Kerry Warkia takes us through the fun and the odd frustration of producing her first action film, The Legend Of Baron To'a, on the eve of it's New Zealand release. The film is about a Tongan entrepreneur who returns to his old neighbourhood and inadvertently causes the theft of his late father's valued pro wrestling title belt. But of course there's much more to it than that, says Kerry.

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How was filming TLOBT different from Waru and Vai, the more female-driven films that you've produced?

It was an action film so there was a lot of training to be done, and a lot of stunts. On set it was very active and a lot of fun. (Director) Kiel McNaughton and I try to create a culture where everyone feels important, needed, and included on set. One of the things that was on our call sheet is that "there is no hierarchy to respect" we like to create a family vibe and so in that way I'd say it was similar to Waru and Vai.

Kerry Warkia on set

IMAGE/ supplied. Kerry Warkia, centre, on the set of The Legend Of Baron To'a

What were some of the challenges involved in making this film?

It's the first action film I've produced, so one of the biggest challenges was organising the stunts and the action sequences, and getting them right. A lot of the actors did their own stunts, the film needed that, so there had to be a lot of training. We were lucky in that we had a world class stunt crew who were New Zealand-born and raised and were amazing about coming home and working with us.

We also had to make sure that the actors weren't fatigued. It was really challenging making sure we had enough time in the day to achieve all the action sequences and stunts in the way we needed to. Terri Kilmartin our first AD ran a calm, respectful set that helped us get through all that. And, while it was a challenge, we had a really galvanised and incredible team who worked together, and actors who put their all into it.

Another challenge in pre-production was finding studio space in Auckland - it's extremely hard to come by as it is, and when we were looking a lot was already booked out. We had to build three sets indoors.

One of the spaces was pretty much a big tin shed which was a challenge for the sound team but Mark Messenger our sound recordist is terrific! We'd look at the weather schedule in advance of course but if it had rained it would have been a bit of disaster, lucky for us the weather gods were with us.

Our main location was the street, a cul de sac. Locations manager Tafale Matafeo did a wonderful job of not just finding our locations but also getting all the residents on-side, and making sure everyone was happy with our presence there because we were there 70% of the filming time.

Director Kiel McNaughton and producer Kerry Warkia

Image/supplied. Director Kiel McDaughten and Kerry Warkia on set.

What sparked the idea for the film? Did it change much from the original script?

In 2016 John Argall the writer sent a script to Kiel, and it's fair to say that original script is completely different to what the film is now. The things Kiel McNaughton (Director) liked was the language, the dialogue, the way the characters spoke to each other and the fact that the whole story existed in one location, the cul de sac, and the action element, those things have remained throughout the different drafts of the script.

John had worked with Owen Black on the idea three years earlier I believe, before coming to us in 2016. We worked with John and The NZ Film Commission over next two and a half years to get the script to a place where we felt ready to make it. John tapped into his Tongan heritage and really brought that through into the film. He found an authenticity within the script that really connected with Brown Sugar's kaupapa, which is that we want to make films about people who surround us and live in our communities and share our perspectives, our Pacific, Māori, pan-Asian communities. We want to champion them, their voices and stories, and we went to see them on screen.

How does the film speak to universal themes?

At its heart it's about a man connecting with his fathers legacy and his culture. It became a film that speaks to relationships between fathers and sons, legacies and communities. A young man goes home and reconnects with who he is and his father. Also, one of the big themes is standing up to bullies. It's also a lot of fun in an inherently Pacific way.

What did you enjoy most about the making of this film?

I really enjoyed seeing the actors, the director and stunt crew pull off the action sequences, and realising all their hard work, that was incredibly satisfying.  I love the heart that's in the film, and how the actors dug into the heart of their characters. It's an action film, but it's such a pleasure to see the actors bring to life all the underlying themes the writer and director created.

And in the post production stage it was great watching Kiel and Carly Turner our editor making the most of what we'd got. I don't feel like there was a lot of stuff on the cutting floor which is incredibly satisfying for me as a producer.

Stunt scene

IMAGE/supplied. A stunt being filmed in The Legend Of Baron To'a.

When it comes to telling stories, what are some of your production company Brown Sugar Apple Grunt's aims?

We want to tell stories that are unique to Aotearoa and unique to the South Pacific. This is our playground. We want to connect those stories to local and international audiences, to celebrate diversity and innovation in storytelling. We want to champion the communities who are forgotten or marginalised, who don't have the same opportunities, because they have important and entertaining stories to contribute to our collective cinematic experiences.

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