Written by Murray Ashton on May 15, 2020. Posted in Interviews

On location in the Cook Islands with local Line Producer Stan Wolfgramm of Drum Productions.

TLG talks to Stan Wolfgramm, local line producer and CEO of Drum Productions on what producers should expect in the Cook Islands.

How did you become involved in the film business and what has been your career path that got you to the Cook Islands and your current role.

Kia Orana, Malo e lelei, hallo, my name is Stan Wolfgramm. I am a Tongan, Cook Islands, German, born and breed in Auckland, New Zealand. I am a Pasifika story teller and cultural entrepreneur and work in the mediums of mainstream theatre, film, television, major events, strategic comms and culture for social economic development. I began my career over 35 years ago in the fashion industry, in front of the camera. Wanting to be more involved in the story telling process I moved into live theatre. The theatre world was more accepting of Pacific stories and with a desire to learn more I found myself studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. The schools greatest lesson was in helping me find my own voice and passion for telling my story, my people's stories, Pasifika stories. After some time working in NY and LA I continued back to New Zealand and formed a theatre company called Drum Productions. I came from a generation whose parents were pacific migrants and now was part of a movement to tell our stories. The theatre is where I learnt the craft and business of storytelling, to write plays, produce them, sell tickets for them, and act in them.

Please tell us about Drum Productions?

Drum Productions mission statement is: 'To provide for Pasifika people a valued voice in their own backyard. Our focus is Pasifika story telling, our aim is to empower people through story and provide opportunities for talented and collaborative peoples who wish to do the same'.

This was our mission statement 30 years ago and it hasn't changed since. Starting as a theater company was solid story telling grounding but we wanted to appeal to larger audiences and with growing families we also wanted to pay more bills. So we stepped into the television world by making documentaries for mainstream broadcasters. Doco's were great but they had sudden starts and sudden finishes. TVC's were gems that popped up now and again but they also had sudden starts and finishes. So we added to our portfolio annual series production, then major event production and OB multi-cam broadcast.

As we became successful Pasifika mainstream producers based in New Zealand the largest Polynesian city in the world, we started to get more requests to work or facilitate work in the Pacific region but to be a legitimate pacific producer servicing the region you really need to be in the region which is why we opened an office in the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands as a film production destination is in a unique position over and above all other tropical island destinations for two main reasons:
1) It is a realm nation to New Zealand and therefore has the constitutional capacity to tap into New Zealand's international film industry resources.

2) The Cook Islands services up to 3 flights a day to and from New Zealand. You can be in New Zealand in the morning then shooting in Rarotonga in the afternoon same day with the flight time around 3 & 1/2 hours. The Cook Islands also services flights direct to and from Sydney Australia, Tahiti and Los Angeles making it a tropical location sandwiched between two of the world's film industry capitals.

Today Drum Productions has the expertise, experience and networks to do any type of production big or small. We won't do anything that isn't feasible and we're happy to dialogue and pass on information to producers, writers etc in the early stages of the creative process so they can make realistic decisions around story content, production values, locations and budgets. It's not just a job for us, it's about a great story and a great job done and finished.

What types of incoming production do you service?

We service all types of production from a network news stringer to a feature film. We can capture footage ourselves for clients and send it away. We can do major events or festivals, TVC's, doco's, features, drama series, live streaming, scientific research films and data collection, on the ocean, under the ocean, in the air, anything. How come? - Because we've been around for over 30 years and if we can't get what the production needs locally then we can source almost anything out of New Zealand or Los Angeles or where ever. Along with equipment we can also support a production with crew from the above the line staff level to interns.

From which countries are you getting most of your production service business from and why?

Productions come from mainly NZ or the USA. Next would be Germans and Brits, then a splash of other countries. Why a location is chosen tends to be a small part of a much bigger picture. Here are some of the reasons we've encountered - it's connected to something shooting in NZ, it's because of climate change and ocean conservation, it's easy to get to from LA and less permitting hassle than Hawaii or other tropical locations, its NZ currency and you get more bang for your buck, you can ghttps://www.thelocationguide.com/2012/06/the-hobbit’s-jared-connon-on-filming-new-zealand-and-working-with-peter-jackson/et the Last Samurai, Zena, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, King Kong, Narnia crew for NZ dollars, one of the world's leading humpback whales experts lives on the island and can get great access, permitting regulations are limited, locations are easily accessible, flights to NZ are daily, everyone speaks English, the government is stable, policing is well enforced and crime is low, internet is fibre optic, cast and crew can be accommodated, feed and transported easily, tax incentives can be negotiated, some NZ film incentives maybe eligible in the Cook Islands.

