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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Kamehameha film writer notes depth of king's tale

By Moon Yun Choi
Special to The Advertiser


When Gregory Poirier sold the Kamehameha story to Sony on a pitch, with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson interested in the starring role, the screenwriter admits the studio first thought it was getting a "loincloth and club" movie.

"They were surprised with the depth this material could go to, because they weren't looking for that," said Poirier, during a recent visit to Maui.

Poirier's been active in the movie scene since the 1990s, with the critically praised "Rosewood" (1997) and critically panned comic adventure "Tomcats" (2001), among other films, under his belt. Sitting back at a Maui resort, Poirier had a laid-back, casual style, making jokes throughout the conversation. He's working on rewrites.

The most difficult part of developing the script, Poirier said, has been the balancing act of getting emotion and depth of character into the movie while adding enough action to keep viewers enthralled.

He's writing about the life of Kamehameha from birth to death and chose to make Kamehameha's consolidation of rule over multiple islands and the creation of the nation the thrust of his story. However, he's also bringing the love story between Kamehameha and Queen Ka'ahumanu to the forefront.

"You need to be true to this material, which is really intense and really deep," said Poirier, who has done extensive research and consulted numerous kupuna to bring the story to life.

Having grown up in Kula, Maui, Poirier started out with a general knowledge of the story and the idea to do a movie.

What excites him about "Kamehameha" (still a working title), he said, is that it's "a great story which has never been told ... and is so rich with material."

Poirier has wanted to do "Kamehameha" for more than 10 years, but it wasn't until a producer's assistant suggested The Rock for the starring role that he knew he had a viable project.


The Rock is of part-Samoan ethnicity, not Hawaiian, so there's been controversy over casting a non-Hawaiian in the role of King Kamehameha. But Poirier doesn't want to get into this debate over The Rock's ethnicity and its relationship to the actor's appropriateness for the role.

Poirier said such negative talk is not his kuleana. He points out that the Rock brings an obvious strong physical presence to the title role.

However, he notes, the role of Ka'ahumanu, the love interest and Hawaiian queen, creates a rare opportunity for an unknown Hawaiian actress to play in a big Hollywood movie.

"I would say to all Hawaiian women who want to be actresses, 'Start honing your skills,' " he said.

The Kamehameha project was sold to Sony on a pitch; there wasn't a script yet when the studio bought the rights to the story and the upcoming script.

It was such a "passion project" for Poirier that he took a pay cut to get the process going, but he wouldn't discuss dollar figures. He hopes to make it up on the "back end," he said, by sharing in revenue from the film.

As for when the movie will get made, Poirier said it's a matter of "waiting for everybody's schedule," in particular, The Rock's.

Otherwise, he said the script is pretty solid, but is still going through revisions based on studio notes. Poirier is also polishing dialogue and making changes to further develop his characters.

When Poirier first started writing "Kamehameha," he stuck a big poster of the Rock on the wall so that as he wrote dialogue, he could hear the character's voice in his head. But he found it was limiting him: "I was thinking of The Rock. I wasn't thinking of the man that I was trying to write, so I finally decided to take it down ... and just concentrate on finding the voice of Kamehameha as best I could."

Poirier said it will be the director's (and studio's) decision whether to include the Hawaiian language in the film. But he has suggestions. "My idea would be to find some sort of technique whereby they would speak English for most of the movie, but perhaps they would speak Hawaiian when they were in scenes with 'haole,' such as when they're with Captain Cook for example."

He doesn't think a mainstream studio movie can be made entirely in the Hawaiian language.

 •  Screenwriting classes at UH

So, you want to be a screenwriter? The University of Hawai'i regularly offers classes for would-be filmmakers. Two upcoming classes:

• Screenwriting Weekend
Pacific New Media at UH
Instructor: Bob Green
May 28-30

• Sex & Rage: Screenwriting with Passion
Pacific New Media at UH
Instructors: Margaret South,
Frank South
July 17
"You would be limiting yourself," he said, noting that "Amadeus" took place "in Germany, but everybody spoke English in the movie. I think you have to take a certain license with that, or you're just shooting yourself in the foot."

Poirier will be featured on "Hawaii's Reel Stories," a half-hour magazine program showcasing filmmaking in Hawai'i. The "Reel Stories" series premieres Tuesday on Oceanic Cable channel 16 (see listing below), but a date hasn't been set for the segment on the Kamehameha project.

"I think it's illuminating to let people know that the story is being taken seriously, and not treated as just another action film," said Don Brown, executive producer of "Reel Stories."

"The story is such a part of the Hawaiian identity that it's going to be important to do it justice, both historically and spiritually," Brown said. "As the writer, Greg knows that he has a responsibility to tell the story accurately and in the right spirit."

Poirier, who received an MFA. in screenwriting from UCLA, said he believes there is enough story material in Hawai'i for aspiring local filmmakers.

For example, he said, there's no reason a filmmaker can't do a film noir that takes place in Honolulu.

"If you want to be shooting something about Hawai'i that is going to get people excited and interested in you, then you need to find your own unique way into it. The way to do that can be by finding something really familiar and hanging your story on it," he said.

Listening to his description of another movie he wrote, 1997's "Rosewood" (directed by John Singleton and starring Ving Rhames and Jon Voight), based on a true story about a lynch mob in a black Florida town in 1923, one gets insight into his approaches to making a story unique.

"There were multiple characters in ... ("Rosewood") but you needed something to hang it on," he said. "So I had to ask questions like: 'How do we allow people to come into this world? How do we allow people to come into this movie?' "

So what he decided to do was to "hang it" on a very familiar film structure, seen often in Clint Eastwood westerns, which is: the stranger (Ving Rhames) rides into town; nobody knows who he is; he doesn't know the town but he becomes integrated into the town; and you see the story through his eyes.

"We did that with the lead character in the movie. It gave accessibility to the movie ... let the audience relax (to say), 'OK, I recognize where I'm going here and I'm going to go along.'

"I think that a way to get into some of these stories in Hawai'i would be to do something similar to that, to find something familiar that you could hang your total unique story on and then be unique."

Premieres 11 p.m. Tuesday

Repeats 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. Thursday

Oceanic Cable channel 16

(Check local listings for more repeat times and future showings)

• Show 1: Feature Films

Producer: Stephanie Castillo

Premieres Tuesday

Spotlight: Hawaii Does Sundance. Filmmakers Jeannette and Vili Hereniko talk about the experience of bringing their film "The Land Has Eyes" to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

• Show 2: Music and Film

Producer: Don Brown

Starts May 25

Spotlight: Mountain Apple Goes Hollywood. Record producer Jon de Mello discusses Hawai'i's contribution to film music in Hollywood and among independent film productions.

• Show 3: Cinematography

Producer: Stephanie Castillo

Starts June 1

Spotlight: Husband-and-wife cinematography and sound team Paul and Gracie Atkins talk about their working relationship on documentaries for National Geographic and the BBC, shot around the world.

• Show 4: Film and Video on Maui

Producer: Don Brown

Starts June 8

Spotlight: Maui Film Festival Reaches Maturity at Age Five. Barry Rivers and his wife, Stella, have steered the Maui Film Festival to national prominence.

• Show 5: Documentaries

Producer: Stephanie Castillo

Starts June 15

Spotlight: "American Aloha: Hula Beyond Hawai'i": Director Liette Flanary talks about her film, which took five years to make.

• Show 6: Actors

Producer: Don Brown

Starts June 22

Spotlight: Academy of Film and Television. Director and acting coach Scott Rogers explores the techniques behind teaching acting skills to advanced, intermediate and beginning students.