Independent filmmaker Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa talks to Adrian Stevanon about his surprise hit movie Three Wise Cousins, which he wrote, directed and funded himself.
First, Stallone, let’s talk about your name. You’re credited in the film as just “SQS”. What does that stand for? And who’s the Rocky fan in your family?
SQS stands for Stallone Quaver Sini, my first three initials. Stallone after Sylvester Stallone because Dad was a huge Rocky fan. Quaver is like the fourth note of music. Dad was a muso, and I'm my dad's fourth child (I have three older half-brothers). And Sini is my grandpa's name on my mother’s side.
I went with initials in the credits because seeing “Stallone” up on the screen felt strange. That name is just too iconic in cinema.
So, did you ever imagine, when you started this project, that it would have gotten as big as it has? I mean, you’ve grossed about $1.5 million across New Zealand and Australia, which is pretty amazing given you had zero marketing budget and you’ve paid for all of it yourself.
I never imagined that amount. I thought, maybe we’d be in a cinema here and there, in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. And maybe we’d have to hire out cinemas and sell tickets ourselves just to show it to people.
Independent films in New Zealand don’t usually do very well. We were told we might make $100,000 at the most.
So, it was more a case of testing the waters, because I knew it was uncharted territory. Yes, we had Sione’s Wedding and The Orator. But those films were fully funded, and had marketing teams behind them. We only had that one trailer that we put out on Facebook.
But I knew we’d made something entertaining that people would enjoy. And we were quietly confident that our people would show up. We’d even done the numbers. Like, if there are x number of Pacific Island people in an urban area, and only Pacific Island people came to watch it, you could still do pretty well. Not amazing. Not like a blockbuster film. But enough to be significant. It was just a matter of getting in.
I also wanted to test whether we — my team and I — could actually make a feature film, and whether it was something I really wanted to do. A lot of people want to be filmmakers, but you don’t really know until you have a proper go at it.
Tell us a bit more about your background. And your mum and dad.
Well, my mum and dad came to New Zealand in the 1970s. Dad (Iva Ioasa) passed away in 2006. Mum (Vaeani Vaiaoga) works as a school administrator. She's remarried. My stepdad, Gaepu Salele, is a house painter by trade.
I was born in Auckland, but we went back to Samoa in 1987, when I was about three, and lived on a plantation in Lotofoga. We were in New Zealand for my mum to give birth to my sister, in 1990, when Cyclone Ofa decided to flatten everything we owned. So we ended up staying. There was nothing to go back to.
My sister, Dinah, is an engineer. She’s working in Canada.
I went to Auckland Grammar School, then University of Auckland to do a conjoint law and arts degree. My arts major was film, television and media studies.
You’ve wanted to be a filmmaker for a long time. What started you in that direction?
I have no idea. Up until my final year at secondary school, I was pretty set on being an agronomist (working with soil and plants), like my uncle who works through foreign-aid programmes helping developing nations. But somehow, by the end of my last year, I decided that I'd like to make films. No family background whatsoever in the area.
I can't pick a point where this new dream came from, but I remember a lot of people saying to have a backup plan. Hence the decision to take on a law degree.
I guess not too many people study law knowing they really want to make a film.
I was being pragmatic. Pursuing film as a career was always going to be difficult, so law was a safety net. I got the law degree, and I think I would’ve been a good lawyer. But whether or not I would’ve enjoyed it is another thing. You can always make more money — you can’t make more time.
And I thought that, if I got a job, and a good job at that, then I could help pay for my own film. That was always the goal from the start.
It was good that I didn’t just sit back and wait for it to come to me. At university, there seemed to be more emphasis on having the skills to write funding applications. It just didn’t really sit comfortably with me back then. I’m like: Shouldn’t the emphasis be on being able to make a good film?
So you basically saved up all your money to make a film — and you pretty much stuck to that. You’ve lived, from what I’ve seen, a pretty crisp and clean life. You don’t really drink a lot. Was that the strategy?
