Director Taika Waititi talks Hunt for the Wilderpeople, joining the Marvel cinematic universe, and what it’s really like to work with Sam Neill.
Kiwi director Taika Waititi announced his arrival on the scene with an Oscar-nominated short, Two Cars, One Night, in 2003.
Since then, he’s knocked it out of the park with 2007’s Eagle vs Shark, a sweet and surprisingly affecting romantic comedy that helped introduce Jemaine Clement to the world; 2010’s Boy, a coming-of-age comedy-drama that became New Zealand’s highest grossing local film; and 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows, a brilliant mockumentary about the ‘real’ lives of Wellington vampires.
His latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has already overtaken Boy as the highest grossing local film in New Zealand’s history, and with good reason.
Based on the Barry Crump book, Wild Pork and Watercress, the genuinely hilarious and heartfelt film tells the story of Ricky (Julian Dennison), a rebellious city kid sent to live with his aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and uncle Hec (Sam Neill) by child welfare services.
One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Ricky and Hec are on the run in the bush, and a national manhunt ensues.
A uniqely Kiwi story that nonetheless has international appeal, it’s another showcase of Taika’s talent — talent that saw him headhunted by Marvel Studios to direct the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
We got Taika on the phone to talk about the fine line between comedy and drama, what he brings to the Marvel universe, and his favourite Sam Neill movie (no, it’s not Jurassic Park).
You’ve been kicking the idea for this movie around since 2005. What took so long?
I went on and made three other films in that time, so…
Well, that’ll do it.
Yeah! Because it was an adaptation of a book, I wasn’t in a major hurry to do it. I was just more interested in doing my own thing. I wrote a couple of drafts of the script for a producer who had the rights at the time, but it was a slow process, because they wanted certain people to be involved with the film, and they thought it would cost a lot more to make than I thought it was going to cost, so they thought it would take a long time to get the money. So eventually I just left the project and went to make my own things.
By the time I came back to it, a year and a half ago, the rights had lapsed and it was just a perfect opportunity. I had time to spare and I wanted to do something very fast, so we got the rights to it and we got the blessing of the Crump family and we did it.
Was this a book you’d grown up with? Were you a fan of Barry Crump when you were a kid?
I wasn’t a fan. Everybody knew who he was, but I’d never really read his books. Growing up in the ‘80s, every New Zealand household would have Barry Crump books. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I read this book and fell in love with it. He’s an incredible writer and an incredible personality.
Now, just hold for 15 seconds because I’m blending up something in this Magic Bullet right here… Sorry about this! I’ll add 20 seconds on to the end of the interview for you.
Brilliant. We’re cooking with Taika.
Okay, I’m good to go… now!
Do you think the movie’s better because you made it now? Could you have made a movie like this in 2005?
It’s definitely better. The version of this that I wrote in 2005 was very dramatic, there was no car chase, there was no sense of adventure. It was a slow-burn two-hander. It was around the time that I was going to a lot of film festivals and watching a lot of very dramatic films. It definitely had that kind of influence on it.
Then I went and made all these other films, like What We Do In The Shadows, and I was reminded that the world also needs humour and entertainment. People just don’t go and see depressing films anymore. So I changed the entire tone of the film, really.
Your films always walk this very fine line between comedy and drama. That’s something that seems really consistent across all your movies. Is that something you consciously aim for, or is that just what comes out?
I’m aiming for it now, but it’s what just came naturally at the beginning. I love comedy and I love making comedies, but I think with any genre, I get bored if it’s just that genre. So with most comedies I watch these days, unless they’re amazing and they’re really consistent, I get a bit bored and annoyed. So I tend to respond more to films that have a mix of everything, that glide between comedy and pathos.
It doesn’t have to be super dramatic. It might just be a couple of profound moments that make you think and make you say, ‘Oh, that’s right, these are real people’. American comedies don’t do that very well anymore, because it’s now a requirement to have that scene. It’s usually in the third act, just before the end of the film, where two characters have to have it out.
