Director Toa Fraser, and actor Christian Convery in the Netflix series Sweet Tooth (Photos: NZ Film Commission, Netflix)
Director Toa Fraser, and actor Christian Convery in the Netflix series Sweet Tooth (Photos: NZ Film Commission, Netflix)

Pop CultureJune 11, 2021

‘The parallels were freaky’: Toa Fraser on making Sweet Tooth in New Zealand during a pandemic

Director Toa Fraser, and actor Christian Convery in the Netflix series Sweet Tooth (Photos: NZ Film Commission, Netflix)
Director Toa Fraser, and actor Christian Convery in the Netflix series Sweet Tooth (Photos: NZ Film Commission, Netflix)

The director talks to David Farrier about the hit Netflix show, his mid-career pivot into TV, and why he chose to go public with his Parkinson’s diagnosis.

This interview originally appeared on David Farrier’s newsletter Webworm.

Right now, my love is pure for Sweet Tooth.

The show contains lots of things I like: a bizarre scenario painted big, cute animals, apocalyptic undertones, sweet father-and-son relationships, loss, beautiful cinematography.

Christian Convery as Gus in Sweet Tooth (Photo: Netflix)

It’s on Netflix, which employs me sometimes, so I guess that’s another thing I like. No, they are not paying me to write this.

The other big thing I like about Sweet Tooth? New Zealand. Watching this show is really fun if you’re from Aotearoa — oh, there’s Auckland Zoo! There’s that ivy building down by Shortland Street outside that weird men’s club! There’s that back alley I walked down that time to eat two McDonalds double cheeseburger combos before spewing them all up the next morning! Not to mention all the Kiwi actors that pop up every 10 seconds.

I actually had no idea this series was shooting down in New Zealand. All the talk in my little circle was Lord of the Rings (yes, Amazon wants this to be their Game of Thrones, minus the shitty ending) and Cowboy Bebop — but I’d heard nothing of this lil’ comic book adaptation.

And yet, here it is. Then I found out that my friend Toa Fraser had directed some of the episodes. And then I found out he was a producing director, too! “Some kind of friend” I muttered to myself, shocked he hadn’t told me about any of this, or cast me in this wonderful series as some kind of nerdy journalist character.

Sweet Tooth producer Evan Moore and director Toa Fraser
Sweet Tooth producer Evan Moore and director Toa Fraser (Photo supplied)

Full disclosure: Toa and I are not besties and I did not expect him to tell me about this show. But he’s always been kind to me, and I guess I’d describe us as online buddies. I remember being at the Toronto Film Festival when his excellent The Dead Lands premiered at about 11pm. I was there in 2014, working as a pop culture reporter. Toa knew I was a fan, and helped wrangle the cast for my interviews. He’s always been nice to me online, sharing tweets from time to time about things we both like. We inhabit a tiny world; I’ve spent the last year working with his editor from Dead Lands, Dan. Dan is another excellent human.

Toa’s directed plays, feature films – comedy to thriller to action – and more recently, a bunch of really great fucking TV show episodes.

For me — watching from afar in my little doco world / Webworm world — there’s a lot to admire about Toa. He will regularly give advice and insight on his Twitter. And if it’s ever about him, it’s not just selfies, but utter honesty.

So yeah, when I saw Toa had quietly been directing my favourite new show, I dropped him a line telling him I wanted to talk to him for Webworm.

He agreed, and I think if you’re into film and TV, you’ll like this conversation. The whole idea of shooting Sweet Tooth in New Zealand during a pandemic was also strange, as said himself:

“Obviously the parallels with the story — a father and son seek refuge from a virus in an isolated place of natural beauty — were pretty freaky.”

So for more on that, and Sweet Tooth and acting and directing and New Zealand, here is our conversation.

Hey Toa. I just watched the first episode of Sweet Tooth. Love it. Then I see you were involved, directing some episodes. And were an EP [executive producer] on the show too I think?

Yes, I was the producing director. I directed two episodes (‘Secret Sauce’ and ‘When Pubba Met Birdie’) and helped guide the rest. Mostly I just tried to be supportive of Jim Mickle, the showrunner, whose vision took Jeff Lemire’s books to the screen.

How did you come to this gorgeous lil’ series?

I was shooting a show in the northern hemisphere winter of 2019/2020 in Rhode Island. My friend Mel Turner, who is one of the producers, called and talked to me about it. Initially it just sounded like a good excuse to come back to New Zealand to work.

