A conversation with writer-director Toa Fraser, whose latest project, a film version of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s acclaimed Giselle, heads to the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
The affable Toa Fraser, Giselle’s sharp-eared director, talks about learning from Peter O’Toole, No. 2’s debt to Graham Henry, romanticising the boozy self-destructive writer, and dancing between the carnal and the heavenly. Photography by Rath Vatcharakiet.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: We talked about your passion for rugby 13 years ago. You must have been happy to do that Marmite ad with Graham Henry?
TOA FRASER: Graham Henry just wanted to do it and I wanted to get a performance. We talked a lot about performance psychology, which he knows a lot about, obviously. I like to think I know a little bit about it, too. So coming from two very different angles, there was a sort of ‘shots across the bow’ moment initially, but we really connected after a while. I learned a lot from him about ‘Red Head Blue Head’, the psychological way the All Blacks simplify what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about: the state of flow being the most creative state to be in. The All Blacks have figured out rituals. Each member of the team has a different personalised ritual for reminding himself to get out of what they called ‘Red Head’ and into ‘Blue Head’; a more creative, emotional state. Brad Thorne apparently chucks water all over himself, and Richie McCaw slaps his thighs a lot. I found it fascinating.
AB: Does Mr Henry have a ritual?
TF: I don’t know. I didn’t ask him, Sir Graham. I felt that he was little suspicious of me at the start. We figured it out. We had some people in common. I went to Sacred Heart College, which is a rugby school. I’m really good friends with Chris Grinter who’s head of Rotorua Boys High School, and was a New Zealand secondary schools selector with Graham Henry.
AB: Were you nervous working with Sir Graham?
TF: Not really. I guess I learned a long time ago that I do my best work when I’m working to earn the respect of people that I respect.
AB: You’re energised by the challenge?
TF: Yeah. And I’d worked with Peter O’Toole. Peter O’Toole and I bonded over rugby. He’s a big rugby fan, knows a lot about rugby.
AB: He’s an All Blacks fan?
TF: He’s more of an Ireland fan. But when he and I met it was during the 2007 World Cup, and Ireland had just performed particularly badly and so had the All Blacks. So we had something in common.
AB: Working with Peter O’Toole on Dean Spanley; what a moment! Peter O’Toole said to you, “I’m going to teach you something that David Lean taught me.”
TF: How do you know that? I promised I wouldn’t share that, but must be loose-lipped.
AB: So, what did he teach you?
TF: It was a great day, one of the most memorable moments in my life. It was about the fourth day of shooting for Dean Spanley. He called me into his green room in the morning. He was reading the newspaper. I was a bit nervous and I said, “Hi Mr O’Toole, what’re you up to?” And he goes, “I’m just reading about my mate Norman,” meaning Norman Mailer. I was like, “Oh yeah, how’s he?” And he goes, “He’s dead,” and slammed down his obituary, which he’d been reading. He stood up (he has this way of standing up where he uses a lot of energy and power) and sort of towers above me, puts his hands on my shoulders and said, “I’m going to teach you something that David Lean taught me. Look into my eyes; what do you see?” I was like, “Um, I don’t know… um courage… ah, generosity.” He said, “Light. You see light,” and he showed me a picture of a model he’d cut out from a magazine, and you could see the fluorescent tubes in her eyes; very powerful. He said, “Make sure you light the actors eyes. The actors will love you for it.” I thought that was a really powerful lesson from somebody who’d done so many things. He’s most remembered for being in one of the greatest action movies of all time. His big tip from the epic cinema master was something very intimate, and was all about actors’ performance.
AB: I think what made Lawrence of Arabia was how it married the epic with the intimate. Your story reminds me of a quote from another favourite legendary actor, Robert De Niro: “The eyes have it.”
TF: Yeah it’s true. Norman Mailer wrote about ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ and Muhammad Ali. Mailer said that he felt like Muhammad Ali won the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ by using his eyes, an acting performance; convincing Foreman that he was panicking.
AB: Ruby Dee was also special?
