The Dole Cannery office of the Hawaii International Film Festival, even though it’s at street level on Iwilei Road, is a bit hidden from view — but once people find it and wander inside, the joint is really jumping. There’s good reason for that, with the annual event celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and more than 170 screenings slated to run through Oct. 24. And though the festival began as a rather quiet local event, Chuck Boller, its executive director for the past decade, has witnessed much of that rise in international stature to a cinema showcase now distinctive for its Asia-Pacific brand.
The New York-born, lifelong film buff is now 64, but the first part of his career was in entertainment law. He lived in the nation’s capital and his work, including globetrotting with the crews of National Geographic TV, made him a worldly man, not initially feeling the lure of Hawaii.
But the minute the plane touched down, he knew he was in the islands for good. An avid swimmer, Boller now lives in Lanikai, where the famous beach ranks among his life’s pleasures; he admits that "the ocean got me."
There were other attractions, though.
"The culture, the people are unique," he said. "Everybody says, ‘Oh, it’s a melting pot.’ Well, there are very few melting pots. Washington’s not a melting pot. It’s got a black neighborhood, it’s got an Italian neighborhood.
"Hawaii’s got everything all mixed up into this wonderful mishmash of unique people," Boller said. "I’m naive enough to think that maybe the world will be like Hawaii someday."
Question: When did you take over the helm here?
Answer: This is my 11th festival as executive director. I took over halfway through 2000, our 20th anniversary year. I’d been with the festival off and on; it used to be just part-time staff year-round; we were lucky — every year the same people you wanted were still available. I was working in Washington, D.C., as an entertainment attorney, and so I’d come to Hawaii for, like, one or two months to work on the festival. Finally, I thought: I want to live in Hawaii. Who wants to go back to Washington?
Q: So you worked in your capacity as an attorney?
A: Actually, I’d come here with National Geographic TV, rather than the film section. I was their attorney. They would take me all over the world with them on their shooting, so they took me to Hawaii. I didn’t want to come, because I said, "Oh, no, it’s America, it’s not exotic enough." I got on the plane, got off here and instantly fell in love with Hawaii.
Even though I was an entertainment lawyer, I wasn’t familiar with film festivals. There’s one in Washington, D.C., but it’s still not a major player in the industry, so even the people there hardly went to it. So I didn’t really know film festivals until I came here, and I thought, "Gee, what a marvelous thing film festivals are. There’s a real film festival culture. … There’s a whole world of film festival gypsies out there who go from one to the next. If I were young again, I’d probably try to do that with my life — although I’ve had a great life. They have these great adventures all over the world."
The thing is, they spend their lives in very intense work. They come in, and we put them right to work, because they’re only here for a month.
Q: Was there a point when HIFF made the leap out of the zone of a little local film festival to something more world-class?
A: I think so. I value very much the firm foundation that Jeannette Paulson Hereniko set that allowed me to stand and build on that.
I admit when I took over in 2000 I had several coups that first year. One was landing Louis Vuitton as the title sponsor; another was landing the three movie theaters in Waikiki which no longer exist; and then the third one was getting "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as our opening film. I tried to get that from Sony Pictures Classics in New York City. And they go, "Ah, Hawaii’s not a big enough market. Nah, we don’t care. Never mind; you can’t have it."
I knew Ang Lee, so we contacted Ang Lee, the director, and he gave us the movie anyway. Well, that really put us on the map with Sony Pictures Classics, for example, because the film did incredibly well here. And then Sony realized it because they sent a representative in to actually hand-carry the print; they were afraid of piracy. So the lady from New York actually slept with that film print in her hotel room; she literally never let it out of her sight. But she also told New York, "Gee, it’s packed; people here, the tickets sold out in 20 minutes, it’s unbelievable." Sony advanced the release of the film to coincide with the end of the festival.
Q: What happened after that big year?
