Film: Reality bites, but movies hit home

Exposed to brutal reality at home and abroad, director Lee Tamahori's real inspiration was found at his local cinema, writes Nick Hasted

New Zealand loved Lee Tamahori, at first. When his full-blooded first feature Once Were Warriors hit his home country's screens, they thought they'd found their own Ken Loach. Rushing headlong at issues of wife-beating, alcoholism and cultural confusion in a community of urban Maoris, it was a hit that dwarfed Jurassic Park, and even proved a catalyst for social change. Then Tamahori went off to make a cop film in Hollywood, Mulholland Falls, and the cries of "sell-out!" were savage. "I was expected to do worthy films for ever more," he says. "New Zealand never forgave me, because I'd gone from social realism to genre entertainment, but I didn't care. I was just doing what I'd always wanted."

Tamahori, 48, rock-faced with a shock of white hair, is in London to discuss his second "sell-out" film, The Edge, a David Mamet-scripted adventure starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. It quickly becomes obvious that social realism could never have contained him. His life before directing was varied and questing, wandering through Australasia, rebelling against Vietnam, experiencing the counter-culture. But it was in his local cinema that he really came alive, watching Peckinpah and others. "They clarified to me a morality," he says. "As a teenager, you see grey areas, and no- one defines them for you. Watching films did. Film-making defined for me what was going on politically, too, with Costa-Gavras and The Battle of Algiers, and the The Wild Bunch's revolutionary fervour. "

It's no wonder that Once Were Warriors was so pulverising. Its social content may have been gruelling, but Tamahori knew that, to make people see it, he had to shoot it like Sergio Leone. "I gave it a social base, but I blasted something on top of it that was pure cinema," he says, "so that people would at least feel like they were watching a movie."

Once Were Warriors was made from deeper conflicts, too. Tamahori's father is Maori and his mother is white. His father was a Maori welfare officer, neck-deep in the problems the film describes. But he kept them from his children, as he kept them from a knowledge of Maori culture, convinced that the future would be white. "My own alienation was reflected in that movie, through a child who's lashing out against authority," Tamahori says. "He's the most interesting character for me, because he's the one that needs to sort out that it's okay to be proud of his own culture. It's the fact that his family was completely alienated from what their true culture was which was causing most of their problems. I've never asked my father why he did what he did, it would be very difficult. I can't say he was wrong. I did feel for years that I'd been deprived of something. Now I see it differently. It was a welcome addition when I discovered Maori culture, more than something to feel regret for missing. I did exorcise a few demons when I was making Once Were Warriors. The welfare officer is based on my father. I put a piece of him in it."

Tamahori's work since has eschewed direct politics to gain credentials in American cinema, then bring dollars back home to make a film about the Maori land wars. Mulholland Falls and The Edge still share with his debut a ferocious sense of masculinity. Once Were Warriors' Jake makes his wife flinch from him with explosive violence; Nick Nolte's character in Mulholland Falls shakes with shame at the touch of the wife he deeply loves, because he's been unfaithful. In The Edge, Anthony Hopkins and the rival for his wife's affections, Alec Baldwin, batter their way off a mountain. Is Tamahori macho?

"I am interested," he says warily. "But it's a little dangerous. I've seen macho. All the bar scenes in Once Were Warriors came from nowhere but my own experience. I grew up drinking like that, with people flying around me and blood flying everywhere. I'm very aware of all the posturing that goes on when men gather together in groups. But I am fascinated by those codes. I'm both horrified and understand very well why legions of young men run off to join the armed forces. They're going to get married one day, so they'd better blood themselves, become primal creatures, while they still have the chance."

The Edge gives its characters that chance, and then some. When Hopkins and Baldwin crash their plane in Alaska, they're soon struggling through the wilderness, on the run from a killer bear. Filming in the Rockies, Tamahori pushed his actors as close to what he saw as a rite of passage as he could. He was thinking of the old movies he glimpsed in Mamet's script, Treasure of the Sierra Madre especially, "a real guys' movie, with nothing in it for women". But within its grand landscape, what the film fixes on is Hopkins, and his self-discipline, his twitching repression. What the film reveals is the half of Tamahori his debut hid: his Britishness.

"I recognise that repression," he happily admits, "in Tony and myself. In the film it's completely unspoken and understated. In America they like this film, but nobody got the nature of Tony's character. They don't understand the nature of the British, stiff-upper-lip boys and keep it all repressed. I think Tony nailed it wonderfully. I was cracking up, because I knew it, I understood it. In fact, you've got to watch Tony, that he doesn't go too far. Sometimes his understatement feels like it's going over the top."

Is Hopkins' character like the actor himself? "I would say so. He freely admits it's the first time he's had a chance to play himself, which is unusual for an actor. You ask an American actor to play themselves, and they don't know what that is. They need to go into therapy to figure it out. Anthony's still very comfortable in his own skin. He thinks it's hilarious people are paying him millions to swan about."

When Hopkins gets through his rite of passage, he's changed in haunting, ambiguous ways. In the middle of a Hollywood adventure film, he's reminiscent of the rites offered to Maori children in Once Were Warriors. Does Tamahori think everyone should go through such tests?

"Yes. Absolutely. But not like that!," he chuckles. "Not with a bear! Most people just have to go through their mortgages."

`The Edge' opens 13 March.

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