Mai-Kai anyone? Documentary by Miami’s Common Machine explores tiki culture

Grass skirts. Aloha shirts. Limbo dancing. Live music. Hula girls. Fire-breathing mermaids. Exotica. Kitsch. And lots and lots of delicious rum drinks.

Those are some of the building blocks of contemporary tiki culture, named after the giant wooden sculptures of the ancient half-god deity that was an integral part of Polynesian culture. The spirited, colorful documentary Plastic Paradise: A Swingin’ Trip Through America’s Polynesian Obsession, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WLRN, charts the rise, fall and resurrection of America’s love affair with tiki culture for nearly 100 years: in the Prohibition era, when a sudden surplus of rum led to the invention of creative cocktails; tiki’s snowballing popularity after World War II, when returning GIs sought Polynesian-themed restaurants to relive their pleasant memories of Hawaii; the cultural explosion in the 1950s, when South Pacific, jetline travel to Hawaii and Elvis Presley helped make tiki a household word; the beginning of the end in the late 1960s, when youth rebelled against the things their parents loved and Polynesian huts became reminders of Vietnam; and the gradual rebirth in the 1990s, when the Internet and eBay allowed tiki fanatics around the world to form a community built around their mutual love for the subculture.

“To us, this movie is a history of the 20th century told through this cultural phenomenon,” says Brett O’Bourke, 37, who directed Plastic Paradise. “Tiki was one of these subcultures that left a very strong imprint but became watered down in the ’70s and ’80s. It was resurrected by these aging punk rockers who were looking for something authentic to sink their teeth into. Ironically, they seized on tiki, which is not really authentic, since anything that is remotely exotic is folded into it. They’re looking for this authentic experience in this completely inauthentic subculture, which is fantastic. It’s a dissection of American pop culture and how it is created, both in the past and the present.”

Plastic Paradise is the second film (after 2011’s Emmy award-winning Hecho a mano, about Cuban artists living in exile) commissioned by PBS affiliate WLRN from Common Machine, a commercial and film production firm born out of old media that is in the process of reinventing new media.

The company was founded in 2007 by O’Bourke and Gaspar González, who met while working at the alternative weekly Street published by The Miami Herald from 1999 to 2005. O’Bourke had written gonzo first-person columns about his South Beach nightlife adventures for the paper until January 2001, when he grew tired of the Miami party scene. He landed a job with Jupiter Entertainment, a Knoxville-based television production company, where he learned his craft working on programs for A&E, Discovery and the History Channel.

Back on Street

In 2003, he rejoined Street, this time as executive editor. O’Bourke chose González, a former writer for the Miami New Times, to serve as managing editor.

“Hiring Gaspar was easy, because there were eight applicants for the job, but only one had a Ph.D. from Yale on American Studies,” O’Bourke says. The two men, both Cuban-Americans, quickly bonded over their love of 1960s-era Esquire (“the apex of American magazine publishing,” says González) and tried to replicate that feel for a contemporary Miami audience despite limited resources and a three-person writing staff.

In 2003, a press release crossed O’Bourke’s desk announcing an event called Hukilau, a tiki celebration slated to be held for the first time at the Mai-Kai Polynesian Restaurant and Lounge in Fort Lauderdale.

“I had no idea what tiki was,” O’Bourke says. “But some crazy band from Italy was going to be singing Elvis songs, and there was going to be lots of booze. So we sent a writer, and since Gaspar was already familiar with the Mai-Kai, we went and hung out, too.”

The celebration resulted in a Street cover story. It also made a lasting impression on the two editors.

“We were looking around that Saturday night and taking in the whole crazy scene and we said, ‘Someone ought to make a movie and document this,’” González, 45, recalls. “Little did we know it would turn out to be us.”

Moving on

After Street was shuttered for business reasons, O’Bourke and González dabbled in magazine and online writing. But despite fat paychecks, neither felt creatively fulfilled. González was introduced to Emmy award-winning producer Alan Tomlinson, and together they made the documentary Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami, an oral history of the night Ali defeated Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship title in Miami Beach. It aired on 300 PBS affiliates in August 2008.

González and Tomlinson collaborated on another documentary ( Nixon’s the One: How Tricky Dick Stole the Sixties) then amicably parted ways. “At that point I felt like I had made two pretty good documentaries,” González explains. “But Alan’s production company was a work-for-hire outfit. His clients call him and assign him projects That really wasn’t what I saw myself doing. I wanted to generate my own ideas.”

That’s when O’Bourke, who had maintained his friendship with his former co-worker and served as the best man at González’s wedding, asked him the fateful question: “What’s your next move?”

The result was Common Machine, a company that would produce outside-the-box commercials and corporate videos designed for in-house use. One of their biggest early clients was the John S. and James. L. Knight Foundation, which wanted photos to illustrate stories about some of their biggest successes for their 2008 annual report — traditionally issued as a press mailer.

“Richard Patterson, who had been our staff photographer at Street, came to us and said we should pitch them on video instead,” O’Bourke says. “To the Knight Foundation’s credit, they have always been forward thinkers, and they agreed. We did five or six short documentaries on projects they were particularly proud of, and those shorts became their annual report.”

