With so many movies and TV shows filming here, Kaua’i is earning a reputation as the Cinema Isle. Acting as liaison with movie productions is Art Umezu, the Island’s film commissioner, who says his real job is ”the people business’
Art Umezu works with the biggest names in Hollywood, but for our film commish it’s all about the details
Fade in: Our hero slashes his way through a heavy curtain of vine and fern. The roaring of a tumbling waterfall and the shrieking of exotic birds guide his way. Just as he comes to the edge of a verdant cliff — we cut to:
Interior. County Building on Rice Street, downtown Lihu`e. A Japanese-American man, mid-50s, bright smile, sits at his desk reading pages from a screenplay that describe a scene in Southeast Asia that will be shot on the island of Kaua`i … that is, if the Island’s Film Commissioner grants the production company the proper permits.
That would be Art Umezu, known by his friends as “Da Commish,” who has served as ambassador to Hollywood for the past six years, reprising the role he originally performed under former Mayor Tony Kunimura from 1986 to 1988. Umezu has seen it all – TV and film, modest independents and mega-million-dollar blockbusters gracing the beaches, uplands, forests and skies of our island. Umezu says he has had enough adventures in this position that he could write his own script (or at least a song) about the trials and tribulations of filmmaking.
“You’ve got to understand that filmmaking and the film business are not the same,” Umezu says, describing a basic of what it takes to do the job. “Being the film commissioner is a people business first. Commissioners are there to provide a service, to help save money or help make money, but it’s a business first. You’ve got to understand all about locations and their jurisdiction on Kaua`i. You’ve got to maintain your database of contacts. Most of all, be respectful when communicating with filmmakers whether they’re famous or not. Hollywood is very well connected internally. People know people, and people talk.”
Kaua`i has long been used as a stand-in for other tropical locales around the world: “We can pass for Asia, Africa, Australia or even other Hawaiian islands.”
And since the 1950s, every decade has brought diverse genres and beloved stories to the island’s landscape: In ’58 South Pacific, in ’61 Blue Hawaii, in ’76 King Kong, in ’87 Throw Momma from the Train, in ’97 The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in 2007 Tropic Thunder, and to begin this decade, in 2010 Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The last four films, among many more, have wrapped under Umezu’s watch.
After the star-studded cast of Tropic Thunder shot for 10 months on Island, Umezu says there has been a buzz in the industry about Kaua`i’s beauty, accessibility, and chameleon adaptability.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride since last December when Disney execs started sniffing around for locations for Pirates,” he says. “I knew that in ’07, while Kaua`i was prepping for Tropic Thunder, Jurassic Park 4 and Pirates scouted here, so I guess they already had Kaua`i on the list. But Dreamworks being here for so long brought lots of attention to Hollywood execs.”
Three major films have kept Umezu busy in the first half of 2010: The Descendants starring George Clooney, an Adam Sandler vehicle titled Just Go With It, and most recently Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.
“We had a great run with the film biz in ’10 starting with Sony’s Soul Surfer about Bethany Hamilton, with Carrie Underwood, in the spring … Most importantly, the movie was shot and done – finally after six years! Great for Bethany and her ohana. After Surfer, MTV brought skateboarder Rob Dyrdek for season three of the reality show Fantasy Factory, which filmed here for two weeks. Then came acclaimed director Alex Payne’s The Descendents, based on the book by local author Kaui Hart Hemmings, starring George Clooney.
“Boy, I got slam-dunked by people because the crew filmed in the middle of Hanalei town at Tahiti Nui, which brought traffic to a halt for 15 minutes, causing nuisances for school kids’ parents. I had just returned the day before from the Locations Expo in Santa Monica, and the Descendants production coordinator had forgotten to inform Hanalei residents about filming and possible traffic snarls. So the next morning I went out to Hanalei to make sure the traffic flowed smooth as baby’s behind! That was a major production with a convoy of big rigs and star trailers parked on the sprawling Wilcox Hanalei seaside estate. Well, no later than two days after Clooney’s crew flew to Oahu,Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston were moving into Kauai’s North Shore, setting up camp in Kilauea and at the St. Regis for Just Go With It, with an even bigger crew and rigs. Some crew and rigs were hopping on to this one as well as to Pirates right after.”
As film commish, Umezu most often works with location managers — helping to identify the perfect stream, waterfall or bay for a scene. His office maintains files filled with hundreds of photos that can be accessed by productions scouting Kaua`i for potential locations, and he often makes suggestions based on his knowledge not only of the Island, but of the needs and limitations of a film crew.
