“A Lot of People Took a Leap of Faith”: How Every Day in Kaimukī Creators Made an Indie Darling During a Pandemic

every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

The Honolulu-set film from director Alika Tengan debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

There’s an ambulatory moment in Every Day in Kaimukī, the new slice-of-life feature from director Alika Tengan, that concisely sums up the movie’s comic tone and themes. A half-drunk Naz Kawakami, the desultory college radio deejay (also played by Naz Kawakami) at the heart of the film, gets snagged on a set of Christmas lights while walking home from an art gallery late one evening and in a bout of antagonized frustration vigorously strips the innocent string of bulbs off its provincial fence. A relatable, private bit of acting-out that can certainly feel cathartic, but ultimately just leaves more of a mess to untangle.

Every Day in Kaimukī’s lean narrative cruises by on a number of these droll Millennial Man versus Nature scenarios as its central character Naz navigates a field of shifting personal relationships — notably with his equally inchoate girlfriend (Rina White, who the cast off-screen calls Kelli), and a fellow neighbor island skater who becomes a growing target of envy (Holden Mandrial-Santos) — on the cusp of his move to New York from Hawai‘i, the only home he’s ever known.

Written by Tengan and Kawakami in six days, and shot mid-pandemic, Every Day in Kaimukī is the first feature-length film written and directed by Native Hawaiians to screen at Sundance.

Decidedly urban in its setting and texture, the loose-limbed film shadows an ensemble of “wayward twentysomethings in search of something more,” Tengan says, as they amble about skate parks and low-rise apartment buildings, humming with a quiet angst over “the fact they’re supposed to be content about living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” yet are drawn to chase their creative ambitions elsewhere across the Pacific.

On the week of its online world premiere, on January 23, Flux Hawaii spoke with the director, writers, and actors on the improvised feel of production, blurring reality through autofiction, and the existential crises of living on an island. (Full disclosure: NMG Network, which owns Flux Hawaii, is a producer of the film.)

every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

Flux Hawaii The short-hand description I’ve heard used to explain this movie in local film circles is that it’s a “Hawai‘i Slacker.” Would you agree with that comparison?

Alika Tengan (director, co-writer) First of all, a huge fan of Linklater. In my head, I guess, Every Day in Kaimukī feels more like a Dazed and Confused than Slacker. But, in general, people have described our film as a “hangout film.” That tone definitely came together in the edit, in terms of wanting people to feel like they were hanging out with each and every character that you come across in our film. Also, in the way Slacker was filmed in Austin, Texas, the sense that it’s a film where those characters interact in a specific space, of people being informed by a place, one that is often heavily photographed from a certain perspective, but not a perspective, at least, in this film, that I’ve seen presented before.

Nazareth Kawakami (co-writer, actor, “Naz Kawakami”) I don’t love Slacker. I don’t know, man. I don’t really hang out with people who go to the beach, so therefore I can’t write a script around going to the beach, you know? So, why try? Like, if we grew up in a place and we’re gonna make a movie about that place then let’s just write a script around the way that we actually do live instead. Maybe in that way it’s similar to Slacker because they were essentially doing all that.

FH I mean, it’s nothing at all like Slacker, narratively. But it has a convenient title that maps onto the main character of this film who is a listless twentysomething. For the actors, what attracted you to the project?

Rina White (actor, “Sloane”) For me, I kind of didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just really trusted Alika and Naz, and I said, yes. I just really like helping on film, so I went in kind of blind. Filming was kind of rushed for me because I would come in after work on an Amazon show that was filming at the time — I really only saw the scenes that I was in. Afterwards, though, when I saw the final cut of the movie, I really liked it. How it stayed true to Naz’s life and what he knows, and for Alika as well, rather than trying to create a fictional Hawai‘i paradise type of story.

