From their island home to Hollywood, the Kandell brothers reflect on the outsized role Hawai‘i has played in their lives and careers.
Text by Timothy A. Schuler Portrait images by AJ Feducia Images courtesy of Keith, Aaron, and Jordan Kandell
In 2016, Keith Kandell made a short film called Homecoming. Produced by H&M, the Swedish fashion retailer, the film follows the rock band The Atomics, made up of 19-year-old model Lucky Blue Smith and his three older sisters (also models), as they return to their hometown of Spanish Fork, Utah. Seductive and unvarnished, the film is about the people and places that shape us, even if we don’t appreciate them at the time.
The concept is one Keith has thought about a lot. Swap Spanish Fork for Honolulu, and sisters for his younger twin brothers, Aaron and Jordan, and Homecoming parallels Keith’s own story.
All three Kandells left Hawai‘i after high school, Keith for New York University film school, and his younger brothers for Los Angeles to become screenwriters. Keith eventually made a name for himself as a DJ and a film director for companies like Gucci, Prada, and Dior, while Aaron and Jordan landed a life-changing gig helping write Disney’s Moana.
Then, a few years ago, all three Kandell brothers returned to Hawai‘i, moving back home within 12 months of one another. “As much as I enjoy being a part of other worlds and other communities, it’s so nice to know in the back of my mind that when that job is done, I’m returning here,” Keith says. He is dressed casually, in a T-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks, all a different shade of navy blue.
It’s a Friday morning and all three brothers are crammed onto a low-slung modern sofa in the family room of Jordan’s home in Mānoa. Now in their 30s, with children of their own, the Kandells are the rare siblings who live in the same city, work in roughly the same field, and still get along.
In the case of Aaron and Jordan, who, unlike some twins, maintain a similar look—dark hair pushed back, five o’clock shadow—they are a screenwriting team, working together on every project, including the forthcoming film Adrift, starring Shailene Woodley, which tells the true story of a woman’s struggle to survive after a hurricane maroons her in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
While Keith is not directly involved in his younger brothers’ projects—though they’ve talked about collaborating—his brothers keep him in the loop, and occasionally ask him for advice. “I do the same sometimes, too,” Keith says. “And then you ignore our advice,” Aaron quips.
Like puppies nipping at an older dog, Aaron and Jordan tease their brother frequently, looking for chinks in his effortless cool. The eldest Kandell takes it in stride, something he learned to do growing up in Hawai‘i. “I can’t be an uptight, stressy guy,” he says. “Any of those moments I might have had were systematically beat out of me by surfing, by guys I surfed with.”
Living in Hawai‘i, makes us feel more creative, more grounded, more clear about who we are and what we want to put into the world as storytellers and filmmakers.
The brothers’ banter is also interspersed with pop-culture references—from Scarlett Johansson and Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti to Road Rules and Raiders of the Lost Ark—all of it a second language they learned from their parents. The brothers grew up in what they call a “West Coast, Jewish, bohemian” household.
Although their parents left Southern California in the 1970s, they were still products of Los Angeles’ entertainment industry, Keith says, and treated movies and television almost like a religion. “I remember we turned 12 or 13 and for whatever reason that was the demarcation of, ‘OK great, now we can show them A Clockwork Orange,’” Aaron says. “They were so excited that they went out and rented 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a Kubrick marathon.”
But the brothers’ success, Jordan says, is a direct result of “trying to move through our industries from a place that represents the values of Hawai‘i and where we came from, which is being kind, being humble, ha‘aha‘a, being pono.” He says those values led directly to Moana and to subsequent films like Adrift.
Humility, Jordan adds, “leads to greater success because it’s an inclusive success. It’s not just about you.”
“Well, it’s following the compass of your heart,” Aaron says. His brothers groan.
“Aaron used to write for Hallmark,” Keith jokes.
There is something slightly mysterious about the brothers’ relationship with the islands, too: “All of the years that we lived in Los Angeles, we didn’t sell anything, we didn’t make any money,” Jordan says. It was while they were teaching a summer SAT prep class at Punahou School that the twins sold their first script.
In fact, they realized that each time they sold a script they were living in Hawai‘i—even with Moana, they were back on O‘ahu when they got the gig. Keith’s career fell under the same spell. “I remember being in Los Angeles and nothing would be happening,” he says. “I would start to get super antsy, and try to drum something up, to no avail, and it would be like, ‘Alright, let’s just go home.’ And then as soon as I’d get here, there would be a call.”
Hawai‘i also supplies them with a clarity of purpose.
“It almost returns me to this sort of innocence,” Keith says. “I can think about what I want to do and what I want to make, which has made my work better, I think.” Living in Hawai‘i, Jordan adds, “makes us feel more creative, more grounded, more clear about who we are and what we want to put into the world as storytellers and filmmakers.” “When you’re away,” Aaron says, “it’s harder to follow the compass of your heart.”