But then we talked more, and I met Jim and producer Linda Moran, and the team from Team Downey, watched the pilot and it really resonated with me. It’s a story with a big heart about a kid from a mixed background searching for identity, family and belonging.

Up until then, for a couple of years, I had been on the road like The Littlest Hobo or Bill Bixby in the TV Hulk. But then one morning I woke up in a hotel in Providence with the very strong feeling that the wind had changed, and I was headed back to the Pacific.

This was January 2020. I got back to New Zealand. And then the pandemic happened.

Christian Convery in Toa Fraser’s director's chair
Gus (Christian Convery) steals Toa Fraser’s chair (Photo: Toa Fraser/supplied)

If you were at a party with someone who hadn’t seen Sweet Tooth, and you were trying to be heard over loud music, what do you yell at them to make them understand it in as simple a way as possible?

It’s about a kid! A boy! He’s human and he’s a deer! He’s a hybrid! He’s searching for his mom in a post-apocalyptic world. He’s on the road with a big gruffly dude called Jep!

But it’s not grim and grimy. It’s like a fairy tale. But a real fairy tale! Where people die and cry and get scared. But it’s hopeful and optimistic.

What do you think? It’s never gonna get made, is it.

I feel like when I was in New Zealand, I knew they were making Lord of the Rings there, I knew they were making Cowboy Bebop because I saw John Cho in this comic store I like, but I had no idea Sweet Tooth was being shot in New Zealand. Was this a secret or am I just slow?

It wasn’t a secret per se, we just kind of put our heads down and got on and did it. I know what you mean, and I do like we kind of snuck in under the radar. It reminds me of the legendary Fijian SAS soldier Sekonaia Takavesi, who I met a few years ago. Very quiet, unassuming dude. Quiet but deadly.

You have made some of my favourite films like The Dead Lands, but I also see you directing a lot of my favourite series – I think you had a hand in The Affair which is a guilty pleasure of mine. How do you get into that game in Hollywood, and how’s that been? Like I imagine it’s slightly different walking into someone else’s world, and then making it your own? But then you also have to keep a style over the entire series, with other directors coming in. How does all that work?

There was a turning point in my career a few years ago. I was in France with my family on holiday. Sounds flash but we hadn’t really ever done anything like that before.

It was the first time in a long time that I stopped reaching for something. We were in the Ardèche, that ancient, numinous place Werner Herzog visited in his movie The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I got a call from my manager Amotz Zakai that John Logan was looking for a director for a very special episode of Penny Dreadful, a bottle episode in season three. We talked, I got the job, went straight to Ireland the next week. It was the first TV thing I did.

I’ve always favoured constraints. My first play Bare was two actors on a bare stage. You work with what you’ve got. So I really enjoy coming into a show, studying it, learning the style, what the constraints are, what the challenges are, and finding a gentle way to express yourself within that. And I love bringing something particularly Pasifika to my directing process, that makes me unique and which, generally speaking, actors seem to really respond to. Dominic West, for instance, was really into my physical warm ups on The Affair.

I see the show hit no. 1 in the US, and no 1 in New Zealand on the Netflix charts — that must be nice? What do you do to celebrate?

In the immortal words of Ali Lauiti’iti when asked what he would do if the Warriors won the NRL Grand Final in 2002: I don’t know, I’ll probably just have a big feed and go to the movies.

I’m going to see Out of Sight at the Hollywood in Avondale on Thursday night. Beyond that, not much.

Sweet Tooth hits #1 on Netflix New Zealand (at time of writing it was at #1 in the USA, too – and a load of other places)

This is a very lame question but what was your favourite part of working on this show?

I mean the whole thing was just such a great experience, even the tough days schlepping around the countryside in the rain in the winter.

Working with Jim Mickle. He’s like what it must have been like to work with George Lucas on the first Star Wars: “OK we’re going to do this with puppets? And it’s the apocalypse but it’s going to be gorgeous? And there’s this fucking groundhog thing that talks and is into fashion?”

And being back in New Zealand working with some old friends, like production designer Nick Bassett, a lot of the grips, my mates Monsie and Swampy, Roger Greens, the guy who does the…erm… greens, a lot of the stunt team like Mana Davis, Tipene Kerei and Te Kani Collier with whom I did The Deadlands.

But one really stand out collaboration was with Bree Peters, who I put forward as an acting coach for Christian Convery (Gus) and Naledi Murray, who plays Wendy.

Bree was on set every day with Christian, playing games, keeping it light, working with the directors and the actors, working on the scenes and performances. She was integral.

