Keeping it real


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Honolulu-based James Sereno recently helped out with the film, Gook, which won an award at the Sundance International Film Festival. Other movies he’s done include Paradise Broken, Man Up, and Hang Loose (Gook images © 2017 Samuel Goldwyn Films;other film imagery courtesy of Kinetic Productions; Sereno portrait by David Murphey).

He is intense, gesturing wildly at times, and everything he is saying makes sense. This is the director of the most enjoyable airline safety instruction video I’ve ever seen. If you have flown Hawaiian Airlines recently, you might have seen the exit row lighting transformed to an aisle of flowers. That was James.

His office is splattered with collectables and when I ask him to “put me in the day-in-the-life of James Sereno,” I’m sitting in the correct chair.

“Turn and put your feet up on the arm of the chair,” he directs. “Feet towards the window.” It turns out to be a comfortable posture. His office overlooks a good chunk of Honolulu and distant peaks of the Ko‘olau mountain range. The blue chair has high armrests and I find my feet mingling with clouds while staring at a decorative metal silhouette that reads “Dream.”

He says with both elbows on his Spartan desk, the nerve center of Kinetic Productions, “I tell peoples’ dreams.”

Sereno recently helped out (post-production support) with a movie called Gook that has won big (an Audience Choice Award) at the Sundance International Film Festival. A slew of notable features under his belt such as Paradise Broken and Man Up, he is now making a web series about an ex-con struggling through the underground of Honolulu.

“I want to tell the story of Hawai‘i from the inside-out,” Sereno tells me. “Nothing against other productions set in Hawai‘i, but that is the outside-in view. I want to show the audience what daily life is for Hawai‘i residents who have to breathe it.” He does so with a perspective of Asian-Americans, like him.

He grew up only in Town (Honolulu). Once he graduated University High School in Manoa (Class of ’84), he knew neither Waimanalo nor Wai‘anae aside from legend. So, it must have been a shock for him to hop on a plane for film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. And the timing was unfortunate but prodigious. In 1992, after the Rodney King police brutality trial resulted in acquittal for the police officers involved, riots broke out. The USC campus James attended abutted two neighborhoods: Korea Town and Compton. Racial tensions between Korean business owners and the African-American population. The change of scenery from Honolulu to Hollywood was an education outside of film school. When he graduated, he spent a year in youthful folly before landing a job at Team1, an advertising firm. He worked with other production companies to make commercials for high-end companies like Lexus. “That was my second film school,” Sereno says. “I wasn’t making films like I wanted, but I was working with and learning from the best production companies in Hollywood.” He worked for big-name producers and directors before they were big-name. Sereno worked with Michael Bay long before Michael Bay produced blockbusters like The Rock and multiple Transformers movies. He took away a valuable lesson from this four-year stint in the cutthroat, need-it-now West Coast culture. He calls it “commitment in a soulful way. It’s not just sweat and hard work to succeed in film,” Sereno says. “You need to bleed. You have to put a piece of yourself in your work.”

The experience forged his work ethic that I could sense, but was trying to grasp. I set a fictional scene, asking him to pretend I was a 22-year-old, film school graduate he had hired, but wasn’t sure I would work out. I asked him, “Tell me what I need to know to succeed as a filmmaker.” He stood up, immediately.”Follow me.”

The lobby was filled with film editing computers, retro art and even more film collectables. The production crew was hard at work, having finished filming a TV commercial for a local bank. The wall facing the entrance is a chalk mural of an archer aiming an arrow at my skull. “When the archer shows up, you have to start dodging arrows.” It’s an intimidating metaphor, but I start to get it. For a film crew on a short timeline and scant budget, little setbacks can compound to wound the production. The effects of a simple scheduling error can be felt viscerally when your reputation and the fate of the production are at stake. “If the archer shows up, it’s usually too late. I stop him before he arrives by anticipating problems and being on the top on my game. That’s the best way for me to keep the creative ideas flowing.”

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