Optimism runs high for locally produced TV series
By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
The boyish director enjoys the moment. As the scene is completed, he shouts: "OK, great! Moving right along ..."
An assistant with an open script scurries to the director for a huddle. "Background people" anticipate the next scene. Now a woman gets the flip/fall treatment.
Welcome to the making of "Blood of the Samurai: The Series," a low-budget brainchild of Hawai'i indie wunderkind Aaron Yamasato, 33. The six-part series was shot over the course of a month at various island sites, including Club Zanzabar, where the samurai confrontations were held.
Samurai lords clash with syndicate bad guys in Yamasato's made-for-TV expansion of his cult feature "Blood of the Samurai," which earned the 2001 Hawai'i International Film Festival Aloha Airlines Hawai'i Film & Videomaker Award, a 2002 Telly Award, and Special B-Movie Achievement Award from the B-Movie Theatre Festival.
In taking his modest hit, made for $2,000, into the realm of prime-time TV, Yamasato is tidying up his act. He's eliminating cuss words and minimizing the bursts of violent action that characterized his original film, a homage to childhood favorites such as horror flicks, chambara (samurai) adventures and Kikaida action shows.
Yamasato is editing the series, prepping for his small-screen debut on Oceanic Cable channel 16, which airs Oct. 13.
"It's my dream come true," he said, showing no weariness after the month's shooting schedule. "That's why I'm smiling. I have someone giving me water. I have a staff, a production crew of about 20. Someone takes notes. On some days, I have more than one camera. And everyone is happy, too.
"Look," he said, during a break in filming at the Waikiki disco. "They're even dancing on the floor between filming."
"Blood of the Samurai" is being hyped as the first narrative series filmed by a local company excluding fishing, cooking or karaoke shows. While it may not be "Magnum, P.I.," it is Hawai'i's lone filmed-in-the-Islands TV series this fall. Bigger-budget attempts have failed to get a green light, including John Stockwell's Island-filmed pilot "The Break" (not picked up by Fox), and a Coast Guard adventure proposed by the Norris Brothers, which has not materialized.
Hailed for potential
So what if "Samurai" boasts only six episodes? So what if it doesn't have network affiliation? So what if lunch means pizza instead of the hot meals typically dispensed by caterers on bigger-budget projects?
The mini-series has evolved into a symbiotic project, with enthusiastic partners and diverse participants that belie its small size.
"It's wonderful to see a local TV series come about, and to see local filmmakers tell the story they want to tell," said Walea L. Constantinau, Honolulu film commissioner. "One of the things critical to the growth of the film industry here is the growth of the local film industry."
Produced by Yamasato's Hellcat Productions on a budget of $100,000 to $150,000 per episode, "Samurai" has a consulting partner in Georja Skinner, one-time Maui film commissioner and current executive director of the Hawai'i Filmmakers Initiative. (She is also marketing director of the Maui Writers Conference.)
Skinner is helping Yamasato to make industry connections because she senses a winner. "He's got something with potential," she said. She hopes to pitch "Samurai" outside Hawai'i, possibly with Fox or The WB. Opportunities beyond the six episodes depend on the nibbles that come in. JN Productions best known for reviving the Kikaida TV phenomenon here also is a partner.
While Yamasato was the prime writer in the original feature, "Samurai" now has a stable of three others Anderson Le, Ian Hirokawa and Kamuela Kaneshiro who helped expand Yamasato's vision of samurai and ninja hijinks with hipper, pop-culture elements.
Hirokawa, doubling as a co-producer, said the ultimate cost of the production will depend on revenues from sponsors for commercial time on TV.
Le, programming director for the Hawai'i International Film Festival, joined the 'ohana because he loved the idea of a TV series based on martial arts. His key contribution was a female ninja character.
"The collaborative process was fun," he said. "We'd meet late into the night and really geek out till the wee hours of the morning. What I've discovered is that Aaron has assembled passionate people with the same mentality we all like to have a great time. And what we have here is something marketable, with great potential among Asians and local youths."