TF: No. 2 was my first movie and I had spent four or five years developing it. I always hoped but never quite believed that it was going to happen. The day that she arrived was the day I finally said, “This must be happening.” But that night Ozzie Davis [her husband] died, and we all just felt like Ruby Dee’s going to go back to New York, and we’ll probably never see her again. I remember going into her hotel room to give her my condolences, and she said they had dimmed the lights on Broadway. She went back to New York to a funeral that Bill Clinton spoke at and Wynton Marsalis played at. But she came back a week later to Mount Roskill help us make our movie. She said before she left she was looking forward to coming back and celebrating life.
AB: In No. 2 Ruby Dee says, “Look at all this life.” That’s one of the strengths of your films and plays; life, vibrancy, energy. Contrastingly, in No. 2, Dean Spanley, and now Giselle, death is also a theme. Giselle is meatier, gruntier than Cinderella, which the Ballet initially proposed?
TF: I didn’t look too hard at Cinderella, but certainly I responded to Giselle, not only because the light and dark thing the story plays with really powerfully, but also because of the new take Johan [Kobborg] and Ethan [Stiefel] had on their production, which was to frame the whole story through the eyes of Albrecht [who woos Giselle] as an older man. I felt there was a real connection to Dean Spanley and No. 2.
AB: “Increasingly I see my work as a dance between accepted oppositions,” Murray Edmond quotes you in his essay, “I want you boys to cook a pig.” In Giselle and No. 2, there’s the dance between life and death, the carnal and the heavenly.
TF: I always liked Martin Scorsese talking about his work being very much like a conversation between the carnal and the heavenly. The opening to Casino, where they play Bach.
AB: The lovely opening from St Matthew Passion. There’s a fascinating documentary about music in Scorsese films, it opens with that.
TF: I grew up in the kind of family that wore that idea on its sleeve. Similar to the family in No. 2. Pacific Island families believe we can talk about our relationships with our dead ancestors very easily and go to church and participate in the Catholic mass, which for other cultures is more prohibited in terms of the kind of polytheistic attitude. But it was very common for us to go to church and then come out and start drinking sort of straight away. When I was living in London (after Dean Spanley, actually), I’d go to the Italian mass at the Italian church and I was always struck by [the way] you’d have this amazing mass with Verdi (it’s all in Latin and very operatic), and you’d come out and the old matriarchs would be puffing on their cigarettes and buying booze straight out of the van that’d parked straight outside. That’s what we’re here for right? To rub up against the world, and try to find some meaning through our conversations.
AB: Scorsese is one of my favourite directors.
TF: Yeah, I keep coming back to him. I don’t feel like my style is particularly influenced by him, but certainly I’ve been influenced by his career and his influences. He was certainly helpful with Giselle. What made The Last Waltz so special was being influenced by opera and theatrical productions. I love the fact that he’s kind of doing what hip-hop did a few years later by taking influences from wherever and dissolving the boundaries between high culture and low culture; pop culture and classical; finding some meaning in the connections between the two.
AB: More Toa Fraser dances include: light-dark, movement-stillness, introvert-extrovert.
TF: Introvert-extrovert is one of the oppositions I play with every day, especially professionally. I’ll say it again, I’m really inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his work on creativity, and what he has found is that most genuinely creative people don’t fit within one extreme of introversion or extroversion. What they do is spend a lot of time in each position, and that’s very true for me. I spend a lot of time on my own; that’s very important to me. But then spend a lot of time being extremely connected to other people; I found the ballet process is a real encapsulation of that.
AB: As a lowly freelance writer I’m the same.
TF: It’s really important because you’d never write anything down if you’re not on your own. I think other people find it very difficult to live with. I’ve struggled with it over my lifetime.
AB: What are you like as an actual dancer, by the way? I can’t dance to save my life.
TF: It’s ironic because it’s one of my biggest fears, dance. My daughter who’s eight has got a very natural affinity to movement and dance, but I’m the guy at the parties that sticks very closely to the wall. I was very strongly looking for something more athletic to do after Dean Spanley, but it’s ironic that I’ve become involved in dance the way that I have because [laughs] I’m a terrible dancer.
AB: Muhammed Ali couldn’t dance. The Greatest had two left feet with women on a dance floor.
