Kewana Duncan, who made his film-writing and directing debut in the tele-film Toke, chats to Leonie Hayden about his career trajectory and how he’s keeping it tika.
Kewana Duncan is a new face in the film and television landscape, but he’s no Johnny-come-lately. The writer and director first got his break storylining for Shortland Street in the mid-2000s and has since been producing creative content in a range of formats, such as Māori Television’s original series Anamata, which blends commentary, humour and modern FX to create news bulletins set in the future.
Toke, a tele-movie for Three that airs tonight, is his feature film debut both as a writer and a director. He directed alongside industry stalwart Charlie Haskell (The Gulf, The Almighty Johnsons, Hercules, Xena).
Set in the town of Tokerangi, the film centres around three kiwifruit orchard workers who accidentally grow a super strain of weed, and are drawn into the shadowy underworld of the cannabis industry. It’s a classic drug caper but one that centres a Māori community and our unique attitudes to cannabis culture. The film features Lucy Lawless, who also executive produced, as a greedy drug kingpin alongside Born to Dance’s Tia Maipi, musician and actor Troy Kingi and Ahikāroa’s Tatum Warren-Ngata in the lead roles.
Funded through NZ On Air’s Te Rautaki Māori scheme (as were One Lane Bridge and Head High), the production had to include a certain number of Māori key creatives to be eligible. Duncan took it a step further, scheduling the production using the maramataka and guiding cast and crew through tikanga and karakia.
I caught up with Duncan ahead of the film’s premiere to talk career highlights and keeping it tika.
Leonie Hayden: Nō hea koe?
Kewana Duncan: No Hauraki ahau. Ngāti Tara Tokanui is my iwi. My beautiful marae is Ngahutoitoi in Paeroa. Favourite swimming spots are the Waitawheta river in the Karangahake Gorge, and the Kauaeranga River in Thames, where I was born.
Tell me about your work background – how did you get here?
My first ever job in TV was writing – a two-week trial as a story-liner at Shortland Street, and somehow after the trial they kept me on. That was an amazing job learning storyline craft and having my writing critiqued everyday by expert story producers and story editors, working full time at a writing table shaping story and scenes. After that I did a whole lot of directing – creative youth shows, Māori media, factual shows. I’ve always had a creative streak and a dramatic approach even in my factual work, which is why I’ve ended up back in the scripted world. Three years ago I made it my goal to focus solely on scripted drama. I asked everyone around me which of my story ideas they’d honestly want to watch on TV, and Toke was the one that fully resonated with everyone. I asked why and my friend said, “I can relate to it and it sounds like a crack-up.” So I wrote it. I struggled and persevered with the script and within four months of handing the script in, it was funded.
Why did you want to become a film/TV writer? What drew you to it?
I love TV. I stared at it my whole childhood, and I’m one of those people who watches 10 different shows at once, either binge watching or right up to date with the latest ep as soon as it’s out. There are so many great TV shows being made and the audience is hungry for original content.
Why I wanted to write Toke in particular was to create a story that you can cheer along with. There’s not enough Māori stories being made that are purely for entertainment, thrilling and fun for an audience to watch. Toke is the type of show that you can get together with whānau and friends to watch, it’s event viewing. And it’s inclusive. Dipping into a hyper-local side of Aotearoa, a small corner of the world rarely seen, but the viewer is invited up that gravel road, over the gate and inside the joint-smoking session. As a writer and director I want to be able to construct worlds that people want to visit each week and be immersed. That’s something that takes a whole lot of energy, craft and a whole crew of very talented people to pull it off.
Do you have orchard experience? It felt very authentic!
I’m glad you say that! In all honesty I didn’t do extensive research on kiwifruit orchards. I spent much more time working out the ins and outs of growing cannabis and how each of the growing stages would affect the story. I was in Amsterdam during the development stages of the script so I would ask coffeeshop owners about strains and flavours and sit there with my notebook thinking of storylines.
We filmed at a kiwifruit orchard which was very beautiful and small and full of character, unlike the enormous industrial kiwifruit operations that we mostly have here. We had some great expert advice on hand from the wonderful owner of the orchard. One thing I did know about orchard life was that there’s lots of different cultures and nationalities there, migrants and tourists doing their time to extend their work visas. So there’s already a natural way for this small town to interact with internationals. Georgie (Warren-Ngata) dreams of going overseas and all she sees around her are worldly tourists who are living her travel dreams. Having different cultures in there is also a way to stay current within the story about what is happening in other places in the world and the ever-changing legal status of marijuana.
What was your favourite thing about directing?
The creative decisions. I just love them. When an HOD (head of department) or a cast member comes to you and asks a question about the world or a scene, I was always able to answer it right away and with certainty. It took me a moment to realise that – when it comes to the creativity, culture and the feel of Toke, a world that I painstakingly created from scratch, I’m actually the expert.
