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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 25, 2008

'Chief' Rising

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Sundance

By Kawehi Haug
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Real-life Samoan Chief Sielu Avea plays the title role in "Chief."

Brett Wagner photo

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"The Last King of Scotland"

"Apocalypse Now"

"Children of Men"


"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

"The Conformist"


"Raising Arizona"

"The Sweet Hereafter"

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Sometimes change happens overnight. One day last Wednesday to be specific the long, steep streets of Park City, Utah, were still. Hushed by snowfall. Calm. The next day it was mayhem, "like Central Park had descended on Main Street," said Brett Wagner, who knows a little something about sudden changes.

Wagner, a 36-year-old Honolulu filmmaker whose short film "Chief" was accepted into this year's Sundance Film Festival, is still pinching himself. Not only did his life take a drastic turn when he found out his film had been selected to make its world premiere at Sundance, but the film's premiere was a hit.

The Sundance Film Festival takes place every winter in Park City, transforming the quiet town into a bustling hub of Hollywood activity where everyone is a celebrity, or at least looks like one, said Wagner, who says he fits right in as long as he's wearing shades.

As a filmmaker, getting into Sundance is huge. And if audiences and critics take to the film, it's a pretty safe bet that cinematic success is right around the corner.

"The response to the film has been very, very positive," Wagner said by telephone from Park City. "Walking down Main Street, people recognize me and tell me that they love my movie."

There is unmistakable wonder in his voice. Like he still doesn't believe that he spent last Saturday crashing insider parties with Bill Pullman. Like he didn't actually share a confined space with Alan Rickman and Quentin Tarantino. Like he's having a hard time believing that his filmmaking prowess seems to be extending beyond a fortnight in Utah into larger, more significant arenas.

But it's all true. "Chief," Wagner's 21-minute film about a Samoan chief on the run from his past, just might be his ticket to the big time.

Since its premiere, "Chief" has been chosen as one of Indiewire's 10 must-see short films of Sundance. Wagner also has received invitations to screen the film at other festivals, as well as inquiries about when he'll expand the short film to feature length. He says he's considering it.

But all of that can wait because right now Wagner is concerned with being part of the largest Hawai'i presence ever to take part in the Sundance festival.

"The most exciting thing is that everybody who worked on the film came to Utah to celebrate the world premiere," he said. "It feels so good to be carrying around with me such a significant representation of the Hawai'i filmmaking community."

Wagner, a Cleveland native and graduate of New York University's film school, moved to Honolulu five years ago to pursue a career in television commercial directing.

His first feature film, "Five Years," was also a film-fest circuit favorite when it was released in 2002, though it never made it to Sundance.


Budget: $50,000

Filming schedule: It took 16 days of shooting a relatively long time for a short script in addition to a three-month hiatus to find and cast the actress who plays Pono, a young runaway.

Hours of footage shot: 17

Length of finished film: 21 minutes

Plot: The film can be loosely categorized as a tragic comedy whose lead character a Samoan chief, played by real-life Samoan Chief Sielu Avea is on the run from his chiefly responsibilities following the sudden death of his young daughter, whom he was unable to save from drowning after being weakened by undergoing the long, painful process of getting tattooed. The chief flees to O'ahu, where he works as a cabbie until his past catches up with him.

Cast and crew:

Chief Sielu Avea as Semu Fatutoa

Ka'alakai Faurot as Pono

Valerie Fuimaono as the chief's daughter

Brett Wagner, writer/director

Dana Satler Hankins, producer

Christina Simpkins, executive producer

Grace Atkins, co-producer, sound mixer

Paul Atkins, director of photography

Jay K. Evans, editor

Freddie Ancheta, sound designer

Director's proudest moment: In one scene, the chief places a flaming coconut on the ocean's surface. Director Brett Wagner, concerned about keeping the flame burning long enough to get the shot, thought he might have to resort to special effects to get the flame on film. Fingers crossed, he watched, amazed, as the coconut burned for a solid three minutes while floating on the surface of the water more than long enough for him to wrap the scene.

"On most of the 16 days we spent shooting, I felt there was a moment of magic," Wagner said. "I kept thinking to myself, if I can connect these dots of magic, I'll have something no one has ever seen."