TF: One of my big regrets is that I haven’t invested the time in my life to figuring it out; why it’s a big fear, because it wouldn’t take long to get good at something like that.
AB: Has it impacted your personal life?
TF: Many a time. Story of my life [laughs].
AB: What’s your angle on it?
TF: It’s been a problem; let me put it that way. It’s been a perennial problem that I should really get around to addressing at some stage, and I’m sure I will. Actually, this had been an inspiring process, Giselle. Hanging out with some of the world’s best dancers and feeling confident and relaxed in the company. There is something about people that have got dance in their bones that is quite intimidating.
AB: How’s your routine as a filmmaker going?
TF: I fully embrace the change now. There are specific things I do in order to lock myself away, but I used to write from 10am to 2pm; that’s not feasible anymore. I’m the director of a company, so there’s a hell of a lot of marketing and admin stuff that I never really gave enough weight to.
AB: Marketing, we’ve all got to do it, be on Twitter.
TF: Yeah, and I really love that stuff. When I made No. 2, I think Facebook was in its real infancy. It was all Bebo and MySpace, and I was pretty resistant to it. But I have really turned the corner over the last couple of years. I read a book by this guy Frank Rose called The Art of Immersion, and he talks about the ways that the digital revolution is changing the way that we tell stories. For me, it comes back to a more Pacific Island storytelling idea, which is a lot more participatory.
AB: “How do we handle the blur not just between fact and fiction, but between author and audience, entertainment and advertising, story and game?” Mr Rose put it.
TF: I’m now a real advocate of digital. It relates to the idea of a Pacific that is connected in a world that’s connected in a deeper way than just talking shit. It’s all Papatuanuku underneath. I don’t think it is just about LOLcats and people showing each other pictures of their tits. I think there is a genuine way that digital has been able to take our connections as human beings to another level, like the Arab Spring on Twitter.
AB: The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami says good writing is like manual labour’ really energetic. So you could also say that writing is like rugby?
TF: Yeah, there’s a physical component to writing. It’s something else that Graham Henry and I connected on, and the word ‘holistic’, which is something that he’s passionate about. I would like to think that I take a lot more of a holistic approach to my work these days.
AB: What does holistic mean?
TF: Well, I take care of myself a lot better physically than I used to, and I have made peace with when I was a younger writer. Like a lot of young writers, I had the romantic idea of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ian Fleming, romanticising the boozy self-destructive writer thing and I’m not interested in that any more. I want to be able to continue doing what I do for a lot longer than 40.
Actually, that wasn’t for me. I mentioned that I played rugby as a teenager and in my early 20s, and I was really fulfilled doing that, so I have really embraced a physical lifestyle more than I did back in my early writing days.
The big turning point was when I got a Fulbright scholarship to Hawaii. I was really inspired by Laird Hamilton, the big wave surfer. It’s my two biggest work-ons: surfing and dancing. I’m a lot less nervous about surfing than I am about dancing, but I’m as good at each. I followed him to the north shore of Maui where he lived, and I ended up getting in touch with his yoga teacher, and she ended up organising an apartment for me under her yoga studio. So I was writing everyday, and doing yoga everyday, and it was a very special time.
AB: When I interviewed you in Mt Victoria 13 years ago—with the thrilling No. 2 on stage at BATS Theatre—you were overdoing it?
TF: Very much so. One of my regrets is not playing rugby when I was living in Mt Vic.
AB: To give you some balance?
TF: Yeah, and also meeting some new people and figuring out a way to do that introvert-extrovert thing.
AB: DBC Pierre told me, “I can’t drink and write, it’s a great sadness.” So kicking the romantic notion of the excessively drinking, self-destructive writer is a critical weakness you’ve had to overcome?
TF: It’s a destructive concept. It might be right for other people and I don’t want be dictatorial like that, but certainly I feel in a very fertile creative patch at the moment, and I know that I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t taken my health as seriously as I did.
AB: You’re 38 now?
TF: Yeah. I wrote the famous sex scene in Bare when I was 23, and all care and no responsibility. Some of the students who are performing that at school were two when I wrote that, and it feels a bit awkward.
