Producer Tainui Stephens reflects on the making of the TV drama series The Dead Lands, which debuted last week to an international audience.
For three months at the end of 2018, I was part of a cast and crew of 186 Māori, Pasifika, and Pākehā filming The Dead Lands. It’s an eight-part television drama series that, three days ago, started streaming worldwide on the AMC Shudder platform and TVNZ OnDemand.
The series is inspired by the 2014 Māori-language action movie of the same name. Both productions were written by Glenn Standring, a Dunedin-based writer and director.
As a child, Glenn had been very close to his grandmother. When she started to suffer dementia, her mind had reverted to the Māori language which she hadn’t spoken since it was beaten out of her at school. Until then, Glenn’s family hadn’t even realised they had Ngāpuhi ancestry. But this discovery helped unlock his narrative genes as he began looking into himself, and putting what he found into his work.
The original 2014 film was directed by Toa Fraser who made a deliberate attempt to capture the drama of good Māori storytelling alongside the thrills and spills of the popular action-film genre. The language was 100 percent Māori which led to strong support from international sales agents and distributors. It was more important to us, however, that it found success at home in New Zealand.
And it did. After one of the premiere screenings of the film in Auckland, I heard a woman behind me say to a friend:
“Gee, I really enjoyed that. It made me feel proud to be Māori . . .”
I immediately warmed to that because that’s what I wanted to hear. However, she wasn’t finished — and she added:
“But then I remembered I’m actually a Pākehā!”
The friends cackled. We all did. That was even better.
So there was opening night approval — and subsequent box office success. But there were two criticisms made by experts in their fields.
The first was a view that the quality of the Māori language was less than excellent. And it’s true that a few of the roles were played by people who weren’t fluent speakers. They’d learned their reo lines by heart.
The other, and more fervent, critique accused the film of chauvinism because the roles played by women existed to serve the mainly male cast. That wasn’t surprising seeing that the film was an unashamed attempt at a male-driven genre, although we’d made sure there were strong female dimensions with appropriate mana in the story.
Overall, though, the response was approval and praise. Action-movie fans enjoyed it. Māori audiences lapped it up. New Zealanders everywhere loved it. Indigenous filmmakers worldwide still view it as inspirational cinematic storytelling.
It did good business in New Zealand and thrashed the Brad Pitt feature Fury released at the same time. It also worked in other markets. For me, one (somewhat dubious) sign of success were the blatant rip-off DVDs of the film on sale in Bali. I came across them in many shops in Ubud and Seminyak. Going for about 10 cents. It was a fist-pump moment.
Five years later, the appeal of that pioneering film and the growing Māori production skills have made way for the entry of The Dead Lands into the global television market.
The Māori-language action film has birthed an English-language action-horror television series.
AMC is a significant American network that’s spawned iconic small screen shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. In the States alone, they have access to 100-million households. When my producer partner, Matthew Metcalfe, told me that we had the greenlight from them, I was buzzed to the max. Kātahi ai ka kōtore whererei au! This was a big deal!
In the new story that Glenn created for this international market, seasoned actor Te Kohe Tūhaka plays Waka Nuku Rau, a warrior who’s driven a bit batty by his dead mother. He has difficulty taking his place in the world of the dead. He joins forces with Darneen Christian, who’d just graduated from Toi Whakaari at the time, and who plays Mehe, a mysterious lonely woman with powers that are the equal of Waka’s.
Their journey to find and fix the cause of a broken world plays out over eight episodes. On the way, they encounter a full range of allies and enemies. And, for the audiences, there’s the question: “Which is which?”
One of the features of the series is the fighting. Overseas audiences are particularly impressed by our combat traditions. To deliver the goods requires a huge amount of choreography and rehearsal time with fully trained mau rākau experts and a professional stunt team.
Every shoot day (and we had 71 of them) followed a basic pattern — whether in studio or on set. Most people turned up well before breakfast to prepare for the mahi. After kai and a karakia, we’d have a quick cast and crew meeting. Those sessions at the beginning and end of every day were an essential way to keep people’s spirits high, and the focus on the job.
I break the production process down like this: The script is the recipe for a fabulous cake; the shoot is when you go shopping for the best ingredients; and post-production is when you bake it all. The baking is the thing. If you bake it right, no one will ever know where you might’ve stuffed up.
I love working with film crews. I really do. To hurl together such a disparate, personable, crazy bunch of over-achieving hard-workers is to get a pungent lesson in the best of our humanity. Things will go wrong, and things will go right. The only way forward is to do it together. And to achieve that means being patient, empathetic, and loving.
The work is hard and rarely does the remuneration match the expectations. But it’s ultra creative and super intense and everyone is tight for a specific period of time, sometimes several months.
I enjoyed nothing more than turning up on set at the start of a shoot day, often in achingly beautiful locations. The unit truck might have some reggae skank pounding from a portable speaker above the coffee machine, and the much-appreciated barista Melissa Harvey would deal to the beans. She knew everyone’s particular hit of coffee by heart.
A bunch of familiar characters would be devoting one eye to their breakfast plate and another to the schedule or “sides”, the latest updates to the script. Or they’d be hanging around in groups by their trucks checking the gear.
The cast would emerge as soon as wardrobe and make-up had finished with them. There’s always an expectant mood. And, if the work is going well, that mood is a delicious feeling.
Collaboration on a shoot is the only way the business happens. If the pains and joys, and stresses and blessings occur as they ought to, the wrap party is always a bittersweet occasion. Everyone is so pleased to have the long days behind them and yet we know we’ll miss the faces and voices of the committed souls who lived those long days with us.
Happily, we wrapped our shoot on the eve of Christmas just over a year ago. That, at least, perked up everyone. There was not a lot of glum at our wrap. We had a great time. We did the mahi. We got the treats.
For most of 2019, the post-production kicked in. Our directors Peter Burger and Michael Hurst spent many weeks with the editors, special-effects team, and sound designers in dark rooms. The task was to stitch together and enhance all the images and audio we’d captured over the long shoot.
As the results of two years of effort came together, I was excited that the sum of what we’d achieved was greater than its parts. AMC felt that, too, and were thrilled by the first worldwide trailer the Shudder promotional department released in December last year.
Many years ago, I made my first short film. A drama. It intimidated me. But, by the end of it, I was utterly seduced.
To work on a drama was so different from all the documentaries I’d made before then. With a doco, you go out to film what is already there. Real people. Nature. Facts.
With a narrative film, you have to conjure something from nothing. You have to make a world. And you’re in charge of creating every single piece of the physical and emotional realities of that world. You fill it with the right people to say the right words.
Only then do you get to film it.
The Dead Lands is a Māori take on a television genre that relies on dollops of action and a lot of splatter. This series delivers all of that and more, set in a world beyond time. We’re pretty sure audiences will find it dramatic and rollicking. It’s a mix of carnage and self-mockery. It’s darkness with a light touch. It’s a Māori colonisation of the action-horror genre.
I reckon it’s a fine Māori piss-take.
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