How Toa Fraser kicked the self-destructive writer habit to make two new films

by Alexander Bisley / 14 September, 2017

Director Toa Fraser on the set of 6 Days.

Heart of darkness

Writer and director Toa Fraser has two new films out – and he loves how different they are.

Toa Fraser is a theatre and film director with an appetite for variety. A decent schoolboy loose-forward, the west Auckland director of No.2 and Giselle has two contrasting films out now: 6 Days, about the 1980 siege of London’s Iranian Embassy, and The Free Man, a documentary on New Zealand ski jumper and extreme sportsperson Jossi Wells’ adventures with alpine high-wire provocateurs The Flying Frenchies. Here, he talks about fear, dance, and how the former All Black coach Graham Henry helped him kick the boozy self-destructive writer lifestyle.

Alexander Bisley: What do you think of Auckland?

Toa Fraser: I really love Auckland. Auckland’s my home for better or worse. It’s where my Pacific Island family is. More than most films that I’ve done, I was forced to confront my idea of my own identity with 6 Days. I was born in England, and obviously it’s a story set in England. My sister is named after Aissa in Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands. Our family has had a bit of a history with that guy. On both my dad’s side and my mum’s side, I have a family that went on great ocean voyages, always looking over the horizon. I do that in my life too. Auckland is the place where I anchor. Just need more bike lanes.

What do you hope people might take away from 6 Days? The BBC’s Kate Adie – whose story covering the siege is dramatised in 6 Days – referred to “serious matters that continue to haunt us today”, before a festival screening.

There are many different ways to tell this story, and lots of different viewpoints.  I was attracted to the action, obviously. Action made The Dead Lands, and I had a great time doing that. I had grown up with action movies and had the SAS Action Man figure when I was a kid. I quickly realised that my interest and heart lay with [hostage negotiator] Max Vernon. I met him at his home in Kent, and we had a great conversation, and he conveyed to me the fact that he, as the main negotiator during the siege, had never dealt with a man with a gun before. Secondly, when the SAS went in, he felt an incredible sense of failure. I was really struck by that. He was a man who was aiming to solve this crisis with a negotiated peaceful solution, with communication and compassion, and was usurped by the forces of violence. At this time where we’ve got Trump talking about fire and fury, itching to press the nuclear button, I think the example of Max Vernon back in 1980 is something that we can all learn from.

I went to see [Arthur Miller’s play] A View from the Bridge that night after I met Max, and I saw Mark Strong on stage and I was really moved by that. It’s an immigrant story, and that particular production had a sort of numinous thing that reminded me of my early theatre work, and I felt a very personal connection to that production and to Mark’s performance. I met Mark the next day for lunch and we hit it off, and he agreed to play Max. When you’re gearing up to make a movie, most of the time it’s just really hard, but occasionally things click, and that 24 hours in England was one of those moments where it really all felt like it was working. Mark is beautiful in his performance.

Scenes from 6 Days: Jamie Bell, left, plays Rusty Firmin, an SAS soldier.

Actor Abbie Cornish, left, as reporter Kate Adie.

Talk to me about your dad, Eugene, who worked for the BBC.

He was born in Vatukoula, Fiji, on Viti Levu. The legend is that he didn’t speak English until he was seven, until he came to New Zealand with the whole family – quite early, in terms of Pacific Island migration, in the very late 1940s. Working class family, wharfies and sailors. State house in Mount Roskill. He developed his English speaking ability so well that he ended up speaking on the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation’s predecessor, eventually moving to London to work on the BBC. He knew Kate Adie. They did a couple of things together.

In those days, BBC was the pinnacle of the broadcasting scene. He met my mum there. She had begun work as a sound technician on the first day of Radio 1, 50 years ago this year. She loved South Pacific, the musical. And they fell in love through the glass. Quite a controversial relationship, in that dad was from Fiji and mum was from England, but we grew up in a picture-postcard English village in Hampshire, which was sort of a middle class dream for my old man. When I was five, I remember the events of the siege taking place. Dad actually broadcast during the event. There was a moment during a cut where we used his original broadcast. It didn’t make the final film.

