I'm Kanani Koster. I'm a Hapa director, filmmaker, AD, and producer here in Portland. My pronouns are she, her. Hapa is pigeon or Hawaiian for half. I'm Japanese-Hawaiian and white. That is a big part of the work that I make in a lot of different ways. I have been living in Portland for the last year and a half. Moving to Portland was the main thing that's driven my career forward. I lived in Seattle beforehand and felt stunted and didn't feel connected to the community. The second, my partner and I landed in Portland. I started getting jobs. I started meeting the coolest people here who were supportive and excited to work on my projects and excited to have me on to help with theirs. That's meant a lot to me.
I find it essential to bring BIPOC people onto my projects and working with women-identifying people because the set is different when you have a nice mix of everyone coming together. I guess that's my background: my racial and ethnic background is precisely that. It's this weird mix of cultures, you know, it's that islander vibe of having all these Asian identities and Hawaiian. All the islanders are coming together and also learning to acclimate to larger, more comprehensive systems. That's a little bit about how I try to build my sets and relate directly to my ethnic identity.
When I was younger and middle and high school, I took a lot of film production classes. I remember I enjoyed the classes at first but eventually got frustrated. Many girls were doing those types of courses because many of the dudes would do all my work for me. they were, "Oh, I'm going to help you out here." Or, "you can be in front of the camera." Honestly, I hate being in front of a lens.
I remember getting fed up and tired of it and not pursuing it, because it didn't seem like a real career, ironically. I went to college, and then I started looking at education and becoming a teacher. That was not fun either for me. As soon as I got out of college, I started a small nonprofit, with my partner, Travis, called Cherry Street Films. It was merging those two things, which was education and filmmaking, and we started teaching filmmaking across Seattle at a different location. It would be more accessible because social justice was also a big part of my graduate degree.
That was fun for a while. I appreciated the work I did, but it bugged me deep down because I love film much, and it means much to me. I was teaching it, but I wasn't producing any of my content. I was supporting all these young people. It was exciting to see them all get inspired by the work that they could have. It made me also want to do that.
I started doing that in Seattle, I started meeting more people who would collaborate with me, and I started learning more about filmmaking on my own and working on sets in different positions. It was still pretty hard, though. There weren't that many projects to get involved in. It was a lot of my projects that I was leading up there. Until, yeah, eventually, I started directing, and then I would work on the side as an AD on a few friends' sets and support other people in smaller producer roles. That's where I made my first big short film as I call it, "The New Frontier," which is a Western all about BIPOC people and reclaiming that history.
I've always loved period pieces, mostly old westerns, but I hate watching them because John Wayne and all these white cowboys are unappealing. I love the imagery. I love the aesthetic of it. I love the idea of what the Old West was because it was such a diverse time. You know, we had many people of color who were building our nation up, I mean, the entire expansion of the West is because we had Chinese-Americans, Chinese migrant workers building outward.
My other piece that I wish I was able to include in the films, during the Old West up until 1865, that's all when we got Hawaii as a state into our country, and that also is a big piece of the Western expansion of the United States. Much of that history isn't told in these old westerns that I wanted to touch upon. That was my first big short, and it was relaxed and fun. It wasn't perfect by any means, and I still cringe watching it. That was the big piece that got me started on this.
Right now, I'm working on two projects. One is currently in production, and the next one is in pre-production. What's currently in production is funded through the Oregon State Film brand and travel Oregon extreme adventure grant, all about diverse women motorcycle riders in Oregon called Any Oregon Sunday. I'm working with Tiffany and Janie and Jasmine Carsey, and we're just...I'm excited. That's what my whole week has been; it has been out shooting.
It's been cool to highlight all these women. Something we're trying hard to do is, of course, in the pre-production and getting grants and sponsorships, we've been using the keyword "diverse women." We're hoping to do that less once we get into distribution. We’re taking those words out of the plotline and logline synopsis, because we want it to normalize that women ride. We want to call it a motorcycle documentary, rather than feeling stuck in this women’s motorcycle box, this mysterious diversity box.
