Chances are, you know Taika Waititi best as the main character and co-director of the 2014 New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows. Between that and his frequent collaborations with Jemaine Clement and Flight of the Conchords, he’d be easy to pigeon hole as “New Zealand comedy guy,” part of an elite group that includes Clement, Bret McKenzie, and Rhys Darby.
Waititi, however, is much harder to pin down. He’s also directed an indie dramedy (Eagle vs. Shark, 2007), an acclaimed coming-of-age story about a Maori boy (Boy, 2010, which won the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix at Berlin, the audience award at AFI Fest, and many other honors), and is currently working on Thor: Ragnarok — just your basic, insanely complicated, mega-budget expanded universe blockbuster with a psychotic fanbase.
Not many directors — no other directors, really — can combine hip comedy, artistically relevant drama, and blockbuster popcorn in the same resumé. That Waititi can be so many things simultaneously may help explain how he can get funding from the New Zealand Film Commission to make a silly mockumentary about vampires (believe it or not, publicly-funded arts councils aren’t usually visionary when it comes to comedy). I’d like to see anyone who hasn’t directed Boy try to pull that one off.
This week, Waititi was doing press for the U.S. release of The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, the unrelentingly charming tale of a 13-year-old delinquent on the run through the bush with a curmudgeonly sidekick played by Jurassic Park‘s Sam Neill and a dog named Tupac. Based on the classic 1986 New Zealand novel Wild Pork and Watercress, by Barry Crump, Wilderpeople combines the undiluted comedy of What We Do in the Shadows with a number of culturally significant Kiwi references, from “Stay Maori, bro” to Neill’s character’s Swanndri ranger shirt (more on that later). Wilderpeople manages to be Kiwi-centric without feeling like it’s selling New Zealand, and all within the context of a legit funny family adventure movie that Spielberg would be proud to have directed.
And this despite Waititi apparently not having read the book before he signed on. I spoke to him over the phone from Australia’s Gold Coast, where he’s working on Ragnarok. If there’s a lesson in the Taika Waititi story, it’s that not being burdened by an abundance of artistic influences can sometimes be a good thing. Growing up in a country that only had two television channels into the ’90s, and being a guy who he says never planned to become a filmmaker, means that he’s often making films without a road map. It also means he’s used to drawing his own maps, which has served him well.
This movie felt really Kiwi. It feels like it’s left untranslated in a way that I think serves the comedy really well. When you were making it, were you you concerned about how it would translate outside New Zealand?
I wasn’t that concerned. I just wanted to do a good job of adapting the book. More than any of my films, I thought maybe this one wouldn’t translate as much because it’s such an iconic Kiwi book. All the characters are very New Zealand. I felt like first and foremost I was making it for New Zealanders.
Obviously, with any film you want to reach as broad an audience possible. I’m always really conscious of that stuff now. I keep remembering when we were making What We Do In the Shadows, we were very conscious of a lot of the jokes and whether or not overseas would get them. It’s a balancing act, really. It’s just in the edit. I always test my films with American audiences as well just to gauge what they’re getting and whether or not they care about the story and the characters.
Was there anything you left out because it was too local or too much of a Kiwi reference?
Actually, no there wasn’t. I remember on What We Do in the Shadows, we had this big ongoing discussion whether we leave this one gag in the film. It’s about 10 seconds. The character early on talks about when he was a Nazi vampire, and he joined this special corps of Hitler’s vampire army. In America, people really didn’t quite get that. The whole joke was the vampire character saying, “I was part of this thing. I don’t know if you guys heard of it. The Nazis, they lost that war.”
The American audiences were like, “Uh, yeah. We do know that because we helped beat them.” The whole joke was that he doesn’t know that everyone knows about that war. To a vampire it feels like there are a hundred wars a century, and that’s just one of them. We found it really funny. We decided to leave it in just because you can’t cut everything out just for one audience.
Was this book a big deal for you? Is that part of why you wanted to make the movie?
Not at all. I actually never read the book growing up. I was approached by the person who had the rights to the book. I read it and really fell in love with it. It was an iconic book for a lot of New Zealanders. I knew that, but I’d never bothered to read it. So I read it and I really loved it. I thought, “Yeah, I could possibly do something with this.”
This was back in 2005, and I think I saw myself as a far more serious filmmaker back then than I realize I am now. I’d written this long, brooding draft … Imagine The Road but not as depressing. I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I’m going to be good at this.” Then I went off and made three features — Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, and Shadows — and then came back to this material and realized, “Oh, no. I can’t possibly make this film like that.” It was jokes and ridiculous characters, and probably keep some heart. It mattered that we keep to the books, but it changed a lot. I really fell in love with this Western idea: An old man and a city kid on the run in wilderness.
