Tamahori set to work Charles V film
Lee Tamahori doesn't know why people think he lives in Hollywood.
He's directed big name actors Morgan Freeman and Sir Anthony Hopkins and is about to work on the Charles V inspired film Emperor with Adrien Brody. But New Zealand is still home.
The 64-year-old director of cult 90s film Once Were Warriors splits his time between Auckland and Tologa Bay on the East Coast where his family hails from.
"It depends on work, how long I'm here for. But I've been based in New Zealand since 2003. I don't know why everyone thinks I still live in Hollywood."
Tamahori is reassuringly chatty. His clear, somewhat-British accent rolls out responses thick and fast. But he keeps to the point.
No, he doesn't want everyone knowing what he spent on recladding his luxury Shangri-La tower penthouse in Herne Bay. The complex's multimillion-dollar apartments needed refitting for weather-tightness and there was a squabble over who should foot the bill.
"I had to spend a lot, on reflection, you could say for the amount of recladding," he says. "No, I'm not going to say how much but it was a lot of money. Ridiculous, really, but it's just one of those things."
If someone of Tamahori's status is saying it's a lot of money, perhaps it doesn't bear thinking about.
His 2002 James Bond blockbuster Die Another Day starring Halle Berry and Pierce Brosnan was the highest grossing Bond film of its time, pulling US$160 million (NZ$189m).
While he calls New Zealand home, he speaks to the Sunday Star-Times from the Czech Republic where he's filming Emperor, a movie based on 16th century Roman ruler Charles V.
It's a change from the action flicks he's done recently.
"I made Along Came a Spider and then James Bond and I started getting sent all these action scripts like xXx (State of the Union). But I prefer dramas with a bit of action in them."
However, xXx and action flick Next were not great moments for Tamahori and contributed to his exit from Hollywood. "They were flops so my use-by date in Hollywood was up," he's said previously.
"I went back to Europe which was more of a middle ground."
There's a better variation of genres in Europe and the actors are extraordinary, Tamahori opines. Particularly in Scandanavia. But he won't name names. "I like working with people all over the world."
Does he have relationships with the people he's worked with? Hopkins, for instance?
"No. Never," he says in almost retaliatory fashion. "I keep my life separate from all that.
"I tend to not have personal relationships with actors, just Temuera [Morrison] and some of those back home. Not those heavyweight A-list guys."
Any reason why not?
"Hollywood is full of people creating mystified CVs, not those actors of course. But everyone's trying to get into the film industry."
Nor does he spend much time socialising with other directors, though he takes the time to speak of his admiration for fellow Kiwi director Peter Jackson.
Jackson's name comes up as he fields a question about his level of responsibility for reinforcing a negative stereotype through Once Were Warriors, a film released 20 years ago but which remains, for many, a startling first glimpse into Kiwi culture.
Academics accused Tamahori and the author of the book on which the film was based, Alan Duff, for setting back Maori progress by a few decades by reinforcing ugly stereotypes of an aggressive, uncultured race. Singer Moana Jackson called it "an exposure of all that is rotten in Maoridom".
Tamahori brushes it off. He'd been dying to sink his teeth into a real New Zealand story and he had the support of his peers and family.
"Of course you think twice.
"Beating up women and raping children is not anyone's cup of tea. But people know it's make-believe and that reflects the reality of cinema," Tamahori says.
"We all got very uneasy about some of the stuff we were doing. I drew on a lot of personal experiences to make that film, I'm not going to say what they are."
The antidote to Once Were Warriors has been Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, which have been a PR boon for New Zealand. "There's your soundbite," Tamahori snaps.
Despite the pair sharing global fame, the two Kiwi directors are not friends.
"Peter and I are very alike in that we came from nothing and are madly enthusiastic about film-making. But we all get too busy. In Hollywood you're not going to bump into each other. Most of my friends are not in the film industry."
Tamahori has scheduled our phone interview so he had a week to consider questions.
I picture him leaning over his desk, surrounded by paper, reading glasses halfway down his nose. His frosty white hair would be slightly ruffled, a covering of soft stubble on his cheeks contrasting nicely with those formidable black eyebrows.
He appears an intensely private person. His interviews are few and far between. He flits in and out of the country unnoticed and keeps a low profile away from the cocktail circuit. "I'm not about to ring up the Sunday papers and get myself snapped at various parties."
He just does what other regular guys do. Spends time with friends and family, fishing, the usual stuff.
Although there was the time, eight years ago, when Tamahori was arrested in Los Angeles for allegedly propositioning an undercover policeman for sex while wearing an off-the-shoulder black dress. He didn't want to talk about it then and he's still not prepared to talk about it.
The much publicised incident seemed in conflict with Tamahori's reserved character. It made great magazine fodder. So-called friends came out of the woodwork expressing shock and disbelief but not before revealing details of an apparent penchant for latex and threesomes with then girlfriend Sasha Turjak.
Was it difficult being in Hollywood after an incident like that?
"No. I don't want to talk about that," Tamahori retorts.
How does he cope with such speculation over his personal life?
"I don't have to cope," Tamahori replies.
"I didn't know you were going to ask me about this and if your questions continue down this path then I'm going to have to end the conversation."
Nevertheless, we continue along the safe topic of New Zealand cinema.
It's 20 years since Tamahori broke away from TV advertisements and found fame with Once Were Warriors, cementing the careers of Cliff Curtis and Morrison.
The latter is to work with Tamahori again in Patriach, the film adaptation of the Witi Ihimaera novel Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies.
It's set to be filmed next year though dates and locations have yet to be confirmed.
"It's hard to find good actors aged 50 and above," Tamahori explains of his decision to cast Morrison.
"I know how to get the best out of him.
"And I haven't made a film in 20 years in New Zealand so I'm looking forward to it."
Tamahori still yearns to tell a story about the 19th century land wars in a modern context.
"It's an idea that's developed about taking the events from the land wars of the 1870s to 1880s. It's in the early stages yet but we're talking about how to get it going."
BATTLE TO BRING OUT THE MUSS
A new documentary has revealed how hard it was for director Lee Tamahori to turn Temuera Morrison into violent drunk Jake the Muss for his breakthrough 1994 film Once Were Warriors.
Morrison is now synonymous with Jake but at the time it was a big shift from his Shortland Street role as mild-mannered doctor Hone Ropata.
Even Rena Owen, who played Jake's long-suffering wife Beth, doubted Morrison was up for the job.
"Oh shucks, Beth's going to be beating up Jake," Owen admitted in a new Maori TV documentary Once Were Warriors: Where Are They Now? "Every spare moment was spent on extra rehearsals for Tem."
The Jake we see firing up at Beth in the family home comes courtesy of a line that a fed-up Owen spat at Morrison during retakes.
She wanted to wipe the "Dr Ropata smirk" off Morrison's lips.
"I said ‘What the f... are you smiling at Jake? It's not funny'."
Morrison thought Owen was ad-libbing after a long day but quickly got the message. Tamahori called for them to redo the scene. Convincing now, Morrison fired the line, "Who the f... do you think you are?"
Everyone went home with smiles on their faces, Owen said. "We saw the beast."
Slightly built Morrison also worked with a fight co-ordinator to build some muscle and worked on his road-rage on the way to the Shortland Street set to hone his mental aggression.
And he used Owen's doubt "as fuel" for the violent role.
Sunday Star Times