Sundance Interview: 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' Director Taika Waititi
by Alex Billington
February 5, 2016
"With comedy, the rules are always changing. I don't even know any of the rules. It's probably better to not even know the rules." I love Taika Waititi's movies. At my very first Sundance in 2007, I flipped for a little New Zealand comedy called Eagle vs Shark. It was my first introduction to Taika Waititi and actor Jemaine Clement, and I've been a fan of both ever since. Ten years later and Taika is back at Sundance with his latest film, titled Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an adventure in the New Zealand bush starring Sam Neill and Julian Dennison. The film was one of my favorites of the festival, it's hilarious and so much fun to watch. I'm looking forward to the film opening in theaters so everyone else can see it and enjoy it, too.
At Sundance this year, I was lucky enough to catch 15 minutes with Taika the day after his film premiered. I've always wanted to chat with him about filmmaking, comedy, how he gets such great performances out of his cast, and how he stays so unique. In my review for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I wrote: "In a world with so many cynical, depressing, heartbreaking stories being told, it's so great to see something that reminds us there is hope in this world." We talk about that and much more in our discussion. There is also one teaser trailer available for Hunt for the Wilderpeople here with more footage on the way. We will keep everyone updated on exact release details once they're available. My interview and my photo with Taika found below:
How does it feel to be back at Sundance? Do you love it? You've been here so many times…
Taika Waititi: I do love it. I'm not really just saying that because they've always brought me back. I do love it because of that, too. Even though there's new faces every year, it's a familiar feel. You see the same scruffy filmmakers year to year. The faces have changed, the names have changed, but everyone is the same. Puffer jackets, trudging through the snow, just trying to show people their story. That's how it's always been done. I'm that person this year still. I'm the person trudging through trying to show a weird, crazy, out there story that I've done, and like, "Will people love it?" It's a great springboard for… It's not necessarily like a springboard for world fame and getting your films everywhere in the world. But in terms of getting a film in front of an audience that cares, it's a big difference. It's pretty hard out there for independent filmmakers. To be able to have a forum, a place to show your wares is very important. That is really important.
I feel like what's going on in cinemas at the moment, it's very rare to see an independent film last more than one weekend now.
Yeah. The more support they can get, the better.
Taika: Yeah, yeah. Totally. Don't quote that, because it might remind buyers that theatrical is really fucked up right now… [Laughs]
It's a bit sad… My next question - you've been appearing as an actor in a few roles recently…
Taika: I mean, I usually put myself in my own films.
And you were great in Wilderpeople. My question is – are you pursuing acting a little bit or do you really prefer filmmaking?
Taika: I always was an actor right from the beginning. I started making films just to kind of get more of a… I felt like the acting that I was doing was really boring because it was other people's projects.
Acting was really boring for me. It was like nothing interesting. So I started writing my own shit and doing roles that I thought would be fun and interesting for me and not necessarily the pressure of carrying the entire film, although I do that with Boy, but like, working with the kid… it was a fun challenge. I still find acting really fun. But also, I love the power that comes with directing as well, [Laughs] of creating worlds and getting characters to say what you want. I've really found my comfort zone there. And I'll always find some way of cramming myself into a film.
I always like to ask - why this story now? Was it just purely timing how of things worked out? It was based on the book, right?
Taika: Yeah. I think the reason why now is because right now a lot of cinema has lost the art of celebration of the triumph of the underdog. It's so cynical. Everything is so cynical. I've been guilty of being cynical because I'm so anti-cheese and anti-sentimentality. But, the biggest challenge for me was – I was like, "I'm going to embrace all of that crazy shit from the '80s, these chase films and manhunt films, all those things," where even like… There's even crazy influences from Peter Weir, with all the zooms and dissolves and stuff, to like John Carpenter with synth soundtrack, to New Zealand directors like Geoff Murphy and Roger Donaldson, with the car chases…
For some reason, the '80s… if it was a car chase, you had to destroy a police car. That's why I had to flip that police car in that shot. There's no reason for it. And there's no physics that can explain how it got so high in the air. But who gives a shit? It's fucking entertainment. It's not a real world scenario. It's a fantasy tale told in a real world setting. There's no reality in which that social worker would be leading a national manhunt by the army and the police. So I want you to kind of realize all disbelief is part of the way that you enjoy this film, is enjoying this disbelief. I think it makes for a much better cinematic experience.