Holden Mandrial-Santos (actor, “Kayden”) I didn’t have the full idea of what the script entailed. But, in terms of Alika’s previous work, I feel like he portrays how we have grown up in Hawai‘i, and with this story it shows another side of just people here and that’s really important to show, just a different side of Hawai‘i. Like Kelli said, we’re not just, like, paradise, you know? There are other things here that can be related to from anywhere in the world. For instance, someone making a big move, in this case, leaving the island, is something huge. It’s something that people anywhere could relate to. It’s real important to put out there that we’re not just surfers and hula dancers and stuff like that. There’s a lot more going on here than what is portrayed in media.

We wanted there to be a lot of looseness and hopefully have it add to that naturalistic feeling. Finding that balance was key.

Alika Tengan, director, co-writer

FH One of the unsung skills of a director, especially an indie director, is persuading people to get onboard with whatever they’re imagining in their head. How did you communicate that to the people who appear in the movie? Did you lead with the themes or the story?

AT This film was written by me and Naz and we tapped a lot of people that Naz actually knew. It was basically him asking a bunch of people if they’d be down to help us on a creative project. We didn’t really get into the themes and what we were trying to accomplish on that front. A lot of people took a leap of faith on this on Naz’s behalf. Everyone that said yes was incredible and gave so much time to the film. Everyone just wanted this to be good and came into it with the right mentality.

FH Did you both conceive of the movie before the pandemic or during? It’s not a pandemic movie, in that it ever really comments on it, but there is a restless quality to it that feels like a movie born out of feeling inert during the pandemic. A let’s-just-make-something energy. [Naz sneezes.] Bless you. Thanks for sneezing during my question about the pandemic.

AT [Laughs] It was a mix of both. I first met Naz when he was covering [as a journalist] me and Jonah Okano’s short film Mauka to Makai. After that I coaxed him into a cameo for that short between him and Holden [editor’s note: a house party fight scene] and he was really stellar in that. Throughout the years we had talked about the idea of doing something together, and when I found out he was moving away that felt like a good opportunity to see if maybe we could do something in the moment that we’re currently in.

But to what you’re saying, there was definitely a lot of creative restlessness that I was feeling in 2020 trying to get our other film Moloka‘i Bound off the ground, which was very hard and not really feeling like it was going anywhere. At least on my end — wanting to try to pour myself into something creative, already being in conversation with Naz, him moving, feeling like he could be a good fit for that — Every Day in Kaimukī was born out of all those things.

every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

FH The naturalism of the movie is a key feature of it. How did you all collaborate on realizing that, from the writing to the acting?

NK I appreciated all the dialogue-heavy scenes where they were talked out initially. Meaning we would have Kelli over and Kelli would be getting acquainted with her character and we would tell her a scenario between her character and my character to build out a natural flow of conversation, to see what words felt good and what didn’t. Or, me and Alika would act it out, or Kelli and Holden, and we would try to figure out how naturally these characters would interact with each other. Not for every scene. But a lot of my favorite parts of the script were built that way.

RW Naz and Alika worked on the script and really pored over it. It took a lot of time and there were changes that happened in the moment too. Naz, sometimes, we would just interact and we would change it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to commit to learning my lines, so it was just running through the lines with Naz over and over and over again until the crew was set up, and then we just shot it. Like, we just tried our best.

I do remember one specific moment though — it’s the scene where my character is making and pasta and Naz forgets the wine — it was written in a different way, but Alika, Naz, and I had a conversation where I suggested that Sloane should do something else, and then we went with that instead. There are moments like that, where I was like, I don’t think I would personally do this, it doesn’t feel real to me. And in those moments, we’d change it.

AT To the actors’ credits, they took it very seriously. When it came time to commit to their lines, everybody really wanted to get it right. Also, everyone just really inhabited their characters, so even when we would go off script, they could still sort of improvise in character. We wanted there to be a lot of looseness and hopefully have it add to that naturalistic feeling. Finding that balance was key.