AB: Vincent Ward told me you’re a “good guy, a character.” Last time you spoke to Lumière, you talked compellingly about River Queen, and had a snappy one-liner on long weekends at influential friends’ “number two homes of number one citizens.”
TF: I have enjoyed Sam Neill’s hospitality. It’s fantastic how Sam did Harry for instance, and sends cases of wine to people that he wants to support, and tweets about theatre he’s seen in New Zealand that he’s found inspiring. He’s a genuinely supportive New Zealander, and a great guy to boot.
AB: Speaking of number one citizens, another thing about Graham Henry, which many people don’t realise, is his quietly groundbreaking multicultural approach with the All Blacks, bringing the best aspects of Polynesian, Maori, and Pakeha culture together.
TF: Absolutely. When I was at school, Laurie Mains picked the first all-Pacific All Black backline, which included Walter Little and Stephen Bachop. That was inspiring for me as a Pacific Island teenager. It came out of the groundbreaking schoolboy teams that Chris and Graham Henry had picked, coached. I don’t think people have appreciated the groundbreaking work that they did in terms of bringing more Maori and Pacific Island players into the All Black fold, and making that a part of our national culture in general. I’d even go as far as to say that I’m not sure if there would’ve been a Sione’s Wedding or No. 2, if it hadn’t been for people like Graham Henry and Chris Grinter especially, making those changes in such an important mainstream part of our culture as rugby.
AB: Indeed. Is there an All Black that would make a particularly good biopic?
TF: I wrote two All Black scripts a while ago, and I don’t know if anything’s going to happen. I came back to New Zealand after Dean Spanley to begin a project that was an All Black biopic; I was more interested in telling the player’s story as a teenager. We got really close to getting the money together for that but didn’t and it was disappointing. I’ll hopefully get to do that at some stage.
AB: You find collaborating with your friend Don McGlashan energising?
TF: Don’s written a new song for Giselle, a very different song to ‘Bathe in the River’. He made this beautiful piece of work called ‘When the Trumpets Sound’. Very personal, very heartfelt and very challenging.[vii]
AB: I’m happy we agree about Sal’s friend Dean in On the Road; you tweeted your disproval. I do not get why people like Dean. I find him so unpleasant and uninteresting.
TF: Well, I was really looking forward to that movie, and I didn’t get through it, I found it difficult to watch.
AB: Dean did the worst thing you could possibly do; his friend was really sick in Mexico and he not only abandoned him, but took all his fucking money and stuff. That’s the lowest of the low.
TF: He’s just an asshole. The worst, more annoying thing, was that the friend kept admiring him. And maybe in the book (I wouldn’t know), maybe there’s a reason for that. But in the movie it just came across as, “now why the fuck do you do that to yourself?”
AB: James K. Baxter wrote that famous poem dissing Auckland: “Oh Auckland, you great asshole.” We disagree.
TF: I really love Auckland. Auckland’s my home for better or worse. It goes back to that thing, it’s where my Pacific Island family is.
AB: In addition to Hawaii, are there other places in the Pacific that are particularly powerful for you? Your Dad’s Fijian?
TF: Yeah sure, I’ve never really come to terms with Fiji. I went a few times at the beginning of the 2000s, including when I had a scholarship to USP. But Levuka is a very potent place and very inspiring place for my storytelling. Levuka is a place where all kinds of people from all over the world came and it was a real late 1800s mash up of cultures. I think the kind of culture that emerged from the town was something that my dad grew up with and gave to me and has informed my storytelling.
AB: To close, When We Were Kings, an inspirational documentary for Giselle, isn’t it?
TF: Absolutely, nice circularity from you there with Norman Mailer. The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, I loved that. I remember my legs shaking because I didn’t know who won that fight; I was genuinely shaking with tension. I saw that with my brother at the St James, at the Auckland Film Festival.
AB: What connections do you draw between boxing and ballet?
TF: Oh, plenty: the discipline, the footwork, and taiaha. In Maori martial arts, the feet are the most important element of the whole body. There is a holistic approach to both disciplines that I’m interested in.
AB: Giselle’s male lead Qi Huan is a fighter; a martial artist.
