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Red, White & Brass is in cinemas from 23 March 2023. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Red, White & Brass is in cinemas from 23 March 2023. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureMarch 22, 2023

The Tongan māfana energy takes centre stage in Red, White & Brass

Red, White & Brass is in cinemas from 23 March 2023. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Red, White & Brass is in cinemas from 23 March 2023. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Like a Tongan Cool Runnings, with trumpets instead of bobsleds, Red, White & Brass is a feel-good movie based on an incredible true story. First-time film producer Halaifonua Finau tells Sela Jane Hopgood how he got it made.

In 2016, promising new Tongan producer Halaifonua Finau was sitting in the crowd of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo at Wellington Stadium. He hadn’t wanted to attend as it “wasn’t his scene”, but wanted to support his wife in her job as events manager.

Finau found his seat and was immediately impressed that the crew had built the Edinburgh Castle inside the venue. As the bagpipes took over, he found himself taken aback by the spectacle and got his phone out, recording notes for a potential film idea.

Finau thought it would be funny to make a film about Tongans from Scotland – a father who is a professional rugby player and moves his family back to Aotearoa after his contract ends. The son is not into rugby, he has a Scottish accent and wants to learn the bagpipes, which makes him an outcast among the Tongan community.

Uncle Siane and Rob practising in music class in the film Red, White & Brass. (Photo: Supplied)

After the show, Finau got in touch with his friend Danny Mulheron to sound out the idea. “Danny asked me, where did this idea come from to have Tongans playing bagpipes?” So Finau told him: “Well actually my Tongan church formed a brass band back in 2011 to perform at the Tonga versus France Rugby World Cup match. But the thing is, we weren’t a brass band and we’d never played any wind instruments.” Before he could even finish telling the story, Mulheron suggested he should make a film about that instead.

The pair spent a year polishing up the script, before Finau moved to Tāmaki Makaurau to find Tongan actors to cast in his first ever film.

The early days

Finau was 17 when he landed his first acting gig in Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. “I got paid around $10,000 for six weeks of work, so I was pretty chuffed with that,” he remembers. 

After their first read-through, the full cast walked to their cars to go home, and Finau was disappointed in what he saw. “Some of the actors were from Shortland Street, yet they were going into cars that were worse than mine and I thought, what a deception. Then I saw a Palagi man go into a flash car and I approached him, introduced myself and asked what does he do?”

The man told Finau that he was the producer and explained what his role entailed. Finau laughed and thought “OK, I’m in the wrong gig, I should be doing what he’s doing.”

Producer Halaifonua Finau says he was able to do this film because he is Tongan – “Greatness is in my DNA,” he says. (Photo: Supplied)

The next five acting jobs Finau got, he would introduce himself to the producer of the show and ask questions about the job. Some of the producers went as far as taking Finau under their wing, showing him budget templates, how to draw up schedules, contacts for different roles, giving Finau the foundation he needed.

“I spoke to a friend of mine about my ambitions to be a film producer and he informed me that I needed to have credits to my name showing that I’ve produced a short film, web series and so forth.” But Finau was impatient, having learnt a bunch already during his acting work. “I just wanted to be a producer now because I was ready and I wanted to skip all those steps, so I started my own business as a producer.”

Finau admits that his determination and eagerness to succeed in the entertainment industry parallels lead drummer Maka’s determination and eagerness in the film. He had a goal in mind to produce his own film idea, despite not following the traditional route of a producer.

Veni and Maka with the mop as he practices being drum major. (Photo: Supplied)

When Finau moved to Auckland in 2017, he found a job as a driver, chaperoning cast members for a Netflix series called The New Legends of Monkey. Finau has always been a firm believer in God and that He works in mysterious ways, and believes that his crew driving job led him to his finished film.

“One of the actresses I drove for was Rachel House and I shared my story idea with her. She loved it and gave me advice on the film world and what to expect,” he remembers.

“I met her again at a wrap party in 2020 and she quickly asked me about the film. I shyly told her that I’m still working on it and she was beside herself, giving me a lecture that if I don’t do it now I never will, and that it’s such a brilliant plot, it needs to be done.”