FH The plot is very concerned with the micro-dramas of Naz’s relationships, with his girlfriend Sloane, his crew of friends, and the growing gulf that starts to form between him and them. Paired with an angst he has toward his environment—there is certainly a truthiness there for any young uncertain person seeking experiences outside where they were born and raised. How much did you all identify with that part of it? Or your own characters? In the case of Naz, there’s an element of riffing on a version of oneself.

RW I think I had the privilege of probably being one of the most fictionalized characters — hmm, besides the reality of having to be annoyed and disappointed with Naz, which was very real and easy. [Laughter] I get that feeling of wanting to leave — that whole argument that Naz’s character has with my character about, like, why are you so content with being here? I’m usually on the other side of that, where I’m also sending people away, like, you should leave, go somewhere else, try somewhere else. That felt the most real to me.

HM In terms of, like, relating to my own character? Obviously, I’m not from Maui, well, I mean, maybe not obviously. [Laughter] But I’m not from Maui, and, honestly, I don’t really know much about Maui. But I can imagine what it’s like to leave your home, to move on to something that you really want to pursue. That’s one thing that I relate to the most in the story in general. There’s a part where Naz is talking about how it feels like you have to excommunicate everything in your life just to leave this island. You have to leave everything behind and it’s a huge task, a huge burden. That conflict of, like Kelli was saying, when you’re here, but you wanna do more and you want to leave the island and do something else, but you also have to deal with this huge exodus of getting rid of everything in your life to move on, which is what I found most interesting about the film.

AM In terms of them riffing on versions of themselves, we liked the idea of blurring that line. Especially with the Naz character because while it is based on some of what he was going through in his life, at the same time, it’s a very exaggerated fictionalized version of him. All of the characters are to an extent. I don’t know if you guys have seen that Joaquin Phoenix movie I’m Still Here? That’s kind of how I imagine what Naz did in this. It’s like, yes, that is Joaquin Phoenix, but at the same time, that’s not Joaquin Phoenix. That’s kind of the way we thought about some of it.

NK I feel like my character is a caricature of a worried person, who physically and verbally manifests everything that he is thinking, most of which is: I don’t know. I might be playing a person who is maybe similar to me based on my experiences, but doesn’t reflect all of my perspectives or viewpoints or opinions or thoughts.

AM And my job as the director, and certainly the editor, was sort of to, like, exaggerate all of those things for dramatic or contextual purposes. I think that’s also the trick of the movie, which is that you might watch the film and think you know that character, but in reality it’s just a fraction of them, you can never really get into the scope of a person. Like MTV, “you think you know, but you have no idea.” [Laughs] Hopefully, it plays both ways.

FH The diversity of the cast is something that probably won’t faze Hawai‘i audiences. But, this is going to play at Sundance, and might be more of a talking point there.

AM We just wanted to depict what the reality is like in Hawai‘i. It’s so endemic to our everyday to be interacting with people of different backgrounds that we don’t even think about it. It’s how we also approached the casting. The diversity wasn’t so intentional in so far as telling ourselves we need X amount of this and that. It was just kind of, like, what’s the reality for us and these characters.

every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

FH Talk about the cinematography. It’s a departure from Mauka to Makai, but naturally has more in common with your short Moloka‘i Bound, which you and [cinematographer] Chapin Hall worked on together. How did you consider utilizing the camera to strike the tone you wanted for Every Day in Kaimukī?

AM As for this film in relation to Moloka‘i Bound — which was me and Chapin’s first collaboration, and my second with Holden — and the eventual feature film we’re making based on it, that project is very geared toward large format widescreen. We wanted to frame that character against that Kāne‘ohe backdrop and that’s what felt best for this aspect ratio. For Every Day in Kaimukī, to portray the Naz character’s everyday life, we wanted something that felt very interior and urban. That’s how we landed at the boxed-in aspect ratio of this film. From there, we built out all our aesthetic choices around that.