Friends having fun
The original film had horror-film blood and gore ("We showed the blood splashing," Yamasato said) and explicit language, but the TV version is sanitized to cater to a wider audience. It also taps Ban Daisuke who played Jiro of "Kikaida" fame as the sensei (teacher) who is mentor to the pair of lead samurai characters; he brings cult status to the table.
Egan Inoue, the Superbrawl champion, makes his acting debut as Shinzo, the ruthless syndicate gangster. Alicia Michioka, Miss Hawai'i USA, has the new role of Yuki, a female ninja.
Many of the actors worked on the original feature film, including Bryan Yamasaki as Trent, Michael Ng as Rob, Stephanie Sanchez as Roxy and Colleen Fujioka as Brooke. Since many members of the cast had worked together on local stages before "Samurai," there was a good spirit on the set, Yamasaki said.
"It's really a bunch of friends having fun yet we have an actual product, a series," he said. "Aaron's style of direction is relaxed, positive, and nothing we do (as actors) can be bad. I mean, I sometimes think I'm crappy, but he's encouraging and says it's great; he makes you feel good."
Hawaiian Stunt Connection wired and harnessed several actors for aerial dynamics, borrowing moves from cinematic blockbusters such as "Matrix," "Matrix Reloaded" and "Spider-man."
"We have fire, falls, wiring and cabling," said Dale Radomski, stunt coordinator, who had 15 stunt workers involved in the project, including 11 from Hawai'i.
"It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but we were able to do a wire scene in an 'Aiea warehouse and another big scene up in a tree on Tantalus. I had trouble getting what (wire) I needed, so I found 500-pound suji (fishing line) at a local store and also put together some gas bombs from stuff I picked up at Radio Shack. I swear, if you look at the film, you can't see the wires."
Titus Chang, 33, a local boy who worked as a preparation assistant in the producer's office on Steven Spielberg's "A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)," came home for a vacation after several years of working in Hollywood. He served as script supervisor on Yamasato's project for the entire filming schedule.
"I don't see how he could work (on a film) without a script supervisor," said Chang, who noted that "Samurai" has 90 pages of script. "So I looked out for things that essentially will be helpful in the editing process."
Chang is excited about a local work achieving lift-off, and applauds Yamasato's efforts. "I feel that we'll eventually have a lot more local productions," he said.
In his own way, Chang also is helping to fuel a pool of potential film projects. "I have written two scripts a teen romantic comedy and a broad comedy about a man who ages backwards and I always try to write about Hawai'i," he said.
Reach Wayne Harada at email@example.com, 525-8067 or fax 525-8055.
Principals in 'Blood of the Samurai'
Role: Rob, a samurai.
He said: "Stage offers instant gratification, and I prefer this. In film, you feel somewhat rushed. But it's quite exciting; the fight scenes were choreographed and a challenge. On occasion, the film felt like a dance."
Role: Trent, a samurai
He said: "Between stage and film acting, I think I love stage. ... There's instant gratification. You strive for perfection each time you're on. In film, you mess up, there's time for damage control. For a stage actor, that's kind of weird."
Role: Roxy, a girlfriend
She said: "I love to make people laugh, and usually I play these crazy, outgoing characters. So it's harder for me to do drama; it's all about developing more emotion, searching internally for feelings."
Role: Brooke, a girlfriend.
She said: "I was one of those on the wire, five feet in the air (for stunts). It was a learning experience and exciting fun. I feel like I have a split personality this action figure, beating up people in the movie, and a somewhat quiet teacher in my other life."
Role: Shinzo, villain.
He said: "I was pretty nervous about it, but acting was a lot easier than I expected. Everyone was supportive; their coaching made me feel comfortable. I went to acting school before, but never acted till now. And it was very physical; for one scene I had to lift a guy over my head over and over and over. But I had a lot of fun."
Role: Yuki, female ninja.
She said: "For 'Blood of the Samurai,' I had to fly and it felt scary, and it was tough. The harnessing was a challenge; I have bruises to show. But I have become very personal with Yuki; if things develop, I'd love to explore her more. There are things about her that are not quite explained; her story is not yet done."