What can you tell us about the Cook Islands as a filming destination?

The Cook Islands is a self governing territory in free association with New Zealand and is therefore a part of the NZ realm and has been since 1901. All Cook Islanders have NZ passports and are dual citizens and therefore eligible to all rights New Zealanders have in immigration, health, education, employment etc. The same does not apply to New Zealanders but they do have special privileges around immigration and employment. Economic relations between the two nations are extremely important with New Zealand providing much support.

The Cook Islands lies in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean in Latitude: -21° 14' 8.79" S Longitude: -159° 46' 39.93" W. It comprises fifteen islands formed by volcanic eruptions leaving various islands, atolls and reefs within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Rarotonga is the largest island of the Cook Islands and the capitol, with the main port and international airport and a population of approximately 14,000. Its volcanic peaks and ridges with rainforest dominate its interior terrain. A 32km, round-the-island road circumnavigates the entire island linking the beaches, coastal lagoon and its reefs. Rarotonga's total area is 67.39 square km. Of the remaining 14 islands 12 are inhabited and 8 have runways. They vary in geography with locations that include caves, lakes, rivers, lagoons, cliffs and everything else tropical.

Local technical film crew is available but they are limited to local standards. One of the reasons Drum Productions works in the Pacific is to capacity build locals to learn from professionals so they can eventually tell their own digital stories and maintain sustainable industries. I recommend bringing in your main techs such as Camera and Sound. Depending on the needs of the gig we can determine whether a local can provide other high level support such as data wrangler, art dept, props, SFX, stunts and lighting. As I've mentioned we can tap in to the New Zealand film industry to provide all needs. All other ground support is available locally such as 2AD down, location mng, transport, catering, builders, makeup, PAs, runners etc.

There is a vast array of local Cook Islands talent whom practice cultural performance as an ongoing part of their schooling and community obligations but the number of trained actors is limited. The local college has a drama class of some 40 students. In summary the locals do have a bend toward performance and will happily give it a go. There are several cultural dance troupes, musicians, traditional drummers, fire dancers, singers and church choirs on island numbering into several thousand. Other substantial ethnic communities on the island are white Europeans, Filipino's, Indonesian's and Fijian's.

The Cook Islands does not have a portfolio of legislation dedicated to foreign film companies shooting on island but it does have relevant clauses in various government ministries such as Immigration, Customs and the Business Trade and Investment Board. Drum Productions has sorted through these ministries legislations and have mapped a clear path to permitting. The larger the production, the greater the need to begin the permitting process early. Permitting should take between, depending on the size of shoot, 1 to 3 weeks as long as we have all your information on hand. The Cook Islands does recognise an ATA Carnet. Currently we are working with the Cook Islands government to formalise a Film Commission.

There are no dedicated film studio facilities on the island but Drum Productions does have a large production hub space available with power, toilets, shower, wifi internet, security camera system, cafe, ATM machine, drive-in lock up, maintenance room and outside parking for 20 vehicles.

Film equipment on the island is limited, to none. What is here is privately owned with no guarantee of its condition and backups. My only endorsement would be the use of local drone pilots if a DJI phantom 4 satisfies your specs. They know the terrain and can save you time. The equipment Drum Productions has is an up to date Avid Media Composer editing suite with drobo raid storage. As I've said before we can get you any equipment out of New Zealand. Fights are everyday, sometimes up to 3 times a day, so backups can be flown in overnight, rushes can be sent daily to a lab or post facility. Fibre optic cable is now on the island so you can blast files over the internet if needed. Otherwise bring whatever you need.