“Never a dull moment in the film dungeon,” as Umezu calls his lair of permits, scripts and photos. Sometimes a film sends their urban actors to the island, not to shoot a scene, but to study landscapes their characters live in.
“James Cameron had his Avatar actors walk through our forests for days, just so they could feel what it was like to walk through a jungle,” Umezu says.
Umezu makes periodic trips to the Mainland to pitch Kaua`i. And Kaua`i is an easy sell for the commissioner. Umezu is a natural statesman — enjoying the social obligations of entertaining cast and crew as much as being a stickler for obtaining all the permits and managing logistical cobwebs.
“No big wrap parties or dinners with Johnny Depp or Penelope Cruz,” he says, “but I did get to meet and talk a bit with Jerry Bruckheimer at Pirates‘ rowdy but exciting kickoff party!”
Umezu has always had a love of culture and entertainment. Growing up in Tokyo, he could not escape an education of aesthetics and appreciation for the traditional and popular arts.
“When I was a fourth-grader attending an American military school in Tokyo, my classmate Judy Ongg was a child TV actress, and she took our entire class to the NHK TV studio where she was filming a weekly drama series. I think it was at that moment I got fascinated with not only the camera and lights, but the crew who moved about on the set, and the process of producing a show. Judy Ongg is now a major star and singer in Japan who has won numerous awards for music and acting.”
Upon moving to Kaua`i in 1975, Umezu remembers “carrying a bag of clothes, acoustic guitar, Fender Rhodes keyboard, four cases of LP jazz records I collected after years in San Francisco, my old manual SL camera and $80 bucks in my blue jeans.”
The young man with long hair came to play music in a rock and pop band at the Kaua`i Beach Boy Hotel.
“I was met at the old Lihu`e Airport by the band’s leader, Willie Sasil, who drove me to my future pad, a two-bedroom house in Kapahi. He had eight kids ranging from 2 to 16, a few dogs, a cat and plenty Kaua`i chickens roaming in the yard. That night, we went straight to the Boogie Palace where Willie’s band Natural Harmony played. It took me a few songs to decide to join the band, after listening to lead singer Boogie B from Pakala, who in my mind was the best R&B/ soul singer I’ve heard in Hawai`i.”
Umezu worked at a few music shops in Lihu`e and eventually held a camera for The Garden Island newspaper and reported on entertainment around the island. It was in this job that he brushed shoulders with Hollywood and decided to pursue film.
“I had an assignment to interview actor Pat Morita, who was on board a cruise ship docked at Nawiliwili and just finished filming Karate Kid in 1984,” Umezu recalls. “I knew that I wanted to be involved more in the film and entertainment business.”
Yet his personal creative expression has always been in the musical realm, where he has served as a music producer for some of Hawai`i’s significant talents: Lady Ipo Kahaunaele, Maila Gibson, Stacie Taniguchi, Abra Cummings, Robbie Kaholokula, Mandy Thronas and Nick Castillo.
Working and supporting the careers of young talent on Kaua`i is something to which Umezu has consistently given his time and energy.
He has known musician and kumu hula Doric Kaleonui Yaris “since he was a 16-year-old budding singer at Waimea High School. I produced his debut recording on a cassette tape called Hawaiian Nights. Now he travels to Japan regularly to teach and perform hula and Hawaiian music, and in the process give opportunities to many hula dancers and musicians to travel to Japan.”
Umezu also gives his time to various Filipino organizations on the Island.
“I’m a member of the Kaua`i Filipino Chamber of Commerce since 2006 and served as emcee for its annual installation,” he says. “We also organized a jam room fundraising campaign for victims of the devastating typhoon in the Philippines in October 2009. I’ve been fortunate to be accepted into the local community by working with them and getting to understand the native and Island people who have their soul deeply imbedded in the `aina. Because of my spiritual nature, I am forgiving and patient with people who may not quite understand the Island way, it’s culture and customs. But it’s not their fault, they just don’t know. I can face whatever complaints people have — with peace and forgiveness in my mind and goodness in my heart, I feel I can resolve any challenges.”
Umezu has played a legendary role on Kaua`i. And with unofficial rumors of Tropic Thunder2 scouting island locations, it looks like his story will go on for years to com.
According to Da Commish, the title of his biopic would be: Take This Job and Love It!