Finding ‘Ohana- Director Jude Weng

“I believe in the ethos of leaving a place better than when you found it.”

-Jude Weng

Jude Weng is the director of Finding ‘Ohana– a Netflix original adventure film following Brooklyn-raised siblings Pilialoha and Ioane Kawena, reconnecting with their Hawaiian heritage. Finding ‘Ohana is Jude’s feature directorial debut. “Every director wants to direct movies, and every opportunity just seemed nearly impossible,” says Jude. Jude started her career directing reality and game shows, finally breaking into scripted television five years ago. Jude is the first Asian American woman to direct a half-hour broadcast network pilot. She recalls meeting with her team to discuss the possibility of making her first feature film, “I told them I love action, adventure and comedy. It’s the icing on the cake if it’s got people of color and a female lead. I was thinking, it isn’t possible to have a script that checked all those boxes, then I got Finding ‘Ohana.”

Finding ‘Ohana, is heavily influenced by 80’s movies, specifically the Indiana Jones saga. Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first American film Jude had ever seen. Jude grew up poor and spent most of her days working in her father’s diner. “The reason I wanted to be a storyteller, to be honest, is because I needed to escape,” she says. The small hours of freedom she had after a long shift was spent listening to stories of customers, “stories helped me understand people and the world. It allowed me to escape in the way I most needed, especially when I was a kid.” Jude vividly remembers going to watch the film that would inspire her to become a director. “My dad didn’t let us do fun stuff. I had to stay at the restaurant until midnight, or one o’clock.  I heard so many kids talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had to go see that movie.” Jude stole money from the register, cut school, and took the bus to the Van Nuys Regency Theater. “I threw the $20 I had on the counter and ran in because I was scared they were going to catch me. There was no one in the theater. I had never been to a movie before, so I sat in the front row. I thought it was like a stage show. I remember when the ball chased Indie, I thought it was going to come out of the screen! I jumped out of my chair and hid. That visceral feeling, I have been chasing it ever since,” says Jude.

An homage to Short Round driving Indiana in Temple of Doom, Pilialoha steals her grandfather’s truck and straps cans of SPAM to her feet to reach the pedals. Ke Huy Quan who played Short Round, is George in Finding ‘Ohana. Jude serendipitously met Ke Huy, while taking her children for shaved ice. “I unexpectedly ran into an old friend there and told her I would be directing a Goonies type story in Hawaii later that summer. I heard a voice say, ‘Did somebody say Goonies?’ I turned around and it was Ke Huy. I have worked with a lot of famous people and I never fond over anyone. My kids said my jaw hit the ground and I turned red. It truly felt like fate.”  Jude exchanged phone numbers with Ke Huy and reached out to Finding ‘Ohana scriptwriter Christina Strain, “I asked what do you think about writing a part for Ke Huy? We can show him the script and if he likes it he will come out of retirement and do the movie. She writes in the part for him, he reads it and agrees to do the movie.”

Producer Ian Bryce also collaborated with Jude on Finding ‘Ohana. Ian has worked on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. “There was this amazing photo taken of the two of them, Ke Huy sitting on Ian’s lap. I had to get a picture of them together, reunited after 30 years,” says Jude. Preceded by an incredible reputation, Jude remembers interviewing Ian for the project, “He is not your typical Hollywood producer. I asked him how he made budget decisions, and he said, ‘It’s not about saving money it’s about spending your money wisely.’ He was the only producer I interviewed that had that answer.” Ian suggested instead of the typical t-shirt or swag bag given to the crew after wrapping the budget should be used to give back to Hawaii. Jude, Christina, and Ian created a creative writing scholarship at the University of Hawaii and a donation was given to an organization that planted a tree for every crew member.

Respect for Hawaii was not given just at the end of filming but throughout the entire production process. Jude imparted the philosophy to all department heads to prioritize Hawaiian culture. Casting made sure Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander actors were cast in leading roles. The film stars Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, and Mapuana Makia. The script also incorporates more than 100 Hawaiian words. Production not only hired local Hawaiian crew but to ensure authenticity, Hawaiian cultural experts were hired as consultants from tattoos to transportation. Head costume designer Lisa Lovaas worked with local Hawaiian senior homes to create costumes. A traditional Hawaiian priest blessed sets and asked for permission to film on location. Because caves in Hawaii are “kapu” (forbidden), production took filming across the pacific to Thailand for the cave scenes.

The incredible respect given to Hawaiian culture in the making of Finding ‘Ohana is not only a testament to Jude’s character, but an example film productions everywhere should strive to follow. “I think a lot of Hawaiians feel that Hollywood comes and pays them lip service or whitewashes the story. I believe in the ethos of leaving a place better than when you found it. I would do this anyway, even if I wasn’t part Polynesian. It’s important to have gratitude for where you film, to be respectful,” says Jude.

Finding ‘Ohana is available on Netflix January 29th.

Photos courtesy of Netflix.