Plenty at stake in Taika's new film
One April weekend in 2005, Taika Waititi and long-time collaborator Jemaine Clement rented frilly shirts and headed to Waititi's creepy Wellington flat. Waititi was always going to be the Tom Cruise/Brad Pitt-styled sensitive dandy vampire. What took longer to determine was whether Clement's character, Vladislav, or Jonny Brugh's Deacon was more likely to sleep with banshees.
After two days shooting a mock documentary about the banalities of a vampire's day-to-day existence, they had the bones of What We Do In The Shadows. From there, it only took seven years to flesh the story out and make the movie, which lands in cinemas on June 19.
Shadows is Boy director Waititi's third feature and the latest project in almost two decades of collaboration with Flight of the Conchords star Clement. That's longer than most Kiwi marital unions. So do they finish each other's sentences?
"Sometimes it's been a bit like a marriage," Waititi admits with a laugh. "We'll have to take breaks, where we see other people."
It's tough to keep track of all the other people Waititi is seeing. Projects in development include playing a useless dad, directing talking dogs, a comedy about a Hitler Youth member, writing a television show with Clement and some secret squirrel work with Disney.
In case he didn't have enough to do, Waititi is also producing Shadows, and they're distributing the film themselves.
But the crazy schedule is nothing new for the 38-year-old who has spent his career juggling art, theatre, film directing and acting. Two years ago he added fatherhood to that list, with the birth of Te Kainga o Te Hinekaahu, known as TK.
Clement and Waititi have been long-time vampire lovers. No, not like that - they're both happily married. I mean they've both been captivated by blood-suckers since boyhood.
Waititi was inspired by films such as The Lost Boys and An American Werewolf in London. And in 2005, when they conceived the idea of Shadows, no-one was making vampire movies. Few film-makers were making mockumentaries, either. One of Waititi's first films was a fake documentary about police dogs - a "silly acting exercise" in which humans played the dogs. He liked the idea of a documentary about something you coudn't possibly make a doco about: "Something magical, where a handheld camera would be able to see the special effects.
"We always knew we were going to make it, we just had no idea when. Every year we would say ‘this is the year'. That conversation happened for seven years. I made two films in that time, Jemaine went off and had an acting career. It just became harder and harder for us to get together to finish writing the script."
That window came in 2012, while both Waititi and Clement were working in the United States. Clement had enough down time while acting in Men in Black 3 for the pair to nut out a screenplay. But by then both big and small screens were dripping vampires and Borat had the mockumentary market cornered.
"In the wake of having one idea you think is original, Hollywood does it 50 times before you manage to do it," Waititi grumbles. "Hey, what do you mean somebody else has made a movie about pogo sticks?"
The duo carried on regardless, and Waititi now thinks the timing might be perfect, as serious vampires have been truly done to death, so a piss-take just might work.
Shadows follows the everyday lives of 379-year-old Viago (Waititi), 862-year-old Vladislav (Clement), 183-year-old Deacon (Jonny Brugh) and 8000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham). They case Wellington streets for potential victims and discuss housework rosters and the need to put towels and newspapers down before blood-sucking.
Then there's the scene where the vampires parade their potential nightclub outfits, including an abominable red one-piece ski suit. "That was ridiculous," Waititi laughs. "It's basically what actors do when they go to the Costume Cave - put on stupid clothes and go ‘looook'."
Shadows was shot in a mix of Wellington flats, a Miramar set and a villa that used to house Sir Peter Jackson's Wingnut Films. Inner-city Wellington also plays a starring role.
Unlike Boy, which was partly shot in Waititi's boyhood home and drew on his personal experience, Waititi's clean-freak vampire is definitely not autobiographical.
"I've never been a guy who was anal about housework. A typical Wellington flat when I was flatting was a warehouse with basically sheets hung up for walls."
Despite the seven years it took Waititi and Clement to devise the 150-page script, they never showed it to the cast. The actors were fed lines critical to the plot, but otherwise the film is about 95 per cent improvised.
It's interesting that Waititi says the toughest thing about being a vampire would be having no reflection, given that as an actor-director he has to shape his performance without seeing it.
At least this time he had a wingman to make suggestions. This was his first time sharing the directing role with Clement. So how did it go?
"We were helping each other, directing each other. The pro is you've got two minds working on something, you get twice as much good stuff. The con is getting twice as much stuff."
Shooting two versions of the same scene seemed like a good idea, until it came to editing the 125 hours of footage. That took a year - three times as long as normal. "That was actually really crazy. I would not do that again."
Waititi and Clement had to work month-about to retain their sanity.
Waititi's wife, Chelsea Winstanley, who also helped produce Shadows, mostly stayed away. "She's smart enough to know not to spend too much time at places like Park Road Post or an edit suite, where you go crazy, because there's no light."
