Toa Fraser grabbed the attention of the Kiwi theatre world with his plays Bare and No. 2. His first time in the director's chair was a big-screen adaptation of No. 2 which won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, 2006. His second film Dean Spanley saw him working in England with Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and the legendary Peter O'Toole, before he returned home for two very different chronicles of human movement: Giselle and action movie The Dead Lands.
The son of a British mother and Fijian seaman father, Fraser was born in London in 1975. After growing up in England he moved to Auckland with his family in 1989. Movie-mad since childhood, at the age of 12 Fraser wrote to the producers of the James Bond movies, asking for permission to make a Bond film of his own. The lawyers were not keen, but he went ahead anyway, cutting shots of himself as 007 into scenes of real-life Bond beauties. Later he spent four years as a cinema usher, and began acting and writing plays while studying at Auckland University.
Fraser's career proved a stellar one from early on. In 1998 he picked up awards for Best New Play (for Bare) and Best New Playwright at the Chapman Tripp theatre awards. The two-hander saw Ian Hughes and Madeleine Sami playing an array of 15 characters. Metro called it "an instant classic". In 1999 he won the Sunday Star Times Bruce Mason Award; the award recognises the success of emerging New Zealand playwrights.
It was Fraser's second play, No.2 (1999) that catapulted him (and Sami) to fame, winning the Festival First Award at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, alongside performances in Europe, Canada, Jamaica and Fiji. Described by its creator as a "love letter" to family, friends and life, it was set over the course of one day. This time Sami played every role, including the elderly Fijian matriarch demands a family feast so she can choose her successor.
In 2000, Fraser worked for a year with director Vincent Ward on the screenplay for River Queen. His involvement largely ended at an (lauded) early draft of the film. After seeing the resulting film Fraser "was blown away and proud of my involvement". Of the experience, Fraser said, "It was really intense, a real challenge to work with someone of Vincent's level of expertise and commitment. He works very, very hard."
In the same period, Fraser co-wrote one-hour TV drama Staunch, working with director Keith Hunter. The play follows a young Māori woman (Once Were Warriors' Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) defending herself against an unfair police prosecution, with the help of a friendly social worker.
In 2001, Fraser was awarded the University of South Pacific's Writer in Residence Fellowship. Whilst in Fiji, he began work on the film adaptation of No. 2, a process that would take four years and an estimated 20 drafts.
Fraser had never directed a play or film before, but he was determined to direct No. 2, partly "out of a sense of responsibility to the Pacific community" — particularly the working class suburb of Mount Roskill, where most of the film was shot. Fraser told Lumiere writer Catherine Bisley that "the film is a really specific tale about community in a way that a piece of theatre couldn't be". The script went through at least 20 drafts. Fraser also directed the video for the film's hit song Bathe in the River at the Mt Roskill house of an Aunt and Uncle.
When No. 2 debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, it won the Audience Award in the World Cinema section, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Retitled Naming Number Two in some territories, it won selection in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival. Ruby Dee, the Harlem-based actress who played family matriach Nanna Maria, was awarded Best Actress at the Atlanta Fim Festival. Significantly, it had been Dee's role in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing that helped inspire Fraser to write the original play. In the 2006 NZ Screen Awards No. 2 was nominated in 12 categories, including best film and best director; it won four awards, three for members of the cast.
In 2008, Fraser directed his multi award-winning second feature, Dean Spanley. A whimsical tale of fathers, sons, dogs, and other lives set in Edwardian England, it won a number of rave reviews; GQ magazine named it their film of the year. The screenplay was by Scotsman Alan Sharp, working from the novella My Talks with Dean Spanley by Brit Edward Plunkett (also known as Lord Dunsany). The film starred Sam Neill, Brit Jeremy Northam and Lawrence of Arabia legend Peter O'Toole. The project had been bought to Fraser's attention by producer Matthew Metcalfe, and launched a long partnership between them.
Dean Spanley premiered at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, and was released in New Zealand the following year. It was nominated for 12 gongs at the 2009 Qantas Film and Television Awards. It went on to win seven, including best director (Fraser), best film costing more than $1 million, best screenplay, and best supporting actor (O'Toole).
Fraser's next big-screen project marked another dramatic change of scene — from roasting pigs, to talking dogs ... to deadly dancers. Feature film Giselle, which premiered in Auckland in the opening weekend of the 2013 NZ International Film Festival, draws from a Royal New Zealand Ballet production of the classic ballet. Fraser told The Dominion Post that his retelling of the story "will move in and out of the theatre, through time and space".
He followed it in 2014 with the action heavy The Dead Lands, in which Boy discovery James Rolleston plays the son of a Māori chieftain, on a mission to avenge his father's murder. The cast of this all te reo drama included Lawrence Makoare (Crooked Earth), Rena Owen and George Henare.
In June 2015 Fraser began filming 6 Days, a dramatisation of the 1980 siege of the Iranian Embassy in London. Fraser was attracted to the project by "the genuine struggle between those that fought to negotiate a peaceful solution, and those that fought for very efficiently for the opposite". Shot in Auckland and London, the film mixes international names (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell, Somersault's Abbie Cornish) and New Zealanders (Jared Turner, Xavier Horan).
The following year Fraser's directing career ramped up even further. Aside from episodes of acclaimed horror series Penny Dreadful and martial arts series Into the Badlands, he was busy preparing another project for release: The Free Man (formerly Welcome to the Thrill), in which Kiwi skier Jossi Wells encounters extreme stunt team The Flying Frenchies, and takes on a range of extreme sports.
Fraser also appears on TV series Neighbourhood, returning to the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes where he attended high school.
Toa Fraser website (broken link). Accessed 10 June 2014
Rebecca Barry Hill, 'Spotlight on Toa Fraser at Sundance' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 20 January 2006
Catherine Bisley, ' The interrogation of Toa Fraser: all about collaboration' (Interview). Lumière Reader website. Loaded May 2007. Accessed 27 November 2010
Matthew Dallas, 'Naked reflections' - City Voice, 26 November 1998, page 5
Nick Grant, Interview with Toa Fraser - Onfilm, January 2006
Ryan Lambie, 'Toa Fraser interview: The Dead Lands, James Cameron'. Den of Geek! website. Loaded 29 May 2015. Accessed 10 June 2014
Geoff Lealand, 'Cinema At Ease - An Interview With Toa Fraser' - Metro, December 2006, page 62 (Issue 150, Spring 2006)
'6 Days Begins Shooting' (Press release), NZ Film website. Loaded 11 June 2015. Accessed 17 July 2015