Writer and producer Mana Hira Davis asked me to come and be an alien zombie in his Guardian of the Stones, so of course I had to say yes.
Most mornings I do zombie rather well for the first couple of hours of the day, so I figured acting the part should be fairly straightforward.
My early morning wake-up call was around 4.30am, and I headed out to Te Puna where Jared Meehan had donated the use of his farm. Actors, a stunt team and crew gathered in the early dawn ready for a full day of shooting a high drama/battle scene.
Guardian of the Stones is a concept for funding shoot. First-time feature directors these days need to not only to write a spec script, but provide a proof-of-concept to get their project up and running.
Simply stated, a proof-of-concept is a scene from your feature film script, fashioned into a short.
Its purpose is to provide an example of the writing, directing and cinematography that will go into the feature, as well as demonstrate the film's viability.
Mana is well-known as a top NZ stuntman, best known for his work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, more recently, Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok. He is transitioning from stuntman to actor with recent acting roles in Ghost in the Shell and Aquaman.
In Guardian of the Stones he plays the lead character Mac.
The actors and stunt team are aliens who have taken over the townspeople of Te Puna, and the alien leader has captured Mac's love interest, using her for bait to prompt a battle for power stones.
I asked Mana how he'd come up with the storyline idea.
“I was writing it while working in Australia on Aquaman,” says Mana. “Being away from home and family is so hard, and I'm always having to go out of Tauranga for work.
“I moved here four years ago because I love it and love living here. I started writing as part of a way to stop having to travel away for work.”
Mana grew up as part of an artistic family in Wellington. His first film job was working on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“When I left college, I studied drama and acting for a year-and-a-half at Wellington Performing Arts School. But I kind of lost interest and moved on thinking I didn't want to do acting or be a part of the industry. I didn't have a solid direction.”
His grandmother, Eleanor Ginn, was a trained actress who studied acting in London at the Royal Academy of Arts. Towards the end of the war, she met Mana's grandfather - a Kiwi who brought her back to New Zealand.
“Her international acting dreams were put on hold as she became a mother, but she also founded the Titahi Bay Little Theatre Company,” says Mana.
“It's one of her passions and is still going today in Porirua.”
Looking for direction, he decided to study youth work. He had already enrolled on a three-year social service degree when a friend talked him into auditioning for The Lord of the Rings.
“They did this broad audition looking for extras and stunt guys through the rugby and martial arts clubs. My friend auditioned, got in and told me about it.
“There was another audition coming up so I decided to try out for it. This was in the November, and I was ready to start studying in February. He said the work was only for six weeks, so it meant I could start my course with some money in my pocket.
“We shot for a couple of weeks, and they asked if I'd like to come back, so I did.”
That was around 18 years ago, when he was 25.
He now has a strong focus and vision to create a series that can be filmed here in the Bay of Plenty.
“I never did get to do my social work course,” says Mana, “but now I'm meeting a lot of younger people who can see a potential future in this form of the arts - in stunts, acting and writing.
“That's one thing that's started to drive me with the Guardian of the Stones project in the Bay of Plenty.
“If there's a television series based here that's running every year, that would be the ultimate.
“We could employ people, train them up and build an industry here.”
For the one-day shoot on the Te Puna farm, stunt professionals came from Auckland as well as the Bay to take care of most of the action.
As it is a conceptual film for funding there was no budget, and everyone contributed their time and expertise.
As well as Mana, the key people involved were director, Augi Davis, director of photography George Hennah, assistant director Annie Lawler, stunt coordinator Thomas Kiwi, soundman Alf Rose, advisor Anton Steel, art/unit Jannine Bishop, costumes Marilyn Collins-Smith, and casting Tanya Horo. Jared Meehan was the head rigger and owner of the location.
Mana is planning to run courses for stunts and performing, build a base of skilled people and raise awareness about it as a potential career path.