That shirt that Sam Neill’s wearing … When I first saw it and I wrote about it, I was like, “Oh, that’s a cool flannel dress thing he’s wearing.” Then, one of my New Zealand readers was like, “Oh, that’s a ranger shirt.” Can you explain the significance of that article of clothing?
Yeah, for sure. The brand is called Swanndri. Dry as a swan. I don’t know if you know this, but swans don’t get very wet even though they sit in the water all day. They could have been called Duck Back, but it’s called Swanndri. It’s a very iconic New Zealand brand. Most of our sorts will have a Swanndri jacket or two. They’re just a really nice, high quality New Zealand wool. It’s treated so that it keeps you warm and dry, and you wear it for long conditions.
A lot of the crew would wear that stuff while we’re shooting, as well. It’s a very iconic hunter’s jacket. And farmers. All the farmers in New Zealand wear it. People who actually work the land and who work with animals and actually have real jobs in New Zealand will wear those. Then, people who live in Brooklyn and New York will also wear them. Baristas and stuff.
There’s so many Kiwis in entertainment and so many Hollywood films that get shot in New Zealand, but it still felt really exotic to me to see movies set in contemporary New Zealand. I don’t know that I see it outside of your movies. Is that something that you do because you’re just shooting what you know or is there an element of duty to it where you’re trying to be an ambassador or some kind of cultural translator?
My films are usually set in contemporary times. I also fill them with quite archaic technology and things which date the films even before they’ve come out. For instance, in Wilderpeople, the kid has got an ancient Nokia, and all the technology the police use is from the ’70s. I just really like that because it’s almost the international idea of what New Zealand is. They think of us as using obsolete technology and everybody just got TV.
Even though I make fun of that, it still is true. For instance, New Zealand only had two TV channels until 1992. I remember it was a big, big deal when we got a third channel. The entire country… It was a huge, huge deal. It was like the moon landing or something. I really love that side of New Zealand that really finds small common things exciting. I like to embrace that side of things, as well, in projects.
Just embracing the idea of being obsolete?
Just being obsolete. Because I think that’s where we get our strength is being this obsolete country that people often overlook. We’re very much the underdogs. I think that’s what people understand is a lot of our strength and unique flavor is that we don’t really care what people think because no one ever really thinks of us. It means that a lot of the stuff we do actually becomes quite original. We do a lot of things before other people because we don’t know that it doesn’t exist yet. We’re like, “Oh, man. I’m sure this exists somewhere in the world, but we’re going to be the last ones in the world to get one. So, why don’t we just make our own.”
But yes, I like to celebrate New Zealand in my films. And also because of the way that we fund films. There’s a film commission. Directors get final cut on all their work, and we get to pretty much do whatever we want. Which is great. It means that I have free reign to do whatever I want in my films, which is increasingly harder to get anywhere else in the world.
I’ve heard other directors who come from other countries where they get a lot of their funding from national arts councils or whatever that it’s harder to get funding for comedies. But you seem like you have been able to do that. What’s your secret to getting public support for contemporary comedy?
I think it’s my track record. New Zealand TV is very scared of funding New Zealand comedy because they have no idea what’s funny unless they’ve seen it before from America. It’s like they have very little imagination in TV in New Zealand. Even in film it still would be hard to get a comedy funded because the people who make decisions aren’t comedians and they don’t like comedy.
I think it’s really just because I’ve managed to work with Conchords, and the stuff that I was releasing myself was funny and finding a comedy audience. They’d become a bit more tough than me. I’m at the point now, I think, “Ah, just ignore them.” I don’t think they get what I’m doing when I’m asking for money or when showing them my scripts. I think they must just be like, “Let’s just leave them to their thing. Surely, it will work out.” I’ll keep writing until it doesn’t work out.
Do you think there’s something to the bureaucratic process of an arts council that is fundamentally incompatible with comedy?
You’re probably right because it’s definitely harder to get them to understand why something’s funny. If they don’t get it, then it’s almost impossible to explain why it’s funny. Because it’s bureaucrats, they’re really heads of administration. They’re not necessarily artists. They’re looking at algorithms, which is the big buzz word for anyone in the world of finance and film. Some would say, “If we look at these charts, this film here performed well. So, should we just make a New Zealand version of that?” Is this about originality or more about recipe? Now that I said that, I do get a good deal.
I’ve read in a couple of other interviews that you wanted this to be an homage to some of your favorite New Zealand movies. Do you have a short playlist of essential New Zealand films that we should check out?
Sure. The playlist that I would recommend… Isn’t necessarily the ones that influence this film. But overall, the good New Zealand playlist would be Heavenly Creatures, which is Peter Jackson’s best film. Goodbye Pork Pie, Smash Palace. Any Roger Donaldson film, I think. Once Were Warriors, obviously. These were just classics.
In terms of this film, the films I was really influenced by were Smash Palace and Goodbye Pork Pie. Those are Australian films. I think that a lot of the comedy that my friends and I have developed definitely has influences in Australian film like The Castle or Love Serenade.
