It’s a quiet and hot June morning at Kihei Charter School and although school’s out for the weekend, odd events are occurring just outside of the classroom buildings. Beloved comedian Augie T is sneaking around the parking lot, hiding behind a bush from a man in the distance. A few feet from Augie T are a camera crew and a man with a wide-brimmed hat. This is the set of Aloha Surf Hotel, a locally made independent film written and directed by the man in the wide-brimmed hat, Stefan Schaefer. Augie T’s body language during the scene tells me this is a comedy.
Augie T stars as Tai, a former pro surfer who is employed by a hotel to give surf lessons to tourists. By the sheer force of his will, his antics create the possibility of saving the establishment from being torn down. The new Maui indie film is a collective vision of shaping a family-friendly, funny, and heartwarming comedy for local audiences, Schaefer’s production team told MauiTime. The team was candid and unfiltered in revealing what it’s like being a part of such a demanding project, and why it matters so much.
Brian Kohne, one of the film’s producers, greets me as I enter the set and immediately introduces to me a true cinema icon. Suddenly, I’m shaking hands with a character actor I’ve been familiar with my entire life: Branscombe Richmond. He’s a producer on this film and explains Hawai‘i’s independent film scene in this way: “We’re making a cake with very little flour.”
Richmond gives a more general response when I ask about what he hopes the film will provide (“Make the people of Maui happy, to make ’em laugh”) but it’s rare that his responses don’t sound like they come from a sage of cinema. For example, I remind him about his wonderful character turn in Kuleana as a man living a life of compromise, identified in the script as The Moke. Regarding the character, Richmond remarks, “It’s hard to be pure. Even pure water isn’t pure.”
He then adds with a smile, “OK, ask me a hard question.” I recognize the challenge, thank him for his time, and promise to hit him up before I leave.
By now, island audiences recognize actor Stefan Schaefer for his turn as the ruthless Victor Coyle in Brian Kohne’s Kuleana. This time, Kohne is behind the scenes, while Schaefer is at the helm of Aloha Surf Hotel, which he wrote with Jonathan Stern. Schaefer is soft-spoken but direct, approachable, and completely focused. He’s not a Hollywood type. His trust in his crew and command on the set give him a zen-like presence.
“It’s the story of a local guy going through ups and downs in life. He also helps as much as he can: mentally, physically. In so many ways, I’m like that character. I can relate to his challenges of paying child support, not having people believe in you, seeing the victories in the little things.” -Augie T
Since this is Schaefer’s third collaboration with Kohne (though in a much different capacity), I ask if the film, which follows Get a Job and Kuleana, makes something of a trilogy about modern day Hawai‘i. With a smile, he notes, “It’s got social commentary… how could it not? With this cast?”
Veteran actor Matt Corby is no stranger to filming a Hawai‘i-based movie; in addition to recently appearing as Mandy Moore’s love interest in “This Is Us,” Corby was in the ensemble cast of Alexander Payne’s acclaimed The Descendants. “I’ve been on sets where everyone is miserable,” says Corby, “but here, everyone’s cool. This has been a great film crew for a low budget film.”
Corby plays a local weatherman who is bored from the consistently nice weather. The role allowed Corby, who was raised on O‘ahu but moved to LA in ’97, to come back home. “There’s something special about it. What I mean is the vibe, the people who work here,” says Corby. Regarding Schaefer, Corby notes, “Stress from high up can transfer down. If the top guys are lovely to be with, it trickles down. Stefan is even-keeled and lovely. Same with Alexander Payne.”
Robert Marcus is a producer on the film and also plays the “bad guy.” He stands out immediately, as he’s attired in a three-piece suit on an especially scorching day and has a gregarious nature.
“I’ve known Branscombe a few years. He asks me, ‘Are you interested in producing?’ Anything he’s involved in is worth doing. So I flew out, read the script and laughed a lot.” This is Marcus’ first time as an executive producer, though he previously collaborated with Augie T on A Midsummer’s Hawaiian Dream. Says Marcus, “It was serendipitous.”
