Lau on the Big Island set with actor David Strathairn.
Image: TalkStory Productions LLC

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Film / A few years ago, the most notable film feature on Hawaii-based Talk Story Productions’ resume was a SyFy Channel movie of the week, Tyrannosaurus Azteca. That changed when director Julie Taymor came calling with her adaptation of The Tempest. Filmed on Lanai and the Big Island, the project is one of the most highly anticipated offerings of the winter movie season. Talk Story President Jason Lau spoke with the Weekly about the Shakespearean experience as well as all things film in Hawaii.

The Tempest opens Friday in theaters.

How did you get involved with The Tempest?

Julie Taymor called and said that she wanted to do a film in Hawaii and she had heard about our company. She had just finished Across the Universe and she said to us, “Now I want to do The Tempest.” And I said, “Like Shakespeare? Really? In Hawaii?”

I sense some trepidation on your part.

Yeah, the trepidation you’re hearing is real. It was like, OK… How are you gonna sell this film? Who are you gonna get to distribute this thing? And why Shakespeare? [But] Julie Taymor had such a strong vision, she knew exactly what it was supposed to look like and we could execute it.

How much input did you have in the creative process?

Julie’s pretty strong creatively. She knew what she wanted. Ours was more like, she wanted this, and how do we get that vision and make that work.

Any cool stories from The Tempest set?

Russell Brand is always…interesting. He and Helen Mirren would be playing up to the paparazzi. He was saying all this crazy stuff like he couldn’t wait to shag her. No one really took it seriously.

We also did a table read and it was a dream cast. Later I’m in the bathroom with Chris Cooper, and Chris and I are basically peeing next to each other and I ask him how’s it going.

He tells me, “I’m really scared.”

I’m like, “You’re an Academy Award winner. What are you talking about?” [He says,] “I haven’t done Shakespeare since college. I can’t wing it. I gotta step up.”

And I’m thinking, “That’s just music to a producer’s ear.”

And you guys are at the urinal?

Yeah. Peeing with Chris Cooper.

Did the cast come in contact with any locals?

Minimal interaction. [Though] on the Big Island, David Strathairn tells me [he’s] part Hawaiian. [A relative] went to Punahou. I had one of the guys go to Punahou and pull out the yearbooks; he had never really seen these before.

At that time, Obama was running for president–Punahou guy. We built this ship–Tempest is about a storm and they get shipwrecked. The wood that built that ship came from the Punahou gym. There were so many Punahou ties.

I don’t know if you know, I’m a Punahou grad. Obama was one year above us. I used to play basketball with him.

What was Obama like in high school?

He was not very presidential, to be honest. People didn’t think this guy is going to be the most likely to succeed or become president. He was just a regular guy and a jock. And he wasn’t that great of a jock. He was just kinda a wanna-be-a-jock.

Tell me about Tyrannosaurus Azteca.

We did two movies for the SyFy Channel, probably the most expensive movies ever made for them. Shot them here on Oahu. TA was these conquistadors landing on South America–Hawaii dubbed for that–looking for gold but end up seeing these dinosaurs and getting in trouble. Typical SyFy Channel creature feature movies.

What’s it like going from TA to something like The Tempest?

Night and day. To be honest, on TA, we were executive producers. We just helped them get it done.

What are you working on next?

Let’s just say we’re working on a very large action 3-D picture that will be coming out worldwide. A Hollywood picture partly shot in Hawaii and China. I just gotta wait till the ink dries more.

Are you planning any smaller, local films?

We have a series we’re shooting, probably beginning next year for local network television. Local short stories, all 100 percent locally produced. Acting, writing, directing–all local. We have this love story, animation, a musical, a ghost story–all different. We’re trying to bring family television storytelling back home. It’s called The Short List.

Where do you think the local film industry is at right now?

It is the hot place to be [right now]. There hasn’t been this much activity in Hawaii ever. Look at Pirates of the Caribbean, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Battleship, Hawaii Five-0, Off the Map. It’s a hot field. You know how I can tell? We’re having trouble finding crew.

Where do you think the local film industry should be going?

We have a lot of people that we call below-the-line, production assistants like that, but we need people who can be department heads–above the line. More producers, directors, writers… People who really create the stuff.

What advice do you have for local filmmakers?

Keep on doing it. Go to school, learn everything you can. Go to the mainland if you need to, but come back.

You think the local film industry needs more writers, directors, producers… Not necessarily actors?

Well, actors too. The acting is one of those things we can get. Everybody and their cousin has been on Lost right? The writing, directing, camera, DP, all that stuff? You really need to learn. You can’t just pick that up.

What do you think of Hawaii Five-0?

I love the first ones, the premiere was pretty awesome. But it needs… I’m sure everybody talks about this… If we’re gonna do Hawaii Five-0, we really have to do it a little more local. To me, it’s going to make it a better show. Why can’t we call ‘Iolani School, ‘Iolani School? Why can’t we call slippers, slippers? That’s the vernacular we use. I’m not saying, “Hey, we gotta do everything in pidgin,” ’cause that’s not how everyone speaks here, but if you can show more real-life, actual culture, that’ll be a good thing. I’d love to write an episode. I would do it almost for free. It would be a great honor.