Clement and Waititi must have one of New Zealand's longest-standing creative partnerships. The pair met in 1995 at the Victoria University capping revue, and have performed together in comedy troupes So You're a Man and The Humourbeasts. Waititi directed Clement in Eagle vs Shark and they're now working together on a television show.
Waititi says the relationship hasn't changed much in 19 years. The press notes for the film's appearance at the Sundance Film Festival in January say Clement considers Waititi a mentor and father figure. Given the papers also describe Winstanley as having "aligned herself with some of the hottest new directors emerging from New Zealand", I'm picking Waititi wrote the notes?
He giggles guiltily. The funniest thing, he admits, is that he continued the joke at a Sundance interview that Clement slept in for, telling the reporter he was like an older brother to Clement "because he's always needed someone to look after him".
"I thought the guy would get that I was dicking around. Then, apparently, at South by Southwest [film festival], the same guy interviewed Jemaine. He told me about it later - this weird guy interviewed me and he kept saying, ‘so, I've heard you really look up to Taika and he's a real mentor to you'."
What has changed is how the pair collaborate. Before Clement became uber famous, the pair would meet in Wellington cafes.
"We would just hang out and do some people watching and just come up with ideas. Now I don't think it's a very comfortable experience for Jemaine to go into town. So, often, it's either his house or on the phone or maybe at my place, or in another city."
As we enter Arthur's on Cuba St, the young woman behind the counter asks, without looking up, "Mister, could you shut the door". "Oh, it's you," she exclaims, as she clocks Waititi, even under his beanie. "Without being all ‘famous guy', I really loved Boy," she says shyly. Later, when she pops in to say "bye", she asks his name.
Waititi says he's lucky he can be relatively anonymous, even in Wellington. He lacks Clement's kooky look, his mop of
hair is less distinctive now it's short and his face is less instantly recognisable as it's more often behind the camera. He looks like the open, amiable ordinary guy he projects in interviews.
Which brings us to the question of whether Kiwi superstars such as Lorde should stay in New Zealand or ship out to be smaller fishes in bigger seas.
Based on his experience, Waititi reckons she should split her time between New Zealand and the United States, to limit exposure to PR flunkies talking at you.
"Not many 16-year-olds who get famous actually write their own material and have got something to say. She's our Kate Bush. It may well be that we live in an age where it's no longer build your way up, climb the ladder. It's like take an elevator to the top floor."
But in some ways, he feels he was at his most creative in his early days sharing a studio with Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie and playwright Jo Randerson in a lively, grungy Wellington that has been gentrified out of existence.
"It's so weird, it's so not Wellington. The best thing about the old Wellington was artists had a place. There were old warehouses. I guess every city wants to rebuild and artists take advantage of that small period where there are cheap spaces nobody wants."
In a 2005 interview, Waititi called America an alien place and said he could never live there. But he spent most of two years living in Los Angeles, acting in Green Lantern and directing and producing television show The Inbetweeners. So what changed?
Nothing, he says - he still thinks the people are crazy. But it's fun for a while, so long as the madness doesn't rub off. And he would live there again, perhaps to write a couple of episodes of Lisa Kudrow's axed television show, The Comeback, which is, obviously, making a comeback. But he'd always return home.
"I love living in New Zealand. My daughter goes to kohanga now and she's super into it and that's something that's important to us. I've seen teenagers in America and I don't want her to become one of them."
Shadows has already featured at the prestigious Sundance and Berlinale film festivals, to mostly rave reviews. While most film-makers struggle to get one film into Sundance, it was Waititi's sixth appearance. (He's been eight times, having also helped out with the indigenous development labs.)
The novelty has worn off for Waititi, but this year was different, as he experienced the festival through the eyes of his first-timer cast. While it was fun to kit struggling actors out with jackets and jeans, in the "gifting lounges" the commercial element makes you feel pretty cheap, Waititi says.
At Berlinale he swapped celeb parties for pushing TK through the Berlin snow, as the whole family came along.
While most reviews so far have been positive, Variety slammed Shadows as "anemic", "silly" and "not remotely weird or witty enough for cult immortality". You can feel Waititi's breath catch at the mention.
"Variety just don't like my films."
That's not strictly true - in 2007 the magazine named him one of their 10 directors to watch. But the reviews have hurt - Boy was a "let-down second feature", scrubbed of all culturally specific traits; Eagle vs Shark was a comedy "whose out-of-itness is clearly meant to be funnier than it is".
True, says Waititi, it might have been unwise to jokingly ask an earnest Variety reporter in a live interview why the magazine hated his movies, before they'd reviewed Shadows.
Still, he's hoping Shadows will get a wide release, as it bridges horror and comedy.
