The month of May is a time to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage with their involvement and advancement worldwide. It’s important to understand that those within this culture have had an enormous effect on the cinema world and continue to do so. One of them is Director Isaac Halasima.
Halasima has been active in the entertainment industry since the early age of 13. The multi-talent Polynesian artist has directed music videos for music bands such as Imagine Dragon and Neon Tress and has made considerable strides in the filming world. His feature film, The Last Descent, was a debut of skills in storytelling and the director decided to try his hand at documentaries with his recent critically acclaimed film, Waterman.
We spoke with the artist about his latest project, craft, eye for art—thanks to relatives, and what drives him to tell compelling stories about survival and perseverance.
I see you were born in Provo, Utah. How was life out there growing up?
— It’s surprisingly pretty nice when it comes to being around Polynesians. It’s the largest Polynesian population outside of Hawaii in the country out here. And so it’s kind of funny because people wouldn’t expect a bunch of Islanders out here, but I grew up right in the middle of them. My dad immigrated from Tonga to Hawaii—that’s where he met my mom. And then my mom raised me in Utah, and my dad came out here and started a rugby team. So I grew up around just thousands of Tongans. It’s like people at first—I’ll travel the country, and they’ll be like, “So you’re from Utah, but you’re not white.” It’s like, “No, no, I’m not.” In fact, I grew up in areas where it was primarily brown, except by the time I was in high school, I was the only one.
I’m originally from LA, but I grew up in the Inland Empire. I didn’t know what a Tongan or Samoa was until my high school years, and Rocky Maivia was on WWF.
— Yeah. Well, I mean, The Rock kind of opened the door. It’s funny, though, cause I actually grew up idolizing Cliff Curtis, if you know who he is.
The name sounds familiar.
— He played The Rock’s brother in the Hobbs and Shaw movie. So he’s pretty much in everything, I guess you could say playing every culture, and that’s kind of what we’ve been. It kind of relates to Duke when he was in Hollywood. So we’ve kind of played everything, and actually, I grew up as an actor and a dancer. And so, when I was acting, I played literally every culture you could think of.
Your uncle is a well-known sculptor. So, how much of that was part of your life growing up?
— Oh, man. It was a massive part of my life—I guess you could say. My mom made sure to raise me in the arts. My dad was an athlete—extremely competitive. And that came out with me in sports, and my mom decided, “Maybe I should take him more my route.” Because of my competitive side and because I like to win. What’s funny is she ended up raising a competitive artist out of it. That’s where dancing really did well for me in the arts, but even more so, she taught me how to run a camera. She taught me how to write music and play the piano. So everything of value I bring to this industry, I learned from my mom, and to the point where it’s something I like to talk to people about.
— So my mom is a huge [Vincent] van Gogh fan. So she raised me to know van Gogh, and we would do the things where we go to a gallery, and she would say, “Say, what do you feel?” I’m like, “What do you feel?” And then she’d have me come up and look at the brush strokes on the paintings. And she would say, “See, look, this is where they sped up. This is where they took time. There was almost an emotion inside the brush strokes.” So that’s what she raised me in, and it wasn’t just her trying to raise me in it—I clung to it.
Yeah, I saw that Waterman as a level of art told within the documentary. For example, the opening credits. I loved the opening credits and how you go through the history of that culture in a very stylistic way.
— Oh, thanks. Yeah, that was me getting to play director in the best way. I went a little [Quentin] Tarantino on that one, too, in the sense that he always takes the stuff he likes from other things. The biggest problem we had in the first act of the film was the history of Hawaii. The way I originally had designed it, we’d hit some on Duke, then we’d tell the history, and then we’d go back to Duke, and it just got boring, to be honest. And it was because you didn’t get to see Duke advance. You just got to see a lot of history, and it was a lot of explaining.
And so the guys were like, “What can you do?” I’m like, “Well, Peter Berg did this thing in The Kingdom. Maybe we can do that.” So, I spent a couple of weeks, and I watched around 40 to 60—somewhere in there—documentaries on the history of Hawaii. Then I smashed them all down to 29 snippets and then laid them together, put some music under it, and said, “Hey guys, what can you do with this? This is what Peter Berg did. I like this.” And so they played with it, and it’s one of the most team effort things that happened. It was a lot of fun, and it’s cool to slam out the history in a way that everyone goes, “Oh, wow. Okay.”
Yeah, very true.
— You gotta know the history if you’re going to talk about it. Especially the fact that this is the guy who lived when the Kingdom [of Hawaii] was still a kingdom. He could have been one that didn’t like America at all. But him embracing it creates a really cool contrast of things and shows what kind of person he was.
Halasima’s dancing and acting history could’ve led to a career in front of the camera and behind it. However, there was a deeper meaning on why he chose the path that his career had landed on.
