New Zealand director Taika Waititi is currently two-thirds of the way through making ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ the biggest film of his career so far, but even that huge Marvel behemoth may struggle to surpass his current film ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ at the New Zealand box office, where’s its recently become the biggest ever homegrown hit in Kiwi box office history.
We spoke to the director responsible for ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, ‘Boy’, and ‘Eagle vs Shark’ about ‘Wilderpeople’ (in UK cinemas now) and the artistic compromises he’s making to work within the Marvel machine…
Yahoo Movies: ‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ has been a sensation back in New Zealand…
Taika Waititi: Yeah, that’s true. It’s the highest-grossing film in New Zealand box office history, and also the highest grossing New Zealand film in Australian box office history too.
That’s amazing, why do you think it’s struck such a chord with people?
I think, honestly, it’s because people can take their kids and also because the older generations like it as well. It’s a little different to your classic family film, we’re not an animated film, so it’s very different. But it’s still an adventure and a celebration. Kids can relate to it, their parents can relate to it, and even parents of parents can relate to it.
Something we’ve found in New Zealand is that there’s been three generations are turning up to the film together, which is quite rare these days.
And was it always aimed to appeal to that younger generation?
Yeah, we tried to aim it at all the generations. I didn’t want to make a kids film or just a film for the grey brigade, I wanted to make something for everyone. So I worked very hard in the edit to get a tone that I thought everybody could get something from.
You’ve got Sam Neill in the film, and he’s great as Hector, he must be New Zealand film royalty right?
I think he is a kind of royalty. I definitely grew up watching his stuff and I think everyone has a mad respect for him. The cool thing about him is that he’s very generous with his time and with other actors and he also very much wanted to get the film made, and he was very supportive in that respect. He knew the budgetary restraints, and I think he really helped.
Even on set, he doesn’t demand anything. He’s very gracious. He’s just happy to have a seat and a cup of tea, and you could shoot all day with him.
Did you know that Sam and Julian Dennison would work so well together?
I never knew if they would work. I love Julian and I get on with him, I’m sure I get on with a lot of people, but I only knew Sam through passing at a few events, so I didn’t really know if he liked kids, or if he was going to be OK in that situation, but they hit it off right from day one. They became very good buddies on and off set. They do a lot of the promoting together on tour in different countries and they always looked out for each other on set. They have a good mutual respect for one another.
With it being such a big hit back home has there been any pressure to get the cast back together to do something else?
So far, there’s not. It’s not out of the question. I just feel like doing anything these days just takes a lot of time and effort, and I really want to make sure it’s worth the effort.
I dunno, I’ve got other projects I’m trying to do, not only the Marvel film I’m making but other ideas that I’ve written already that I want to shoot next, so it’s really just about how many films I can make a year, or how fast I can get through stuff.
It’s quite big leap from the films you have been making to making a Marvel film, how did that come about?
They’d watched my second film ‘Boy’ and ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, and enjoyed the tone of those films, the mix of comedy and drama, and it felt like they were looking for something like that. We hit off when we had meetings and then I dunno.
It wasn’t really a pitch on my part , it was more like we met a few times, and those meetings were just like sussing each other out, and seeing if you could handle hanging out for two years.
It’s a big commitment…
Yeah, for sure. A huge commitment.
We’re two-thirds of our way through our shoot now and it’s going really well, and everyone’s still friends, so it’s so far, so good.
You’ve gone from working on smaller films with small casts to Thor with its huge cast and budget, what’s that transition been like?
The set is bigger, and the whole machine is bigger, but at the end of the day what we’re capturing on camera is pretty much the same. There’s stunts and a few things like that, but in terms of the actors and what they’re doing, it’s the same as everything I’ve ever done.
Working with some people, pointing a lens at them, and trying to create that drama, it’s the same.
Did you have any reservations about taking it on? It’s a big machine, did you worry about getting your singular vision on screen?
There was… It was like a… they were always really erm… oh sorry, I just got really distracted by seeing this little kid throwing up across the road in a restaurant. Can you repeat the question? Sorry, that was so weird.
Yeah, a little bit but there are on all jobs. When you first have those meetings, you have those thoughts, ‘are they going to respect my voice, my vision?’ and things like that and you spend the first few weeks sussing each other out.
Figuring out, they’re in control of these elements, I’ll be in control of these elements, and if you’re comfortable with that and the way that dynamic works, you just accept it.
— Taika Waititi (@TaikaWaititi) August 22, 2016
And you say OK, that’s the way it works, and that makes things a lot easier to not try and control everything. I get a lot of creative freedom on the job because I have a good team around me and these guys have hired me for a reason.
But also there are definitely elements that I don’t need to think about because it’s the department of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. They concern things about the way certain things look in other movies, or how a certain character – what they need to do, or not do something – according to what they’re going to do in another film.
So my job is to make a standalone film that I feel proud of and their job is to figure out how to keep it all within the bigger picture, the wider picture of what they’re doing, and slot it into all the other films that they make.
So if they hired you because of the films they’d seen of yours, it’s safe to assume they want a lighter tone for ‘Thor 3’ than we saw in ‘Thor: The Dark World’?
They’ve always said we don’t need people who know how to shoot explosions, we can do that, and we’ve done it a lot before. We need people with original, singular voices and storytelling abilities that are different to the things that we have done before.
You know, to keep things fresh and a little different.
Were you able to bring any of the ‘Wilderpeople’ crew with you to ‘Thor 3’?
Yes. Rachel House who’s been in most of my films, she’s going to do a part in the film, she played Paula the social welfare worker in ‘Wilderpeople’, so I’m bringing her over.
I’m bringing Cohen Holloway who’s also been in all my films, he’s going to do a very small part, he plays one of the hunters from the shootout at the end of ‘Wilderpeople’, he was also one of the werewolves in ‘What We Do In The Shadows’, so a couple of my friends are in there.
Couple of crew members that I’ve worked with before, they’ve come over too, including the production designer from ‘Shadows’.
What can you tell about the extent of your work on Disney’s Moana? That must be an exciting project.
It is exciting. I was involved for a brief period really early on, so I wrote the first few drafts of the script and helped work on the story for a little bit, but since then it’s been four years since I worked on it, so they’ve had god knows how many writers on that, so I don’t know.
So I’m excited to see it, just to see how the story’s evolved, because it will have evolved quite a bit, and become something quite different than when I first was there, but I think it’s a good story.
‘Hunt For The Wilderpeople’ is in UK cinemas now.