Times are tough for film-makers, even when you're as successful - and with a portfolio as diverse - as Waititi. "It's just harder and harder these days to get your film out there. When Whale Rider was around, everyone had money. People were going to Sundance and buying films for $10m - films that were made for $500,000. Those days are so dead. People's films just don't sell at Sundance, unless there's a superstar in them."
Times are so tight that the company hired to distribute New Zealand box office hit Boy in the United States launched a Kickstarter fund to raise $90,000 for distribution costs.
The last thing people with no money want to see is a movie about people with no money, Waititi reasons. "You want to be transported to outer space with Will Smith or Tom Cruise, for 3 hours, in 3-D. And fair enough."
While it was good to release Boy in America, the Kickstarter project was "a massive hassle" for Waititi, who had to provide rewards, including 20 hand-painted Crazy Horse helmets.
He's not struggling, but he has had to compromise, by making commercials, including the acclaimed anti-drug-driving ad Blazed.
"I'm very much a realist now. You can have integrity with your art, but worrying about integrity doesn't pay the bills."
To succeed as a film-maker now, you have to own your film from beginning to end, instead of just being a director and giving away content and control, Waititi says. With Shadows, he's producing and self-distributing for the first time.
"It gives you more chance of making a profit. If you make a beer, are you going to sell it independently or give it to Lion Nathan and lose half your money? It's more work, but in the long run hopefully it's better." (For the record, Waititi is drinking Tuatara, which is appropriate as the Wellington brewery is making a special beer for Shadows.)
If all else fails, Waititi figures he can fall back on art (many of the quirky illustrations in Shadows are his) or wedding videos. Or he quite fancies opening a bar.
The fickleness of the business is also the reason he always has multiple projects on the go (see sidebar).
Take The Last Family in England, which Waititi is writing and directing for Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B. After four years they're only now at casting stage.
"You have to be involved with lots of things as a film-maker, to make sure there's always something to fall back on. If you have just one idea, you could be waiting for 10 years before you make it. That's just the shitty reality of film-making."
Still, Waititi has no plans to bow out.
"When I made [Oscar-nominated short film] Two Cars, One Night I just wanted to make a short film, then I thought I'd just go back to painting. As things went on I thought storytelling is actually a really cool thing to do.
"I don't feel like I owe it to anyone just to do it because I have an opportunity lots of people would like to have. I have always said that as soon as it feels like a job, I should give it a break. But right now it still feels pretty fresh."
What We Do In The Shadows opens in cinemas on June 19.
While Shadows is light fun, most of Waititi's movies balance comedy and poignancy. As he puts it: "I like to lure people in with the promise of a good time, then depress them with real life, then make them laugh, then have some credits."
That's reflected in the films he loves – Russian, Japanese and Korean cinema, 70s American movies. Films with heart. "When I became a film-maker, all my favourite films, they weren't comedies.
I appreciated film for being able to deliver messages and something deeper than just a broad comedy." The Graduate is a favourite, and he started out loving Wong Kar-wai films. "They are really mad films, but also very beautiful and emotional."
It's hard to keep track of what Waititi has on at any one time, so here's a (not exhaustive) guide.
■ The last family in England
Waititi has teamed up with Brad Pitt's production company Plan B to write a film adaptation of Matt Haig's The Last Family in England, told through the eyes of a dog. Translating a book for film is "like saying I want to do Swan Lake as a video game and trying to get the same feeling as watching a ballet". He will also be directing the canine stars. "I'm kind of dreading working with animals. I don't know how to do it."
■ Jojo Rabbit
Set in World War II, Jojo Rabbit is about a young man in Nazi Germany's Hitler Youth who discovers his parents have been hiding a Jewish woman. A comedy, really? "I can make that funny." It's been ready to shoot for two years, but, being a period piece, financing is a challenge. It's likely to be a New Zealand-German co-production and, thanks to last year's tax rebate extension, it might now be partly shot here.
■ The Insect King
When he received an interesting script about a teenage boy in Australia whose dad has a lacklustre approach to fatherhood, Waititi figured "I don't think I've got anything to do next year ". He's the dad! "I would like to just do something where I'm not a director or producer. I would just like to go and have fun and act."
■ Writing a TV show with Clement.
■ Disney Oops, can't talk about that.
Waititi will say only that he's been watching the back catalogue as research. He also admits to having seen Frozen six times, always on planes, never in the company of his toddler daughter. "It's pretty good. I mean, it's terrible but there are some great jokes. I hate musicals and this is a musical. I turn it on, I'm just going to watch until Let It Go . . ."
■ Producing with Carthew Neal The pair want to produce TV and film scripts without relying on Film Commission development money. "The commission has projects that have been in development for 5-10 years that still haven't been made. It's just not working, and it's not their fault. People go in with half an idea."
■ Artwork Painting has taken a back seat to film, but Waititi still does art and design work for his films. ----------------