We're hoping to submit it to the festival and have a wider audience come to this film and say, "Oh, there are only women who are in this film." That shouldn't feel that it needs a label to it. That's something that leads to a lot of my work. It's something we're trying to be critical about normalizing things without tokenizing people. That's been necessary when we're interviewing people on; you don't have to label yourself in any one specific way. You don't feel you have to describe how different it is to ride a motorcycle while being a woman because it's not. It's not different at all. You have your own full story, and we want to focus on you being a badass.
The project I'm working on afterward, which is currently in pre-production that we're hoping to shoot in September/October, is called No Spectators Allowed, a short film. That one is a thriller about missing Indigenous women. It's critical of this true-crime love that many people have, including myself, and how we look at women, especially BIPOC women, as disposable, as bodies, as this sexy, gratuitous thing that spices up the story about why you don't ever think about these women who are murdered by serial killers as people and how problematic that is.
That storyline is a tug-o-war between this true-crime podcast host and this indigenous woman sister as they have this tug-o-war on-air over what this narrative will be. Is this focused on serial killers? Or is this focused on the murdered victim or this victim's life and her story and how we need to solve it?
We've been slowly carrying off on pre-production while we are in production for the motorcycle documentary. Jasmine and I have started storyboarding on that, Chelsey Owensby has signed on as a producer, and she's working on getting us some additional funds for that. We're tightening up the script. We're working towards partnering with a few other indigenous orgs. I've got some friends from "The New Frontier" that I'd to show them the script to once I feel it's a little closer to what will be in its final form and have them give some feedback and critiques.
On "The New Frontier," I was lucky, and I was able to have some consultants from the Yakima tribe because we were shooting on that, on the Wapato Reservation. It was important for that story to be told in a specific way that felt authentic. We're trying to do the same thing on No Spectators Allowed, depending on who our lead actress is when we cast her. We want to collaborate with her on tweaking the script. It feels more authentic and filming me at least part of it on the Reservation, and even in the long term, thinking about how we're going to be holding some screening and feedback discussion thing.
A big part of my intention is reclaiming these stories, these genres, and for No Spectators Allowed, it's reclaiming that Fincher murder thriller, but in a smart way that's tackling these larger problems of being gratuitous, of being sexist, or taking advantage of these horrific stories and pointing out the issues and problems that we continuously see in films. A big part of the process I have is how we show the script before we even shoot anything to whoever is our consultant on board and the actresses and actors involved and feeling out what's happening. It's every single step of the process, you know, if it's that bad by post, then I messed up. It's little alignments that I see happening in post-production that I've done in the past, where I'm, "You know what, you're right. The way we cut there didn't feel right; maybe we should have cut sooner. Or maybe that was too gratuitous, and that didn't lend itself to the story in the right way, we should cut that piece out because that's not helping." It's gross at that point, you know, because there's such a fine line. After all, I do love violence and gory things. It's always been a fine line that I play where I'm, "I want to point out this problem, but I also want to have fun and have violence and gore here. For this story, in particular, does that work? How are we going to frame it? Isn't it problematic or something we've already seen a million times?
When I approached these stories, "The New Frontier," which was a Western, I sat down with my writing team, and I said, "Okay, well, when we're writing this, what cliches are we actively trying to avoid and it was, we don't want any white saviors. We don't want anybody blacker brown bodies to be murdered or killed. We don't want anyone raped, of course. It was one of those things, but it's a Western, we have to have some gore. I said, "Guess we're killing the white people. That's going to be fun." In most westerns, we see mostly black and brown bodies being killed.
A lot of the work that I created is with this assumption, and with this hope that we're ready to have these more significant dialogues and discussions. I remember when I made The New Frontier, I focused on what I wanted to tell and what my friends wanted to tell. Each chapter was told by a different BIPOC person, creative, or writer. They helped write a short poem over each of those chapters. I said, take it wherever you want to go, and we're going to build a narrative around that. I didn't think about how it would be taken. Once we edited it together and started showing it to people, I remember how uncomfortable specific audiences were with it. It's a mix. We're ready to have these discussions and especially looking at right now as we're looking at the systemic racism within our country and how that aligns closely with the work that I'm producing in terms of calling that out. It works well. It's timely, or at least I hope it is. I hope that my work aligns in a way that we can have these uncomfortable discussions for the future.