“Brett has had a creative mind from the start of his career,” says Alberto Ibargüen, the Knight Foundation president, who was the Miami Herald’s publisher during the Street era. “I asked to meet him after I read his column for the first issue of the alternative paper, because that was the attitude I wanted. It wasn’t just edgy and insightful, but also real. That’s who Brett is. He didn’t just focus on the things he cared about. He had courage and style and his finger on the pulse of Miami, and he also had a real appreciation for the wide variety of cultures in this town.”

In trouble

By 2009, freelance work was drying up, a casualty of the crumbling economy. Common Machine was in dire straits.

“We were burning through all our savings,” O’Bourke says. “Then we thought, ‘Well if TV isn’t buying anything, who else can we get money from? This is 2009. We’re still shooting standard-def. Video was not yet ubiquitous online. We came very early to the party of video on the Internet. We spent months running tests after tests figuring out compressions to push high-quality video on the web using low bandwidth. Porn sites were our proof of concept, because they had tons of money even during the recession. They had figured out the algorithms. So we knew it was possible. But we weren’t going to work for a porn site!”

Instead, Common Machine worked out the technical details and started amassing a roster of clients — a mixture of retailers, national corporations and medical centers. They made videos for the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Jackson Health Systems and AirTran Airways. For KA-BAR knives, they made a zombie film. For Oak Street Bootmakers, they shot a beautiful mini-doc on location in Maine that resulted in record-breaking sales for the company. When Southwest Airlines bought AirTran and replaced their public relations team, their former head of publicity landed at GE-Hitachi’s nuclear power division and hired Common Machine to make entirely different (and top-secret) kinds of films.

The company’s commercial work can be viewed on their website, commonmachine.com. O’Bourke and González refer to that facet of their company as the “creative” side — the one that generates income to help pay for their “cinema” side. Common Machine maintains offices in Wynwood (which is relocating to the Design District) and Chicago.

Although the hourlong Plastic Paradise was budgeted at $80,000 by WLRN, the finished film is so slick and polished, it looks like it cost four times that to make.

“The commercial clients enable us because we have the cameras, the post-production facilities, the hard-drive space — all the means at our disposal in order to make films for “free” in terms of production. We own those already. Then we have a huge team of freelancers — sound designers, editors, cinematographers, associate producers, colorists — who want to do interesting projects. We give them commercial work, and then they’re willing to accept exceedingly reduced rates to get credits on the kinds of films they want to be doing.”

New inspiration

Jorge Rubiera was a singer and drummer for various Miami-area bands — A.N.R., Animal Tropical, Downhome Southernaires — before he joined Common Machine as an editor and cinematographer.

“I had always made films as well as music,” says Rubiera, 30, who edited Plastic Paradise. “For a while, I concentrated primarily on touring and recording and all that. But once I met these guys, I decided to devote myself to making films for a living full-time. We have a really good understanding of how our work flows and how to put our movies together. We shot a tremendous number of interviews for Plastic Paradise, way more than you would normally have in an hourlong film. Gaspar wrote transcripts of every interview, which allowed him to build the script on paper, and then he brought it to me. That was incredibly helpful. What’s nice about having so many interviews is that people can finish each other’s sentences. You can have a historian, a bartender and a participant at a tiki event all weighing in on the same idea, which is cool.”

Plastic Paradise will be the last project Common Machine makes in conjunction with WLRN. The company will function as a stand-alone production firm, making films without any creative interference and then bringing the finished movies to market.

“Moving forward, we will sell our documentaries to outlets such as HBO or a cable network, or distribute through PBS, but they’ll be buying a completed film,” González says. “This proves the viability of the model we’ve created with Common Machine. We can make really good, smart films with journalistic integrity, and we can fund them ourselves.”

Already in the works are two ambitious projects made possible by development grants from the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities: Errol Flynn’s Ghost: Hollywood in Havana, about the effect of American films on Cuban culture in the 1940s and ’50s, and A Long Way From Home: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Desegregation.

“Every application that comes here goes through a thorough review process by a panel of scholars and filmmakers,” says Jeff Hardwick, senior program officer in the division of public programs for NEH. “We were really impressed by Brett and Gaspar’s ability to tell a really moving story. They have unique and creative views on Cuba and desegregation. And their applications were incredibly thorough. They had done their homework, they had talked to the right scholars. The application for A Long Way Home was almost a completed script. We fund projects for the American public that are going to reach wide audiences, and these two films fit that bill.”

Other projects that are either filming or in post-production include Starring Burt Reynolds, about the Hollywood actor; Ballet with Bullets, a history of jai-alai; and The Whistler, about the annual International Whistlers Competition in North Carolina.

But for now, there is Plastic Paradise, which O’Bourke and González screened in June for the most critical audience imaginable: the revelers at the Hukilau celebration at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale.

The verdict? Happy tikis all around.

“It was beautiful,” says Dave Levy, owner of Mai-Kai, the oldest Polynesian restaurant of its scale in the country. “The whole crowd went wild. There was a standing ovation at the end. It’s first class, well-done and really tells a good story about the old days. These guys are officially tiki now.”