A: I thought, "Gosh, what have I got to do to raise the profile of Hawaii International Film Festival?" Because not enough people live here. You’ll notice that even the Hollywood films, like "English Patient," never played on the neighbor islands here. So when Maui Film Festival started, that was their opening film. Well, "English Patient" played everyplace else, it was such a great film, but not on the neighbor islands, because the Hollywood distributors, enough people don’t live here, so they don’t care that much about Hawaii as a film market or music market. So I’ve tried to change that, film-wise, by making our festival more important. Part of it is through publicity and promotion. The people who come and the films pick up distributors here, for example, like "Princess Kaiulani" did last year.
One of our great coups was "Departures." Wonderful film, and the only place you could have seen it before winning an Oscar was at HIFF. We had to convince the Japanese director to give it to us.
He actually said to me on the phone, "I’m not going to release it in the United States because Americans don’t understand the Japanese traditional way of death."
And I said, "We’re not the United States, we’re Asia, really, so give us the film."
So he did, and it went on to win an Oscar. And as wonderful Roger Ebert said in his column the day after the Oscars, "The only place you could have seen ‘Departures’ in the entire United States was at HIFF." We were the only place that showed it. Well, after it won, it took off. It’s one of the top 10 most successful foreign films in history … The director was also here recently scouting locations. I would love to have him shoot a film in Hawaii, because that’s one thing we do.
Q: What do you mean? What do you do?
A: There’s really two festivals in one: There’s the public, and then there’s the professional side. We have over 350 visiting filmmakers from throughout the world who come into town to do business, to come with their films. I had 50 people coming from China this year, for example, a huge delegation from Beijing, and one from Shanghai. We have a partnership with the Shanghai International Film Festival, so our colleagues from Shanghai are coming from there. Plus, in Beijing they had the China Film Association, a very powerful group that oversees the film policy in China. The director, director Li, is a friend and colleague of mine and heads this association. So they’re coming over this year. They’re even sponsoring our party at the governor’s reception. I’ve always wanted to get financial sponsorship out of Asia, and it’s just starting to work. So I hope this is a trend for us.
Q: So the filmmakers coming here are looking for sponsors?
A: Yes, they want to introduce their films. We have press and media coming, about 100 press and media from throughout the world, everything from Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
Q: But do the corporate money people come in for the event with the express intent to meet them?
A: Some of them do, yes. And the networking that goes on is amazing, and the public never really sees it. One of our big success stories is Quentin Tarantino was here in ’98. We had a film, "Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl" … that was one of the first films made by director Katsuhito Ishii. So Quentin Tarantino met (film actor) Tadanobu Asano the year we had "Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl"; they hit it off and became friends. Ishii ended up doing all the animated sequences in "Kill Bill." So they met at our film festival. That’s the kind of thing people don’t know happens, necessarily. So that kind of thing’s invaluable.
Q: Has the festival influenced our relationship with China?
A: I’d like to think so. I’m very proud of the relationship with China. Eleven years ago when I went to China, I was just greeted with open arms. It couldn’t have been friendlier or more wonderful; I just loved it immediately.
Well, I approached the head of the festival and said, "I realize you partner with other festivals around the world."
Actually, I misunderstood a sign they had up there that implied that’s what they did … so, we are partners now. Actually, we renew the contract every two years as a ceremonial kind of thing; sometimes we add a little bit more to it. We’re going to renew the contract this year and sign it with great aplomb at the governor’s party, which is now "China Night."
Q: To what extent has HIFF spurred Hawaii film production?
A: I would love to think we were very instrumental in that. I like seeing the Hawaii film industry grow.
Years and years ago the Hawaii filmmakers section had TV commercials in it, because there wasn’t enough production to have just films. So we tried to show a slice of what’s being produced in Hawaii. We don’t really show commercials anymore because there are so many good films coming out of Hawaii now. This year, for the first time ever, we have four feature-length films made in Hawaii. It’s incredible.