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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 6, 2008

'THE LAST PRINCESS'
A Tale of Ka'iulani

Video: 'The Last Princess'

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Q'Orianka Kilcher stars as Princess Ka'iulani in "The Last Princess," which filmed briefly at 'Iolani Palace last month.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Hollywood illusion lasted a few hours. It was an afternoon vision of a Honolulu not seen in more than a century.

A Victorian-era party was in progress outside 'Iolani Palace, with guests arriving in horse-drawn carriages. The men wore coal-black tuxedos with wool coats and held their champagne flutes with white gloves. The women wore velvet and silk, their hair in delicate curls.

Hula dancers swayed before a palace decorated with maile and two, huge Hawaiian flags. It was real in an ethereal way. Even the smell was turn-of-the-century, courtesy of the Percheron mare harnessed to a red carriage.

But this was a one-way view of history, a creation on the set of "The Last Princess," the $9 million movie filmed in Hawai'i about the life of Princess Ka'iulani.

It was beautiful if viewed through a camera. Elsewhere, the effort involved intrudes.

A cameraman descends onto the scene on a manual lift operated by a burly, sunburned man. Costumed actors talk on their cell phones. Aluminum light poles are disguised with a sandwich of tree-trunk halves. And assistant director Greg Zekowski barks through a bullhorn that it's time to roll the cameras, for real.

"Stand by please, everyone," he says. "Good luck to us all."

Each time he shouts "action," Zekowski starts to flail his arms as he walks behind the cameraman, up the palace steps, down the steps and through the crowd of guests, until director Marc Forby ends the scene with a shout from a nearby tent where he is viewing the action through a monitor.

The action lasts just about a minute, but it takes more than one try to get it right. Someone even bumps into the actor playing King Kalakaua.

Finally, as the shot winds up, applause erupts from Forby's tent.

"No applause, please," Zekowski jokes. "Just say whoop, whoop, whoop, because applause scares the horse."

No one applauded, then, but no one laughs either. Creating illusion can be hard, boring work.

Forby is happy, though. A British filmmaker making his directorial debut with this film, he says "The Last Princess" will give life to a bygone Hawai'i described primarily in history books.

"This is going to show a Victorian Hawai'i," he says. "No one has ever seen this before, the contrast of Victorian clothing against a Hawaiian backdrop."

It's a challenge that gives Forby goosebumps.

"You are constantly aware of the privilege of being where you are," he says.

TELLING A TRAGIC TALE

"The Last Princess" began filming in mid-March at various O'ahu locations, including inside 'Iolani Palace a first for a feature film. After nearly three weeks in the Islands, the crew planned to shoot in England. The film, which is being produced by Matador Pictures and by Island Film Group, should hit screens next year.

Forby has wanted to tell Ka'iulani's story since 2003, when he found himself in a bookstore in the palace basement, mesmerized by a photograph of the princess.

Her eyes pulled him into another world. It was a calling, a role for him in "some bigger agenda I don't understand," the director says.

Ka'iulani offers a tragic tale that comes at one of the lowest points in modern Hawaiian history.

She died at age 23 after witnessing the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893 and trying unsuccessfully to restore Hawaiian self-rule.

The filmmakers, however, are also emphasizing the sweep of Ka'iulani's life, and some fictionalized drama. They have described the movie as "a breathtaking romance about an unlikely heroine."

"There is so much depth, there is so much sorrow in those eyes, that I really felt she was, in a cinematic way, able to tell a larger story," says Forby, who wrote the screenplay.

But history can be a tough sell. Forby, who never intended the film to be a documentary, says his task was not made easier by Hollywood's limited enthusiasm for true stories about indigenous cultures.

"You have to understand the rest of the world isn't necessarily going to spend $11 to learn about Hawaiian history," he says. "So you have to draw them in with a compelling concept, and the mythology of a princess that dies at 23 is particularly compelling."

The solution, or so he hopes, is to bank on the world's love of Hawai'i. The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and subsequent annexation by the United States, if told with the right amount of drama, should appeal to a wide audience, Forby says.

"These are hard stories to tell," he says. "But I feel this one is particularly compelling because the world loves Hawai'i, and the idea that Hawai'i was robbed is actually a very commercial concept."

The 37-year-old Forby, who has produced several films from the crime drama "29 Palms" to the upcoming horror movie, "Prom Night" angered members of the Hawaiian community with his screenplay about Ka'iulani. They felt he was taking too much dramatic license with the story of a beloved ali'i.

Forby is sympathetic but doesn't apologize too much for that. There's only so much he can fit into a two-hour movie, he says.

"I've always tried to keep to the emotional truth of what happened," he says.

"Events, times, places, those things don't matter as much as, 'Where do these people stand? What do they love? What are they fighting for?' As long as you stay true to that, you are doing the right thing."

ROLE WITH A MESSAGE

The linchpin for all this is Q'Orianka Kilcher, who at 18 has been asked to shoulder the weight of the film. She is Ka'iulani.

"She is brave to take this one on," Forby says. "She is a child and there is so much politics surrounding this that I really admire her for standing up to tell this story."

Although Forby wanted an actor with Hawaiian blood, he couldn't find one with enough "screen presence," so he went with Kilcher.

The half-Peruvian actress, whose dark eyes are as compelling as Ka'iulani's, brings what Forby calls a "regal" bearing to her part.

"She can, on certain levels, relate to the princess," he says. "She is very soulful. She is the kind of person you feel has already lived 20 lives. She actually captures the spirit of Ka'iulani."

Kilcher's breakthrough role before being cast as Ka'iulani was portraying Pocahontas in the 2005 epic "The New World." The part, filmed opposite Colin Farrell when she was only 14, earned the young actress honors.

Afterward, her celebrity status allowed her to champion the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental issues in the Amazon. She also visited Ecuador and Peru and spoke before the United Nations.

But the role of a princess who urged U.S. lawmakers to restore the Hawaiian monarchy is a greater challenge. Kilcher says she researched Ka'iulani's life and thought hard about what the princess stood for after accepting the role.

"I will never be another Ka'iulani, but through a lot of soul searching I found some similarities inside myself and my heart," she says. "I really hope this will be much more than a film, that this movie in its little own way will carry on some of Ka'iulani's message and her courage and hopes for her people."

Kilcher was born in Germany near the Black Forest. Her father was a Peruvian artist, her mother a human rights activist of Swiss descent.

When she was 2, the family moved to Hawai'i and she was on Kaua'i when Hurricane Iniki raked the island in 1992, weathering the storm in a closet. Afterward, the family lived in a tent on the beach before moving to O'ahu.

By 5, Kilcher was acting. When she was 9, her mother moved the child to Los Angeles to pursue acting jobs.

She is excited to be back in the Islands, but says the part of Ka'iulani is humbling. Before filming began last month, she visited Ka'iulani's grave at the Royal Mausoleum in Nu'uanu, paying her respects with lei and ti leaves.

The experience left her in tears, she says.

"I promised her I would give my heart and soul to do her justice," Kilcher says. "I really care about this. It is not just a job. I really care about how she is portrayed."

Kilcher is a tiny young woman, barely 5-feet-3. She skips like a pixie across the palace grounds, all toothy smile and child's innocence. She can light up any conversation.

But up on the palace porch, dressed in a fragile, authentic 19th-century dress, Kilcher is transformed.

Hers are the eyes of an old soul in the body of a girl. It's as if a curtain has fallen on whatever was making her happy.

And it's no cinematic illusion, either. The cameras aren't even rolling.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.