I noticed you thanked Sir Graham Henry in The Free Man’s credits.
Yeah, he’s been kind of a mentor, since he and I first worked together on a Marmite commercial. I spoke to him at the beginning of The Free Man process when I was asked to do an extreme sports documentary. One of the things I’m fascinated by is that Sir Graham’s totally changed his leadership style since he began coaching. He’s gone from a command and control idea of being a leader to someone who is far more interested in empowering the players and moving the All Blacks along a spectrum from reliance to self-reliance. As a director, I aspire to that leadership style. I love the way that they’ve changed that macho culture; a more multicultural, holistic and alternative approach is embraced by the players. Once you would have been hard-pressed to get those guys doing yoga. You’ll appreciate this: I was interested to see that when Stephen Donald was struggling with his game in the lead-up to the [2011] World Cup, apparently Steve Hansen suggested to him that he go learn how to dance, which is something I still haven’t got to.

Did Henry’s ‘holistic’ idea help you kick romanticising being an F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque self-destructive writer?
Yes. I take care of myself a lot better physically than I used to. 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. The journey to The Free Man was a lot to do with that. It culminated in that crazy snowstorm on the top of the French Alps.

Creativity is the dopamine for you now, Toa?
 That’s fascinating that you picked up on that particular word [in The Free Man]. Wim Hof [the Dutch daredevil] says, “to see movement is to see joy”. There’s so much joy in movement – whether it’s an athlete running, or an extreme sportsperson – and that’s something Jossi [Wells] and I particularly connected on. I’ve been chasing the dopamine.

Scenes from The Free Man: Toa Fraser’s documentary about freestyle skier Jossi Wells and a troupe of extreme-sport eccentrics.

“You have to put fear aside,” Jossi says in The Free Man, and the idea is explored in engaging ways through the documentary. Useful advice for a writer.
That’s true of everybody. In one of my meandering narrations in the movie, I say that we’re all surrounded by a void. We’re tiny little specks in the middle of a vast universe, and no wonder we’re scared. Whatever we do, everybody is walking the line every day. The Flying Frenchies’ example is a fascinating thing; standing on the edge of the precipice, looking out, taking a deep breath, and stepping out and walking that line across the void.

How about Frank Rose’s book The Art of Immersion?
Very inspiring. He talked a lot about dissolving the boundaries between high and low culture, in film and TV, and the way storytelling has evolved in the 21st century is to dissolve these boundaries. At the start of my career, I loved the idea of making theatre more “streetsy” again, working with Madeleine Sami. Bare has high cultural things within it and a very “streetsy” sensibility. More recently I’ve made 6 Days, which has quite classical
formal cinematic storytelling, and at the same time I made a very free-form, intuitive documentary, The Free Man. I’m currently directing [television] episodes of Into the Badlands in Ireland. I’m really enjoying this dance between different modes of storytelling.

The dance between oppositions is still a theme in your work?
Yeah, the big opposition within 6 Days, obviously, is one of violence and negotiating. That’s one of those things that’s been in movies forever, the gun and the bible in the Westerns. There was a lot of debate about how big the explosions should be, how many rounds of ammunition should be shot into people. All of that negotiating because obviously we didn’t want to glorify the situation, although that’s sort of what movies do.
That was a tricky dance.

“All writers’ characters are some part of them, at least a repressed part,” Irvine Welsh once told me. What’s your riff off that?  
Every story is a fascinating journey into self. The Free Man was particularly interesting in that way. Have you read that Margaret Atwood book, Negotiating with the Dead? Every writer is very different, but there is something about going into the darkness, and, with luck, bringing light back out. I feel that way: it’s always a journey into darkness, into the heart of darkness. Not necessarily in a sinister way. You’re going in blind at the start, and you always find some new part of yourself in there somehow. 


6 Days and The Free Man are both in cinemas now.


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