TF: Absolutely. Spending time in rehearsals with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, I learned and I knew this, but I didn’t appreciate it as strongly as with the All Blacks. We want to see the All Blacks sweat and we want to see them get cut. We want to see them bitch about being tired, and we don’t want them to come off the field looking like they haven’t exerted themselves. If they’re not looking like shit, then they haven’t played the game. Whereas ballet is totally the opposite, they’re exerting themselves to the most incredible athletic heights, and yet they are expected to disguise this fact from the audience totally.
IMAGES OF TOA FRASER
© Rath Vatcharakiet 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at rathvatcharakiet.blogspot.co.nz.
‘Giselle’ premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and is on general release now. This conversation has been edited. Alexander Bisley was Salient/Varsity.co.nz’s Rugby Writer 2004-2006, including writing ‘Legally Centre’, the first feature on All Black Conrad Smith. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh (and Alix Campbell) for some transcription assistance on this article.
This article is the unabridged version of the transcript that appeared as a 1300 word interview in The Sunday Star-Times, published August 18, 2003.
 TF: It’s crazy. You know you’re in the right place when connections start firing and it turned out that I knew—obviously, unconsciously—that Bob Dylan had his motorbike accident in 1967 and was treated to in Saugerties in the Catskills [Fraser had just got back from filming pick-ups with Giselle female lead Gillian Murphy in New York State, in a late location change]. And the whole sequence, the story, in I’m Not There with Richard Gere playing an older (or rather introverted) version of Bob Dylan, was in the Catskills, just over the hill from Woodstock. And The Band, who Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz had been about, they produced the Basement Tapes album with Bob Dylan in Saugerties in the Catskills. I’m buzzing about this because I’ve only just got back. It’s actually something Csikszentmihalyi talks about: when you feel like you’re connected to the universe and feel very confident things are firing, you know you’re in the state of flow and you know you’re in the right place in terms of creativity. James Fenimore Cooper, who’s seen as a romantic writer—he wrote The Last of the Mohicans, and I’m a big fan of Michael Mann—I like that he was inspired by that particular part of the world. And I only found that out after we got back from the Catskills.
 AB: When did you stop playing? TF: I played until I was about 20. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t carry on playing. I was pretty good. I started playing when I was at school in England and I was terrible. Then I came here and I got very competitive at Sacred Heart.
 TF: With River Queen, Vincent Ward brought a really really powerful forty page long treatment to me. My thing was more about getting the action story happening. I was intrigued by the idea of taking that sort of Joseph Conrad, John Ford’s The Searchers, journey up the river or journey into darkness, and flipping it and making it into a story about people who are constantly moving. People talk about going back to your roots. In my family, we’ve always been sea-based family. My grandfather was a seaman and his father was a seaman. That’s the thing that really intrigues me about River Queen, the idea of people who are constantly shifting in terms of identity. The Maori characters were culturally complex. It wasn’t cowboys and Indians… It was a really challenging experience working on River Queen. Vincent is a hard task master, a guy with real vision and determination. We are a bit chalk and cheese in terms of our writing practices. Yeah, I have to say I stopped working on River Queen in 2001 and Vincent went off and continued the development with other people. I did a couple of notes occasionally. When I saw it I was blown away and proud of my involvement.
 Harry is out on DVD this month.
 TF: Chris [a former top schoolboy coach, now Rotorua Boys High principal] was Jonah Lomu’s First XV coach when he was at Wesley. He was picking Pacific Island schoolboys when he was being recommended not to. If you look at it, Jonah was the first kind of real ‘ghetto’ All Black. We’d had Pacific Island All Blacks before—you think of Brian Williams and Michael Jones—but Jonah was a new mould, and it was kind of challenging for mainstream New Zealand.
 AB: What makes Don McGlashan a special person? TF: Well he’s a very generous man and has been very kind to me over the last five years. I was in hospital recently for a minor surgery; it was a result of working too hard. I checked in to hospital myself, but Don was the first person I called to ask to shift my car out of the car park and stuff like that. My story’s not uncommon. He’s a very genuinely, generous guy, for a lot of people. AB: He’s got a gentle but sharp sense of humour, also. TF: Yes, very strong. And it’s not without a perceptive nudge when you’re needing it.