Mad about the boy

BOYS' OWN: James Rolleston as Boy, Taika Waititi as Alamein and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu as Rocky in Boy.
BOYS' OWN: James Rolleston as Boy, Taika Waititi as Alamein and Te Aho Eketone-Whitu as Rocky in Boy.

Oscar nominee Taika Waititi is back with the comedy drama Boy, set in rural Bay of Plenty in the early 80s – only this time the Wellington film-maker doesn't stay behind the camera - he's also happy to star.

The comedy Eagle vs Shark, shot in Wellington and the most popular Kiwi film at the box office in 2007, was the debut feature from Waititi. But Waititi still sees Boy, shot after Eagle vs Shark, as his first film.

Confused? This is because, before Eagle vs Shark, Waititi wrote the script for what eventually would become Boy, but decided to hold off. "It was a thing that I really wanted to focus on and get right. I just really didn't want to [stuff] it up. That's why I made Eagle really."

Waititi originally planned to make Eagle as a low-budget feature shot on digital video - anything simply to get it made and to learn from the process. "Originally I thought it was something I would just shoot with some friends on the weekend and let the feature form. It's only because we got better funding than we expected that we shot it on film. It got bigger than I thought. Everything always gets bigger than you think."

And Boy has grown up a lot. The comedy drama draws its inspiration from Waititi's 2003 short film Two Cars, One Night, nominated for an Oscar. The acclaimed short featured a young Maori boy and girl waiting in two cars, while family members drink at a rural pub.

Boy started life as Choice - as in cool or wicked - and Waititi developed it at a Sundance Writers Lab in 2005, workshopping it with Hollywood script writers including Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon). During shooting, it had the working title The Volcano.

Boy is set in a rural Maori community in the Bay of Plenty in 1984 and was largely shot in Waihau Bay where Waititi alternated his time growing up in nearby Raukokore with stints in Wellington's Aro Valley.

The film is a comedy drama and a coming of age movie. James Rolleston plays the title character, an 11-year-old obsessed with Michael Jackson, who lives with his brother Rocky, his cousins and his Nan. He keeps pining to see his father Alamein, who he imagines is a war hero, deep sea diver and a dancer as good as Jackson. In reality, Alamein, played by Waititi, has just got out of prison after serving time for a bank robbery.

There are many fine performances in Boy, not the least Waititi's - showcasing he's as good a dramatic actor as he is in comic roles - and he's very funny in Boy. But it's Rolleston who is a revelation. He is so convincing, it's hard to imagine he's actually playing someone else.

Waititi says early on he was adamant that for the film to be as authentic as possible it had to be shot in the Bay of Plenty and for a good proportion of the cast to be from the area or have an affinity to it.

"I really didn't want to get a kid from the city and say 'put on this voice for me and pretend you're from the coast'. Just for my own sense of accomplishment, and for the film, I didn't want to be faking a lot of it, so that was a big part of it to get it right."

Waititi says seven months before rehearsals they had cast another child actor in the title role. However, when rehearsals began, the boy was 12 1/2 and "crossing over into 13-year-old territory". Waititi felt he was now too old. "You are suddenly faced with a young adult rather than an innocent kid."

So he turned to Rolleston and, like the rest of the cast and crew, was rapt with the results. "It's a really honest performance. You can see that he actually gets what he's saying. He's not just saying words. Even when we were shooting I would look around the set and people were staring at each other, 'Oh my God, the kid's amazing'. There's even some amazing stuff that didn't make it into the film."

It wasn't all plain sailing. Waititi says there were times during the shooting that some of the children in the cast would have "a meltdown" and didn't want to work. "But you've just got to buy into that right from the start. You've got to understand that's what you get. You can't force them and you can't rush it. You have to sit it out and once you learn that you relax a bit more."

Waititi watchers will know that the fact he's not only writing and directing Boy, but is also a linchpin on screen, is significant. It's his first big screen role since Snakeskin in 2001.

