Moana Brothers

Born and raised in Hawai‘i, Aaron and Jordan Kandell take the values of the islands with them to work in Hollywood.

Screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell are steersmen toward a future of Hawai‘i storytelling having a greater role on Hollywood’s big screen. With credits such as Disney’s 2016 “Moana” and the recently released “Adrift,” the Hawai‘i-born brothers represent a narrative voice that evolved from the collective worldview of these islands. Ka Leo spoke with the brothers about their inspirations in storytelling, aspirations for Hawai‘i’s filmmaking future and advice to other local storytellers. 

How did growing up in Hawai‘i shape your work as screenwriters and storytellers?  

It continues to shape it. Clearly, we’re attracted to stories that involve the ocean. We’re naturally drawn to them. We’ve got “Moana,” we’ve got “Adrift” – those are two of five stories, screenplays, that we’ve written that involve the sea in very central and core ways. We can’t stress enough how that influences us as storytellers. As writers, we’re twins, so all we’ve known is collaboration. But growing up in Hawai‘i … there is a sense of community and ohana and ha‘aha‘a: trying to do things in a pono way. People care here about who you are as a person and how you act more than what you achieve. We try to take that with us to Hollywood and tell stories that we care about and are passionate about and hope can inspire and have meaning in the world. We want to go about that in a way that is as collaborative and inclusive as the place that we feel fortunate to call home.

The brothers spoke of how Hawai‘i stories differ from what is typically presented in big-budget Hollywood productions and how, through their work and the larger idea of collaboration, they hope to be a part of a change in the movie landscape. 

A lot of Hollywood and American narratives are driven by individual – the classic hero’s journey. What Hawaiian stories can offer is they can be more about the community. A lot of the stories we’ve tried to tell, whether it’s “Moana” or the ultimate message of “Adrift” (she survives not alone in that story) or the first script we ever wrote about Eddie Aikau and the movie we are trying to produce now about the Massie Affair, those are all stories that are about communities and how people coming together can achieve things beyond themselves. 

That was why it was so profound going to the “Moana” ‘ōlelo premiere because, to use a metaphor from “Moana,” as writers on it with a team of 900 people working on it, everybody just added their stone to raise the mountain a little higher. The University of Hawai‘i creative media and all of the performers ... they’ve added a whole other stone – a conch shell to the top of that mountain. It takes a village. You have to know your mountain, know where you came from, to know where you are going. All of that helps lift everyone a little higher. Seeing that personified I think is powerful and it’s something people want more of that they aren’t necessarily getting in traditional Hollywood. 

The brothers have some advice for young screenwriters in Hawai‘i and some insight into how Hawai‘i is becoming its own Hollywood. 

I hope that more and more the community of local talent and filmmakers come together to tell more local stories. Hopefully, we’re going to be apart of that new wave. I think there will always be a gap between small islands in the middle of the Pacific and a large city like Los Angeles, New York or Atlanta that attract a lot of the productions. What I would say to young filmmakers is that you’ve got to build your own canoe. You’ve got to sail it yourself. Nobody is going to hand it to you and say, ‘Here’s the way to sail past the reef.’ They are going to put up obstacles in your path. They’re going to say, ‘Don’t sail past the reef; don’t do this thing; you’ll never make it. There’s a vast ocean separating you and your dream.’ And if it’s something you care deeply about, you’ve got to find your way towards whatever it is that’s calling you. 

This past week, Moana ʻŌlelo (Hawaiian language) premiered. What are your thoughts on the film and being at the premiere?

It was the most humbling and proud creative moment of our careers. Being at that screening and seeing that movie, which was the reason that we wanted to be a part of that film, was to use and share the values of the place and culture that we were raised in with more people … To see that movie in the Hawaiian language I think gave it a depth and dimension that made the scene, message and music powerful ...