The Cook Islands has good infrastructure; four major banks including the ANZ and Western Union. Rarotonga has the main hospital with catscan, xray, surgery, emergency ward etc all major incidents are medivaced to New Zealand. Water on Rarotonga is potable. Rentals vehicles are readily available and range from bicycles to buses. The airport is international and services direct flights to and from New Zealand, Australia, Los Angeles and Tahiti. Domestic flights to some of the outer islands are daily and aircraft range from single engine Cessna to twin jet citation II and can be chartered. Accommodation ranges from back packers to luxury resort and airbnb with restaurants and bars plentiful on the island.

As for weather, the Cook Islands lie north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and typically have a tropical oceanic climate, with temperatures stable throughout the year. The average maximum temperatures vary between 25°C and 29°C, while the average minimum temperatures vary between 18°C in July and August and 23°C in January and February. Seasonal differences are mainly due to the rainfall regime. The Cook Islands alternate between two seasons, a wet and rainy season from December to March where cyclones are rare, and a mild and dry season from April to November.

What locations are most commonly used by foreign or out of state film and TV crews when they come and film in the Cook Islands?

Generally crews are either seeking scenery or content for a story so either beautiful idyllic palm fringed tropical white sandy beaches and turquoise lagoons or humpback whale behaviour, climate change indicators, marine resource management etc.

What are the more unusual locations that the Cook Islands has to offer that our readers would not necessarily associate with the islands?

No real surprises here when it comes to tropical beauty and isolation but Rarotonga does have what is termed the 'cursed' Sheraton Hotel 250 room complex. A long-abandoned luxury resort that has lain derelict for a quarter of a century. The crumbling, graffiti-covered buildings are overgrown with creepers and sits on a 70-acre site. The Italian-backed hotel project, which began in the late 1980s, was designed to revolutionize tourism in the remote Cook Islands by providing the tiny nation with its first five-star resort. But the house of cards collapsed at the 11th hour, with the project 80% complete, amid allegations of mafia involvement and money laundering back in Italy. So it now makes for a great post apocalyptic location.

What locations worldwide can the Cook Islands easily double for?

The Cook Islands can double for any tropical location in the world, anywhere in the South Pacific, the Caribbean, the South American jungle and rain forest, costal Asian territories, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, even costal India or Sri Lanka.

What are the advantages of filming in the Cook Islands?

Shooting in the Cook Islands can be the same as shooting in New Zealand as far using its available expertise, equipment and support is concerned. Up to 3 flights a day to New Zealand of approx 3 1/2 to 4 hours flight time one way. So back up equipment and post production data wrangling is fast. There is one flight a week direct to and from Los Angeles to Rarotonga or you can transit thru New Zealand for daily international flights to anywhere in the world. If you want to bring all your assets from somewhere else, no problem. If you work with us, permitting can be quick as we've done it many times over and have worked out the processes, contacts and information needed. Nothing is for free but sometimes benefits can be exchanged without money and the best way to do this is to mentor local film makers. The locals are can do and friendly and all speak English. Many are well educated with tertiary degrees. The currency is New Zealand and can often offer more bang for buck in the exchange rate. Location shifts are small and economical with Rarotonga only being 20 miles or 32km total in circumference.

What productions / production companies have used Cook islands locations in the past five years.

Paradise Soldiers, Magnetic Pictures / TVNZ
Director - David Blyth
Producers - Brian Holland, Juanita Edwards

Origins, Greenstone Pictures / Scottie Productions
Director - Dan Salmon
Line Producer - Megan Tucker
Doco - 4 part series

Unexplained, The History Channel/ Prometheus Studios Inc
Director - Stan Wolfgramm
Exec Prod - Rob O'Brien
Talent Presenter - William Shatner

Planet of the Whales, National Geographic / Red Rock Films
Exec Producer - James Cameron
Producers - Brian Skerry, Brian Armstrong, Shannon Malone-DeBenedictis
Talent - Brian Skerry
Doco series x 4 part

Stranded Pearl, Mahayana Films Ltd
Director - Ken Khan
Producer - Anand Raj Naidu
Low Budget Feature film

Whale Wisdom, Terra Mater factual Studios
Director - Rick Rosenthal
Executive producers: Susanne Lummer, Sabine Holzer
Talent - Rick Rosenthal
Narration - Sir David Attenborough

2019 Goldman Environmental Awards, Jaqueline Evans, Quazifilms Hawaii
Director - Matt Yamashita
Producer - Michael Sutton
Talent - Jacqueline Evans
Award introduction

Faszination Wasser, Terra x/ GRUPPE 5/ ZDF Enterprises/ ARTE
Producer - Claudia Ruby
Talent Presenter - Uli Kunz

Tatau, BBC
Dir- Michael Hurst
Producer - John Ruston
Talent - Temuera Morrison
Drama series - 8 part

We've also had the CBS series Survivor and British BBC Shipwrecked series in the Cook Islands.