Marcus also has a pivotal role in front of the camera. “I play the heavy, an executive taking over the family hotel. Your basic bad guy. I want to raze the whole thing and put up a McHotel.”
Marcus’ experience on the project has been a major highlight in his career. “It’s been amazing. The feeling of aloha and ‘ohana has been wonderful.” Regarding his collaborators, Marcus notes, “They’re not doing this for the paycheck, they’re doing it because they love movies.”
Once the film’s leading man has a few spare moments, I’m quickly ushered over to him. I ask Augie T a single question (“As a kid, did you ever imagine yourself the star of your own movie?”), which he answers profusely.
“At 51, after 27 years of doing comedy in Hawai‘i, some of the things I’m doing I should have done when I was 29. It’s definitely a young man’s sport, but ever since I was a little boy I wanted to entertain people,” says Augie T. “It was always a dream to be some sort of lead. The crazy thing is, a month ago, I didn’t know I was the lead of this movie!” he laughs.
“This is how my relationship is with Stefan and Brian. They call and say, ‘How’s your schedule, Augie? We’ll do something cool.’ I give them X amount of days, I’m in. I’m dyslexic. So two, three pages in, I’m falling asleep. My wife reads the script, says ‘This is a great part.’ In the past, I come in and shoot a couple of days, we’re good. Here, I read the script, I go, ‘Hey, we have 53 scenes!’ Up until a month ago, I didn’t know I was carrying the whole movie.”
Reflecting on how he may not have been up for this challenge years earlier, Augie T admits, “At 29, there’s no way – I had no focus whatsoever. I knew about hard work doing this for 27 years but I appreciate what others do in terms of making movies. Doing two with Stefan, where he was the actor behind the camera, I learned so much about myself. We shoot a movie in less than 15 days, doing nine pages a day. On most TV series, they do one page a day. We’re doing nine. I have to go through a roller coaster ride of emotion – I’ve cried in this, I’ve laughed, I get angry, and in between all of that, I’m finding a little bit of me.”
“This film is dedicated to all the fat uncles who never get the opportunity to star in a movie.” -Augie T
“Had I read the script, I might have been overconfident. I’m finding myself as a person, because it’s such a heartwarming story,” says Augie T. “It’s the story of a local guy going through ups and downs in life. He also helps as much as he can: mentally, physically. In so many ways, I’m like that character. I can relate to his challenges of paying child support, not having people believe in you, seeing the victories in the little things.”
“People will be surprised,” adds Augie T. “We make really good movies here in Hawai‘i with not much money. We use local actors; you can smell the authenticity. When people watch it, they won’t say, ‘Aw, the pidgin was fake.’ One thing in my comedy for 27 years was to show a side of Hawai‘i that is genuine.”
“We come to set every day, we worry, and ask, “Did it look good?” Because we all know what’s at stake. That’s the reason people are working hard here: Because we all like win. After three locally made movies on Maui, we’re finally getting ‘um. I’m looking forward to the finished product, people walking out and saying, ‘You did a really good job.'”
Augie T ends his thoughts by noting his co-star, Taiana Tully, who sits nearby. “I made a bet with Taiana, she says I cannot lose the weight I put on. This film is dedicated to all the fat uncles who never get the opportunity to star in a movie. I will walk into the premiere, to Taiana, and say, ‘Gimme my hundred dollars, now!’ She thinks I won’t lose the weight, but I will!”
“We have the talent, we have the ability to do exactly what everybody else is doing. That’s the wish, the hope, the prayer,” Augie T concludes before walking away.
Actress Taiana Tully plays a pro surfer who gives Tai a job at the hotel. Her extensive background as a dancer led to her immersion into movies. “In high school, I decided to take it seriously and deviate from Polynesian dance and get more into acting as a profession,” says Tully. “I got involved in film and theater classes in school, then I went to America Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was lots of fun and I learned so much there.”
