Quietly New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has emerged as one of the most dynamic and sympathetic film directors in the world. From his quirky romcom Eagle vs Shark to his contribution to Flight of the Conchords, through to his moving film Boy and biting vampiric satire What We Do In the Shadows he has earned fans all over the world.
His latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is one of the year’s best, a pitch perfect look at a young urban kid plucked from foster care and placed in the unlikely care of a grizzled man far more comfortable wandering in the bush than dealing with a precocious child. Based on a celebrated book, what makes the film truly accomplished is Taika’s unique voice, balancing between humour and pathos in equal measure, crafting a film equal parts silly and somber. It’s a marvellous film, and our chat covered crafting that delicate balance, his move to some giant studio projects, and working with iconic Kiwi talent.
Barry Crump, the man who wrote the novel, is quite famous in New Zealand yet not well known over here. What was your own personal connection to the novel, and how did you shift the story from the source?
I was first approached with the project in 2005 to adapt the novel and I’d never read it before. Everyone knew who Barry Crump was, he’s a national icon, and I’d obviously seen the cover of the book a lot and grew up knowing about it. It’s a very different book – It’s very delicate and not funny. It’s poetic and slow moving and it takes place over about 4 or 5 years, with Ricky actually growing up in the bush, going from being a 13 year old to being a 16 year old and so. There’s a very sad and profound ending to the book as well.
I wrote a few drafts of this adaptation and it was very reflective of how the book is and kind of dark and brooding, the typical New Zealand film! I went off and I focused on making my own films and did Eagle vs Shark, Boy and then What We Do In the Shadows.
What prompted you to revisit it?
The idea came back to me about a year and a half ago when I was trying to think of something quick to do. Shadows actually took about 2 years to make, from shooting, and I just wanted to do something really fast that I could just bust out and get done. I re-read what I’d written years ago, and it was way too serious and arty. It was kind of like the [2013 Oscar winning film] Ida version of Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I love Ida, it’s a really beautiful film, but it wasn’t the film I wanted to make for a New Zealand audience.
So I updated it according to my comic sensibilities. I added more humour, added the car chase stuff, added the weird funeral, added the social worker and the policeman, added all of these elements to it to make it more of a fun adventure while still retaining the deeper themes and ideas from the book.
Shadows was PG 13 or something rated, no one could take their kids, and I wanted to make something where kids, my peers and grandparents could all go. It was really great making that happen because in New Zealand and Australia, you’re seeing 3 generations of people going to this film together.
The film may well play different for an international audience, but I for one enjoyed how you subverted expectations particularly when it came to notions of aboriginal culture and respect for nature.
I wanted to make sure that we didn’t fall into the same old trap of with the Maori being the spiritual ones who know everything. It’s dangerous. With the auntie talks about where he comes from, up in the mountains and such, it’s done in a way that it’s something you would see in most New Zealand films. There’s always that character, they’re always talking like that. But then you realize later on, oh shit, no, she was an orphan as well, she has no idea where she’s from, she has no connection to her culture! That to me is way more authentic, especially when you look at indigenous culture – There’s so many people who have no idea where they’re from.
That for me is why the film is particularly effective, constantly supplanting our expectations not only about New Zealand in cinema, but also in indigenous cinema. It’s clear you were consciously toying with that idea
Yeah, I was very much wanting to do that, moving away from what is expected.
Where do you find that line where you get that balance between the pathos and humour? Is it when you are actually shooting and working with these performers and are able to take the words and bring them to life?
It’s usually in the script. Even when we’re shooting, I keep looking at the script and rewriting every day. If scenes are coming up the next day, I’ll look at it and rewrite it the night before and give new pages to people. It’s about wanting to make it the best thing it could be.
But also I’ll do versions – I’ll write the full comedy version and then I’ll do the mixed one and then I’ll do just the dramatic version. It may just be a performance thing or I may just change lines just to give myself more options for the edit. You never know with films like mine and the edit is the hardest part. You’re trying to find that tonal balance and you’re always swinging between. Should the funeral be sad? Should it be funny? That scene is one of the ones that went through the most changes because we were like, shit, are people going to hate us for undercutting this moment of sadness by suddenly cutting to this weird, weird funeral? Or do we just do it and push it even further? There were versions where the funeral was twice as long as that, and the sermon just went on and on. I think that it was so funny, but you’ve just got to test and test with an audience.
Do you find it easier when you’re undercutting these moments with humour? Or it is easier to lean on the overtly dramatic?
I find it easy to do both. I think it’s more fun to do the comedy stuff, but you have to watch out that you don’t push it too far and get too ridiculous. The film has to be ridiculous sometimes which is why you have to keep a tight hold on it and keep it from getting massively slapstick or really stupid, going into Dumb and Dumber [territory].
How did you find Julian?
