At the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival in May, CATHERINE BISLEY drilled Toa Fraser on the rapport between theatre and film, adapting his play No 2 for the screen, and the riches of collaboration.

I TALKED with Toa Fraser on a Sunday morning during the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival in May. While the stale Sunday morning streets of Auckland couldnít have been less appetising, this writer and director turned out to be the humorous and open character his work suggests. He was affable, praising the actors, directors, producers and musicians he has collaborated with.

After adapting his play No 2 for the silver screen and then directing the film, Fraser has kept up the pace. He is working on a film adaptation of his play Bare, and has collaborated with Don McGlashan on a ďbawdy ribald pub-venueĒ theatre number Colossus of Roadies (which has just been at the Taranaki and Christchurch Arts Festivals). Other projects are under wraps... given the glint in Fraserís eye they must be rocking.

Here goes what Fraser (jokingly) classed ďthe interrogationĒ:

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CB: Iíve heard the process of writing described as making a cut and controlling the bleeding...

TF: Who said that?

CB: A Frenchman called Yves Lavandier. There are so many metaphors out there to describe the process Ė would it be an apt description of the way you write?

TF: Thatís a cool metaphor. It brings two things to mind. There is that David Mamet thing, you know about cutting your best speeches. Write a play then cut your best speeches and if it still works youíve got a good play on your hands. And if not, donít hold onto you babies. And the other thing about cuts is that writing is a really really painful process. I donít think itís like you make a cut... for me itís I take ages and ages and ages to make a decision about what I want to do. But the decisions I have made I stand by. You think about it for a long time then you get to a point. Itís not necessarily a moment of real epiphany, but all of a sudden for some reason the project really grabs hold of you.

CB: The thing I like about Lavandierís idea is the control element. Not just letting the blood flow. That whole shaping process that goes into a script.

TF: Yeah, to an extent. For me the initial thing is you have to let it to bleed for a while Ďcause otherwise youíre never going to get anything down. With that first draft is really import just to do a stream of consciousness thing. Reading Francis Ford Coppola taught me just to get it out as quick as you can, not to worry about it, donít censor yourself while youíre writing. But after that the craft really kicks in. For instance with the No 2 screenplay I wrote the first draft in Fiji in 2001 over a period of about three weeks. From then on it was three years of crafting it and shaping and changing it.

CB: Were you given a lot of freedom while you wrote the No 2 screenplay? Were there calls from the top? Producers demanding you change the third act climax etc?

TF: I had really really fantastic relationships with all the producers that worked on No 2, Lydia Livingston at the beginning, Tim White especially, and then Philippa Campbell who came on board in the last year. I never felt there were calls from the top. It always felt like we were working together. And thatís the thing. I would hesitate to be a novelist because it seems a comparatively solitary occupation, whereas theatre and film are all about collaboration. If you look at the things Iíve done, Iíve worked with amazing collaborators. Tim White, Madeline Sami, Philippa Campbell, Don McGlashan, Ruby Dee...

CB: Yeah. Itís interesting. I was listing to Richard E. Grantís talk the other night. He was talking about how heíd been commissioned to write a novel and how he hated it because he was a gregarious person who couldnít stand going and locking himself away in a room.

TF: Thatís the real struggle of writing. Tim Finnís got a theory. There are two types of writers. There is the classicist and there is the romanticist. Iím probably going to completely misquote him... The classicist writes with his back to the world and the romanticist writes being open to the world. For me being open is completely what Iím about. My inspirations are from people and the street. Itís not from sitting in a room and formulating things from the back of my head. At the same time thatís a real difficult balance. Because at the end of the day you need to sit down and shut yourself off and discipline yourself to write it down.

CB: So your impulse comes from characters and locations rather than a thematic point?

TF: Thatís the perfect thing to say. Thatís what really inspires me. I suppose my learning curve really is to think about plot. My biggest inspirations in terms of film are Robert Altman, Scorsese, Coppola. People who arenít really keen necessarily on that traditional three act structure, but are really into milieu and people and specific settings.

CB: Youíre not a Syd Field man then?

TF: No I did my Syd Field training when I was fourteen. They had a great Syd Field book at the Auckland Library. I read about it in a Batman comic. They had a question and answer section at the end. A reader wrote in and asked the writers how they learnt to write comics. And the Batman writers said Syd Field was great place to start.

CB: So do you think writing is something that can be taught? Is writing craft or creativity, or a fine balance of both?

TF: I can only speak for myself. The writing Iím most interested in is writing that speaks from a personal space. I guess there are people who can do it as craft. In film there are people who do it like building with Lego blocks. Iím not really interested in those kinds of films. Films set in nowheresville. With a character who comes from nowhere.

CB: You worked on River Queen which had a great sense of place. The river is almost a character in itself.