A startling turn of events illuminate Tully’s remarkable perseverance. “I got into a really bad car accident in my last semester of school driving with friends from LA to Las Vegas,” she says. “There was no one else on the road, it was out of nowhere. I had a friend who passed away; I was in a body brace down to my back, so I was out for a couple of months. I was recovering for six months, because I needed assistance. My degree was on hold. I was able to make up that last credit by submitting a feature film I was cast in, Water Like Fire. That was what kicked it off from there after my recovery, and I’ve been booking things ever since. It was meant to be.” Now 22, she’s a busy, experienced performer with a career on the rise.
Mahealani Sims-Tulba is pointed out to me on the set as Augie T’s daughter. Yet, after speaking with her for a few moments, it’s clear she’s on her own path. As for being in the movie, she humbly states, “They asked if I could be in it. I make a cameo, my mom and sister are in it, too.” Then, on to her debut single: “It’s called ‘Let Me Down Easy.’ It’s about a girl in a failing relationship. I’m really proud of it. We’re working on an album but I want to film the video for the single first. It will probably be out by end of 2019 or beginning of 2020,” says Tulba.
“I’m just as busy as my poppa. I’m a psych student at UH Manoa, and I am currently Miss Teen Comos US, a title I give up in July,” says Tulba. She then explains her current passion: “I have an anti-bully foundation called Brave Hawaii. We go to schools and bring awareness to the bullying problem in Hawai‘i. I first thought about doing something with bullying when I was 11 years old.”
“In 2013, I wrote a children’s book called It’s Okay to be Different, about a myna bird who is different from other birds, is teased by Mina friends and, towards the end of the book, they become accepting of differences and become friends. I was 12years old at the time and shared it with libraries and some schools. I wanted to do more, something more than reading a book to kids,” says Tulba. “I knew it was touching their lives somehow. I knew teachers and students could empathize with my story. We created a foundation, initially for elementary school kids. As we reached a large audience, we expanded to all age groups. Ultimately, I want to focus mostly on Brave Hawaii, it’s a big part of my life. I’m the kind of person who loves to try everything and get the opportunity to do as much as I can.”
Among the crew members is Chynna Helm, a former University of Hawai‘i Maui College student of Kohne’s who suddenly found herself working on two demanding Maui productions. “I was taking a Creative Media class of Brian’s at UHMC. I really enjoyed that and realized I want to pursue a career in the film industry,” says Helm. “I think he realized I did too, so he got me a job on this and Temptation Island“.
Comparing working on this film versus Temptation Island, Helm notes, “This is more intimate and I can talk to people in different departments and not be afraid to ask questions and see behind the scenes, not just my department. The other is more corporate.”
Reflecting on what this film has to say about locally made indie films, Helms is optimistic and celebratory about what the production has achieved. “It shows that we’re growing and that the passion and potential to get a really good movie is there,” she said. “It’s not about how many people want to be a part of the film, it’s the quality of the people. There’s a handful of us here and we all have one goal of working together. It’s amazing we have 15 days to make a full feature length film. It’s pretty badass.”
Before I leave the set for the day, I look around for Branscombe Richmond to see if I have one last time to chat with him. Sure enough, as I walk out into the parking lot and search for Richmond, there he is, sitting next to a vacant chair. I feel like I’ve been summoned by a guru.
I ask him his thoughts on the Hawai‘i film scene in general and he gives me a brief but packed history lesson:
“The independent filmmaker in the state of Hawai‘i started before Picture Bride, which got the PR. In 1959, Hawai‘i become a state. In the ‘60s it began to develop content, like ‘Hawaii 5-0.’ The first time manufacturing TV content week-after-week came. Then, here comes the indie thing: ‘They can do it, I can do it,'” says Richmond.
“The real answer to what you’re trying to get to is, education breeds filmmakers. That’s really the scene here. Do they stay in Hawai‘i as indie filmmakers or do they leave? The film industry will prosper if you’re able to make job creation. Destin Cretton, he’s with Marvel. Where’s Marvel? Georgia. He’s gonna be the first Asian director to direct an Asian character in the lead of the Marvel Universe. That’s fantastic.” Richmond quickly counters his praise of Cretton with an assessment of the production itself. “They’re not going where the Asians are, they’re going where its cost effective and that’s the truth of our industry.”
