EXCLUSIVE, UPDATE, writethru with comment from Zach McGowan reps: In May 2017, Deadline broke the news that Zach McGowan (Black Sails, Shameless) had been cast as the lead in Gabriel Robertson’s historical drama Ni’ihau, based on the true story of a WWII confrontation on the titular Hawaiian island. Almost immediately, there was strong reaction to the fact that the role of real-life Hawaii native Ben Kanahele had gone to a Caucasian actor, amid calls of whitewashing and what Ni’ihau producer Ken Petrie says was “a tidal wave of backlash.” The role was ultimately recast with Joseph Naufahu (Game of Thrones, Ghost in the Shell), and the film is now finished. So how did a first-time producer and filmmaker fumble, then navigate the deep waters in which they suddenly found themselves on Ni’ihau?
The original casting turn seems pretty surprising, particularly after public outcries surrounding Emma Stone playing a character named Allison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost In The Shell and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. And those were all high-profile Hollywood studio movies with A-List names.
Petrie, of 27 Ten Productions, explains that while casting they spoke “with various Hawaiian actors for the role of Ben and it’s an unfortunate reality that as a small movie there weren’t many Hawaiian actors available to us during our production dates who fitted the character. We therefore broadened our search to find the most talented actor available to us who we believed could embody the character as strongly as possible as well as providing a broad audience reach.”
He admits that as first-time filmmakers and within the first 24 hours of Deadline’s story being posted, “We probably weren’t prepared for that.” He also notes that comments on the story were the first indication that a misjudgment had been made, saying, “We’d started developing the project in October 2015, and by the time the article was released in May 2017, we’d spoken to agents and financiers and casting directors and what-have-you, and nothing had ever been flagged before that.”
But, he continues, “obviously there were some quite direct comments on your article and immediately we knew we needed to have a check and a conversation about this because you want to be sensitive to everybody’s opinions and you’re still trying to make the movie you want to make. But you have to listen to the feedback, especially if the feedback is of that kind of nature.”
When the backlash came, Petrie adds, “it brought a few things into focus and a different perspective that we hadn’t been through in our minds. So we stopped, and we listened. It was always important to us that we were respectful to the true story, told in an honest way. I made the decision that we had to push the shoot a couple of weeks and give the production time to do what was right for everybody involved.”
Petrie says that in conjunction with the filmmakers, McGowan and his team, the role was recast. However, McGowan’s reps say it was the actor’s decision to leave the movie. They tell me he was receiving threatening phone calls and it was his “decision to step away” while the reps “helped in recasting the role.” (McGowan had originally had an executive producer credit that came with the lead role, I’m told, but ultimately was not involved in the film in any way.)
The part went to New Zealand actor Naufahu who took over as Kanahele, the Ni’ihau island leader who was instrumental in the real-life tale. Amid the backlash, Petrie says none of the backers got cold feet. “I felt very supported by the financiers that they could still see the long-term vision for the project,” he says.
Naufahu already was on the production’s radar, having sent in a tape when the film originally was casting. “We had an honest conversation with him about why we were recasting. He’s a great actor and ultimately he came and made the movie and he’s incredible in it. That all happened quite quickly, but we think we have made a more appropriate decision for the film.”
Ni’ihau is based on the true incident of a Japanese pilot, Shigenori Nishikaichi, who crash-landed on the island. He was met with courtesy and traditional hospitality from the locals — until they discovered he was part of the recent attack on Pearl Harbor. In a time of great change and uncertainty, and with the Japanese Navy waiting close by, the islanders were divided in their efforts to either free Nishikaichi or keep him captive. He ultimately took hostages and attempted to overcome his captors — and Kanahele killed him, receiving decorations for his part in stopping the takeover.
Naufahu is not Hawaiian, but Petrie says, “As a fellow Pacific Islander, Joseph has a real understanding of Ben Kanahele and showed not just his strength but also his emotion and humanity.” The team worked closely with cultural consultants knowledgeable about life on the island of Niʻihau at the time the story is set.
There is a mix of Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, Japanese and North American actors in the film, which recast some other parts due to availability, Petrie says. “If you look at the range of the diversity of the cast that we put together, it’s quite inspiring, I think, in a day and age when people are perhaps focusing on that a little bit more.”
Petrie also points to social media has having played a role in the ruckus, and says he’s open to engaging “in constructive conversation.” But, “when some of my cast or my crew or myself are being verbally attacked or people were demanding we do this or that or whatever, I don’t know that that’s how you have a constructive conversation about finding the right outcome. And we wanted the right outcome.”
The outrage also might have become something of a double-edged sword given the indie nature of the project and the fact that its profile was boosted by the circumstances. Says Petrie: “We were surprised how easily we got swept up into ‘This is what Hollywood’s doing.’ Maybe that’s people not knowing much about the film or who’s putting it together, but this movie’s not really Hollywood. … Sometimes things come together in weird ways. Lots of people know about this movie now that maybe didn’t. I hope that now that the film’s finished they’ll see that we have always tried to create a really engaging story that has its heart in the right place.”
Robertson also wrote the film which was recently screened for 250 direct descendants of the people from the island, to what Petrie calls “heartwarming” response. The next step is to set a festival world premiere. The producers are in active discussions with sales agents and distribution platforms.
And what about lessons learned from what was surely a rattling situation after the initial bumble? Petrie says, “I think you’re always wanting to start with a great story whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or based on a true story and when you are a filmmaker, there are problems about how hard it is to get anything made. I think we’ve all just got to try and make the right decisions for the project and that’s sometimes a difficult decision to make but you’ve just got to look at the bigger picture… I think as a producer you just have a responsibility to the filmmakers, to the audience to the story and then all the kind of other film-worldy stuff behind that. Just trying to make the best decision for the movie no matter how hard that decision seems in the immediate horizon.”