Can Maui-Made Series ‘Moku Moku’ Become a Streaming Success?

Highly anticipated Makawao-set series is a local labor of love

On a warm March night in Kahului, an unusual test screening took place for a packed audience inside the Akaku studio. Within Suite 205, the location for Akaku Upstairs public events, a group of reservation-only patrons were getting their first preview of ʻMoku Moku’ the locally made comedy TV series from writer/director Kawika Hoke, who was present alongside co-writer/producer Jonathan Melikidse and producer Brad Starks. 

After a robust introduction, the screening began, and the door hermetically sealed off the noise from the event. However, the laughter booming from the other side of the Akaku Media Lab door was yet another indication that audiences were connecting with Hoke’s vision. This was the fourth audience reaction screening of the pilot, which Hoke and other “Moku Moku” members previously screened three times at the Pāʻia Heritage Hall. 

ʻMoku Moku’ is a three-hander comedy, set in Makawao, about how Kimo (played by Bronson Varde) discovers his paniolo heritage and, along with his best friends Leilani (played by Patty Lee) and Pili (played by Chino LaForge), goes on a journey of self-discovery by learning his cultural heritage. In supporting roles are professional scene-stealers Kathy Collins and Kaleo Carter and the dependably commanding Kainoa Horcajo.

The word has traveled islandwide about what Hoke and his family of artists are up to, and it’s not-dumb farce of a passion project. “I think there was some issue that the audience would say, this is a sitcom—no, it’s a comedy,” said Hoke. “This is a slice of life, and it happens to have hilarious conflict on top of real-life conflict.”

Bronson Varde, Chino LaForge, and Kaleo Carter on set. Courtesy Moku Moku

The unorthodox test screenings raise the question of why the filmmakers allowed such transparency for a highly anticipated work in progress?

“For me”, said Hoke, “the number one thing was the analog way of connecting with an audience. So many things have lessons. The screenings were a way to say, I made something for you, come see it and tell me if I’m right. I want the next three episodes to be the best they’re going to be.”

The result from the test screenings provided positive feedback for the team. “We learned how to tie up the show,” said Hoke. “There are quite a few darlings we had to make disappear and we drop things audiences didn’t laugh at. I wanted to see how long the audience needed to acclimate.” 

Reflecting on the prior, invitation-only screenings, Hoke recalls how much he craved constructive criticism. “The laughter is the first good sign,” said Hoke. “Prime example of that— on one side, I know how many kanakas I made happy, and they showed up and saw themselves on screen. That creates a possibly scary bias, where they’d excuse anything. I still have to ask, ‘What did you hate?’ ‘Nothing!” On the opposite side are the early naysayers. People over-liking it is also a bad thing.” 

Small edits have resulted from audience feedback and Hoke asks his audience to never hold back. “Three and a half minutes in the run time makes a world of difference. ‘Please tell me what you hated!’”

When filming took place in Makawao last January, the show instantly became a local legend.

“First and foremost, I like everyone in on the scam,” said Hoke. “I thought, by the time I’m done with this, it will be Maui’s biggest inside joke. It’s like, ‘Would you like to join the circus?’”

Jonathan Melikidske, Kawikka Hoke, and Brad Starks were the braintrust that brought this project to fruition. Courtesy Moku Moku

“We went to downtown Makawao,” said Hoke. “I asked, ‘How are we gonna shoot this?’ Do we ask for permission?’ That’s why Kainoa and Bronson are in front of those buildings. That’s us staying within legal limits. He’s dressed to the nines in a continental suit, we’re standing there, a half hour of prep, getting the camera ready, people going, ‘What’s going on, Chino is in a muʻu muʻu?’ ‘Unko, keep moving.’ ‘Nah, I like stay, can I leave my cah hea?’”

Hoke has a passion for children’s television as well, which he sometimes lent to his directing. “When I explained character development to Bronson and Chino,” said Hoke, “I said, ‘You’re SpongeBob and Patchwork, you’re Squidward!’ I definitely listened to kids in the later screenings. I had to dig into them. We had a fair wideness to our crowd. It made me happy that the eight-year olds and 85-year olds got it.”

Hoke’s screenplay began with the central character, who is loosely based on him. “Kimo started with, where’s my personal justice for my identity? How much has been commercial and haole-ized? That was the first part. Everything came about Kimo. And how we introduce characters around Kimo.”

In tackling themes of cultural identity and capturing local authenticity, Hoke also aimed to present his female lead as a different kind of character for television. “Leilani represents women in my life with a positive influence,” said Hoke. “Look, western TV has a huge problem—why does everyone have to f**k on TV? How many people watched “Cheers” and asked if Sam and Diane are gonna bone? This is not the center of our show; conflict doesn’t have to come from sins of the flesh. Conflict can come from other places. Kimo is the core figure. A lot of the discussion is how do you keep yourself when you don’t know who you are?”

Hoke’s own personal journey is echoed in his televised avatar. “I want to ask a lot of internal questions,” said Hoke. “Where do we go when we’re escaping. He’s going to go to a place a lot of Hawaiians go. What is my amakua, my kuleana, my place in the universe? He’s going to find at times the answer isn’t what he wants but what he needs to hear. Am I hearing the construct that the world is bigger than I am?”

Hoke, who is a true cinephile (he casually informed me that his favorite film is Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of 1900” and compares the state of local indie filmmaking to the early days of Irish cinema “We’re not making “Star Wars” yet.” We’re trying to make the next “The Secret of Roan Inish.” 

In addition to completing the five episodes for a season of ʻMoku Moku’, Hoke has no plans of slowing down any time soon. “We have another film on the horizon,” he said. “I’m hoping in the next couple of weeks and have a script option, “Siren and Valiant,” a take on gumshoe noir novels, Danielle Steele romance novels, very meta. I made it on the bet that Lifetime would feel their work is overdone. That’s where that goes. We’re coming back for the rest of season one, I’m working on a live action kid show with Patty Lee.”

The cast and crew celebrate their accomplishment. Courtesy Moku Moku

According to Melikidse, the current plan for the “Moku Moku” pilot is to look at film festival slots before the show will premiere locally in the fall. 

As the crowd slowly leaves the Akaku Center, with hugs and encouraging words lingering, Hoke concludes the night on another typically thoughtful note.

“How do I create jobs and show that the rules are changeable and not confined to American construct of filmmaking? It goes back to, we’re not American, we don’t tell American stories, we tell Hawaiian stories, we talk story. You have to get to know me and that’s what I think we’re about to do with this whole slate. We need to reset the rules out here.”

Barry Wurst