One really favourite moment was rehearsals, where surprisingly we had to teach some of the cast how to do spots and bucket bongs. We had this herbal product for the shoot that looked like weed but it definitely didn’t taste like weed. We were asking the cast to do multiple takes acting like it’s the smoothest, tastiest weed they’d ever tried and really it tasted horrible.
That sounds disgusting! What was the hardest part of making the film?
Stamina. On this project I was working with some high-calibre giants of the industry and they just know the energy, commitment and focus it takes to get a big project done. I was lucky to co-direct with Charlie Haskell, who has an impressive track record of making cutting-edge television and pulling off amazing action and stunts. Award-winning Dave Cameron’s intuitive ninja-like DOP (director of photography) skills were impressive on a daily basis. Production company Screentime’s Philly de Lacey and Three’s Sue Woodfield have championed the show from the beginning and navigated Toke from a two-page synopsis to now the premiere. And Lucy Lawless throwing heavyweight support behind the project was incredible – a real wahine toa in the industry. The show was always in good hands, but being my first feature-length drama, I had to really go hundy personally and professionally to work at the level required to not only get the job done but to make Toke exceptional.
You co-wrote the film’s theme song with Troy Kingi. A lot of singalongs on set?
Troy and I had briefly talked about writing a title track for Toke, so one morning at the hotel in Coromandel I could hear Troy playing his guitar on the balcony. Seizing the moment, I’d been working on some lyrics so we started putting them to a tune. We jammed out another verse and the chorus that morning, even roughly planned out where in the movie it might go. We recorded it on the phone and I sent it to our music producer Karl Steven who loved it and threw Troy in the studio a week later to record it. The track is perfect, it’s an upbeat tune but the lyrics are a little bluesy: “If only I could dream just a little bit bigger”. It suits the story, opens the movie and soulfully leads us into the world of Toke.
Why is it important for Māori to be telling our stories?
Because they’re our stories and as Māori we’re the only ones qualified to tell our stories. Indigenous people are so frequently misrepresented on screen that it’s become predictable. As a Māori writer or film-maker, you have a deep responsibility to the culture to get it right.
Whakaaro Māori (Māori thinking) is crucial on a Maori film, even if many of the crew aren’t Māori. On day one all of our HODs did a maramataka workshop which ultimately led to the film being scheduled by the Māori lunar calendar. We had an on set kaupapa Māori advisor and we also created a new role of pou manaaki to look after the wellbeing of the whole team. Whether it was doing certain takutaku or having time for whakawhanaungatanga, it was important to me to be aware of and take care of the wairua of the crew and the wairua of the film. As a kaupapa-driven person who’s been forged by the tino rangatiratanga movement, it’s first nature for me to challenge systems and find ways to evolve our self-determination. It’s pretty cut-throat in the world of film and TV and I’d like our Māori film and TV industry to be different. Whakaaro Māori. Whakaaro rangatira. Mahi rangatira.
Were you worried about playing into Māori stereotypes at all, ie stoners, coasties, gang members?
Staying away from stereotypes is a huge thing for me creatively and, as a writer, cliches are lazy. I was super focused on getting the tone right. I wanted Toke to be original but also real and totally relatable. Starting the shoot in Manaia, Coromandel, the most beautiful papakāinga, meant that the right cultural tone was all around us. Te ao Māori in every direction.
I wanted Toke to relate to Māori weed smokers first. To see things so familiar that it’s actually crack-up. There are so many interesting nuances about Aotearoa cannabis culture and the ways we smoke weed, the paraphernalia, the rituals, the set-up in the shed, that it’s actually gonna take a whole series to explore.
But yeah, there are already so many tired stereotypes made about Māori and they keep coming. Violent, abusive gang movies – it’s overdone. Where’s the fun, the adventures, the thrilling and super parts of our culture?
Do you think there are enough development opportunities for Māori in New Zealand film and TV?
There’s not enough development opportunities for Māori and it’s something that I’m committed to changing in the industry. We need more young writers, more opportunities for directors to hone their craft and to be supported by the best in the game.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been writing scripts full time since finishing Toke earlier this year. NZ On Air has been amazing and with their advanced development funding support I’ve written two more hour-long episodes of the Toke series. This year I completed the first hour script of a new drama series I’ve created called Bad Mary, which is a dark comedy about a bad influencer. I’m also working on a drama series concept about a crew of Raglan surfers. Other than that, when I’m feeling the creative inspiration I have a couple feature film scripts simmering away. They’re both really different, bold, original worlds that I can’t wait to fully dive into.
Toke screens on Three tonight (Monday, September 14) at 8.35pm, after which it will be available to watch on ThreeNow
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