TF: With River Queen, Vincent brought a really really powerful forty page long treatment to me. My thing was more about getting the action story happening. I was intrigued by the idea of taking that sort of Joseph Conrad, John Fordís The Searchers, journey up the river or journey into darkness, and flipping it and making it into a story about people who are constantly moving. People talk about going back to your roots. In my family background the whole roots analogy doesnít make any sense. Weíve always been sea based family. My grandfather was a seaman and his father was a seaman. Our thing is all about liquid as opposed to solid ground. Thatís the thing that really intrigues me about River Queen, the idea of people who are constantly shifting in terms of identity. And the other thing was potentially the Maori characters were culturally complex. It wasnít cowboys and Indians.

CB: I thought that complexity made it a compelling film.

TF: It was a really really challenging experience working on River Queen. Vincent is a hard task master, a guy with real vision and determination. We are a bit chalk and cheese in terms of our writing practices. Yeah, I have to say I stopped working on River Queen in 2001 and Vincent went off and continued the development with other people. I did a couple of notes occasionally. When I saw it I was blown away and proud of my involvement.

CB: Turning back to No 2, the characters are so specific. Thereís that great scene where Aunty Cat is walking around the kitchen brandishing the dish brush. [laughter] Then youíve got Hibiscus keeping time with her jandal and Mus with his cigars. Are they based on your own family or people you know?

TF: [laughs] When you mention those characters the first thing that I think of are the actors who played them. All of those props were things which those actors bought to those situations. Sometimes when I was making that movie I was completely in awe. You do what you can to assemble a great cast of actors and a great cast of characters. But, there was stuff like that thing with the jandal [laughs] Ė I didnít even notice it until the rushes cause on the set the cameras are doing this and that and thereís so much to look at. Iím just in real awe of actors and thatís why I was always passionate about moving into directing. Everyone in their own way brought different things to the film. Rene Naufahu was really keen to talk about his costume. He had real specific ideas about it. Miriama McDowell, who played Hibiscus, had this whole thing with lemons. Thereís a scene where she dropped lemons. She said, ďIím going to walk past the camera and drop these lemons.Ē And I was like ďNo youíre not.Ē But she did it and everyone cracked up.

CB: It must be great for a writer to see the actors taking the parts and making them their own.

TF: Itís always the way itís been for me as a writer. Especially with Bare, which was my first full length play, where I was working with Ian Hughes and Madeline Sami and Michael Robinson (who directed it). I wrote this thing. Especially in Madelineís context Ė the way that she can take a script, and just... Itís weird she nails it the way you sort of heard it while you were writing it, but then she completely changes it as well.

CB: I remember seeing No 2 at Bats. It was my first great Wellington theatre experience. Itís stayed with me and hasnít been surpassed.

TF: Awesome. Hopefully sheíll do it again at some stage.

CB: Iíve been hearing about some interesting writing habits [At the Auckland Writers Festival]. Don Winslow, the crime writer gets up at 5.30, sometimes 4.30am, to start writing. Then he writes through to midday, goes for a hike, and continues writing until 5.30. Do you have a similar process?

TF: Before I directed No 2 I had a strict writing process which began ten in the morning. I wrote solidly for four hours, stopped and had lunch, went for a run at four, made dinner and had a relax and slept from 7.30. Then Iíd write from about ten until two or three in the morning. It was a great process to be in. Since I did No 2 my whole routine has changed a lot. Largely Ďcause as director youíve got to talk to a whole bunch more people than when you are just a writer. You have to deal with people different parts of the world so its hard to get a routine going. My latest idea is to be in Auckland Tuesday to Thursday and then to get out of town for four days.

CB: Where do you go?

TF: Influential friendís houses [laughter]... The No 2 homes of No 1 citizens.

CB: There must be great things about the smallness of New Zealandís art industry. Iím sure there are also limitations, which you may also want to talk about. With No 2 you had those really cool musical collaborations with Don McGlashan and Feelstyle. Something which was born of the smallness of New Zealand...

TF: Yeah completely.

CB: And you have a theatre project, Colossus of Roadies, coming up with Don McGlashan?

TF: Yeah. I acted in a Summer Shakespeare up here at Auckland University in 1994 or 1995. My friend Steve Tofa was also involved in it Ė heís a musician and an actor and he had to do the music for it. Someone knew Don, I think it was Whita Walker, whoís his niece Ė so she asked Don to come be involved with the music. When we were thinking about people to be involved with the music in No 2, I remembered getting on with Don those days and him being such a nice guy. Obviously heís a really accomplished. Heís completely what itís all about. Heís obviously gone off and done his big thing but heís really really dedicated to New Zealand and heís got a real vision for the kind of stories he wants to tell.

CB: I saw him and Hollie Smith do Bathe in the River at WOMAD. I think it was the first live performance. And he told some entertaining stories between songs.

