Bringing the māfana: Producer Nua Finau on the making of Red, White and Brass

By Sophie Carter

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This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Bursting with Tongan energy and Wellington charm Red, White and Brass has just hit our screens.

We spoke to co-writer, co-producer, and original brass band member Halaifonua (Nua) Finau about making of the film and the story that inspired it.

Red, White and Brass follows rugby super-fan Maka on his mission to get his whole church tickets to the 2011 Tonga vs. France Rugby World Cup game – even if that means getting a brass band together in just four weeks to play the pre-match entertainment.

Funny, and full of heart the film is based on the true story of a brass band from the Wesley Church on Taranaki Street who actually performed at the 2011 game.

Filmed in Wellington, every scene has a backdrop of a well-known landmark, street, or suburb, including Sky Stadium, Civic Square, Wellington waterfront, Porirua, and Tawa.

Tawa was where proud Tongan Nua was born and raised. He went on to study dance at Whitireia Performing Arts in Porirua. He’s since moved into writing and producing, best known as producer of TVNZ’s The Panthers, and as co-writer and associate producer on television drama Jonah, which tells the story of Tongan All Blacks youngest player, Jonah Lomu. Through his work Nua aims to bring Polynesian stories to world.

A free school outreach programme has been organised which will give hundreds of children a chance to see Red, White and Brass. This will enable Pacific students to see themselves on screen, as well showcase Tongan values to a diverse audience.

So you were part of the original brass band that inspired the story, what was your part in the band?

The Wesley Church Band was actually formed by my father who was Minister there at the time. I wasn’t part of the band originally, but because I was the dancer of the church, I was given the role of drum major and managed to swindle my way into the band and get a free ticket to the game.

The lead character Maka, played by John-Paul Foliaki, is loosely based on me.

Did you always know it was a story that needed to be told?

Nah, I didn’t.

I came up with of the concept for the film while watching the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo at the Sky Stadium in 2015. I was sitting in the stand, watching this huge spectacle when all of a sudden a Tongan band walked out and I thought “what the hell, what are they doing here?” – my mind started racing and coming up with ideas.

I pitched to my good friend Danny Mulheron and mentioned that my church brass band had once performed at the Rugby World Cup to get free tickets.

He burst out laughing, and said I should write about that instead, as stories are always better when they’re coming from an authentic place.

I hadn’t thought of it before as it was just my normal life. It was our everyday thing – being a Tongan and at church – you just do these things for your community.

So how did it move from that moment to a full feature film?

I started writing the script with Danny, but a few years went by and it just sat around gathering dust.

I moved to Auckland to meet people in the film industry (to Wellingtonians, Auckland is kind of our Hollywood.) My first job there was a cast driver and one day I was driving actress Rachel House. I told her I wanted to be a producer, pitched her the script and she loved it.

Another few years went by and I’d started making my way up in the assistant director world, when I bumped into Rachel at a wrap party and she asked me about the script. I’d been working and had a kid by then. Rachel told me I had to do the movie and to send the script to Morgan Waru at Piki Films – so I did.

Just a few weeks later I found myself on a call with Carthew Neal from Piki Films. They loved the script and they wanted to do it. It’s been a pretty fortuitous experience.

How long did it take after that?

Once the Piki team put their energy behind it, it was full steam ahead.

Damon Fepulea’i, the film’s co-writer and director came on board, and from that first call to now it’s only taken two to three years.

The lead character Maka (played by John-Paul Foliaki) is loosely based on you in this film. Was it strange trying to find someone to play yourself?

I met John-Paul (JP) in another show called The Panthers, and JP auditioned for one of the roles.

I bumped into him in the corridor after his audition, he was searching for something. He said: “I’m just looking for my keys, I bloody lost them and I called the locksmith and its gonna cost me 300 bucks, but it’s my friend’s car so I gotta find the keys.”

I knew straight away – that’s Maka.  He was so lovable, so hilarious, and had this heart about him that I knew he was the one.

Some of your family and friends were in the cast, who did they play?

My Mum and Dad play the parents in the film, my brother plays one of the uncles in the core cast. Other than our cast the band in the film are the actual band that performed in 2011. All of the extras are all from my church and my community.

What was it like to work with them?

It was an emotional journey. To see my family, my church and my community step that far out of their comfort zone to help me was quite overwhelming. Seeing my uncles working on the choreography, or my parents practising their lines, and my brother and cousins all acting in this big scale production.

They have their own lives and jobs, so for them to tell our story and support me on my journey was really amazing.   

Must have been great to recreate that story and relive the memories?

The performance in 2011 was a highlight, to have that again, and a film made and released on such a huge scale is crazy.

A lot of us have grown up in Wellington, the Wesley Church is here, so to have the premiere just down the road at Embassy Theatre, where something like Lord of the Rings premiered is quite a surreal experience for us as a family and a community.

You grew up in Wellington, but now live in Auckland – was it nice to be back home?

There’s been heaps of different layers of “wow moments” while filming in Wellington.

I grew up in Tawa and studied in Porirua so to be able to take something back to the ‘hood was mind-blowing. For a lot of kids who have come from northern Wellington, rugby player Jerry Collins was a big inspiration. He’s someone who accomplished a lot of great things and kept true to where he came from.

To be able to bring something back here; to Tawa Rugby club, and to the areas and streets that I spent a lot of time in was really rewarding. Hopefully when locals from those areas see their streets, and the hills, and their town on the big screen they can be inspired.

I always say “You can’t be what you can’t see,” so now that they’ve seen someone from their ‘hood do something like this, they’ll know it’s in reach for them too.  

Were you part of Tawa Rugby Club?

I used to play for Tawa Rugby Club and then I moved into the managing the senior teams.

Some of our cast wear the Tawa Rugby jerseys in the film and clothes from Porirua clothing brand Hawk. Those little nuggets are for the hometown viewers.

You filmed all over Wellington. What were the favourite spots you filmed in?

Filming in Tawa and Porirua were highlights for me – talking to the kids who were walking home from school and asked what we were doing.  I’d tell them “we’re making a movie” and that I grew up there and just see the wonder in their eyes.

A number of rugby players from this area have excelled, but not many of us have excelled in the film and television space. To be able to show those kids that we can tell our stories too was pretty awesome.

Any food spots you rediscovered while you were home?

I went back to the ones I miss like The Pink Pineapple in Tawa and Chicken Shack on Mungavin Avenue. I took the cast to the market in Waitangirua to get kebabs and cream pāua.

It’s just good to be back home, go to the spots that you know, and get food that feeds the soul.

One last thing – I heard this film has got the royal seal of approval from the Queen of Tonga?

The first time we screened the film outside our group was for the Queen of Tonga. An audience with the Queen is usually for big gatherings, or openings. Watching a film with the Queen, her grandkids and the Crown Princess was an humbling experience for me and my family. She said that we’d “captured the beauty of our people perfectly.”

I saw her not only as the Queen, but as a grandmother enjoying a film with her family – all three generations laughing, crying, and loving the film showed that it was a film that all ages can enjoy.

Red, White and Brass is in cinemas from 23 March .


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