In the ’80s, New Zealand just started to make a shitload of car chase movies. Basically, the premise was someone needed to get from the top of the country to the bottom of the country, and the police were chasing them. Basically, that was the movie. I don’t know how many of these things we made, but it was around the time that Mad Max and all those films were being made. We didn’t do a post-apocalyptic movie. It was just a big race. The cops were involved, and you always had to flip a police car. Ridiculous characters were involved. They were real adventure comedy exciting romps. That’s something that inspired me a lot.
Even the way I shot some of these native moves. A lot of zooms and cross-fades, and even the music was by the best of what they’re influenced by. The Jean-Michel Jarre soundtrack to Gallipoli. There’s just something beautiful about that style and those eras that I think is still really cool and original. People think they’re tacky. People think zoom shots are tacky now, but I think zoom is a great tool.
So much of this movie rests on the Ricky Baker character, and competent child actors seem so hard to find. Can you tell me about the process of finding Julian Dennison?
Julian, I didn’t actually audition at all. I just gave him the part because I’d worked with him on a commercial a couple of years before when he was 10, and I really loved him. I thought one day I want to work with him on something bigger. He really is sensitive. He’s poetic, and he’s conversational with grownups. He can hold his own. He’s just an incredible person. I knew when I came to do this Julian is the star. I just sent it to him. Then, I went back with Sam and sent him a script, and said, “So, do you want to do this?” He said, “Yes, sir.” Because we’d wanted to work together for a while.
This was actually one of the films where I tried my hardest to not agonize over any decisions. Just make quick decisions and just go with them. I hardly auditioned anyone. I just cast people I knew for the roles. It was quite liberating giving up a lot of control like that. It actually just made the whole process faster and more exciting because, in a way, giving up control means there are more unexpected things to be found when you’re shooting.
It feels natural. You can sense a certain naturalness in the final product.
Yeah. Because we were really, in a lot of ways, making it up as we went. We didn’t have a lot of time to scout a lot of places. They would find locations as we traveled the country. We’d see something beautiful, and we’d say, “Let’s just go here and we’ll just do something. We’ll make up a scene or we’ll do a scene or write something.” We really did it like a great traveling band of filmmakers who were just covering the length of New Zealand and trying to get beautiful shots and tell a story.
You seem like you have a lot of freedom to work on personal stuff and tell whatever stories you want to tell. What made you want to go and take a job like directing the Thor movie?
I guess I never really planned to be a filmmaker. It’s not that I don’t care about the things I make, but I don’t care about the job. It’s not really a career I dreamed of since I was a kid. It’s something I fell into and have grown to love and appreciate. But it means that I’m not really sticking to any plan. I don’t care about the boxed set. A lot of filmmakers say, “I just want to leave behind a really awesome box set.” I don’t really care about that. I just want to have new experiences and try new things all the time. This couldn’t be further from my experience, doing a film like this.
However, we’re in prep at the moment, and getting closer and closer to it I realize more and more, it’s exactly the same as the films I make. There’s just more people involved. I feel like I’m making a $1 million movie. Some of them are good people who are creative. Surround yourself with really smart people who are good and nice and are there for the same reason you are, which is to make the best film possible. It’s all about going to work and enjoying your job. If I went to work and it’s horrible, then, I’d start to worry.
You say you never planned to be a filmmaker. Do you remember what your plan was? Or did you have a plan when you were growing up?
No. I didn’t have any plan. I think the thing I’ve stuck to the most in my life is visual arts. My main thing is almost 20 years of painting. The main thing I really wanted to do was art. I ended up getting into film because I was also into acting and directing theater, and writing and telling stories already in theater. Film was just something that was a medium none of us had ever tried before. So, a few friends and I just kind of gave it a go. I started really late, because a bunch of filmmakers have been doing it since they were teenagers. But I started when I was almost 30. I haven’t had any training, but I think that might be a good thing. I think it’s good to not know what you’re doing.
Is that the theme of this interview?
That’s the theme. I still don’t know what any of the equipment on a film set’s called.
I read you’re doing a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows.
Yeah, that’s right. Jemaine and I are going to try our hardest to make… At the moment we’re calling it We’re Wolves, like we are wolves. It’s a sort of spin off to Shadows in that in follows the group of werewolves around. It’ll involve Stu and his journey to becoming a werewolf. Also, Rhys will probably be in it.
Is that going to be a movie? Have you ever thought about doing that as a TV series? I remember watching What We Do in the Shadows and thinking it would make a great HBO series.
Yeah. We actually are developing that already in the States as a TV series for American television.
Which? The We’re Wolves?
No, Shadows, the vampires.
So it would be a TV spin-off of the first movie?
Yeah. Pretty much. I’m not sure who would be in it yet, that’s all.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.