TF: In the play we used an existing song from America. And I didnít want to use it in No 2 Ďcause it had already been in a film. I played it to Don and he said ďI want to write that songĒ. And I was thinking... thatís a big sort of gospel number, and Iíve listened to your stuff man and look at you, you donít look like an arse kicking, gospel anthem kinda guy. So it was a big risk. When he came into my production office, a tiny little cupboard, and played the demo version to me, I was in tears. And when Ozzie Davis, Ruby Deeís husband died, for the whole week when she was away, I was listening to that song... Talking about collaboration, the smallness of the industry I really really wanted to use Home Land and Sea for the end of the movie, and I kept listening to it, hearing this incredible voice. And then when we were casting around for someone to perform in the song... to work with Hollie Smith at the cusp of her career was an incredible experience.

CB: How did you find the process of adapting a stage play into a film? What was the biggest challenge?

TF: Probably the amount of people you need to talk to Ė which ultimately is a great thing. With No 2 the play there was me, Madeline, and Kath who directed it. On No 2 we had three producers, an associate producer, and all their script people. Then there were the distributors in London, New York, LA, Sydney and the NZ Film Commission, who were all giving their script commentary. Itís just a massive collaborative process. I was really lucky to work with producers that filtered all that, so I only had to talk to a few people. But you are always aware that youíre trying to satisfy the collaborative ideas of all these other people.

CB: How many drafts did you go through?

TF: Iíve got a very idiosyncratic way of numbering my drafts, so I donít really know. First draft I call A draft, and then I do A.1 A.2 etc. for each polish on a draft. I think I got up to P and I did at least five polishes within that Ė so thatís a lot of drafts.

CB: What did you think No 2 gained most in itís adaptation from the stage to the screen? What did it lose?

TF: Well it didnít lose anything given that itís still a play that Madeline can perform. Itís exciting to think that it can have a concurrent life. Hopefully at some stage she will perform it again. For me the opportunity to turn the story into a thing with so many people involved... We shot the film just around the corner from where my aunty and uncle live in Mt Roskill and we shot the music video for Bathe in the River at their house. So all my cousins were completely involved in making No 2 Ė lots of the extras were related to me. The film is a really specific story about community in a way that a piece of theatre couldnít be. I really really had an amazingly fulfilling experience working with the actors and crew who came to Mt Roskill to help tell that story. Obviously the opportunity to work with Ruby Dee was a chance in a life time. If you have to work with a film star from America, work with Ruby Dee. Every opportunity I, or the actors, could take to sit down and have a chat with her about stuff... like her relationship with Martin Luther King or Tupacís mother, or Harry Belafonte or Bill Clinton.

CB: Yeah. Ruby Dee had fantastic presence on screen. She captured the matriarch...

TF: Her presence really made everyone on set stand up and appreciate what we were there for.

CB: I guess my question was more directed at the difference between the film and theatre and the ups and the downs of each medium. Do you prefer one to the other?

TF: Iíve never seen a piece of theatre thatís moved me as much as film can. I think No 2 the film is a way more emotionally compelling story than No 2 the play. Partly that was born out of the fact I grew up a bit while I was writing the story. My grandmother in England died and she was always a big supporter of mine. So I went on a big emotional journey... and thatís how the film ended up. The great thing about No 2 the play is that Madelineís performance is so athletic. And thatís how we structured it. The script in No 2 doesnít have Syd Field plot points but it has really athletic or rhythmic plot points. Itís really structured around the big rhythmic climax where Madeline has her dancing/fight scene. The other thing with theatre is... Silo theatre just did a re-staging of Bare. For me it was amazing to sit there in an audience of about seventy people and have that really really intimate thing. It was so fulfilling for me cause my cousin Gareth, who was 15 and a bit off the rails back when I was writing Bare, he was in the audience on opening night. Curtis Vowell, the male actor, was addressing a whole lot of stuff to Gareth, and he didnít even know who the hell Gareth was! Gareth is like 25 now and heís moving off to Melbourne. That whole personal connection thing is really really fulfilling with theatre.

CB: I was reading an interview on the net where you talk about your grandmother giving you a clapper board for your tenth birthday. What expectations did you have about directing as a ten year old? What drew you to it? Was there still something of that ten year old desire left when you directed No 2?

