Toa Fraser interview: The Dead Lands, James Cameron

Action adventure The Dead Lands is in UK cinemas this weekend. Director Toa Fraser talks about its making and how James Cameron’s a fan...

A taut and intense action adventure, The Dead Lands is a superb showcase for director Toa Fraser. It provides an insight into a culture not often explored on screen – set in pre-colonial New Zealand, the film’s dialogue is entirely in the Maori language – while delivering the kind of pared-back revenge story you might expect from a western or a samurai film.

In other words, The Dead Lands is both unique to its country and universal; its historical setting and subtitles might suggest something for the arthouse crowd, but its bruising fight scenes will please the action crowd, too. What’s more, James Cameron is officially a fan. 

As The Dead Lands makes its debut in UK cinemas, we caught up with Toa Fraser to talk about the work that went in behind the scenes to make an effortlessly organic-looking, sometimes dreamlike movie, meeting James Cameron, and his next film, 6 Days, starring Mark Strong.

One of the things I loved about The Dead Lands was that it gave me an insight into a culture I’d seen very little of in cinema before, but at the same time told a universal story. Was that important to you?

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Yeah. I mean, I didn’t write it – Glenn Standring takes the credit for that. But I read the script and, as you say, I love the fact that it takes place in a very specific world, a very exciting world for me personally, given that my dad’s from Fiji and the cultures are very similar. The actors in the movie and myself, we grew up telling each other these kinds of stories, and so I was excited about telling a story like this on a big screen. But at the same time, it had a lot in common with different stories around the world. New Zealand operates like that, I guess – we take a lot of influences from around the world and make it our own.

Yes, because it could just as easily have been a samurai or western, couldn’t it?

Yeah, and I love the fact that New Zealand sits between those two – the west and the east. Certainly, we threw around big names like Kurosawa and John Ford and George Lucas when we were making the movie, so we were very conscious that we were playing in that sort of territory.

I got some of that from the cinematography, actually. It had a really lovely dreamlike quality to it. I wondered what your approach to shooting this was – did you storyboard heavily, or was your approach quite spontaneous?

I worked with Leon Narbey, the New Zealand cinematographer who’s probably best known internationally for Whale Rider with Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawi Paratene and Cliff Curtis. That’s almost 10 years ago now I supppose. Leon’s a real artist, and we were able to shoot in some amazing locations, which showed the beauty of the country – which we were really excited to do. Also, Leon’s a great fan of Kurosawa himself, so he was very much influenced by his work. 

Do you think there’s a tendency in some modern films, especially mainstream films, to over-complicate things with story and dialogue? Your film feels really pared back – in a good way, of course.

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Thanks, man. We were going for a lean and mean, muscular approach that suited the world of the story. There was a way of making this that was much more like 300 – a kind of post-produced, graphic novel kind of way. The graphic novel is quite important, because I looked at graphic novels, comics and movies while I was preparing. But at the same time I wanted it to look dusty and bloody and sweaty. Our whole approach was really based around that. The actors really threw themselves at that approach; we had a month long boot camp, and really sweated our blood and guts to make the movie lean and muscular?

What was the most difficult sequence to shoot, from a technical standpoint?

From a technical standpoint, the big fight in the middle of the movie was easily the most challenging. We knew it was going to be a tricky one, partly because it’s outside. It’s a fight scene with about 170 different beats in it, taking up several minutes of screen time, and from start to finish we don’t really cut away. So there was a lot of changing of lighting and different cameras, blood resets. The actors and stunt guys needed to learn all their moves. That was easily the most tricky.

It was a very, very challenging project just because of the language. I don’t speak Maori, a lot of the actors were not fluent in the language, though to a lesser extent we all have some level of confidence. So that aspect was probably the most challenging of all.

The warriors all fight with these incredibly dangerous-looking paddle-like weapons – patu. Was giving those weapons a real-feeling impact achieved partly through the editing?

Yeah. As I say, we did a four month boot camp, so we were training really hard every day. We worked with a Maori martial arts expert, Jamus Webster, and despite his youth, he’s a real expert in these traditional fighting techniques. He worked alongside our stunt coordinator, and they worked hard to fashion these visceral, authentic fights and use of weapons. 

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Did you shoot the film digitally?

