Director Toa Fraser's high-adrenaline balancing act

by Russell Baillie / 02 August, 2017
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Toa Fraser. Photo/Getty Images

Toa Fraser is bringing a double dose of adrenaline to this year’s film festival with two very different life-or-death movies.

Toa Fraser had plenty of expert advice on 6 Days, a thriller about the May 1980 siege of the Iranian Embassy in London. Among those the director tapped were ex-SAS soldiers who stormed the building, a retired police-hostage negotiator and a BBC reporter who covered the events.

And then there was his mum. When he was filming in London last August, Linda Fraser visited the embassy location shoot in South Kensington and spotted a problem.

“My mum took me aside and said, ‘What are you going to do about the petunias? They’re in bloom. It’s the wrong season.’

“Well, Mum, it’s not the biggest challenge we face on this,” he remembers replying, “but, yes, we will be looking at the petunias …”

The maternal advice came from local knowledge. Londoner Linda was a radio sound technician at the BBC when she met Eugene Fraser, a Fijian who had taken his announcer’s voice from the NZBC to the Beeb.

Their son was born in London in 1975 and grew up in a “picture-postcard English village” before the family migrated to Auckland in the late 1980s. There, his father’s extended Mt Roskill family would become the inspiration for Fraser’s 1999 play and subsequent debut feature, No. 2.

6 Days.

His latest high-adrenaline screen output seems a long way geographically and artistically from his humble theatrical beginnings.

As well, he’s had directing stints on big-budget genre television shows Penny Dreadful and Into the Badlands – gigs he got on the strength of his ancient Aotearoa action film The Dead Lands.

He has also directed and narrated an extreme-sports documentary, The Free Man, featuring champion freestyle skier Jossi Wells.

“It’s been an action-packed couple of years,” says Fraser over coffee in Auckland, a few days before he flies to Los Angeles for a round of meetings.

Looking back, he considers his early theatrical forays, Bare and No. 2, happy accidents. He says the plays took on lives of their own once they were performed by Ian Hughes and Madeleine Sami.

6 Days.

At 23, Fraser might have been considered a playwright, but he wasn’t sure he had really applied for the job.

Making movies was always the plan. His first job in the film business was as a cinema usher. His next was as a co-writer on Vincent Ward’s River Queen. Then came his breakthrough directorial debut with his 2006 movie, No. 2.

“The trajectory from playwright to this stuff is a parallel journey to the one my dad took. From No. 2 to 6 Days is essentially Mt Roskill to the BBC.”

He’s too young to remember the 1980 siege, but he remembers the period. He has a vivid boyhood memory of being told the building’s glass was bombproof when he visited BBC headquarters, Broadcasting House, where his father worked.

The thriller, which stars English actors Jamie Bell and Mark Strong, is Fraser’s fourth feature with prolific producer Matthew Metcalfe, who initiated the project, and second with Dead Lands screenwriter Glenn Standring. Much of it was shot in Auckland, with sets built in an Avondale factory to duplicate the increasingly bullet-ridden interior of the embassy. The finished movie isn’t just a gung-ho shoot ’em up, though.

The Free Man.

“It has a balance of soul and action.”

It’s largely centred on Strong’s character, Chief Inspector Max Vernon, and his attempts to negotiate a surrender with the six gunmen. Fraser met the retired Vernon, who told him he considered he had failed, despite all but two of the 26 hostages emerging alive. The Thatcher Government ordered the SAS to storm the building; in the process, they killed five of the six gunmen.

“I loved the idea of this man who is trying to solve this situation with compassion and communication and in the end was usurped by the forces of violence.”

It was the forces of physics, especially gravity, that Fraser explored in The Free Man. It’s a globetrotting stunt-athon in which Wanaka-based skier Wells joins the Flying Frenchies, a team of base-jumping, wingsuit-flying, rope-walking existential lunatics. That involved much filming on mountains as the performers threw themselves off or took high-wire shortcuts to the next peak.

The Free Man.

“I was more interested in the psychology and the philosophy behind it than just the spectacle … we went for a group of people who were able to talk about that and the Flying Frenchies are incredible philosophers and poets.”

The inclusion of both films in the New Zealand International Film Festival suggests Fraser’s growing versatility isn’t coming at the expense of artistry. The last time he had an entry in the festival was his 2013 ballet film, Giselle. He’s determined to keep mixing it up.

“It does feel like this industry would like directors to be very defined and make the same kind of movies over and over, which I haven’t done and I don’t want to do.”

6 Days and The Free Man are screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. BBC journalist Kate Adie, played by Abbie Cornish in 6 Days, will attend screenings in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

This article was first published in the August 5, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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