Waititi is explaining this just days before he flies out to New Orleans for a part in superhero movie Green Lantern, directed by fellow Kiwi Martin Campbell. Waititi says the hardest thing he finds about making movies is at the beginning where he has to get over the "self-worth question".

"When you're on set you're like 'everyone's judging me because I'm the director and everyone thinks I'm doing this because I just love myself and I want to do everything'.

"Part of it's true, I do want to do everything and I do kind of love myself," he jokes.

But he believes playing Alamein was important for the film and that it was right. "I wanted something so specific and I wanted it to be a comedy character that I wasn't finding when I was auditioning. I wanted to move away from 'typically Maori roles' in a film to something that was more like a clumsy, awkward, nerdy character. A step away from the stereotypes of either stoic warrior or drunken wife-beater."

Waititi reckons he's better on screen as an actor now than he was in the early days - including his breakout part in 1999's Scarfies - ironically because he's concentrated on making films instead.

"I did roles that I hated and there were roles that were detrimental to my acting ability. There were roles that I was always doing that were always the comic relief ... it was destroying my soul."

But if there were more roles like Boy's Alamein, Waititi says things would be different. "I wouldn't be a film-maker I would be an actor. I was depressed about the roles that were on offer, so I had to make my own stories."

* Boy is screening now.


How comedian, actor, writer, artist and director Taika Waititi went from wearing a skin-coloured "nudie suit" at Wellington's Bats Theatre to Hollywood movie Green Lantern.

1996: Waititi (as Taika Cohen) stars in comedy show So You're a Man at Bats Theatre with future Flight of the Conchords' stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. The three wear skin coloured "nudie suits".

1997: Clement and Waititi (as Cohen) perform as comedy duo Humourbeasts. They win the Spirit of the Fringe Award at the Edinburgh Fringe.

1999: Humourbeasts win a $5000 TV2 Billy T Award for up-and-coming comics. Waititi (as Cohen) gets a big part in the movie Scarfies.

2000: Waititi, Clement and McKenzie perform in the classic play The Frogs by Aristophanes. Humourbeasts hold fundraising shows to perform at Canadian comedy festivals. Nominated for best actor in the Nokia Film Awards for Scarfies.

2001: Waititi (as Cohen) lands big part in Snakeskin alongside Melanie Lynskey.

2003: Waititi makes his first short film Two Cars, One Night.

2004: Two Cars, One Night wins best short film Hamburg Shorts Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, Aspen Shortfest and Berlin Film Festival and is nominated for the best short film Oscar. Waititi makes second short Tama Tu and tours solo stage show Taika's Incredible Show.

2005: Waititi attends the Oscars and pretends to be asleep when his name is read out as a nominee. Tamu Tu wins jury prize at Berlin Film Festival, best short fiction film at Melbourne International Film Festival, special jury award at Aspen Shortfest, special jury mentions at Sundance and Berlin film festivals. In November he begins shooting debut feature Eagle vs Shark in Wellington.

2007: Eagle vs Shark co-star Loren Horsley wins best actress award at Newport International Film Festival. Film is the top grossing Kiwi film at the New Zealand box office. Waititi writes and directs Flight of the Conchords episode Drive By, which airs in July in the United States. He also directs the episode New Fans, written by Scarfies co-writer Duncan Sarkies.

2008: Eagle vs Shark nominated for best picture, best director, best screenplay in the Qantas Film and Television Awards. Waititi wins best director.

2009: Writes and directs Flight of the Conchords episode New Zealand Town. He also directs the final Flight of the Conchords episode Evicted.

2010: Boy has world premiere at Sundance Film Festival and wins top prize 60th Berlin International Film Festival in the category for young viewers. Waititi won't be able to attend the Auckland premiere of Boy this week due to his role in superhero movie Green Lantern, being shot in New Orleans. Waititi is playing the Green Lantern's sidekick, based on the character Thomas Kalmaku.

The Dominion Post