I’d worked with once before on a commercial when Julian was 10. And he’s beautiful and relaxed and outgoing. It’s hard to explain when you meet someone who you know is just perfect for putting in front of a camera and that’s the feeling I got from him. I wanted to work with him on something else, but I didn’t know what, and when I decided to do this project, he was my first choice. I didn’t audition him or anything. I didn’t read him.
And choosing Sam Neill? That also couldn’t have been such a slog to choose him…
I had always wanted to work with Sam. In New Zealand there’s not a huge amount of choices for a role like this so you want to think a little bit about what will draw an audience for the film. Yeah, he is really the obvious choice, so I just asked him and he’d wanted to work with me as well, for a little while. It was one of the easiest casting processes and it all came down to wanting to make the film fast and not agonizing over every decision so much.
I was blown away by Rima Te Wiata’s take – I don’t think I have seen her before.
You’ve got to see the film Housebound, it’s a New Zealand horror/comedy and she’s amazing. And she and I have hung around for years and yeah, there’s so much talent, and just people I know, friends and stuff that I feel like I think I only auditioned like 3 people for this movie and the rest of them, I just asked them to do it.
You’re going from this to something that’s slightly more big and slightly more complicated – How’s it all working out moving to something like Thor?
Great. I don’t think it’s much of a transition, there’s just more people involved. I just realize that regardless the size or budget, every time you make a film your goal is the same: To tell a good story. It’s good and I’m enjoying it!
It’s a really weird position to be in because I don’t feel any pressure or stress. I never feel that when I’m making a film that I really love or believe in. I feel more excitement, that you can’t wait to start doing the thing because you know that you’re going to be good. I don’t know if I should be worried…
As you said you’re constantly tweaking and rewriting on your own projects on set. That must on some level be hampered by the the need to fit into someone else’s playground.
Yeah, that is actually new. But I think the playground is so huge that you can actually just cordon off a little bit of it for yourself and turn it in to your own playground. I get a lot of control. I get to be the big kid in this little playground!
When you first tackled this film you were a little bit more precious with it and then you realized years later that you could put your own stamp on it, you could actually open it up.
Absolutely. And I think the person I am now compared to the person I was in 2005 is very different and my tastes are very different. Now I know exactly what I want from a film and don’t feel the need to be validated as an artist. I think there’s a misconception that to be an artist you have to make the precious shit, but I’m really not that guy. These are the kinds of films that I love, there’s definitely an audience for them, and it’s still art.
I think that you having already done your previous works, Boy in particularly, makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople a much better film.
Totally. Boy was a film I really learned my tone, tonally what’s possible. Even in Eagle vs Shark there’s definitely a mix in there, where I thought, oh, I could push it more. With Shadows it is a comedy, but for me, there’s some very sad and deeper moments in that film. It’s just really framed within this quite ridiculous, ridiculous characters.
But I think that’s what I love, when it’s done well – It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or stupid the situation is or characters are, if there’s emotional truth, human truth, and human emotions, then you can kind of get away with anything. People will be there with you.
As for other projects, what can you say about your involvement with Disney’s Moana?
My full involvement now is informal. I was the first writer on it, and then I left to go and make Shadows, so my formal involved ended a few years ago. But I’ve stayed in touch with them and stuff and I try and keep track on how it’s going. I’ve got high hopes for it. I hope it’s good – It looks amazing!
But even though you’re not involved necessarily with the current production, you still have skin in the game as it were? I don’t mean financially, I mean emotionally.
Emotionally, yeah. I just really want it to be good because they’ve got a huge responsibility to the people of the Pacific to do a good job. It’s one I wouldn’t want to do by myself. It’s a big ask, and I feel like they’ve done some great research, made some great effort in what they’re doing. I think Dwayne playing Maui is really amazing. I’m a huge fan of that guy. It’s got all of the elements that I feel should make it work. And I think with someone like Lasseter behind it, all of these films, and overseeing them, it gives me high hopes.
You’re making a Thor, Jemaine is working with Spielberg with BFG and Brett’s got an Oscar for Muppets. Not that you weren’t doing well before, but it’s nice to be working in the bigger canvas so that your voices get heard by an even wider audience.
It’s really cool. Flight of the Conchords are on tour right now. The three of us basically met in the same month at university. We were all doing really great stuff and were all really poor together.
Dork Shelf is named after the place where you keep all of your collectibles. Is there anything you actually collect? Is there anything that you’re nerdy about that you get excited about?
Things I’ve collected over the years: typewriters, sewing machines, cameras, comic books, debt…
That sounds like the making of a David Cronenberg movie right there, by the way.
Yeah. There’s nothing that I collect that’s really worth much. I don’t collect things and then not take them out of their packaging and stuff. I used to collect comic books when I was young. I collected them pretty passionately. I put them in the dust covers and packing boards and all of that stuff and I was very in to that but that’s in the past.