For "No Spectators..." we're hoping to start shooting at the end of September, which is a crazy timeline, but I am hopeful. Chelsea is a powerhouse producer and knocks through things, and Jasmine Carsey, our DP, is also a badass who's ready to work. It is already working on the storyboard with me, even though we're currently amid this insane motorcycle documentary. We're hoping to have that shot in late September, early October, spend the winter in post-production and then, in theory, start to submit something by late spring. We'd have a rough screening cut at some closer local orgs to partner with to get some feedback on and feel it out. See if it is headed in the right direction, or if there is something we do need to reshoot or if something is not feeling right.
Because the story is essential to me, you know? We're talking about murdered women and how their stories and pop culture has always been geared towards the serial killer. What is sexy? What type of story or even most black and brown bodies and has been ignored completely? I take it seriously. It's super important when we're...Even once we're on post, and we've made an edit, you know that it's worth fixing if there's an issue. We'll find a way to do that. To me, having community feedback sessions are such a big part of the story process. That hopefully will happen in the late spring and summer; I imagine it will be this beautiful, shiny, polished project.
I want to continue to grow as a producer, especially learning more about distribution. That's such a crucial part of the filmmaking process that a lot of other filmmakers that I know tend to forget about or at least are exhausted by the entire process. By the point that they get to distribution, they're too tired and throw the reins and are, "I don't care, anybody can have this film if they throw me $2,000 or $5 or whatever the cost is, the check they get.
I want to continue on my career path, learning, and having a firm hold on to continue to support my community of friends and their projects and distribution deals. I want to continue to direct, of course. I want to continue to grow as a director, especially in finding more funding for my projects. I'm pretty good at writing grants. There are many other pieces to funding a film that I am not equipped for that I haven't met the right people yet, and that's something I want to look for in the future. I want to continue to stay in Portland and help everyone else on their projects as much as they've helped mine.
I am a producer of Scott Brown's documentary, Dear Doris, which is all about the drag queen Doris fish and her insane life story and how she made this film called Vegas in Space. That's also RACC funded, and I helped him write a grant for that as well. Continually join that supporting all of my friends and fellow creatives, such as Alberta Poon, who always has the coolest projects. I help her anyway I can as an AD and jump on those projects. I am continuously being a part of this community and supporting everyone else because they've continually shown up for me.
I remember before production started on, I had the blues. It hit me. I got melancholy. I felt I was never going to do a project again, even though I had a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant given to me, and I'd gotten this other grant for the Travel Oregon and Oregon Sunday. I got blue waiting for it to happen, and it's hard to get out of that headspace when you're there. Any Oregon Sunday I reached out to a friend, I reached out to Ashley Mellinger over at Desert Island Studios, who's been a producer for me. She's always working on such cool stuff.
I said, "Hey, I'm feeling down right now, do you want to trade scripts and give me feedback. I'll give you feedback. I don't know, and I'm blue. I need that right now." she's lovely and sweet. She said, "Of course, I would love that." she immediately sent me a script. She said, "I don't know if this will be made. I wrote it in a haze or for fun, or this is an older one." I sent her a script. I don't think we gave each other our scripts' feedback back. It was such a...it lifted my spirits quickly. It's reaching out to your fellow creatives and sharing scripts, sharing stories with friends over FaceTime. Or if they're in your little bubble, having them over in person and having writing parties.
Chelsea Owensby came over, and we wrote a ridiculous script for Hump. "Yeah, we can make this even, it'll be COVID safe, and we'll have a drone, and it'll be ridiculous." She signed on for No Spectators Allowed. We dropped the Hump project, but it's one of those things, it's okay to drop projects, it's okay to keep them on the back burner to throw it in an archived project folder. Continually trying to write and being open to the writing process is a super collaborative process. I was always willing to read other people's scripts. That's a vital part of it, you know, you get excited. Hopefully, suppose you're reading other people's writings. In that case, you'll be inspired not only to write but also to help them do whatever cool film they have in their minds, whether whatever role they need as a producer as an AD, and that's how I've been doing it.
I feel lucky to have many awesome cool people who are doing cool work and are continually pushing me and helping me in my career, and I aspire to do the same for them.