You did dance and some acting. Why didn’t you pursue a career in that field of entertainment instead of working behind the camera?
— Oh man, well, honestly, I deal with some serious shyness, but I can talk when I talk about Duke. My mom found this really weird thing where—when I was five, I could memorize things pretty quick. I memorized Michael Jackson’s performance of Billie Jean at the Motown Awards. My mom was like, “My son’s moonwalking. I should probably put him in something.” And it was the only thing I could do in front of people that didn’t make me wanna hide in corners. And so, she always said I was painfully shy. She said there’s something about performing that brought something outta me. And I think part of it is that it sounds so nerdy and artistic that I just don’t have words for the way I want to say things about life.
No, I totally understand that. It’s one of the things I love about art.
— But for some reason, art gives me a way to talk. So, it’s something that I just embrace, and I embraced every aspect of it.
George Lucas’s Star Wars significantly influences many filmmakers during their youth. So though the director loved the movie growing up, Halasima found impact from an unlikely film that was one of the driving forces in his life.
— Star Wars made me love movies. I always say that, but [Edward Zwick’s] Glory just tore into me and pulled something outta me that made me feel amazing. It just made me realize the kind of person I wanna be, and it made me wanna be a director. So, I was this little fifth grader that was telling everybody I was gonna be a director. The wild thing about it was it affected every decision I made in my life from that point on. I grew up around gang culture and when Polynesians were getting into some pretty heavy stuff. So, I went into situations like, “Would a director want this in his life? Would a director want this in his past?” And it’s wild.
Someday, hopefully, I could talk to Ed Zwick about Glory and what it did to my life. It literally lay me on a pathway to where I’m at now. Growing up, you constantly changed your mind and tried to do things. But directing was always at the base. I found a way to talk in the arts, and then I found the thing I wanted to do more than anything else in the arts.
The journey of Halasima to become a sought director, editor, and producer was conventional and unconventional at the same time. An opportunity had presented itself to Halasima, but he had bigger plans and would do what needed to be done to get there.
So, at what point did you decide to leap into directing?
— When I was working at the [KSL-TV] station, I got a big offer to go to New York and to work with ESPN and at Avid as a trainer and all these things. So, I talked to one of my cousins about it, and it was gonna be a life in sports. I was gonna make a lot of money producing and doing really cool things—I was 26. So, I was super young to get such a role like that. So, I called one of my cousins, and he was just like, “That’s not what you want to do.” And I said, “You’re right. It isn’t what I want to do.” So, I called them up in New York and said, “I’m not gonna take it,” and told my station that I was quitting.
Within a year, I was homeless, but it’s kind of funny how it worked out cause I had to hit reset on everything, and it was a really hard thing to do. It’s a scary thing to do, but I believe that we’re at our best and with our backs against the wall. And sometimes we have to force it, and that was one of those times I felt I needed to. I had lost everything. I was living outta my car. All I had was a laptop and a camera, but the weirdest thing about it was, I thought, I felt like I needed it.
Thanks to a couple of well-known musical bands that helped Halasima gain the reconnection he sought and the chance to make his first feature film.
I just started rebuilding, doing free music videos for anybody that would let me do them with my buddy, Matt Easton, and we did some bands that no one had heard. We did like 50, the main ones being Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees. And the next thing you know, I went from being homeless, living outta my car, and making free music videos to working with Interscope Records and doing bigger things. I knew I could survive when it was all I had; then, it became fun. Cause I was like, “Well, shoot, this could be fun cause it’s still fun when I got nothing.” So it was kind of a rebuild. Then after a while, I got some investor money, wrote and directed a movie, and got The Last Descent into theaters.
Representation is essential in the moviemaking industry, and Halasima this. The director wanted to represent his culture in a way the world would notice and found that way through his work.
— At the MTV Video Music Awards and for the video Demons I did for Imagine Dragons, I remember sitting there and seeing the name on the screen and thinking, “Okay, the Tongans finally saw the name.” So it’s like now the Polynesians—my family in Hawaii and Tonga and New Zealand—all of them get to see our family name on the screen and know that this can happen and this could be something.
Every player in Hollywood has a story to tell about their first job in the industry. Halasima’s time at his local station offered a couple of opportunities that would be very helpful in his career.
How was your experience at KSL-TV in Utah during the early part of your career?
— Oh, I loved it. I actually started there when I was 13. I was a host of a TV show there, and I used my time there to get behind the scenes.
— Yeah. They let me edit. I remember the first time, and I think I kind of surprised them when I told them that I wanted to learn how to edit and that I wanted to do all these things. They said, “Yeah, sure, Kid. Give it a shot. Why don’t you have fun?” So, they put me on the Avid, and I cut my first thing for the show that I was hosting. When I got done, They said, “We’ll run it.” So, I was addicted, and they couldn’t hire me behind the scenes till I was 18. So, I just volunteered to work at that station from the time I was 13 till I was 18, just showing up every weekend, working studio, cameras, lighting, building sets, and doing everything they needed me to do there. I literally grew up at that station, and then they hired me when I was 18.
