Q&A: Brett Wagner

A local filmmaker talks about his movie being called a “must see” at Sundance.

PHoto: Rae Huo


When the Hawaii International Film Festival’s 28th fall season gets underway this month, one of its stars will be “Chief,” the first Hawaii-made short film ever to play at the Sundance Film Festival and winner of the Best Dramatic Short award at the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival—an honor that qualifies it for Oscar consideration. We caught up with “Chief” writer and director Brett Wagner.

Q: Tell us a bit about “Chief.”
A: It’s a short film about a Samoan chief who flees his home and his village after the accidental drowning death of his young daughter. He comes to Honolulu to find a different life, and winds up as a taxi driver. Then he gets a chance to discover who he was supposed to be.

Q: “Chief” isn’t standard American film fare. Where did the idea come from?
A: The short answer is that I met Sielu, the lead actor. I saw him performing at the Polynesian Cultural Center, where he’d been for 25 years. Sielu was their star. His public performance is comic, but I sensed a sadness in his eyes that suggested he had the depth to be a dramatic actor. He’d never done any dramatic acting, but he was eager to do it, so I went away and built a story up around him.

HIFF Highlights

Living Pono with Jason Scott Lee (director: Rick Bacigalupi) follows local boy and Hollywood film star Jason Scott Lee as he leaves the bright lights behind for a life off the grid.

Documentary Not Quite Hollywood (director: Mark Hartley) serves up extra-large helpings of low-budget gore in this loving chronicle of Ozploitation, an Australian cult cinema genre of the ’70s and ’80s.

In Ping Pong Playa (director: Jessica Yu), the Wangs’ world revolves around ping pong, and their prodigal son, Christopher “C-Dub” Wang, doesn’t approve. But when tragedy strikes, C-Dub is forced to take over his mother’s class of ping pong misfits.

Documentaries don’t get any more mouthwatering than The Chicken, the Fish and the King Crab (director: Jose Luis Lopez-Linares), which follows master Spanish chef Jesús Almagro on his quest to take top cooking honors for his country in the legendary Bocuse d’Or competition.


Q: IndieWire named “Chief” one of Sundance’s must-see shorts. Is life different now?
A: Sundance changes everything, in subtle ways. I’ve had the opportunity, at Sundance and in L.A., to talk to people who are working in the field. When I say the film’s premiered at Sundance, suddenly I’m worth talking to. It’s a stamp of approval.

Q: Are there spiritual benefits, too?
A: I’ve been at this for well over a decade, just trying to be a filmmaker. Getting into Sundance is evidence that I needn’t ever quit trying to be a filmmaker, regardless of how much longer it takes until I can make a living at it.

Q: You’ve been a filmmaker in New York City. What’s different about making films in Hawaii?
A: When I lived in New York, I was drawn to all the same grungy New York environments that are inspiring 10,000 other filmmakers. Here, it’s a little easier to find something that people haven’t already seen. It’s not just the jungle, it’s the lava fields. They’re incredible environments.

Q: “Chief” has shown in more than a dozen film festivals internationally. Is HIFF going to be different?
A: This is a very important festival because it’s the hometown premiere. Every single person who worked on the film lives here, on Oahu. That’s probably 70 or 80 people. Many of them have never gotten a chance to see the film, or, if they have, they’ve only seen it on video or HD. This is a chance to see it in 35mm, on a big screen. It’s going to be really exciting.

HIFF runs Oct. 9 to 19. For more information, visit www.hiff.org. Full disclosure: HONOLULU Magazine is a sponsor of HIFF. Wagner is also married to our executive editor.