Toa Fraser revels in being difficult to pigeonhole. His ancestry encompasses Fiji, England and Aotearoa; his work as a director encompasses Māori warriors, Fijian-Kiwi families, oddball Brits and American superheroes.
Fraser considers himself "lucky to have written plays that found audiences so easily". His early plays Bare and No. 2 were both popular and acclaimed. Then he got behind the camera, and turned No. 2 into an impressive first movie. Second film Dean Spanley saw him joining Sam Neill and legendary actor Peter O'Toole in England. Since then he has made features about ballet, martial arts and extreme adventure, and more than held his own in the competitive world of American television.
Fraser is the son of an English sound technician and a Fijian seaman turned radio announcer, whose family has connections to Samoa. Born in London in 1975, Fraser was raised in the English village of Buriton, before the family moved to Auckland in 1989. He soon grew to love the city's melting pot of cultures.
Movie-mad from an early age, Fraser wrote to the makers of the James Bond movies at age 12, asking for permission to make his own Bond film. Although the lawyers weren't keen, he went ahead and cut shots of himself into scenes with Bond beauties. Later, in Auckland, he and his friends played rugby, and invented stories about heroic Samoan cops saving the day. At Auckland University he began acting and writing plays, while doing a degree in English Literature and Media Studies. After his first full-length play Bare became an instant hit in June 1998, he quit his job as a cinema usher.
Bare picked up Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award. The streetwise play featured Ian Hughes and Madeleine Sami riffing on body image, food and modern culture, while playing 15 characters. Metro called it "an instant classic". Fraser updated Bare in 2007; in 2014 he wrote and directed sequel Pure and Deep.
Fraser's second play No. 2 (1999) won the Festival First Award at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Described by its creator as a "love letter" to family, friends and life, it was set over the course of one day. Fraser wrote the play with Sami in mind; she played every role, including the elderly Fijian matriarch who demands a family feast so that she can choose her successor.
As No. 2 travelled to Europe, Canada, Jamaica and Fiji, Fraser began getting hands-on experience in television and film. Director Vincent Ward invited him to work on early drafts of ambitious cross-cultural movie River Queen. Fraser was fascinated by how the characters were "constantly shifting in terms of identity. It wasn't cowboys and Indians". Working with someone of Vincent's expertise and commitment proved "a massive learning curve". When Fraser finally saw Ward's film, he "was blown away and proud of my involvement".
Shortly before his adventure up river, Fraser co-wrote one-off drama Staunch (1999), with director Keith Hunter. The teleplay follows a young Māori woman (Once Were Warriors' Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) defending herself against an unfair police prosecution, with help from a social worker. Fraser and Hunter shared a NZ Television Award for Best Dramatic Script. Staunch was also nominated for Best Drama.
In 2001, Fraser was awarded the University of South Pacific's Writer in Residence Fellowship. While in Fiji, he began work on adapting No. 2 for the screen. The process involved roughly five years, 20 drafts, and an extensive search for actors who could play a large mixed-race Fijian family. As Fraser writes in this piece on the film, there were dramatic setbacks close to filming. His lead actor Ruby Dee (set to play matriarch Nanna Maria) had just arrived from the United States when her partner died, and she had to return home.
Fraser had never directed a play or film before, but he was determined to pay on-screen tribute to both Pasifika culture, and Auckland's working class suburb of Mt Roskill. "The film," as Fraser told Lumière, "is a really specific tale about community in a way that a piece of theatre couldn't be". Fraser also directed the video for No. 2 's hit song Bathe in the River.
No. 2 debuted at American festival Sundance in January 2006. It won the Audience Award in the World Cinema section. Retitled Naming Number Two in some territories, it screened at many festivals, including Berlin. Back home, No. 2 premiered with an outdoor screening (and a standing ovation) at Auckland's Viaduct Basin. At the 2006 NZ Screen Awards it was nominated for Best Film and Best Director.
In 2008 Fraser directed Dean Spanley. A whimsical tale of fathers, sons, and dogs set in Edwardian England, it won acclaim, but was commercially hamstrung by being far more offbeat than its period trappings indicated. Magazine GQ named it their film of the year. The cast featured Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Lawrence of Arabia legend Peter O'Toole. Fraser was won over by the mixture of "mad comedy" and pathos in Alan Sharp's script (which was based on a novella by Brit Edward Plunkett). The project sparked a long partnership between Fraser and producer Matthew Metcalfe. Nominated for 12 gongs at New Zealand's Qantas Film and Television Awards, Dean Spanley won seven, including Best Film costing over $1 million, Screenplay, Director and Supporting Actor (O'Toole).
Fraser's third movie demonstrated his versatility. Giselle (2013) is based on a Royal New Zealand Ballet production of the classic ballet. As Fraser told The Dominion Post, his retelling of the tragic romance would "move in and out of the theatre, through time and space". Giselle premiered in Auckland in the opening weekend of the 2013 NZ International Film Festival.
Having captured the athleticism of dance, Fraser turned to martial arts. In the action heavy The Dead Lands, James Rolleston (star of Boy) plays the son of a Māori chieftain, out to avenge his family's murder. Fraser told website Den of Geeks he was aiming for "a lean and mean, muscular approach", that looked "dusty and bloody and sweaty." Written by Glenn Standring, the Anglo-Kiwi co-production is entirely in te reo.
Next came 6 Days (2017), which was shot in London and Auckland. It dramatised 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 very efficiently for the opposite". The film mixes Brits (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell) and Kiwis (Jared Turner, Xavier Horan).
Thanks to The Dead Lands, Fraser began getting phone calls about directing for television. In-between work on acclaimed horror series Penny Dreadful and locally shot fantasy The Shannara Chronicles, he found time to work on another big screen documentary. The Free Man (formerly Welcome to the Thrill) sees Kiwi skier Jossi Wells circling the globe trying a range of extreme sports with a French extreme stunt team.
Since then, American television has played a growing role in Fraser's career. The shows often feature characters who are supernatural, superheroic or just good with their fists: e.g. post-apocalyptic actioner Into the Badlands, Marvel Comics title Daredevil, 2019 vampire series NOS4A2. Fraser has also worked on award-winning drama The Affair, and directed the first two episodes of Australian supernatural series Tidelands.
In 2012 he hosted an episode of TV series Neighbourhood, returning to the suburb of Glen Innes where he attended high school. The following year he wrote about Auckland in this piece for NZ On Screen.
Profile updated on 26 May 2020
Toa Fraser website (broken link). Accessed 10 June 2014
Russell Baillie, 'Director Toa Fraser's high-adrenaline balancing act' (Interview) - The Listener, 1 August 2017 (broken link)
Rebecca Barry Hill, 'Spotlight on Toa Fraser at Sundance' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 20 January 2006
Alexander Bisley, 'The Dancer' (Interview) The Lumière Reader website. Loaded 21 August 2013. Accessed 26 May 2020
Catherine Bisley, 'The interrogation of Toa Fraser: all about collaboration' (Interview - broken link). The Lumière Reader website. Loaded May 2007. Accessed 27 November 2010
Tom Cardy, 'Wellington playwright finds he's in paradise' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 2 November 2000, page 21
Matthew Dallas, 'Naked reflections' - City Voice, 26 November 1998, page 5
Nick Grant, Interview with Toa Fraser - Onfilm, January 2006
Nick Grant, 'A dog's life' (Interview)- Onfilm, Febuary 2008, page 17 (Volume 26, number 2)
Ryan Lambie, 'Toa Fraser interview: The Dead Lands, James Cameron'. Den of Geek! website. Loaded 29 May 2015. Accessed 26 May 2020
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 18 October 2019