If you have look at Taika Waititi’s recent filmography, he has the ultimate “one for me, one for them,” filmography. Now three “smaller” films, with two massive Thor movies between each one. Though, Waititi has a point that Jojo Rabbit wasn’t exactly a small film and I’ll go ahead and add the “one for him” got Searchlight six Academy Award nominations, including a Waititi’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay. So what’s after his latest, Next Goal Wins? We’ll get to that.
Regardless, it is interesting after both Thor movies that Waititi retreats to something very different. This time it’s the story of the worst soccer team in the world, American Samoa. After a humiliating defeat to Australia 31-0, the team brings in hothead coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to turn this around. Is this a white savior movie? Well, as Waititi explains, the film leans into that and makes enough jokes about it that it doesn’t really feel like one, but as Waititi also explains, it’s hard to ignore the team got a lot better once Thomas shows up. Waititi never really saw himself ever making an underdog sports movie, but he certainly likes watching them – Cool Runnings, Miracle, and Breaking Away are some of his favorites – and this story about Pacific Islanders resonated with him.
As for what’s next, he says to expect something small again. And then references that he’s been working on something for Lucasfilm, which has been well documented at this point. He says that anytime he mentions the script isn’t done he feels, without trying, he keeps trolling everyone. In a, “what does that mean?” way. At this point, it seems Occam’s razor applies here and it means he’s just not done with the script. And as he explains ahead, that’s a good thing.
Taika Waititi: Hey, man, how are you?
I’m good. How are you?
Well, I heard you just ate lunch…
I’m totally in that post-lunch zone. Huddle, lie down.
See, they shouldn’t be making you do this right after lunch. You need a nap after lunch.
Mm-hmm, but I’m here. I’m here. I’m free.
I know you’re here, but I’m thinking about your well-being.
You’re the only one, by the way.
Post-lunch, you need a little time to let it digest. And you can’t swim.
They won’t let you swim?
You’re not supposed to swim.
We could do interviews in the pool.
You made a sports movie. I never thought of you making a sports movie before.
I never thought I’d ever do one either. I like watching them, especially underdog sports films. Well, obviously, there’s something about this particular film, which was quite amazing about the story. Which is amazing for me. It was the opportunity to tell a sports film that felt closer to home in the Pacific with Pacific Islanders. It was a story that resonated with me because of that and it’s an uplifting story. I think just for me, being able to come back home to the Pacific, work with our communities and make a film about us, it’s pretty cool.
You mentioned underdog sports movie. You don’t see a lot of movies about the favorites winning.
I was talking to someone else about this in another interview. They were like, “Why did you choose this team?” It’s like, “Well, because no one wants to see a film about winners who you then go on to win.” They were the worst team in the world.
What sports movies do you like watching?
Well, Cool Runnings…
Oh yeah, I thought about that movie a lot while watching this.
Yeah, that’s something that I instantly thought of when I saw the doc. And then there’s one film I really liked, Miracle with Kurt Russell.
Yeah, the hockey movie, the 1980 Olympic team.
I thought that was really well done. You’ve got a lot, Breaking Away.
Yes, Peter Yates.
When you look at most of these movies, and including this one, they’re not really about the sport at all. I don’t think any sports film is really about the sport. Any Given Sunday, there’s a lot of football in it obviously.
Yeah, and it is probably about that. I think even with Breaking Away, it’s just about those kids on the other side of the tracks who wanted to be seen, and wanted to join the bike race.
They just wanted to swim in the ravine. Speaking of Cool Runnings, have you been to Jamaica?
They have a Cool Runnings airport bar. A Jamaican Bobsled bar. There’s a bobsled.
I love that.
I don’t know if that’s interesting.
Something you make fun of a lot in this movie is the white savior trope, and you reference it a lot. Beyond just addressing it and putting it out there, how do you avoid that? The team does save him in the end.
Yeah, for sure. It was something that we were very conscious of in the beginning stages of making this. I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to make a white savior film.” Then I felt like what the true story really is… he did come in and turn that team around, and I can’t avoid that. The white guy happens to be white, but the coach is who saves this team. In the process, yes, he gets saved in another way by the team and the culture and the community. But instead of being scared of this white savior idea, we just leaned right into it and made fun of those tropes. Also, just not pretending that it isn’t.
Yeah, you make a good point. His record kind of speaks for itself. They did win a game.
They won a game! And got a goal, which the goal was the aim of the whole thing, and then they won the game. Yeah, I liked making fun of all of those sort of headstrong, The Mission kind of moment, those big lofty films in the ’70s and ’80s. Yeah, when the brown people carry the white guy down the hill in the Christ pose. I’m not religious, I don’t care about that sort of thing. But that’s what I like, the laughing. We were playing The Mission soundtrack a lot on set.
You weren’t being subtle there. You mentioned leaning into it. That’s not just leaning in, that’s a full-on push.
Leaning against it until it falls over.
Obviously, one of the most interesting characters in the movie is Jaiyah Saelua, who is trans. The movie is set 10 years ago and people then, compared to now, weren’t as familiar with what she’s going through and has gone through with transition. At one point, Michael Fassbender’s Thomas deadnames her, which is startling because we know how bad of a thing that is. But back then I’m sure that’s actually what happened. As a director, how do you navigate that language versus telling a true story?