We're now seeing this trend of going back in time to what worked in the previous and bringing it back to now.
Taika: Yeah. And now you'll see a lot more people are using zoom shots now. Obviously, you can do it in a trendy way or whatever. But I try not to be too ironic with this stuff. But my best stuff, obviously it's like, "Whoa! Big zoom shot." So, why not? They look fucking cool. Master and Commander is one of the greatest movies. And he still uses zoom shots in that film. And it's awesome.
And so, I wanted to celebrate all that and make something entertaining in this dark, depressing world that we live in.
What are the greatest creative struggles you've had recently? Are they within the industry or is it something in your own mind?
Taika: I'm not sure… Within the industry, who knows what's coming up? My experience– I've been lucky to work out of a country where I get complete creative control, final cut. No one on set to tell me what to do. I can basically do whatever I want. People trust me. That's a great freedom to have, and I'm very spoiled in that way. I come from that background where it's obviously smaller budgets, but do what you want; but now I'm crossing over now into bigger budgets and, "Let's talk about it."
Is that getting daunting, the bigger budgets?
Taika: Not so much, because I'm really excited to do something different and challenge myself and do something where I feel like I actually could make something really fucking cool and put some humor into this and do something that's new and inventive. I think that there needs to be more of this style of humor. I wouldn't say it's a New Zealand humor, but there's definitely a lot of past New Zealanders who were doing this style of… It's not the kind of, "Oh, just turn the camera on and improvise for 10 minutes around some pop culture." It's like – figuring out good, weird sort of… A lot of it is anti-comedy, which is the idea of not going for the obvious gag and delaying it a long time and making the audience figure out if they should laugh or not. That, to me, is more interesting.
Are you consciously and actively aware of the comedy you are writing or is it just naturally coming out of you like that?
Taika: I'm not very clued up on all the latest comedy. I don't watch a lot of it… I don't really have time to go through all the cultures that are happening. Often, I get hyped up to the point where I will watch the show and then I'm like, "It's really not funny." So I just try to keep working out of my bubble, what I know that I think is funny, and a few of my friends think is funny. And then, if there's an audience… I know there is an audience out there because we've seen these audiences over the years. I want to keep working with that group. As more and more people get converted and come over to our side and go, "Oh, you can laugh at that! Oh, this is an interesting way to tell a joke!" Rather than, "I am not the guy who is going to make a fucking, you know…" I'm not saying names. But, you know, super broad comedies that are… everything is spelled out for you and it's like, "Laugh now." We're smarter than that!
Is there still a line that can't be crossed with comedy?
Taika: Rape is not funny. That is the line that can't be crossed.
Nowadays, anything that someone used to say isn't funny, has been made funny. Someone always tries to push that envelope.
Taika: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You never say never, there's ways of making everything funny. Yeah, I don't know. With comedy, the rules are always changing. I don't even know any of the rules. It's probably better to not even know the rules. I think that's the way that I've operated the best in terms of how I sort of feel good about what I've made and I know that people appreciate it. I never went to film school. I don't know anything about equipment on a film set, or what shit's cool, after 10 years. I know what a dolly is. I don't know what the big square with material on it is called.
Taika: Yeah, that shit. I don't know. That's me… someone who is paid, someone who is a professional to know all that shit, they can do that.
But you produce amazing work though. So, obviously, your team must be…
Taika: I mean I definitely know what that stuff can do. And I'll say, "Put up one of those squares there because it's too contrasted…" But I don't know what you are allowed and not allowed to do with that stuff, or what you are supposed to do with it. I think that's why everything looks good.
