How Screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell Went from Hawai‘i to Hollywood
The local twins and screenwriters hadn’t planned a future in film.
photo: David Croxford
When I first reached out to Aaron and Jordan Kandell, I thought I knew how the conversation was going to go. The Hawai‘i-born and raised identical twin screenwriters who worked on Moana, the new Aladdin and Adrift graduated from ‘Iolani, then attended the University of Southern California. I envisioned a Steven Spielberg-esque story about how they connected with other emerging film students in the star-making school, and how they all rose up together.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. I met with the Kandells at Jordan’s house in the back of Mānoa Valley where, over turkey, goat cheese and spicy mango chutney sandwiches whipped up by Jordan, the brothers described their path from Hawai‘i to Hollywood. Turns out, it’s a lot like The Lord of the Rings.
Were you always interested in film?
Aaron: We wanted to be writers from second grade, which I know sounds bizarre. We were obsessed with fantasy novels; while the other kids were playing outdoors during recess, we’d be reading Tolkien. I remember my brother and I were probably 11 or 12 when our parents went to Diamond Head Video to rent all their favorite films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Harold and Maude, because they thought we were finally old enough to see them.
Jordan: At USC, we majored in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry and we minored in film with an emphasis in screenwriting, but we weren’t in the film program. On our last day of senior year, we approached our curmudgeonly poetry teacher and asked how much he made when he published a book of poetry. He said if it’s a best-seller, maybe $5,000.
Jordan: Aaron and I had been writing screenplays on the side. But we had zero connections. During college, we spent our weekends writing screenplays instead of networking with other film students. When we graduated in 2005, we came back to Hawai‘i and got jobs teaching at Punahou for a couple of years. I taught English, he taught Spanish.
Aaron: There’s a reason why—here comes a fantasy reference—in The Lord of the Rings, Samwise and Frodo are alone for the majority of the books while the rest of the fellowship is fighting orcs and having a good time. That’s the difference between writers versus actors and producers and directors: They’re off making and killing stuff, while the writers are saying, “Let’s carry this burden inside us and maybe we can create something wonderful before it destroys us from the inside.”
Jordan: We were in the swamps of Mordor most of the time.
But you eventually got to join the “fellowship” of other projects, like Moana. How did you make that jump to Hollywood?
Jordan: Well, to break in as an actor is out of my purview. You have to be hustling in L.A. and able to face a ton of rejection. It’s crazy. But if you want to make it as a writer or filmmaker or director, the first hurdle is developing a great screenplay or movie or project. The second hurdle is landing a meeting or showing someone in the industry what you wrote or filmed or created. We asked everyone if they knew anyone who worked in the film industry that we could call to get their advice. There was nobody—except for a friend of our dad’s from high school that he hadn’t spoken to in 35 years. But the guy became an entertainment lawyer at a big firm. That was the first meeting we ever had in Hollywood.
Aaron: We met with him and he became our lawyer. He gave our first two screenplays to a manager he liked. She read them and has been our manager for 15 years.
If a person has the talent, is it possible to break into Hollywood from Hawai‘i? Or do they have to attend film school elsewhere or move to Los Angeles?
Jordan: Yes and no. If you’re interested in physical production, like working as a cinematographer or camera operator or assistant director, there’s a pipeline for industry work that comes here and needs a great crew. If you want to be a writer or director, you do have to build relationships with producers and representatives and executives. The only way we can make it work living here is to be willing to travel to Hollywood, or wherever something we’re working on is filming, at a moment’s notice if we need to. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lived in Los Angeles for some amount of time to build those connections.
Aaron: If you’ve got something great though, you could be in Antarctica and people will want to see what you do next. Look at Taika Waititi, who was telling the stories he was passionate about in New Zealand, which were true to his personal experiences and Māori culture. Because he had such a unique voice and his movies were of such high quality, he was noticed and suddenly he’s directing Thor: Ragnarok.
Often, Hawai‘i filmmakers or storytellers are more humble than those on the Mainland. Is that a hindrance when dealing with Hollywood?
Jordan: Learning how to be our own best champions was the steepest learning curve for us. But I don’t think you have to lose that quality; it may be what sets local filmmakers and storytellers apart from Mainland ones. Stay humble. But get a lawyer and manager and agent who are not. Find ones who will hustle for you and be ferocious.
Aaron: When you enter the film industry, I think humility, kindness, generosity and having a collaborative spirit are strengths you should lead with. Look at Dwayne Johnson, possibly the biggest movie star in the history of cinema, who maybe had an unlikely ascent because of who he is, how he looks and where he came from. But his brand is aloha and he’s clearly appreciative of his culture, never gets too big-headed and is super hardworking. The appeal of that is undeniable. And that’s what Hawai‘i people have: pride to be from here and to represent this place.
What are your thoughts on Senate Bill 33 (which increased the Hawai‘i tax credit cap from $35 million on a first-come, first-served basis to $50 million)?
Jordan: Make it higher. Look at places like Atlanta and Toronto, places with way higher credit incentives. It creates and fuels a great entertainment industry, which creates opportunities for more people to break into that industry. Here’s an example: We know a producer working on a story who called us to learn about the tax incentives and if [SB33] is passing or not. He was interested in Hawai‘i for possible tax incentives. If it was moved here though, he wanted to do a full rewrite to make sure the characters and storyline are organic and true to these Islands. That’s an opportunity to create a Hawai‘i story that’s not necessarily artificial and which wouldn’t exist without tax incentives.
Is there a breaking point in balancing film productions and traffic, noise and other resident concerns?
Jordan: Born and raised here, I totally understand that desire to protect what we have instead of evolving. But nobody’s going to stop change. It’s better to have more productions wanting to come here than less, because then Hawai‘i gets to pick the winners that we want filmed in the Islands and tell the other ones, sorry, we’re at our limit. Hopefully the tax incentives will have the bandwidth to not only support big productions like Jumanji and Godzilla but also the locally produced independent films like Go For Broke, which is really meaningful for Hawai‘i.
Aaron: Productions eyeing Hawai‘i will just go elsewhere. Even if a movie happens to be set here, they might go to New Zealand, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Ireland didn’t have a film industry but after eight seasons of Game of Thrones, they now have some of the most talented production crews and set designers.
Jordan: We fought really hard to get the movie we wrote and produced, Adrift, to film in Hawai‘i but we couldn’t convince the studio or our director to do it because the tax incentives were greater elsewhere. It should’ve been shot here because the film actually ends in Hawai‘i but when they ran the budget, they found it was more affordable to shoot in Fiji and New Zealand.