Yeah. The year after university, I was working four different jobs. It was all about saving money. I was a Pacific Liaison staffer at the University of Auckland. I was at Tagata Pasifika as an aspiring filmmaker disguised as a journalist. And I was tutoring university students in film and television studies, and beginning to do freelance work and make corporate videos. Basically, I’ve been freelancing as a camera operator and director ever since.
In the early stages, I was getting really caught up in buying all the gear. About five years into it, name it, I pretty much had it — everything from tripods, to lenses and lights.
I bought the Red Camera when it first came out. It was about the same time I finished university. I thought: This is it! This is the camera I’m gonna make my feature film on! It’s a relatively old model now, but I’m proud of the fact that I did make Three Wise Cousins with that camera.
I wish now I had put an equal amount of emphasis on scriptwriting — putting stories to paper. But it meant that, by the time we came to make Three Wise Cousins, we didn’t have to hire anything.
When you bought the Red Camera, which is tens of thousands of dollars, some people must have thought you were nuts. Sounds like you had parents who were willing to take this ride with you for your dream.
My parents have always been supportive. They’ve always pushed me to learn: Whatever you do, get the education first. That’s why that message is in Three Wise Cousins. It’s basically everything that my parents told me.
I didn’t realise that until I sat back and thought: Hang on, I’ve heard all this before. It’s classic Samoan parenting but never in the sense of “go be a lawyer, doctor, teacher”. It was always: “Whatever you do, do it well”.
When I wanted to do film, Mum was always supportive — from the first time filming in the backyard to working in television. Everything I’ve ever done, my mum and my sister have been there. Just as long as I kept working and I didn’t slack off and still expect to make it, they were behind me.
And now, with the film, they’re really proud of it. And I'm happy because it’s something we as a family have worked towards. They helped on the film. My sister’s the associate producer. She took time off work, flew on her own to Samoa. And she came and just helped organise everything.
My stepdad’s in the film. He's the rip-off guy in the market who buys the koko for two tala (Samoan dollars). He also helped out in the art department — he’s the OG (Original Gangster) of basket weaving. Amazing speed. Like watching a sewing machine. He did the woven sheath for the knife in the ninja scene. In Samoa, he and Mum did the cooking and cleaning, which helped to free up the cast and crew to focus on the film. Made three meals a day and then some.
And my extended family — they make up some of the background actors, in Samoa and New Zealand. And they helped out with catering in New Zealand. So yeah, it was a real family affair.
You’ve said that the film was made on the smell of an oily rag. But, really, there was no rag, and there was no oil. How much did you spend?
About $80,000 of my own money. And then I stopped counting.
I was really confident when I went to Samoa. I thought: “Yeah! I got this. I’ve got this money.” And then, after two days, I could see that I’d need my contingencies. And after a week and a half, when the contingencies were used up, I thought: Oh man.
In the original script, Adam (the lead character) doesn’t go back to Samoa. He just stayed in New Zealand. But Jack (Woon), my editor, goes: “He needs to come back — it’s about the cousins.” And I went: “True. That makes sense.”
Yeah, trust me to do script development during filming. So that was extra. And it’s the reason why 20 percent of the film took almost six months. The other 80 percent was in Samoa. We were there for 14 days, spent 10 days filming — smashed it out.
But I never saw the sense to complain about the budget. I always knew that I’d written something within our means, that I wasn’t being too ambitious. I knew that, if we ran out of money, we’d push pause, take stock, and go work some more. And that's basically what I did to get the extra money. Just went back to work.
I definitely made sure the actors were paid. But my crew, Jack and Dave Green, my parents, my sister — they did it for the love. Jack and I had been hanging since ’06. We’ve been on this film journey for a long time. To have boys who’ve got your back to that extent, to not only give up their time and talent but to be really supportive and to be honest — that was big.
What was it like filming in Samoa?
Organic, very organic. I know people in this industry would have shaken their heads the whole time if they’d seen what we were doing. I mean, it’s me on camera, pulling my own focus and directing as well. It’s Jack, who’s the grip, who’s the camera assist during the day, and editing the rushes at night.