For instance, I turn up to work with sort of a plan, sort of some little rectangles with some stick figures in them, like, "Oh, sort of like this, maybe that, that, that, that." Then I'll see the location and go, "Ugh. It's nothing like my drawings." And then we'll block and we'll figure out a new plan and make it work. It's all about being very open to whatever presents itself on the day. Often, there's so much more magic than can be found than what you imagined eight months earlier when you were typing.
For instance… was it last night I was talking about the Happy Birthday song where everyone is singing the Happy Birthday song at the dinner? Rima Te Wiata was singing the Happy Birthday song [in the] dinner [scene]. So we did like 13 takes of her going, "[singing] Happy birthday to you…" And then the producer came and went, "We can't use Happy Birthday. It's still under copyright." So we had to make up a song on the spot. So we made up this Ricky Baker birthday song in like 20 minutes. Like me, Sam, Julian, just made up the song.
Another day we were expecting to shoot in a clear environment and then it dumped eight inches of snow while we were setting up. And we were in the middle of nowhere. We couldn't just change locations. We were stuck there. So we put the tripod down, we put the camera on it, and we just started turning it around and around and putting people in front of it. We were like, "Oh, maybe we can get something else, get some extras over there, get some body doubles with coats and stuff," like a 720 degree shot that keeps turning and turning. And it's all in camera. People are like ducking underneath the lens and then popping up, it's all choreographed. You never get to do that if you think about it, you know…
Good point. Isn't it interesting, though, to track back that people maybe love the Happy Birthday song now, but it was actually just a spur of the moment idea?
Taika: Yeah, but you can't rely on that attitude and that approach for an entire film because you will lose. [Laughs] You will lose that battle. Or, you should increase your shooting schedule by two months, because if you are just going to turn up and figure it out…
Like, on [What We Do in the] Shadows, we improvised the entire film. But we wrote a script beforehand. So Jemaine and I knew every scene, what was supposed to happen. It's just that the actors didn't say the lines that we had written. We just never showed them the lines. But you've gotta have a plan.
Is there going to be a Shadows 2?
Taika: Yeah. We're writing a werewolf sequel…
Oh, yeah! That's right [more info here].
I love your films because they are so grounded yet humorous, based around such honest, real emotions with very personal stories. Out of curiosity then, what makes you want to jump over to Thor for Marvel?
Taika: Just the challenge of taking this thing that I wouldn't normally have gravitated towards and saying, "This is the most unpredictable move for me to do." My predictions, and people who know me or people who have seen my work, could predict that I would do…That's what I like. "I could do a bigger film still in my style and…" Sure. Easy. Why not? Or I'll just fucking completely change tact and do a Marvel movie."
As a loyal fan of yours, I wonder, is it going to still be a Taika movie?
Taika: Well, look. I'll fight to the death to get my sensibilities in there and the stuff that I love, some of the oddness, and the quirkiness… So, yeah. I definitely feel like there will be a lot of me in there. But, you know, let's face it. Two of the greatest filmmakers ever, Hal Ashby and George Miller, you can't put a pin on what their style is. Every fucking film is different.
Someone goes from Mad Max to fucking Witches of Eastwick to Babe, Happy Feet, to Fury Road…You know, Hal Ashby – Shampoo, Coming Home, couldn't have two more different films. That's a career. It's not repeating yourself. It's more, you know, shocking yourself.
I ask because I'm looking forward to it. And I will spread the word as much as I can about Wilderpeople, because I really loved it.
Taika: Thank you.
A huge thank you to Taika Waititi for his time at Sundance, and to ID-PR for arranging this.
Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Friday evening. Taika's other films have also played at Sundance previously - What We Do in the Shadows in 2014, Boy in 2010, and Eagle vs Shark in 2007. His new film is still in need of a release date, stay tuned for any updates.