Rarely is the name Arnold Schwarzenegger invoked when Oscars’ foreign-language film awards are screened late every year. But in “The Dead Lands,” New Zealand’s official entry in the Academy sweepstakes, his style would become a template for the period piece.
Centered on the region’s native tribes in the 1600s — not to mention just the second feature ever shot entirely in the indigenous Maori language — and an action picture rousing enough to raise the pulse of any American multiplex-goer.
Fresh off a plane from New Zealand, director Toa Fraser came by the iPic Theatre in Westwood to discuss this unlikely combination of elements with moderator Steve Pond, The Wrap‘s awards columnist, who started off by calling “The Dead Lands” a “ride” unlike anything audiences are likely to see in subsequent foreign-film screenings.
Although Fraser counts himself as a Terence Malick enthusiast as much as anything, he resisted seeing the hand-to-hand combat-filled film as being in a more populist, visceral and even American tradition. He and his actors “all had a common language of action movies,” Fraser said.
“These were guys who’d grown up on “Commando” and “Running Man” and “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon.” It was very easy for me to give them a direction that said, ‘This is the ‘Commando’ moment where Arnold straps on his weapons'” — even if those weapons were spears, hatchets and paddles instead of artillery.
Nothing in Fraser’s previous three films indicated he was preparing to make a period warfare hybrid whose only real point of comparison for most audiences might be Mel Gibson‘s “Apocalypto.” As Pond pointed out, the director had just come off making “Giselle,” a high-toned adaptation of a Royal New Zealand Ballet production. But some of the same lessons applied.
“It might seem like a wee transition to go from ballet to this kind of sweaty, grubby, gritty, violent thing,” Fraser allowed. “But there was a definite crossover. The inspiration of those dancers that I worked with on ‘Giselle’ really gave me the desire to make this in a very muscular and athletic way. I think there was another way to make ‘The Dark Lands’ in a very sort of historically accurate and chin-strokey, earnest way, but we were really keen to make something that felt really fun.”
If anything, Fraser was tempted to take his film in a more violent, less contemplative direction. “There was a way to make it in more of a Jean-Claude Van Damme-y, Steven Seagal-type way,” he said. “Until Lawrence (Makoare), who played the main warrior, came in to audition for the movie, I didn’t quite know what kind of movie it was going to be.”
But the ability of Makoare (who has played multiple roles in Peter Jackson‘s “Hobbit” movies) to bring out a heart-rendingly soulful side of a figure who spends most of the movie being monstrous convinced the director he could make a film that was big on fight scenes but also had more than its share of Seagal-transcending shadings.
Fraser doesn’t speak Maori himself, but “having worked on a dance film prior to this that had no dialogue, I really enjoyed judging a performance on the more physical and emotional level. The writer, Glenn Standring, wrote it in English but always intended for it to be in Maori. Obviously there’s a perfectly viable way to change that and make it English. But we agreed it would be way cooler to do it in Maori, (even if) finding actors who could fulfill all the criteria — to be able to fight, to be able to look cook, to be able to speak Maori — was challenging.”
The young leading man, James Rolleston, leads the film’s quest, vowing vengeance on a warring tribe after being the sole male survivor of a massacre. He came in to audition and left Fraser, the casting director, and himself silent and “crying for about a quarter-hour” after improvising through one particularly anguished scene. But he needed some muscle to go with those sensitive teen-idol looks, which involved a month of serious training before the rest of the cast came on board for their own four weeks of boot camp.
As for the film’s gorgeous locations — which look like as if they were shot hundreds of miles inland from the nearest New Zealand civilization — Fraser admitted “we realized we were going to shoot it all within an hour of downtown Auckland. It was crazy to be able to make a movie like this in such beautiful locations, but within sort of the city limits.” The director even recommended a hiking trail that would bring visitors within sight of most of the movie’s lush and seemingly exotic locales, as if to tempt attendees to break the no-cell-phone rule and Google up airnewzealand.com immediately.
Although Fraser hopes “Lands” will lead to only the third film ever to be shot entirely in Maori, he acknowledged he wasn’t relying too much on indigenous myths: “The historical antecedents are as much as Japanese cinema and westerns. ‘The Searchers’ were a big influence on this movie for me.”