A big box of Gus’ s slingshots (Photo: Toa Fraser/supplied)

There are some new faces in this series. I feel like I have discovered some new actors I want to follow. Did you find the same thing?

Totally! The cast is incredible, across the board.

My daughter knew Stefania (LaVie Owen, who plays Bear) from watching The Carrie Diaries. I had seen Nonso (Anozie, who plays Tommy) in a couple of things, including The Laundromat.

Nonso is one of those actors like James Rolleston that if you’re not careful as a director you can miss what he’s doing with his performance. He’s communicating with the camera and the audience on another level. It’s only really been in the last week seeing the show in its full glory that I’ve seen all the nuance in his performance.

And of course it was such a pleasure to work with so many great New Zealand actors like Jodie Rimmer — so wonderful in In My Father’s Den — who ate up her role as the mysterious Judy.

Also, you made this during a pandemic. Was that an incredibly hard aspect of production? Did it change the way you worked?

Well again, we were lucky to be here. As we all know, the New Zealand response to Covid has been incredible. Nonetheless we’re an international production and I know the production team put in some very long hours getting the key cast and crew onto planes and through MIQ.

On the ground in Auckland, we went into Level 3 right in the middle of prep, which was a nightmare for the wardrobe and art departments. They were building this massive collection of very intricate costumes, and these beautiful sets, but couldn’t buy stuff, couldn’t get the crew…

And when Auckland got back to Level 1, we still had much stricter Covid protocols: mandatory masks, temperature checks, cleaning standards, no visitors on set.

At the same time I was communicating with friends overseas in places like LA or New York or Toronto where either they weren’t working or were under much more extreme protocols and it was pretty easy to feel very lucky.

Obviously the parallels with the story — a father and son seek refuge from a virus in an isolated place of natural beauty — were pretty freaky.

Toa Fraser on the set of Sweet Tooth
Toa Fraser planning a shot (Photo: Toa Fraser/supplied)

I sent you a message after you posted publicly about having Parkinsons, and I heard you on RNZ talking about it. Was that something that was on your mind while you were making this show too?

Thank you for your message. Yes, absolutely it was very much on my mind the whole time I was on the show, as it is every day.

The disease is very persistent like that. I had been diagnosed pretty soon after I did Penny Dreadful. I remember talking to Eva Green about the tremor in my right hand.

Somebody told me recently that by the time you get diagnosed you may have had it for something like 20 years — and in hindsight, the symptoms were there a long time before the diagnosis. I clearly had it right through GiselleThe Dead Lands and 6 Days.

But after I got diagnosed I was determined to keep it quiet for as long as I could. A few things happened last year that made me rethink that.

It’s fucking terrifying, I think, putting anything personal about yourself out into the world. How did you find doing that, talking openly and honestly — and were you surprised about anything after doing so?

I am genuinely surprised at the veritable outpouring of love and support that has come my way. I’m very grateful for that.

I wrestled with the idea of opening up about it for so long but it just got to a point where the effort of trying to hide it was too painful.

You know, there’s real nobility in discretion. I think of people like David Bowie and Chadwick Boseman. But for me I preferred to take the risk of saying it out loud and have faith that in doing so it would be a positive thing.

I have often admired you from afar as you just make all this stuff — some very different genres of film, and then these shows I watch. At this point in your career, what makes you the most satisfied, work-wise?

I learned a long time ago that the work is the reward. I feel fulfilled when I can prepare well, solve problems, work with great people, create a positive, safe environment on set where actors and crew can do their best work, laugh, sweat, bleed, cry, leave it all on the floor and ideally go home without going into overtime.

The results of the work, you can’t control. But occasionally it is nice when something you’ve helped make is received so well, like Sweet Tooth.

Coffee cart on the Sweet Tooth set
Leah Robertson helming the NZ film industry coffee cart! (Photo: Toa Fraser/supplied)

Thanks Toa. I really can’t wait to watch more Sweet Tooth. Thrilled you are a part of this thing that is popping off at the moment. Make sure you take a moment to enjoy it, please! Oh, shit — quickly — anything you are watching or listening to at the moment that you would recommend? Always looking for smart, creative peoples recommends! 

I’ve been on a rabbit-hole addiction to the Adam Curtis documentaries.

Loved Crip Camp. Loved Creamerie.

I watched Shane again recently, an ancestor of Sweet Tooth, and loved it.

I’m really enjoying Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book. And if you haven’t seen the Teine Sā series, take a look, especially Matasila Freshwater’s episode Hiama. Matasila is kind of a genius.

This interview was first published on David Farrier’s Webworm newsletter.

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