TF: Yeah, um sort of a different thing cause when I was ten I didnít have the experience of working with actors in the theatre. It was all about storytelling and special effects back then, you know Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Having gone through theatre in the early stage of my career I really learnt to appreciate performance. I became interested in different kind of movies. I guess directing No 2 was everything I dreamed of when I was ten, but it was also everything I dreamed of when I was 24. It was really really really tough Ė a pressure packed situation. But at the same time to be able to work with actors like Mia Blake, Nathanial Lees, Rene Naufahu and Ruby Dee, actors from all ranges of experience all dedicated to the one task. It was very fulfilling. You know the scene when Nana Maria and Charlene share on the bed? Itís very emotional. She cries. Personally that scene is a big deal because we shot that on the last day. Weíd gone over a couple of days but Tim White the producer allowed us to go over and shoot all that last stuff on the last day. Seven minutes Ė it was a lot. Weíd gone from a big operation to a small operation. In that bedroom it was me, Simon Ambridge, Grant McKinnon, Leon Narbey Ė four men lying on the ground watching two amazing women performing on the bed, like a real amazing little theatre. We just let the show run. I remember saying to Mia that we would let the scene go for twenty minutes if it had to... and that clapper board you mentioned. I donít know how it happened, but it was lying around, and Ben the clapper loader saw it and wanted to use it. It was incredible. We didnít use it at all until that last day on the biggest scene of the movie. That scene, more than anything else, is completely dedicated to my grandmother.

CB: Yeah, that scene came across as the emotional core of the movie, the rapport between those two women was powerful. And Sol, he was great...

TF: Sol is very much like my cousin Gareth. I worked with Taungaroa [Emile] on this thing I co-wrote with Keith Hunter, Staunch. And Taungaroa and I have been mates since then. When I was casting No 2 I was really confident with most of the characters but I always thought that Sol would have to be played by an unknown guy. For some reason I hadnít though of Taungaroa in that role. Then when Taungaroa nailed the audition, I knew. It was fantastic. It is such a key role.

CB: When you were first writing No 2 the play did you ever think that it might be made as a film?

TF: Yeah, I always wanted it to be. During the first season of Bare SPP [South Pacific Pictures] asked if I wanted to sell it as an option. And I did. I was just out of uni and I was like yeah, get a bit of money. Then I sort of regretted doing it. Not because of anything SPP did, but because of my own sense of integrity. I knew I wanted to direct movies and that ownership is a really powerful thing. If something is successful in theatre you have the golden ticket. So when I started writing No 2, not only because of that, but because it was way more personal that Bare, in a sense Ė itís a story about a community that I had grown up in and one which I felt a strong sense of responsibility Ė I didnít want to just sell it off. I wanted to turn it into a movie that I was going to direct. I remember saying it to my uncle at a BBQ at my familyís place in Mt Roskill. And I said it to my little cousin George, who ended up being in the movie, and she was like ďyeah whateverĒ [laughter] And seven years later...

CB: So writers should try out with a play first?

TF: Writing a play is underrated. A whole lot of filmmakers do short films and I guess thatís a really valid path, but there are so many things that theatre affords you. The first thing is that the playwright owns the material and thatís really powerful. And just getting something thatís an hour and a half in front of an audience... Sure the form is really different, but at the same time you get a sense of whether the storyís going to make it, or not. You know Iím really excited about this theatre project Iím working on with Don McGlashan. Iím looking forward to doing more theatre stuff. You know I always felt I got involved with theatre by accident. All my big references were always movies.

CB: Do you feel that theatre gave you a good grounding in drama and character?

TF: Yeah definitely. Not only that, but that long form thing Ė you can write something thatís ninety minutes long. You learn how to structure.

CB: How did you accidentally fall into theatre?

TF: University Ė acting in the Summer Shakespeare. There were some influential people involved in it... Oliver Driver, Steve Tofa. Michael Robinson, who directed that Summer Shakespeare, directed Bare. I wrote something for me and Steve to act in as part of the Red Zephyr Festival. I wrote a couple more short plays. At that stage Silo Theatre was really up for that young-ish, New Zealand writer kinda thing, so it was perfect timing for me. Then there was Bare with Michael. And we toured around the world and it was really cool.

CB: Bare went to Edinburgh didnít it?

TF: Iíll show you. I still have Steven Berkoffís company pass. It was completely mind blowing watching your own stuff being performed alongside the best stuff from all around the world. It was great timing. Madeline had just performed her first season of No 2 at Silo, so we felt like we had stuff to back up what we were going to Edinburgh to do, we had something to talk about while we were there. Obviously she followed Bare to Edinburgh a year later and won a fringe first for what she did there. Itís not just Edinburgh but the other places that mean a lot to you. After Edinburgh we took No 2 to Jamaica, which was really really cool. We went to Fiji which was amazing. Madeline took it all around, to Mexico, Holland... places I didnít get to go to [laughs]

CB: Are you done with acting yourself?

TF: Iíve done my acting [laughs]

CB: I didnít notice a cameo appearance in No 2. Is there one?

TF: Yes thereís a cameo. Itís a younger version of myself. You have to look really hard for it.

Catherine Bisley interviewed Toa Fraser on Sunday 20 May, 2007.