Mel Cabang, comedy legends, in dark, dramatic roles.
BK: I worked with Augie before and we became friends over the years. I see him not as a stand-up comedian but as a human first and a very accomplished performer. Comedians have to hone truth. I see Augie as someone with an ability to deal with drama. I saw Willie K in the same light–they both have this depth of performance ability. I got to know Mel through this production and I saw him in the same light.
MT: What are your thoughts on being invited to premiere Kuleana at the Maui Film Festival?
BK: It’s an honor for all of us to be invited and have Kuleana screened on such a prestigious stage. The Maui Film Festival is unique in many ways. At the core, it’s the creation of Barry Rivers and a reflection on the types of work he screens. Looking at the MFF or First Light Film Festival, you’ll see he has a very refined taste in cinema. It was a validation for the work of our cast and crew that he likes the film and chose to honor it in one of his coveted premiere slots. As a Maui filmmaker who started making movies in Baldwin High School in 1980, it’s the culmination of a 37-year journey to get to this place. To unveil in this setting at this film festival at this time, with all of our stars and cast and crew in attendance, I can’t imagine a better scenario for our movie.
This is our movie, it’s Maui’s movie, it’s Hawaii’s movie. I’m proud and grateful to be at the center of so many talented people who want to see this sort of art live here in the islands. Get a Job is about friendship, Kuleana is about family and the next one will be about faith… so it’s fair to say I’m obsessed with F-words.
Kuleana premieres at 8pm on Friday, June 23 at the Maui Film Festival. Tickets are available at Mauifilmfestival.com or by calling 808-579-9244.
Photo of (L to R) Ryan Ursua, Brian Kohne and Stefan Schaefer: Jack Grace