Taika Waititi is the second coming of the New Zealand film wave, but he would never admit it. The NZ native quickly outgrew his indie roots and has evolved massively since his debut feature Eagle vs Shark, which starred frequent collaborator and Kiwi compatriot Jemaine Clement, and has gone on to deliver a string of critical smashes in Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and, most recently, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Before Waititi switches hats completely and goes on to deliver his first certifiably blockbuster for Marvel with Thor: Ragnarok, the tongue-in-cheek actor/director got to bask in the critical and box office adoration of Wilderpeople.
From our review,
“Taika Waititi spreads his wings with ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, a genuinely hilarious and emotionally engaging tale of a naughty foster child and his surrogate uncle who venture off into the bush. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison have uncommon comic chemistry in front of the camera while behind it, Waititi shows off some newfound directorial tricks.” [Full review]
I spoke with Taika (who unsurprisingly proved an immensely pleasant and humble presence) about the evolution of his films, getting the most out of a small budget and putting everything on the screen, remaining calm in the face of mounting accountability with a Marvel film on the horizon, Kiwi humor and the “polite comedy”, and finally we touched on the much-awaited follow up to What We Do in the Shadows, We’re Wolves.
In the past, your films have always had this distinctive Kiwi sense of humor to them. They’re referential to pop culture and big-hearted and genuinely funny without being obscene or explicit, and that’s something that’s very rare that you see in comedy films these days. Can you talk about the relationship between your own comic style and your films?
Taika Waitit: I think part of it is that we’ve been trying to understand what makes New Zealand humor, and, you know, what is the New Zealand sensibility. I think a lot of it was that no one wanting to get in the way, not wanting to make a fuss. You know, we just don’t want to rock the boat too much. We’re very polite. I call it polite comedy. I make polite films. I don’t want to shift the universal balance here with my film. But I think in all seriousness me, life is very dark and very funny at the same time. The minister at the funeral, it’s a real speech from being at a real funeral, and being at the funeral, I remember thinking, “Wow.” You can’t, you know, if I had seen someone write that in out at a movie, I would think it was the stupidest idea that has ever happened. And yet, seeing it with my own eyes, I realized that okay, you can’t block anything from your imagination that hasn’t probably already happened. I feel like there’s nothing too ridiculous. Or that I can get away with.
But also, you have to balance it out with heart and keep everything grounded in an emotional truth, which is why I’m not a really big fan of really broad comedies or comedies that don’t have any kind of real heart to them. And by heart, I don’t mean like TV, you know, a lot of comedies will have that one thing where the characters will say some serious stuff, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s the heart.” And then the characters talk about, “Oh, well, mom loved you more than she loved me.” “Yeah, but you were the overachiever. Everyone else loved you at school.” And you’re like, “Wow. That’s the big heart? That’s the grounded moment in the film where these two stupid characters talk about that?” I prefer to kind of avoid that sort of thing if I can.
In terms of the production, I talked to Jemaine last year and we discussed you guys doing ‘Shadows’ together, and he told me that it was entirely pretty much self-funded between you guys and that the New Zealand Film Commission didn’t really help out with that. And then, you go from that to ‘Wilderpeople’, which actually had a pretty modest budget, and it has now– congratulations– gone onto become the highest grossing New Zealand-produced film ever made. It hasn’t even opened in the U.S. yet. And then, next you’re going to direct ‘Thor 3’ for Marvel, and you’re presumably going to be working with hundreds of millions of dollars. What has that transition been like for you?
TW: It’s been amazing. It’s the most amazing film, and it’s developing so well. There’s so much love for it, and really, the main thing is that audiences are going inter-generationally, so like it’s a kid, their parents, and their grandparents all going together and enjoying the film. But really enjoying it, not like, “Ugh, I guess I’m going to take my kid to this film.” It’s like everyone actually wanting to go. Old people go together, like a group of old people or a grandparent and their grandchild or just a kid. I mean it’s pretty crazy. You don’t really see that anymore, so it’s been really amazing. With Thor, you know, it’s a great change of pace for me, because it’s something I always wanted to do like a bigger film. And what’s cool is that at the heart of the film, the groundedness and stuff, it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is or how big the film is, you know, they’re aiming to focus on what the story is about. These Marvel films could just be about normal people that have secret abilities. They’re actually about something. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the premise is just about a kid who misses his mother. And that’s why it touches you. The film is actually really touching and also really fucking funny and exciting, so yeah, there’s both… Well, I guess what I’m saying is the transition is really… the only difference is the scale. The intention is the same: to make a good movie.