“Oh, I can’t believe you were talking to my ex-husband this whole time!” “I thought you were my friend!” That’s their big moment for drama in the film, that’s their big, meaningful thing. It never works. It’s like, “Oh, we’ve got to put that scene in where two people start understanding each other”. It’s a tag-on now. I prefer when you don’t see that coming, and then you realise, oh, it’s been building to this the entire time.
Are there particular filmmakers that inspire you in that regard? Aside from yourself, who do you think is doing that well?
It’s usually foreign films, for me. I’m sorry about all the kitchen noise while we’re doing this, by the way. I’m multi-tasking!
What are you actually making?
I’m about to make some scrambled eggs, but I’m just doing the dishes right now. I’m loading the dishwasher. I didn’t grow up with a dishwasher, so I don’t really know exactly what I’m doing, but I’ve been watching people use dishwashers over the years, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got it down.
But films that I like… one of my favourite films is The Graduate. It’s one of the funniest films that has ever been made, and it still holds up, and there are really great moments of human emotion in there. From my perspective, I shouldn’t care about this character, because it’s a rich kid who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. And if you describe it like that, knowing myself, I would hate the idea of that film. But the way they do it is so incredible and so delicate, and you fall in love with that character right at the beginning. You don’t even realise he’s rich.
So films like that work, in my opinion.
You’ve said that you’ve always been attracted to stories of the outsider, and that definitely comes through in your movies. Do you consider yourself an outsider? Are you a rebel, a renegade, like The A-Team or The Hulk?
I’m definitely a renegade.
No, I’m not, I can’t even say that with a straight face, sorry. I’m not a renegade at all. I love to think of myself as a renegade, I’ve always thought of myself as one, but I’m not. I think if you asked a real renegade, they’d say I was very normal.
I’m rebellious only in that I’m vocal about the things I don’t like, but even then, I’m not that vocal. I prefer to be polite. I’m a New Zealander! We don’t make a fuss!
If not a renegade, do you see yourself as an outsider in terms of the film industry?
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve made this film that, on the surface, is a super mainstream family film.
You’re making Marvel movies now, I guess. How much of an outsider can you really be?
True, but if you ask the fans, they’ve got no idea why Marvel asked me to do it. I’m absolutely an outside choice for them. Which is good! That’s why I think they do so well. They just keep choosing weird people to make their movies. I think it’s great. It’s awesome. It’s a genius move, really. Why would you get the obvious choice?
It’s like when Hollywood sees a movie that does really well and then they copy that movie. If you’re trying to get someone to make a certain film, you don’t get someone who made the last film that was like your film that you’re trying to make. Because you’re going to get the same film, and it’s going to be boring, and everybody’s going to see how boring it is.
You should get someone who’s really weird, like me, who’s never made one of these things before. And then you guide them and shape them and make sure they don’t spend all the money on leather jackets.
Or dishwashers, or whatever the case may be.
Or dishwashers! Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Growing up in New Zealand, Sam Neill must have been a hero of yours. What was it like to actually work with Sam Neill on this movie and tell him what to do?
Luckily for me, I don’t get starstruck anymore. Because I started realising that actors are insane people, and you can’t really connect with them as human beings. They’re like children. I’ve worked with enough kids now that Sam is just like another child. You just have to be nice to them and guide them in the right direction and make sure they’ve learnt their lines.
No, he’s amazing! I was really excited to work with Sam. Not actually because of Jurassic Park, but because of this other movie he was in that I’ve always loved called Event Horizon.
I think there’s one person who prefers Event Horizon to Jurassic Park, and it’s you.
It’s me! I’m the only one. So I was really excited to be working with the guy from Event Horizon. And also Omen III, which is one of the horror films I would stay up and watch when I was a kid. It wasn’t the best of the Omen series, but we were all very proud that Sam Neill was in it, that a New Zealander was playing the devil. So he’s amazing.
We’re just about out of time. Now that you’re making these giant superhero blockbusters, now that you’ll be the Thor III guy, will there be room for smaller films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople in your future?
Yeah, for sure! After Thor, actually, I’ve got two smaller features that are planned already, and they’re both New Zealand films. The idea is definitely to do this big film and then go back and make some small films, because it’s faster for me and it’s easier and it’s really nice to work with a very small crew.
It’s just more fun to work with your friends.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in cinemas from Thursday 26 May.