Also, in the story there are a lot of things where I’ve had to create things to make this a story. The documentary is a version of that story, too. Also, the documentary is told from a certain point of view. Documentaries aren’t the full truth and neither is this film. I feel like if I was going to try and be authentic to the documentary, then what’s the point? You may as well watch the documentary. I just had to allow myself to just embellish, change things as it suited me. Give Thomas more conflict with parts of the team or the culture, because he needs somewhere to go in the film. That is storytelling. If he came in and everything was fine and he was happy, and he’d already let go of the problems? And he was like, “Hey, man, be happy.” Everyone else was like, “Yeah, be happy.” Well, there’s just no point in that film.
Things like the deadnaming and all that stuff? To play around with that aspect of this character, him not knowing that much about it? With those elements of that aspect of awareness around the trans community, around faʻafafine, it’s more about faʻafafine culture. The trans part of it as well is important in the telling of the story. The thing for me is, I’m not wanting to explain or over-explain what that is, or what it means. Because I feel like, every American film is a big long scene or a big speech somewhere in this movie where it’s, “It’s okay to be different.”
And I know exactly when that scene would’ve happened, but instead Thomas just makes her the team captain, and we get it.
Yeah. It doesn’t talk about, “It’s okay, you do what you all need to do to be you. It’s all about being you.” We all know those monologues and I’m pretty bored with them. I feel like if you want to know more about faʻafafine, or the trans players, it’s very easy to find out. Also, the most important thing for me was that, it’s just to show that there’s an awareness and an acceptance level in the Pacific communities around this very special part of our cultures.
I don’t know if you know, there are different names for it on different islands. That it’s been accepted and welcomed and protected in all of Polynesian history. In the West, people are right now having to have the conversation, because these conversations need to be had. But so confused and so scared of getting the words wrong. It’s really cool in a lot of ways because the struggle of like, “Oh, shit, oh, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, I’m sorry,” by them. A lot of people are like, “Oh, it’s such a hassle to relearn these things.” It’s like, it’s not actually a hassle. “If something is ‘lame’ I can’t use the word ‘gay’?” It’s like, well, you could just use the word “lame.” Then if you can’t use the word “lame,” well, “that’s dumb.” There’s a lot of words you could use.
Or, “I don’t like that.”
Yeah, “I don’t like that.” Exactly. Yeah, and you know what, pretty much no one uses that anymore in that wrong context. I think seeing the world right now, the West, kind of figuring it out and stumbling through it is good, because at least it’s happening. I feel pretty proud that in the Pacific we got through ages ago. And I’m just figuring it out now.
I can’t help but notice, you have the ultimate filmography of a small movie, huge movie, small movie, huge.
I wouldn’t say the formula is exactly one for them, one for me…
You’ve got Hunt for Wilderpeople, Thor, Jojo Rabbit, Thor, Next Goal Wins, and then next we don’t know yet. Actually, do you know yet?
The next one will probably feel like a smaller film. Here’s the thing, my first four films were probably under $5 million each. For me, Jojo Rabbit was a massive movie.
But I know what you mean. The ones where you say it’s a studio film, and then there’s the more intimate film. I love going back to doing this and making this.
See, that’s the thing, I can’t tell if you even love doing studio films. I know making Ragnarok and Love and Thunder, there are aspects of that it seems you really like. But it seems you’re happier making these.
I loved making those films, and I want to go on to make other ones. I’m trying to develop something with Lucasfilm at the moment.
Yeah, that’s been well-documented.
Well documented. It’s almost like without even trying, it’s trolling everyone. I’m like, “I don’t have any answers.” I just don’t have a script, that I’ve been working on on the side for a while. There’s another film like The Incal by Jodorowsky, that’s a big story, a big film. Those are things I am wanting to do. Then there’s these little ones where it’s like, do you want to go to Hawaii and shoot for 25 days? All my first four films were 25-day shoots. I’m used to that. Now to go back with this film – and to kind of go back to that spirit of creativity – was great. Also, a big part of this film, is semantically, letting go and just opening yourself up to life and what it can give to you. Like, trying to control everything around you, it doesn’t really get you anywhere.
Trying to swim upstream won’t get you anywhere – just go with the flow. I used that approach when making the film. I opened myself up to just any idea from anyone, I would try. We wrote a script where I was like I’m not going to lock myself into the script. We’re going to just figure things out. We’ll get to the location. We might find a storyline there, and we’ll go with that.
You mentioned trolling everyone without trying. I do laugh every time someone asks you about Star Wars and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m not done writing it yet.” Then every headline is, “What does that mean?”
Yeah, “I’m not done with it yet.” “Does it mean that he’s been fired? Oh, I hope everything’s going okay.” I’ll tell you what, here’s the thing, if you’re running any film, you should really hope that you have a lot of time to do it. That the thing, that you always wish you had more time. If you’re running a Star Wars film, listen, I’ll be happy if it took 10 years to write this script. It probably should!
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