Zack Norman and Neil Cohen, directors of Chief Zabu, are getting ready to toast to their success. Not only is their movie making its East Coast premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on Monday, November 7 at 6 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood (2008 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood; 954-342-9137) Mai-Kai, South Florida's go-to restaurant for tropical Happy Hour, is creating a cocktail to honor, it as well.
It took 30 years for this film to come to fruition. Even still, these guys don’t miss an opportunity to laugh.
"Just to be clear who's who, I’m the guy with the squeaky voice and Zack is the one who sounds like he should be broadcasting the Kentucky Derby,” Cohen says at the start of the interview via three-way call. Both men burst into laughs.
Chief Zabu was shot in 1986 on a low budget over the course of 15 days. The film is about some New York businessman who tries to take over the finances of a fictitious Polynesian country while its leader, Chief Zabu, is in New York seeking admission to the UN.
“As crazy as it all sounds, we literally wrote the movie thirty years ago because, as I used to drive into New York City there was a big sign on a hospital that said, The Trump Pavilion. I used to look at it every day, and to me it was almost funny, a man trying to show himself off to this huge group of people driving into New York.”
The sign Norman was referring to belonged to the Donald’s father, Fred.
The movie was never distributed and both men moved on to successful careers in acting and screenwriting. Cohen says, “Then, life took over and last year, around this time, we’re having dinner and discussing Mr. Trump and the madness of presidential politics and we said to ourselves, 'You know, our main character in Chief Zabu is a New York real estate developer who dreams of having respect and political influence." Fitting.
That’s when they took another look at the film and realized the relevance it had today, thirty years after it was made. It only took a few tweaks to get the movie ready for audiences.
“It’s the human condition, really, that Neil and I got so turned on about," says Cohen. "It wasn’t just one person. Our lead represents so many people and what they need, their insecurities. It’s all that stuff. And it just so happens that it really coincides, from our point of view, with life as it is today.”
When asked if they plan to make another film together they both enthusiastically say, yes. “We’re planning one that will come out in 2046!” Cohen announces. I can almost hear the words filter through a wry smile as he speaks.
“That’s true! That’s right!," says Norma. "Because this works, you shoot them and then you wait 30 years.”Norman and Cohen are lost in laughter once again.
The idea for a drink to go with the movie came about in Los Angeles, when Cohen found himself talking to a local bartender about the movie plot and realized there should be a drink to go with the film.
“I mentioned it to some of the people in South Florida, because I had heard of the Mai-Kai. You talk to anyone who’s into drinking and cocktails, they all know the Mai Kai. I thought maybe they should create a drink. We should have an East Coast and a West Coast drink. The East Coast, as we all know, moves much faster than the West Coast.” There is a pregnant pause quickly consumed by laughter from both. “So, the next thing you know, the Mai-Kai has created this drink.”
Norman is eager to add his two cents. “I was excited, because I drink much more than Neil,” Norman adds, as if this were a rehearsed stand-up skit. “And for me, it became political as I began tasting different drinks around our town. I decided, with the Chief Zabu, if you have two Zabus, then you wanna run for office. That’s where the politics comes in.”
The cocktail is made with lime juice, soda, passionfruit, honey, orange juice and three different rums. I ask if they had any say in what went into the drink.
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“We left that to the experts," Cohen responds. "It takes the mind of someone from South Florida to actually decide what the Chief Zabu is.”
Mai Kai is located 3599 North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-563-3272, or visit maikai.com.
The 31st Annual Fort Lauderdale International Film premiers over 100 top American Indie and World Cinema features, documentaries and shorts over the 16-day event. Tickets are available to purchase in advance at fliff.com.
Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation, Florida. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.