Three local films have a chance to shine at HIFF
BY MIKE GORDON / firstname.lastname@example.org
If he thinks about the phone call, Keo Woolford admits it was a bit emotional. He screamed, cried and carried on for several minutes when Hawaii International Film Festival Programming Director Anderson Le said he wanted Woolford’s “The Haumana” to be the closing night feature.
33rd Hawaii International Film Festival
» Where: Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18, Consolidated Koko Marina 8, Doris Duke Theatre and Hawaii Theatre
In the hierarchy of festival politics, that’s the second most-coveted spot — right behind opening night.
It’s even sweeter for Woolford because “The Haumana,” which screens at two theaters in Honolulu on Oct. 20, is his feature film debut.
“I still get choked up thinking about it,” Woolford said. “When Anderson called to let me know, he was so nonchalant about it and I was yelling. I must have broken his eardrums. I jumped up and down for half a minute.”
The festival is a great springboard for aspiring directors, so it’s no surprise that Le gets this kind of reaction. But it’s especially satisfying when the films have a Hawaii tie.
Three films with Hawaii ties stand out this year: Woolford’s “The Haumana”; a documentary about the Oahu rail project called “Railroading Paradise”; and “Dress,” a short from actor Henry Ian Cusick.
LE CALLS “The Haumana” an uplifting, “feel-good film.”
“It really captures the underdog story,” Le said. “It’s the ‘Bad News Bears,’ only with hula.”
The film is the story of a washed-up Waikiki lounge singer who is appointed to take over a boys’ hula group. The more he works with them, the more he connects with his Hawaiian cultural roots, which he had abandoned.
Woolford’s career has primarily focused on singing, dancing, hula and acting — from off-Broadway to London to “Hawaii Five-0.” But in recent years he also directed two shorts.
He wrote, directed and produced “The Haumana,” which Woolford based on his 2006 one-man show “I Land.” Partly autobiographical, “I Land” combined storytelling, theater and dance as it recounted Woolford’s search for the meaning of heritage in a journey that takes him to places both sacred and kitschy, with stops at backyard parties and hotel showrooms.
Stage production and film share that vision.
“A huge part of this is finding one’s identity and feeling comfortable finding your place in this world no matter anyone else says or thinks,” Woolford said.
Woolford wrote the part for himself and initially thought he would both act and direct. Then he thought he would have someone else direct — but that felt wrong, too.
“Even though I had never done this before, I knew I had to keep the vision and direct it myself so I could oversee the entire project. … The overall project was more important than feeding my ego to be both actor and director,” he said.
The film stars Hawaii actor Tui Asao in the lead role of Jonny Kealoha and a cast of relative unknowns as the troupe of seven dancers. Woolford said it was a challenge to build the group: Some could act and not dance, others could dance and not act.
Hawaii actress Kelly Hu also has a hilarious, scene-stealing role in the film as a tough bartender named Linda, Woolford said. The part was originally conceived as a large Hawaiian drag queen, but Woolford let Hu — an old friend he calls “a tita in person” — give it her spin.
Hu said she loved the part of Linda. It was different from the perfect-English-speaking, spandex-wearing, martial artist parts she normally plays.
“I actually have a linebacker-sized tranny living inside me,” Hu said. “She comes out whenever I go to Imua Lounge on tranny night. I feel that was what I was meant to do in another life. I feel a special connection to those girls.”
Audiences who saw “The Haumana” premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Festival applauded Hu’s tough, sassy approach.
“You don’t want to piss her off,” said Hu, a Kamehameha Schools graduate who said she was a tita growing up. “She would rip off your earrings and slap you and be ready fo’ beef. But she has a heart of gold.”
LOCAL DOCUMENTARY “Railroading Paradise” will likely spark debate among pro- and anti-rail audience members, but HIFF’s Le said a healthy discussion is part of the festival’s mission.
The film’s directors are a pair of journalists making their first documentary. Anthony Aalto wrote the script, which will be narrated by actor Peter Coyote, and Mike Hinchey served as cameraman and editor.
“Railroading Paradise” follows the decision by the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club to support the Honolulu rail transit plan during the 2012 mayoral election. The election was viewed a key factor in the rail debate because of opposing views of the candidates.
Aalto, a former foreign correspondent who serves as chairman of the Oahu Group Executive Committee for the Sierra Club of Hawaii, was able to create an insider’s documentary of the organization’s decision-making process.
It was a timely project, in more ways than one: Aalto and Hinchey were stalled on another documentary and had the camera equipment available when they pitched the idea to the Sierra Club.
“I said, ‘Hey, do you mind if we film these meetings?’” Aalto said. “I didn’t know where it was going or how the vote would shape up. And as we did it, we realized we kind of hit a nerve and there was something bigger there.”
The subject was complicated and emotional and led to more and more interviews. It just kept growing.
“The people we interviewed are compelling,” Aalto said. “This is stuff they feel quite passionately about.”
AS IN YEARS past, HIFF has a variety of short films, including a student showcase. But Le said Cusick’s “Dress” blew him away.
The film is the directorial debut for Cusick, an actor who gained fame for his role as Desmond on ABC’s “Lost.” He shot “Dress” during the summer in Lanikai, where he and his family live.
“Dress” follows Ben Granger — played by Cusick — as he struggles to cope with the death of his wife and how that has affected his relationship with his children.
The film was shot with donated talent and the post-production work has been the same.
Cusick’s friend, Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino, wrote the musical score for “Dress.” They had met while working on “Lost” and all Cusick had to do was ask, he said.
“We were very lucky that we got Michael Giacchino, really fortunate that we got him, a real blessing,” Cusick said.
Giacchino then arranged to have singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips contribute to the film and that left Cusick practically speechless.
The actor and his wife, Annie, are big fans of Phillips and the band he formed in the mid-1990s, Grant Lee Buffalo. The band was such an ever-present part of their daily life that it often showed up in the baby videos they made of their children.
Phillips put vocal tracks over Giacchino’s music and gave him songs, too. It’s made an already special project even more memorable, Cusick said.
“Oh, my God, everything was aligned or something,” he said. “It’s kind of a spooky moment. We thought, wow, Grant Lee Buffalo is going to be in our first movie.”
The whole thing meshes perfectly with Cusick’s Scottish roots and the time he spent doing live theater. He knows he could wind up acting in a lot of short films by friends.
“I am fully aware that I owe a lot of people favors,” he said. “I think that’s fair. Isn’t that what artists used to do?”
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