In terms of like having independence over something, like in Shadows and Wilderpeople, you’ve been really able to lead the ship, and now, you’re working with a company that’s more notoriously rigid, is that something that you’re feeling the strain of? Or do you still feel like this is a more large scale version of what you’ve always done?
TW: It’s a slightly bigger version of what I’ve always done. It looks weird with how relaxed I am. Directing or making any film is not easy. It’s very hard, but it’s more that I’m surprised that I’m so relaxed and I feel so good about how it’s tuning up.
Well, that’s great that you can be so calm in such a whirlwind.
TW: Well, I think it’s a matter of being grounded and being calm and just reminding yourself to just keep ahold of the original vision, the original intention: why you’re making the film and tell this story. And that’s the thing that you have to hold onto. Coming back to that. That’s my thing. That’s my mantra. That’s the thing I keep reminding myself of. This is what this film is about. Because yes, at the end of the day, I’m here to tell the story.
With ‘Wilderpeople’, I believe that I read that you were working off a 3 million dollar budget, and yet, the cinematography just looks absolutely gorgeous. I wrote in my review that New Zealand hasn’t looked this beautiful since Peter Jackson did ‘The Lord of the Rings’, and you do some great set pieces in the film like with the car chase. Can you talk about how you were able to weave flax into gold budget-wise? How one transforms a limited budget and then make it look like so much more?
TW: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Luckily the thing about the New Zealand landscape does that: it adds on production value just by pointing a camera at it. And we had a great team of people that I’d worked with on commercials so I worked with a lot of the same crew and I brought them together to make this film. Because we have an outstanding relationship and understand each other a lot, it makes the work go faster and we got what we were trying to get in the end: high production value and great production design and great cinematography. And the actors. But being out there in the bush, we actually had a lot of access to parts of New Zealand that had never been seen before on film or by many native New Zealanders. So, that was fantastic. And the car chase and all that stuff, we really just pulled together and asked the local community. We told them there was a car chase and helicopters and stuff. It was really difficult being smart with the money and trying to put everything on the screen, you know, and not wasting it off the screen as much as possible.
That’s all you can do a lot with a budget like that. I’m making a film that’s five weeks set to the limit. We’re along for the ride. Choose people like you that just want to make a good story and aren’t just in it to do it. It’s just about doing it. It’s a New Zealand attitude in this as well. It’s just haul ass and get the job done. You just work your arse off five weeks at a time up until the end of the clock. It’s just… you know, even with the cameras. It’s like a vaccum cleaner, you swing around the landscape and putting as much into the camera as possible, so that you have a film. You have drama. You have the images. We just shot so much footage for the film in five weeks, it was astounding.
So, I guess the opposite of doing a film in five weeks is doing ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, which was like seven years, a decade, in the making. We know now that you’re reteaming with Jemaine and you’re going to be writing the follow-up ‘We’re Wolves.’ Can you tease a little bit of what that will entail? Is that going to be the same kind of mockumentary format? What should we expect?
TW: I can tell you what we know, which is that it’s going to be about the werewolves and it’ll be in that documentary format. It will be from the same filmmakers, the same documentary people, that brought you What We Do in the Shadows but this film is where all the werewolves are out. What happens we’ll get to see, because the film has got some very real documentary footage.
When you’re creating a project, are you still thinking about ways to put yourself into it as an actor? Is that a medium that you’re still having fun exploring? What’s your relationship with acting?
TW: Your question is: why am I putting myself in my films all the time? No, I do. I love acting, but I don’t like, I’m not a fan of the kind of roles that are usually given to me. They’re not the roles I would usually audition for. You know, I’m really interested in fun roles or interesting roles in a roles that are really different and weird, and they just don’t come around very often. So often you have to just write them yourself. Those are just the types of characters we want to write. Like Jemaine wanted to play a perverted old man, so he got to do it. I got to play sort of a dandy with this woman from several years earlier. So it was never about, we’ll always done that in our theater and all the shows that I’ve done. It’s a doctor character, so it’s what we think a doctor character would be. It’s as simple as that. We just don’t really overthink it. Well that’ll be fun so we’ll do this!
For more Silver Screen Riot interviews, check out more of our “Talking With…” series here.