Yeah, I’ve used digital since Dean Spanley, which was a movie I made with Leon in England – mostly in England and New Zealand in 2007. That was at a time when digital wasn’t universally accepted, so we were quite early adopters. Interestingly, Peter O’Toole loved us for it – even back then, he was talking about it being the way to go. Leon and I used the Alexa on the ballet film I made, Giselle, the year prior to The Dead Lands. We loved that, partly to do with not only the freedom that digital gives you, and the near-finished picture quality you can see immediately on the day. But also the way it works with actors eyes – I know that Roger Deakins used it on Skyfall, and sang its praises for that reason as well, that it does something with the humanity of the actors’ eyes that is very beautiful. I loved working with it.

The reason I was asking was because, I remember seeing a behind-the-scenes thing on The Raid, and it showed Gareth Evans replacing his pre-vis footage with completed shots as they were completed. He watched it build up like a jigsaw each day. Did that kind of technical breakthrough help you make The Dead Lands?

Actually, Gareth and I had a couple of conversations before I made The Dead Lands, and he was quite helpful to me. There’s nobody in the world doing action like Gareth at the moment – he’s a very inspiring guy. We ended up shooting in a bit more of an intuitive, old-fashioned way, I guess – we storyboarded a lot. Because our locations were all outside, we needed to leave the actual execution of the fights to a lot more of an intuitive process. But certainly, the digital technology is really fantastic for the kind of work we were doing.

So what was it like to screen the film for James Cameron?

It was awesome. And talking about getting advice from filmmakers – he is the most generous dude I’ve met, I think. I can honestly say the 20 minutes I spent talking with him in the foyer after the film are the most useful I’ve ever had. He was really, really great. He’s seen it three times and waxes lyrical about details that only someone who really loves a movie could have noticed, and I’m very grateful to him.

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For my next movie, which I begin shooting in two weeks today, I emailed him a couple of days ago for a little bit of advice. He wrote two massive, essay-length emails back to me with various pieces of advice. For somebody who grew up with The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger… Schwarzenegger was a big reference to us when we were making The Dead Lands. Xavier Horan who plays Rangi in the film, he’s a real Arnie expert, and does an amazing Arnold impression. So to have the backing of the guy who made The Terminator and Terminator 2 means heaps.

It’s great that he was so general. He has quite a formidable reputation on set, doesn’t he?

[Laughs] Yes! I didn’t want to say it, but yeah. I was very grateful.

You also worked with Vincent Ward on River Queen. What was he like to collaborate with, because he’s very much a visual director, like yourself.

It was a massive learning curve for me, working with Vincent. I was 23 or 24 years old, very naive, a playwright. I’d had a couple of shows in the theatre that had done well, and Vincent was courageous enough and determined enough to ask me to help him with his movie. I remember the day he rang me, completely out of the blue. I answered the phone and he goes, “Toa, Vincent Ward here.” Almost as a test, so maybe if I didn’t know who he was, he would have hung up. But that wasn’t the case. It was very challenging, but very rewarding. I learnt a lot from him. And he had his own Alien adventures, as well. 

Exactly. That’s one of the great lost sci-fi films, his Alien 3 concept.

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Yeah, yeah.

So your next film is called 6 Days.

That’s right. I’m actually working with Phil Ivey, my production designer friend who I did my first film with, Naming Number Two. He’s also working with Neill Blomkamp, so they’re talking excitedly about doing their next project, about doing Alien. But 6 Days – great cast: Mark Strong, Abbie Cornish, Jamie Bell. So I’m really humbled and astonished, really, to be working with a cast like that. The story’s about the Iranian embassy seige in London in 1980.

Yeah. What attracted you to that story?

That’s a good question. Really, it’s kind of a turning point in British history. And I loved that there was this genuine struggle between those that fought to negotiate a peaceful solution, and those that fought for very efficiently for the opposite. The struggle between yin and yang is something that interests me. I grew in England and my dad worked for the BBC as a broadcaster, so I remember the time. I’m excited to explore that story.

It sounds like it’ll be a slightly more balanced, nuanced version of the story than Who Dares Wins, which was very gung-ho, shall we say.

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Ah right. I haven’t seen it. Is it any good?

No, not really. If you buy a couple of beers it’s amusing, put it that way.


It’s definitely a story worthy of a fresh approach. Toa Fraser, thank you very much!

The Dead Lands is out now in selected UK cinemas. It’s well worth seeing on a big screen.

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