Since Richmond is so unguarded, I bring up the controversial issue of the recent news of Dwayne Johnson’s forthcoming film, The Kingdom. Reportedly set to be directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Randall Wallace, the King Kamehameha epic, whether good or bad, could be a game changer for the image of Hawaiians in film. Richmond quickly shared his feelings on the production and the heated response to the casting of Johnson in the demanding lead of Kamehameha I.
“The director Richard Donner used to live here on Maui,” says Richmond. “At one time, Donner and his wife wanted to make a movie with a Hawaiian/Indigenous, King Kamehameha-like character and it didn’t happen, because at that time, there was no leading actor who could play it. At one point, Erik Estrada was going to play Duke Kahanamoku; he was well known but it didn’t happen. Now we have The Rock, a bona fide mega-superstar and he’s there to put the weight of that on his shoulders. He has a great team. I think it’s gonna be a winner. People are saying, ‘Well, he’s not Hawaiian, he’s Samoan.’ I think it’s time to get over it. Get over it. No one’s gonna tell an island story if the entry level is being criticized so much that you don’t wanna take a shot at it. Listen, in the end, this is a big story to tell and I think that this team is the right team to do it.”
Richmond adds, “I think Dwayne Johnson is terrific. I did two movies with him: I played his brother in The Scorpion King and I was in Journey 2. I think right now, he has everything lined up in his direction. Wallace will write an honest, heartfelt story. He’s not Indigenous but he is intelligent enough to respect the steps of telling the story in a PC manner and he’s sensitive to the plight of the Polynesian and what has happened to the Hawaiian through the years. And with Zemeckis – anyone who can make a Delorean car look sexy has my vote.”
My final question for Richmond is if any of the films depicting Hawai‘i throughout cinema history, mainstream or indie, have resonated with him. “Great question. You know, way back in the ‘50s, they made films like The Tuttles of Tahiti and Mutiny on the Bounty with Marlon Brando. If you see Mutiny on the Bounty with Brando – as a child, I was in there and my dad wrote some of the music. Those movies really resonated with me. Even Dorothy Lamour films. They were bringing Polynesia to the forefront for the first time. The big ships, the confetti, the streamers coming down, the first time you saw Native girls dancing under a palm tree. That is the epitome of what I saw in my early age. It really affected me.”
Adds Richmond, “The inclusion of the Polynesian is really being seen. Whale Rider really touched my heart. I did a series with that girl, Keisha Castle-Hughes, called ‘Roadies’ for Cameron Crowe and J.J. Abrams. I asked her, ‘Do you realize we’re the only two Polynesians on prime time TV right now?’ She says [affected British accent] ‘I never thought of that.’ She’s Maori and the Maori people have done great things. The English government has set money aside for them to tell their stories. Then there’s Peter Jackson, who is in New Zealand. Lee Tamahori did Once Were Warriors. Taika Waititi – look at that! They’re breeding some great filmmakers in that place. They have a leg up because there’s a fund for indigenous films. It’s too bad Hawai‘i doesn’t have that. It’s unfortunate that Hawai‘i as a whole has not put money into the Indigenous stories. So, I haven’t seen it yet. There’s been a lot of great singles, but some are hitting doubles.”
The crew is careful to leave no trace of their presence once the scenes are shot. The good feeling Richmond refers to is made clear: Everyone is working hard but the atmosphere is family-oriented, warm, and respectful. Walking back to my car, I carry Richmond’s cautious optimism with me, considering how cinema, for better or worse, continues to shape the story and image of Hawai‘i for mass audiences. Schaefer and his crew are a year out from the film’s premiere and, with hope and great anticipation, his audience waits.
Photos by John Rodarte, courtesy Aloha Surf Hotel
Cover design by Darris Hurst. Cover image by John Rodarte