And Dave, who’s our soundie-slash-“hey Dave, can you build this dolly for us?” And using a hand screwdriver to do it ‘cause we don’t have a drill.
And just being in Samoa, waking up, seeing the call-time was 9am but, every day, leaving at 11am. We never went over time, though. I made sure we didn’t burn ourselves out. Even though I got sick halfway through, I always knew it was possible.
I mean we had a lot of help. Editing is a big cost but Jack did it for free. Dick Reade, our audio guy, he’s family. He’s the OG of sound mixing. He did it for the love.
You knew a little about the technical aspects of making this film, and you would’ve learned a lot along the way. How much of the other stuff, once the film was made, has been you guys just feeling your way through?
Everything, including distributing the film, has been learning on the go. This is a business — and it’s not as simple as I thought it was going to be. There’s so much more to it than just putting a film in a cinema and letting it do its thing. It’s understanding your audience, locations, timing.
Timing was one of the big things. I wanted to release the film on the Star Wars weekend, that’s how botz I was! I’m glad we listened to Mark Chilvers at Hoyts. He was so selfless with his knowledge — and the first person to say yes to our film.
With no marketing budget, what do you think made the difference to the overall success of the film?
I think the film itself. Three Wise Cousins is a fish out of water story. It’s a morality tale. But how we presented it is what really made it a winner. People loved it and continued to recommend it to their friends and family. And went back multiple times with family to watch it again.
If there’s one thing I got right, it was the casting. Choosing Fesui (Viliamu) and Vito (Vito), who played the Samoan cousins. I didn’t even audition them. I just offered it to them after working with them on (Fresh TV’s) Mr Lavalava. And the premise of the script, and following those instincts. Just saying: “I think this is gonna work, let’s go for it.”
Facebook was pretty much our only marketing tool.
The trailer that we put out in April 2015 was key, and our first marketing push. From a technical perspective, it’s not the greatest. But it got 100,000 hits in its first day. That, plus the time between that trailer and the movie coming out — about nine months — almost compensated for having a zero marketing budget.
The second push was when we had the premiere at the Civic (in Auckland, on December 21). After that, a lot of people were jumping on Facebook and saying how great the film was. And then people wanted to know when it was coming out.
The third push, which really set everything on fire, was that first opening week. Cinemas were sold out, and they were delaying the film to play because so many people turned up. Ultimately, once that first week was set, that kind of set up Australia.
If we had a bigger marketing budget, then we would’ve been able to have more of a presence. One of my goals was to beat The Orator’s box office — about $760k — and we did that.
We’ve just finished screening in Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Cook Islands and Fiji. We’re still showing in Samoa, and coming to the end of our run in New Zealand.
What next for you? Are you going to try to keep building your empire yourself?
The success of Three Wise Cousins means I can actually have a solid go at being a filmmaker. And, for the first time, I’ll be able to work on it full-time. It doesn’t mean it gets any easier. The only difference is I can pay my crew up front.
And, yeah, pretty much doing it our way. I could go for funding, but if we can do it on our own, then why not?
Other things we might have mentioned.
In 2002, Stallone was the top all round Pacific Island male scholar in New Zealand.
And in 2006, his 10-minute documentary, Poetic Cadness, which he made with his classmates Jack Woon and AJ Driver, won the annual “15 Minutes of Fame” short film competition for film students at the University of Auckland.
Stallone had lived in Cadness St, Northcote, until he was 12, when his family moved to Sandringham where he’s lived ever since. As he told The Aucklander in 2006, he wanted to tell a story about an area that few people knew. ''Despite the fact that it's a low socio-economic area, the kids still have their own ambitions and dreams. They understand this place used to be notorious for selling drugs, causing trouble and drinking in the park. Despite all that they're not boxed into that lifestyle.''
Three Wise Cousins is almost at the end of its New Zealand run but is still showing at these cinemas:
Whakamax, in Whakatane
Hoyts — Sylvia Park, Auckland
Event Cinemas — Westcity and Manukau, Auckland