The time Bob Marley played New Zealand has been turned into a family drama starring singer Stan Walker and Temuera Morrison. Writer and director Tearepa Kahi tells Tom Cardy about his own journey to make Mt Zion.
The kernel for what can grow into a movie can come from anywhere - and sometimes it's from out of the blue.
For new Kiwi feature film Mt Zion, the idea of setting a film in 1979 when Bob Marley and the Wailers played in New Zealand came to writer and director Tearepa Kahi by accident.
Kahi was directing a series for Television New Zealand when one day he was nosing around in an archive room during his lunch break. Kahi spotted a VHS videotape.
"It was totally random. It really was a stab in the dark," he says. Curious to know what was on it, he popped it into a VCR and pushed play. It was an old news clip by television journalist Dylan Taite called Good Morning, Come a Long Way. It showed Marley in 1979 at a powhiri, which included a wero or challenge.
Up until he viewed the video, Kahi was only vaguely aware that a powhiri had been given for Marley, who died in 1981, before his 1979 show in Auckland.
"I remember hearing rumours of older people seeing it."
Kahi was struck by Marley bending down and picking up the wero. A sudden thought hit him: What would it be like doing the wero to Bob Marley? "It was just a little private, magic moment."
From there began a seven-year journey that became Mt Zion.
The film stars Australian Idol winner Stan Walker as Turei, an aspiring singer who idolises Marley. Turei has a band, Small Axe, and is keen to audition for the supporting act at Marley's Western Springs gig. But in doing so, Turei clashes with his family, potato farm workers in Pukekohe, who include his father, Papa, played by Temuera Morrison. Papa knows Turei is a passionate and talented musician, but doesn't believe it will give his son job security.
Setting and filming much of Mt Zion in the market gardens of Pukekohe was Kahi's way of marrying the idea of a story about Marley's visit with his own family background.
Kahi grew up in Christchurch but his family were potato farm workers in Pukekohe. Kahi's father, George Kahi, left Pukekohe to pursue his dream as a jazz fusion drummer and played in several bands, including with guitarist Billy T K.
His father's love of music rubbed off and Kahi grew up singing and playing trumpet. At 17, he performed in a play where he was spotted by Wellington-based director and actor Jim Moriarty, who invited Kahi to join his theatre troupe. Kahi went on to other acting projects, then screenwriting and directing, including his award-winning short films Taua and The Speaker.
Kahi says, from early on, the New Zealand Film Commission supported Mt Zion. But it took seven years and several script drafts to shape the film into what is now on the big screen "It sounds like a big odyssey and I guess in many ways it was. Over that seven years we wrote a stark version, a comedy version, a thriller version, until we finally arrived at the truth, probably two years ago."
Kahi decided he wanted a film that would have broad appeal, even though at first it felt counter-intuitive "because a lot of my tendencies are more thriller".
"I wanted to capture a film that looked like it was shot on the day and try to be honest, not try to romanticise it. There're no whales. There're no beautiful east coast beaches . . . just this wonderful sepia-coloured soil [in Pukekohe] and people that worked the land.
"I'm surprised at how good I feel watching it. The great agenda for me was to try to make a film which any member of any family could enjoy . . . and present a story that is uplifting."
Kahi says he was keen on Walker in the lead role once the script was finished about two years ago. "If I get the stamp of approval on an idea from my wife, I know it's worth pursuing. She gave me the eyebrows up," he jokes. "There was a lot of question marks around Stan's acting ability so there was a lot of third party umming and ahhing. We put a process in place and we got together and started acting workshops and working really quietly undercover."
The actors rehearsed for five weeks in a Pukekohe home and garage, which belonged to Kahi's parents, later used as a location during filming. "That's where the story really came alive. It was living together and being together. That's where these guys really found their voices and belief."
And if it wasn't enough work writing and directing Mt Zion, Kahi also composed most of the original music and lyrics for songs in the film. "That's also why it took so bloody long to write. There's nothing harder than trying to write a song that sounds like yesteryear as opposed to today."
Mt Zion is screening now.
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