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On location in Hawai'i:
Two Perspectives

By Robert M. Watts

Honolulu Magazine, November 1995
Hawaii International Film Festival Special Section

HIFF strives to showcase Hawai'i not only as a place to see movies, but as a place to make them. In this article, Robert Watts provides a fascinating view of filmmaking in the Islands from two radically different perspectives: Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Stephen Spielberg mega-hit, and an as-yet-unreleased video documentary by and about The Nation of Hawai'i.

Raiders of the Lost Ark

It was in the fall of 1979 that I first came to Hawai'i. I was looking for locations for Raiders of the Lost Ark. At that time the script called for not only the South American jungle location, but also a location set in China. The Chinese location required the exterior of a palace owned by a warlord who had half of the head of the staff of Ra, the other half of which was in the possession of Marion in her bar in Nepal.

In trying not to shoot in too many countries, it was decided that we should attempt to find the South American jungle and the Chinese palace in the same place. I had been told that Honolulu had a Chinatown, and was hopeful of finding a Chinese temple that would pass as the exterior of the Palace.

Unfortunately, my information was incorrect and try as we would we were unable to find anything that would represent the exterior of the palace. We were much luckier with the South American locations and found everything we needed on the island of Kaua'i. We decided to continue west to Hong Kong to look for the Chinese palace in the hope that we could still shoot the other location in Hawai'i. In Hong Kong it rained continually as we picked our way through endless Chinese temples, the courtyards of which we covered in offerings of food - everything from fruit and vegetables to cooked suckling pigs. It was a fruitless task, none of the temples were grand enough, or else they were surrounded by modern buildings, which did not work for our 1936 period.

Where to go next? We heard that the island of Penang in Malaysia had a large Chinese population and also jungle and a river. It was with some relief that we soared away from rain- soaked Hong Kong and into the sunshine above the clouds.

In Penang we had luck. We first found a Chinese temple that would pass very well for the warlord's palace. The jungle and river locations were more difficult to find, but eventually we did find locations for these, which were passable. We much regretted that the scenery was nowhere near as spectacular as Kaua'i, but budgets being what they are we could not justify the considerable cost of shooting in two places. So Penang it was going to be, provided Steven Spielberg approved of the photos of the chosen locations.

We flew from Penang to Singapore and caught the next flight to London. Shortly after our return to London the news came that the Chinese sequence had been cut from the script, so the locations on Kaua'i became firm. Great relief all around.

We shot the Kaua'i sequences last in the schedule and had to move the crew, which was to join the Hawaiian technicians on Kaua'i, from Tunisia in North Africa, no simple task. I came a day ahead to see that all was prepared, but the day the crew traveled the Canadian air traffic controllers decided to call a one-day strike and I found myself with the crew scattered all over North America. The last crew member arrived at nearly midnight the day before shooting ... whew!

We shot the trek to the exterior of the South American temple and Indy's flight from the Hovito Indians a few miles up the Hulai'a River from Nawiliwili. The Hovito Indians were played by local Kauaians who were persuaded to have their hair cut in an Indian pudding-basin style. The Waco biplane came from the U.S. mainland. The mountain in the opening shot was Anahola. The exterior of the temple was in a pitlike location about ten miles from Lihu'e, off the road in the direction of Po'ipu. This pit with a pool and waterfall was filled with mosquitos, and despite spraying they made our lives a misery. Thank goodness for insect repellant! The final scene of the airplane flying away was done at sunset over the Menehune fishponds in Nawiliwili.

The shooting went well and we found the local Hawaiian crew to be excellent and the cooperation on Kaua'i first-rate. On the last day of shooting we had a wrap lu'au, which was novel for all of us and which we all enjoyed before returning to our various homes. What a wonderful place to spend the last week of shooting - a bonus for the frequent practice of shooting the first scenes of a film last. I so enjoyed the island of Kaua'i that I took my family there on vacation several times over the next few years.

The Nation of Hawai'i

In February of 1994 I visited the island of Maui for the first time. It was a short trip of just four days but it was to be significant. On our second day my partner and I were invited to stay at a house in Kipahulu to meet Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, now known as Pu'uhonua Kanahale. Bumpy is, as we learned, the leader of the Nation of Hawai'i, a group seeking independence for Hawai'i from the United States.

