Sundance Features

January 20, 2008

Brett Wagner, Chief

"I'm drawn to all of those sort of grungy urban scenes that inspire all of us in New York. That's all been transplanted to Hawaii."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: For those of us at the disadvantage of not having seen Chief, can you describe the story in your own words?

BRETT WAGNER: Chief is about a sort of highly ranked village chieftain from Samoa whose young daughter dies in an accident right around the time that he's become a chief. He's supposed to be imbued with all this power as a leader, yet he can't protect the person who's most important to him. That causes him to flee home, and he comes to Honolulu, Hawaii, which is sort of the big city for the mid-Pacific. People from all these small island nations, when they need a bigger place where they can disappear, they all come here. So he does that; he lives this hermetic life and becomes a taxi driver. He has a series of chance encounters with a little girl the same age as his daughter who's run away form home. He begins to feel like maybe these encounters are a sign -- that he's got a chance to redeem himself and step back into that role of being a leader and a protector.

R: You mentioned you bounce back between New York and Honolulu, right?

BW: Yes. It's been about five years since I first came out to Hawaii, where I had the opporunity to do some television commercials here. I really liked it; eventually my girlfriend moved out with me. She got a job here, we got married and this became home base. I still go back and forth to New York and Los Angeles as much as possible and try to continue to be present to some extent. But it's been really interesting being here; my sense of aesthetics as a filmmaker was definitely forged at NYU and in New York, and I'm drawn to all of those sort of grungy urban scenes that inspire all of us in New York. That's all been transplanted to Hawaii, which is this very beautiful, lush, tropical place. If you see the film or even watch the trailer on the Web site, I think you can see both influences at play. It does span the deep jungle and the oceans all the way into the grittier urban scenes of Honolulu.

R: I'm interested in what you mentioned about people who come to Honolulu to disappear. Can you elaborate on that phenomenon, especially as it relates to many people's similar intentions upon moving to New York?

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BW: I think it’s fair to call Honolulu the New York of the Pacific. Like New York, it's a very diverse place; there are probably 40 ethnic groups represented in Honolulu in particular. Every Polynesian island is represented here -- some I'd never even heard of before I came out here. In addition to that, there's a large influx of people from Asian countries, particularly Southeast Asia. A lot of these people have been here for 100 years or more, so it all blends together to form its own unique little culture. In that sense it's a great place, like New York, to set a story about an outsider. This character is definitely an outsider. He may live right in Waikiki -- the tourist hub of Oahu -- but he still dresses like a Samoan. He hasn't changed on the outside, but he's still making his way in this alien place.

R: What are your expectations, apprehensions or nerves upon heading off to your first Sundance?

I guess I'm glad that I'm going with a short and not a feature. I did a feature a few years ago that did the festival circuit, but the timing was such that I wasn't able to apply to Sundance with it. But I think if I was taking a feature to Sundance, I'd be really panicked right now about trying to sell it. Going with a short for the first time, I can be a little more relaxed. I'm not relaxed though -- I'm pretty stressed out. I'm focusing on getting as many people to see it as possible: Making postcards and posters and producing screener DVD's, corresponding with journalists, agents and managers. I've never been an attendee, so I'm expecting culture shock when I get there -- if for no other reason that the temperature is going to drop 60 or 70 degrees once I'm off the plane.

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