And where did you start when the station finally hired you?
— So, I just worked my way from intern to the head of the sports department before I eventually quit to chase film. They’re family to me. I learned so much, and it’s funny. You watch movies like Field of Dreams and the way Shoeless Joe talks about the smell of the grass, the sound of the crowd, and all those things. That’s what I feel when I walk into a studio. There’s that weird paint smell, the burning electricity, the fiberglass on the walls with all the insulation, and all that stuff there. It just makes me feel at home. I love it. KSL-TV will always be my home.
Who are your inspirations in the art of film?
— As a teenager, I was a popcorn flick guy, which I think most teenage boys are. For me, all through high school, I was all about anything Tony Scott did and anything Michael Bay did. I loved the Bad Boys movies, and I just love the intensity, the harsh colors, and all the things that both those guys get. Tony Scott was experimental with every film he did with the way he ran them. Actually, I got to the point where I would wear a red hat every time I directed in high school and junior high to look like Tony Scott a little bit.
Besides being able to hone his skills as a director and producer at an early age, Halasima unintentionally began working on his talent as an editor with the help of a VHS player and the story about a galaxy far, far away.
— It’s funny because I think Star Wars actually might’ve had the best effect on me by accident. When I was eight, I watched Return of the Jedi at least twice a day for an entire year. And it was on VHS. We recorded it off the TV. We weren’t very wealthy, and I memorized the movie, and when I say I memorized the movie, I memorized all the dialogue, sound effects, and music cues. I memorized where the commercials hit and when I could fast forward, hit stop, and start right up with the show again. I watched it so much that the audio went out because of VHS. I could recite the movie from beginning to end.
I think what that did to me is it actually affected the editing clock that I have in my head and maybe more of a studio-style editor when it comes to that kind of timing. So, I think that influence affected my editing, and editing is what really pushed me over the top to get in this industry. Because no matter how good a director you are, good luck if you don’t have a good editor.
— It’s kind of funny. Thanks to my news background, I was actually known for docs until The Last Descent, and my commercials proved I could do narrative music videos. So that was me proving it—never thinking I’d go back to docs. And what happened next was after my uncle suggested Duke and maybe giving this a shot and then him passing away—it stuck.
So, I wrote the movie first. I found the book Waterman, by David Davis. Then I found the This Is Your Life clips featuring Duke. Then, the Danny Boyle fan inside me—Slumdog Millionaire in particular—kicked in. I love biopics when they’re non-linear and when the storylines give you a chance to feel things with the characters rather than going chronological and just brushing by so much cool stuff. So, I wrote the treatment, and I was trying to make the movie, and I just threw my ideas out at a ton of friends in LA, which is really a bad idea because someone will run with it, probably. But I just did it.
I’m an artist, and part of me is like, “If someone makes it, I don’t care. I just wanted to get out there.” So, the book landed on a friend’s lawyer, and he took it to Sidewinder Films with David [Ulich] and Steven [Ungerleider]. So, this lawyer contacted my friends and said, “Well, we want to talk,” I said, “Well, I don’t want anyone else to tell this story if I can have a chance.” So I met with them, and at first, I pretty much tried to hide my first movie, but eventually, I realized that put the foundation of what my treatment was for [The Last Descent] and just switched it over to the doc.
So it’s very similar, in fact, that we’re going back and forth like This Is Your Life. I wouldn’t mind doing more docs, but I said, “If this is my last doc, then I want it to be something crazy and artistic and just something with a lot of power. This guy means so much to me. Why don’t I give him everything I’ve got left in the tank?”
What’s Polystrong, and what other organizations are you involved in?
— Yeah, Polystrong’s the one I work mainly with. They’re an organization that really helps kids with stuff that I wished I’d had when I was a kid. Helping the youth see that there are different things besides being an athlete. You can be a professional in so many things. They found me because of the Imagine Dragon stuff and all that. So my name was out there, and they hit me up and said, “Hey, will you talk on a panel?” It was so cool sitting down with Logan Tom, an Olympian. And there are all these different Polynesians doing incredible things and talking to kids about the importance of Polynesians. I work with other organizations, but Polystrong is the one that really hit home for me because that’s something I wish I would’ve had.
Halasima is one of many Asian American and Pacific Islanders making a name for themselves in Hollywood. However, other cultures and groups greatly appreciate their heritage and stories and should be celebrated worldwide. Different cultures and groups considerably understand their heritage. And stories. With their help, generations will learn and enjoy the past and hopefully benefit society.