Suzy Cato playing Liz the music teacher, teaching the class with the Tongan brass band members. (Photo: Supplied)

After the pep talk, House told Finau to meet with her at a cafe in Ponsonby the next morning to accelerate the film idea. He was nervous and hesitant, but met with House, trusting that God had placed her in his path for a reason. House quickly got on the phone to Morgan Waru from Piki Films to expect Finau and his script that same day.

After dropping off the script to Piki Films. Finau anxiously waited to hear back from them. Waru got in touch a week later to say that she loved it.

Casting the band

Finau attended a Tongan theatre show in 2018 called Hearts of Men by Albert Mateni and was taken aback by Tongan actor Mikey Falesiu. “In my head, I was like, he’s going to play Maka, which is the character inspired by me, so I introduced myself to him after the show and shared my vision of the film with him and he was keen,” he says.

In 2019, Finau worked on the TV mini-series Jonah, following the life of rugby legend Jonah Lomu, and it was there where he met Dimitrius Schuster-Koloamatangi, who was an extra.  Two years later, Finau vouched for Schuster-Koloamatangi for the lead role in The Panthers.

“He’s such a motivated young person that I started to think, maybe Dimitrius could be Maka, so I chatted with Dimitrius and made him aware of my thoughts and he said to keep him in mind.”

Cast of the Red, White & Brass film led with John-Paul Foliaki (Maka). (Photo: Supplied)

Later in production for The Panthers, Finau went to fill up his water bottle in the hallway while auditions were taking place for the supporting cast. “I noticed this dude with a big afro pacing up and down the room looking dodgy and so I started a conversation with him. It was JP (Foliaki) and he had just shared with me that he had lost his car keys,” Finau says.

“However, they weren’t actually his keys as he was borrowing the car. He had just got off the phone with the locksmith and was told it would cost $300 to get a replacement and he said to me, ‘I’m going to find those bloody damn keys’ and immediately I thought, ‘this guy is going to be Maka.’”

Finau ended up casting Falesiu as Samisoni, the character inspired by Toloa Brass Band director Loni Niu, and Schuster-Koloamatangi as Veni, the goody-two-shoes cousin of Maka.

‘When it’s lunch time, we all eat at the same time’

What Finau loved about working with Piki Films was there were never any tensions. “If someone suggested an idea that made sense technically and worked for the storytelling angle, but not from a Tongan perspective, I would be first to challenge the idea and explain my reason and they would understand,” he explains.

“We would then collaborate on a solution that catered to all parties. The trust they had with me as a producer, but also as a Tongan consultant on certain aspects of the culture and how that is portrayed in the film made the process seamless,” Finau says.

Director Damon Fepulea’i from Piki Films and producer Halaifonua Finau. (Photo: Supplied)

The first filming day was emotional for Finau and his family. “They finally got to see my work in action and equally I got to see my family and community looked after and have the spotlight on them,” he says.

“My mum and dad had their own trailer; food was provided, and the crew were constantly checking in on the cast and church members to ensure they were stage ready and feeling confident. It was nice to see them all get pampered.”

But Finau laughs as he remembers all the jokes and funny remarks made about him during filming day. “You have to be Tongan to understand the mocking,” he says. Finau is the youngest in his family and was known to be the clown, the actor with no money and always full of excuses. “When they realised that as producer of the film, I oversee everything that goes on, they were amazed, but then were quick to ask, ‘how did you do it? Because the Nua we know is not capable of that,’” he says.

Tongan brass band leaving the stadium tunnel to perform. (Photo: Supplied)

“When you translate the Tongan mocks into English, it sounds harsh, but quietly they’re proud of the person they helped raise.”

And Finau never lost sight of his role in the community. During break time, usually the extras are last to eat, but in Red, White & Brass the extras were Finau’s uncles and family members, and he wasn’t going to be disrespectful to his elders, so he enforced a rule that everyone eat at the same time, no matter what their role was.

Finau hopes the film will be an opportunity for New Zealanders to see the other side of the Tongan flag, what goes on behind the red costumes and cheering for Tonga. “They’ll see behind the veil what the Tongan community is about, the māfana (warm) energy we have for our nation and how proud we are to be Tongan.”

Red, White & Brass is in cinemas from 23 March 2023.

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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