FH There’s also the laxness of the camera, and an unexpected oner.

AM That one-shot in particular, all credit goes to Naz. He really designed that scene and felt like it’d be best expressed in one long take. Naz mentioned how chaotic it was in that moment for his character — he’s trying to meet up with people, and being pulled in all directions. What was beautiful about the way that he wrote it and formed it is that you really get that sense of, like, everything’s happening all the time, which I think is some of what we were trying to convey. I have to give it to Naz, too, because he’s basically improvising the whole phone conversation he’s having, the whole thing.

NK Yeah, you know, I saw Boogie Nights and was like, that’s pretty cool. [Laughs] Shooting it that way just seemed like a way to show the building stress of the month for the character in two minutes. How can we shrink all it down, you know? You get to watch everything happening, one after the other, all at the same time, and that illustrates it better than time lapses, for instance. It wasn’t just me. It was all three of us thinking about how to make it impactful.

FH Was it intimidating to work with so many non-professional actors?

AM The idea of setting up this whole film with, you know, non-professional actors was pretty exciting. I’ve only, so far, worked with non-professional actors, or just my friend group for a while now. I’ve gotten comfortable with that aspect of it, and, also, the results of what that brings. There’s a naturalism that I think is really hard to achieve, especially when we’re, you know, telling stories about Hawai‘i, because it’s such a specific place. For instance, if someone can’t speak Pidgin right, it sounds really bad. You don’t want to cast a lot of this stuff conventionally. When we started to develop the script together, Naz would invite over the people who we had in mind and who seemed to be down. We all got to meet them and interact with them. In working with non-actors, I think it’s finding the line between not over-rehearsing and still wanting them to be comfortable enough with their lines. Because it’s super important that it feels naturalistic. That was the goal.

Wholeheartedly, I want people to make more things and not just talk about making them. Pursue more. Get out of a state of complacency, make something with your friends, or move away, or, I don’t know, just be inspired to do something that they didn’t think they could.

Nazareth Kawakami, actor, co-writer
every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

FH How do you all hope the film is received?

KW It’s a relatable story, and I hope that any audience member can at least empathize with the characters, especially Naz’s. I would like it to inspire people to start moving, trying to leave their own small towns because of it. That’d be really cool. Just cause a mass Exodus.

AM This film takes place with the backdrop of the pandemic, but it’s not about the pandemic, that’s happening in the background. I think for all of us, it’s been an intensely introspective time, so if people are contemplating making some big decision, like moving, I hope this film sparks something in them, whether it’s more of a conviction to leave or to stay.

NK Holden, buy me some time.

HM [Laughs] In general, for people watching this film, if they’re from here, then, yes, I agree, if there is something you really want to do, just go for it, pursue it. But, I also think that with what Alika is doing, just showing that we all have real interesting stories to tell. That’s the one thing I would love to see: more interesting stories to come out of Hawai‘i or people who have the courage to put it out there. Because everybody has a good story, or they have their own story to tell, and everybody should go for it. In terms of people watching the film outside of Hawai‘i, I hope people gain a perspective of us that they’ve never seen.

NK Uh, I think listen to more Strokes.

AM [Laughs] Or listen to Goon Lei Goon [whose songs soundtrack the film].

NK Yes, listen to Goon. I don’t know. I do agree with Holden, wholeheartedly, that I want people to make more things and not just talk about making them. Pursue more. Get out of a state of complacency, make something with your friends, or move away, or, I don’t know, just be inspired to do something that they didn’t think they could. I’d like to see more Hawaiian film, especially, because there’s a lot of potential and a lot of perspectives there.

every day in kaimuki
Photo courtesy Chapin Hall.

FH Without giving away too much, what can you say about the ending: Did the character Naz find what he was looking for?

AM Again, in line with the messiness of the film that we were trying to capture, when it ends, you don’t really know whether that character made the right decision. I think that remains to be seen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Single film tickets available here.