What has been your most difficult Cook Islands production assignment or request to date and why?

Our most difficult production was self inflicted. Our mission statement involves capacity building our indigenous people to tell their own digital stories and generally we have no resources. So we used our creative talents to devise a learning model called FILM RARO where we ran a 3 month filmmaking course for locals and invited film makers from all over the world to submit a short film script they could shoot and deliver in 10 days with themselves as director, and three other film buddies as camera operator, sound operator and editor. They needed to bring their own equipment and using only local cast and crew make that film on location in the tropical paradise of Rarotonga. FILM RARO would pay for everything to fly 6 teams of 4 in from anywhere in the world to make their films. Airfares, accommodation, food, transport, props, locations, local cast and crew, and a screening venue all organised and paid for. All they had to do was mentor the locals and make a great film. We received over 2000 entries from around the world ranging from film students to Hollywood block buster producers. We used the final scripts chosen as the curriculum for the filmmaking course and skyped the directors around the world to introduce crews, locations, cast, props etc. In the last two weeks of the course we flew all six teams in from the UK, Hawaii, LA, Australia and New Zealand to arrive together and all start principle photography on the same day. We were producing all 7 short films (one local film on our kids) simultaneously. Post production editing was done at the same time. It all culminated 12 days later in a public screening. Unfortunately it rained and our indoor venue fitted only 2000 so we squeezed in 2500 and had thousands more waiting to get in. We had to turn them away and promised a second screening the next day where we squeezed in 2500 again. Over half the island had shown up wanting to see themselves on screen. It was a crazy concept but a great success. Love to do it again with a behind the scenes reality tv series if we can get a broadcaster onboard.

Are there any particular tips that you would like to share with our readers about filming in the Cook Islands?

Please feel free to contact us anytime, it can be well before you decide where to locate your production or even in your creative writing process because there is no use trying to make a location in to something it is not. Drum Productions will advise you not just on the location but also on the logistics to use it and from there help predict risks and costs. We will brainstorm together solutions. A few basic tips; make sure you have travel insurance including medical. You won't see it in the brochures but there are mosquitoes in the tropics. Bring repellent and cooler loose long sleeves and long pants mozzies can't penetrate. Bring an aluminium refillable drink bottle. You may not think it necessary but you will need to constantly hydrate to acclimatise. It also saves the environment from plastic bottles. Make sure you update and download everything you need before you arrive on the island as the internet is expensive and can sometimes be inconsistent.

What do you enjoy most about living and working in the Cook Islands?

Living in the Islands is not easy. It challenges you to be resilient and self sufficient. As they say paradise comes at price. I do enjoy the opportunities it provides me to learn more about my ancestral culture and its relevance to today's conservation of our Pacific Ocean.

What would you recommend crew and cast do to have fun and relax on down days or pre / post filming in the Cook Islands?

Take a walk and slow down. Walk along the beach or on a bush trail. Take in the environment. Have a swim, snorkel. You've come along way and may never come back again so let the work drop away while you soak up this unique paradise in the middle of the south pacific.

What do you do to relax and chill out yourself after looking after an incoming production?

Sending invoices and chasing final payments - LOL. To tell the truth I like to regain my life and re-adjust, to fall back in to a normal routine again. Productions are amazing hives of creativity but they are also train wrecks waiting to happen and so they demand 24/7 attention and energy to make the most of all opportunities and all hiccups. I brought a kite surf and have promised myself to learn how to fly it one day.

Where did you last take a vacation?

New Zealand is still my first home.

What was the last movie you saw and loved?

Peaky Blinders on Netflix.

Thank you Stan. It has been great talking to you and finding out about you, Drum Productions and what makes the Cook Islands such an attractive filming destination.

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