Image by: (supplied) Lala Rolls and Taha Natua Manutahi

Interview with the Film Director of Tupaia's Endeavour (NZIFF 2020)

Clare Martin

In the present day we walk on ancient pathways and Tupaia’s Endeavour traces a story that is hugely important for Aotearoa and the Pacific region. Tupaia was the extraordinary Tahitian who was a guiding force in Cook’s first encounter on the shores of Aotearoa. He is at the centre of the film receiving it’s world premier in Wellington’s Roxy Cinema on Saturday 25 July and will be available online as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival 2020.

Clare Martin talked to Lala Rolls director, producer and editor of the film and to Stephen Gallagher who created the music along with Riki Gooch. 

CLARE:  I know that work on the Tupaia project has spanned off and on for up to a decade, can you start me at the beginning of the project Lala, what was the original spark for this story?

LALA:  As a little white kid growing up in Fiji, I grew up two worlds.  I was very connected to our Fijian nanny who was like a second mother to me, then there was my family. And living in two worlds I always noticed that it was the European history that was always being told… When I came to New Zealand in 1981, as a 17 year old to Dunedin (little England!) I was even more aware of that. So I always wanted to show Pacific and Maori lives as I’ve met them and known them - with them being the story tellers.  And the Cook story seemed to eclipse the stories of the people who were already here and that’s always pissed me off, it’s not the whole story!

So when I read Anne Salmond’s book “The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas” and read about Tupaia, I thought wow, this guy could be a conduit to switching the story.  

In the film, there are two ‘narrators’, Kirk Torrance actor (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa) and Michel Tuffery, New Zealand-based artist of Samoan, Tahitian and Rarotongan descent.  Lala was already a friend of both Kirk and Michel and the latter she had worked with on an earlier 2004 project, Children of the Migration.

Kirk Tuffery excited

Michel Tuffery and Kirk Torrance (image supplied)

CLARE: It feels like you have drawn many complex threads together in this film, tell me about how this evolved?  

LALA:  Well I really wanted to show Polynesia of the past as a way of showing Polynesia today. And we took a very Pacific journey - it meanders.  We honoured the people we talked with, no interview without taking time, without sitting down, if sharing of food was part of it, we shared food. The warriors on the beach, half of them were descendants of the people who had been on the beach in Tupaia’s time and I asked them to do it their way.

CLARE: So in some ways it’s like some long-delayed closure?

LALA:  Yes, so we really wanted to allow the people of the place to bring the story, we gave the framework and I had to work with what we got which was sometimes surprising but always magnificent.  And I really wanted the audience to sit through stuff like the full karakia [incantation] at the end of the film - I wanted to give space so that the audience can be spiritually present and aware. 

And we’ve been really lucky to have such guidance and I’ve been really mindful and taken a lot of trouble over the Tikanga [cultural practice] - Anne Irinui McGuire from Tolaga Bay became our Kaitiaki  [mentor] and Anne Salmond our historian guardian and Tikanga [cultural practice] advisor too.  And in Tahiti we had the guidance of Taha Natua Manutahi.

And I’ve learned so much…. growing up in Fiji I learned to pick up the feel of things but finding really great guardians along the way has really helped.  I understand how to respect tapu and working with the humility and generosity particularly of Tuffs and Kirk, we couldn’t have done the film without that.

kirk drawn on2

Kirk Torrance (image supplied)

CLARE:  Tell me about the pathway for the film, was it initially made for Maori Television, and was it originally a mini-series?

LALA:  Yes we got funding in 2006 for a feature but only Maori Television along with NZ On Air initially funded, so it had to be for television.  We pushed and pushed for more than one show, we wanted to make a three-part mini series. And they were incredibly generous to let us do that. It would have been easier to make it for TV but the story needed more than that.

We did a lot of extra material, and the Maori TV funding allowed us to tell Maori stories of events that happened after Cook arrived.  And the stories of what happened after Tupaia left, and how things changed in a devastating way.  So for Maori TV we were able to show a lot of those stories, including the Iwi at Tolaga Bay and have a little glimpse into life 50 years ago for people of Uawa.  

So every year that we received a bit more funding, we could do another shoot or another two shoots.  So initially we were never able to get to the end of the Tupaia story, we never had enough funding to get to the end.  

So the extra Tuia 250 funding in 2019 from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage via the Lotteries Commission was really important and funded the end of the story.  So we were able to commission [Michel] Tuffery to paint the beautiful paintings to show that Indonesian scene. And most importantly to record the music.  Because all the way along the journey we’ve tried to ‘live’ the journey, musically and experientially - with Tapa cloth and with ceremony and with music.  And so to be able to get the authentic Indonesian sounds with the Wellington Gamelan Orchestra onboard was really important.  And Budi [Putra from the orchestra] wrote us a song for Tupaia that he sings. 

Tuffery paints 2

Michel Tuffery (image supplied)

I went on to talk with Stephen Gallagher who talked passionately about his involvement in the film mentioning that it was quite daunting to find the right approach initially for this extraordinary story. Gallagher’s starting point was seeing Tupaia’s own paintings that the British Museum holds. He describes the detail in the painting and the way in which Tupaia integrated his wealth of knowledge with a Western style of painting. This inspired Gallagher’s own approach to the music, drawing detail and colour from all of the Pacific cultures. 

He also worked closely with Riki Gooch (Trinity Roots, Eru Dangerspiel, Ladi6, Fat Freddy’s Drop) who he describes as a genius musician. Inspired by gamelan and integrating a modular synthesiser, Gallagher and Gooch bounced ideas around to create a score. And finally, integrating the musical components with the sound environment designed by the hugely experienced sound designer, Melanie Graham.  Throughout the film the gamelan is referenced, woven through with synthesised taonga puōro and vocal recordings.  Gallagher told me:

"The Indonesian Gamelan is signalled throughout the score, almost as an abstraction for Tupaia’s end, almost calls him to the end of his story…. and it’s not until the finish of the film that you hear the gamelan and Budi Putra’s voice in full glory…. It was about finding a musical language that made the score a living, breathing entity for Lala’s compelling and idiosyncratic storytelling”.

Tupaia's Endeavour bookings open now, for showing times click HERE

Written By: Clare Martin Clare has performed as an opera, recital and oratorio artist in UK most notably the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. In NZ she has performed with NZ Opera and with the NZ Symphony Orchestra but more recently she has moved into a wider range of contemporary genres including jazz and even Leonard Cohen. Since 2008 Clare has been teaching from her own music studio working with professional and beginner singers. In 2017 she was a mentor on TVNZ’s The Naked Choir working with a cappella choirs and she currently coaches barbershop and a woman’s ensemble.