I was completely ignorant of the recent history of Hawai'i, and sat up most of the night while Bumpy explained about the events that had occurred at the turn of the century, when Queen Liliuokalani had been imprisoned in 'Iolani Palace and Hawai'i had been seized by the United States. He explained about the apology bill, signed by President Clinton, which in effect apologized for the takeover of the Hawaiian Islands by United States. We in turn explained that we were heading a company that would make entertainment in all media, with the express purpose of providing product that was not only entertaining, but would also speak to people in an empowering manner. We talked nearly all night and before we parted company the next morning, Bumpy said that he hoped we would base our company in Hawai'i, as we seemed to share many of the same ideals. We had not thought of basing in Hawaii, but it started a train of thought that has culminated in our seriously looking at this possibility.

I returned to Hawai'i nine months later, in November 1994. I came for a week but ended up staying for just over two months. I spent the first ten days on Maui and then went to 0'ahu to visit the Nation at its new home. The group had been given a lease on some land above Waimanalo and in a very short space of time had built some basic housing, although some members were still living in tents. I was to spend several weeks living in the village and learning more about the Nation. I spent Christmas and New Year's Eve with the Nation and had a wonderful time.

Everyone was very busy in the first days in January as the Nation was due to sign its Constitution on January 16. At this time we decided to shoot a documentary around the signing of the Constitution. When there is no money, this is easier said than done. We would have to shoot mainly on Hi-8 video, but we did have a visitor from the Mainland who had a 16mm camera and film, which we reserved for the beauty shots. It struck me that this was absolutely the other end of the scale from the last time I had shot in Hawai'i.

I visited 'Iolani Palace some days prior to the 16th to work out camera positions. I had hoped to get one camera on the balcony of the palace, but even with the aid of the Hawai'i film commission this was not possible. The film commission did get me permission to shoot from the balcony opposite 'Iolani Palace so that we could shoot over the statue of Kamehameha toward the palace. We managed to muster six Hi-8 cameras together with the 16mm camera so we would have plenty of varied angles and good coverage. We got all the camera people together the day before the event and planned everyone's positions. The high angle that we had hoped to shoot from the palace balcony we decided to get from the top of the truck that was bringing in the stage from which speeches would be made and on which the Constitution would be signed.

We all got up before dawn on January 16 before there was any light in the sky. We went first to the mausoleum, where the kings and queens of Hawai'i are buried or remembered. It was raining quite hard when we arrived at the chapel where a service was to take place. We did not shoot in the chapel and after the moving service we emerged to find the sun coming through even though it was still raining. The mixture of sun and rain delivered the most beautiful double rainbow over the graveyard. We exclaimed at its beauty, but the Hawaiians were not surprised to see it, stating quite simply that the Gods were pleased.

By the time we arrived at the palace it was a beautiful sunny day. We positioned the cameras as the Nation's officials prepared for the day's celebrations. The camera people were now on their own to cover the events of the day. What a day it was, with sacred chanting, dances and speeches.

There was a special section of seating for the kupuna in front of the stage. The day's events culminated in the signing of the Constitution. When everyone had signed, we packed up and returned to the Nation's village in Waimanalo, where a joyful party began that lasted far into the night.

The footage is now safely stored, and although a roughcut has been assembled we still have to find the money to complete the postproduction.

After the excitement of the Constitution day filming I sat and reflected on the extreme contrast between the two productions I had worked on in Hawai'i. One was a major studio location with all the necessary financing to deliver everything that was needed. The other was a shoestring affair that was scraped together with no money. I reckoned that the true story of Hawai'i, from its legendary inception to the present-day independence movement deserves the same first-class treatment given to a major feature film. But that is in the future, the not too distant future.


Hawai'i sits in the center of a ring of fire and according to Hawaiian legend, the Goddess Pele is in charge. Within a few hours of the Nation declaring independence on January 16, 1994, a massive earthquake hit Los Angeles. Within a few minutes of the Nation signing its constitution on January 16, 1995, a massive earthquake hit Kobe in Japan.

Robert M. Watts has worked on nearly 40 feature films, and he has served as production manager, associate producer or producer for many movies that have become film legends. These include 2001: A Space Odyssey, all three Star Wars films, and all three Raider of the Lost Ark features.

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