Taika Waititi talks Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Taika Waititi's latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople got a standing ovation at the renowned Sundance Festival when it premiered there earlier this year, charming audiences and critics alike.
"Comic genius," wrote a reviewer in The Guardian, when describing the onscreen relationship between the movie's central stars – veteran Kiwi actor Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison. Waititi "combines solid writing with an entire bag of filmmaking tricks" to "score laughs from the get-go", reads a review in The Hollywood Reporter.
This is not surprising. Since releasing his first feature film, Eagle vs Shark, in 2007, Waititi has been reeling in fans with his singular comedic sensibility. His second film Boy (2010) was the highest-grossing New Zealand film ever, while his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and work on Flight of the Concords drew international acclaim.
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He doesn't, he says on the phone from Los Angeles where he is working on the Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok, have a particular way of describing this trademark sense of humour – mostly because "I don't really think about it".
He writes for a New Zealand audience ("I think…'ah, Kiwis will love this'.") and he writes what he thinks is funny.
Along with his friend, fellow comedian and actor Rhys Darby, he's coined a term for the Kiwi sense humour or comedic style: "the comedy of the mundane".
"I think we're really good at finding the humour in everyday things that most people around the world would think are too boring to make jokes about."
Waititi is all about the funny. He's not afraid of making an uplifting, feel-good film. In Wilderpeople, it was a very deliberate choice to interpret the subject matter through this lens.
Too often, he says, people believe that for something to be artistic – "and you can't see me doing quotation marks when I say artistic" – it has to be sad.
"You have to really feel like 'oh, wow, yeah, that must have been such a hard film to shoot because everyone was crying all day'."
That's "a cool, emotional way to make films" but to his mind, at the moment, documentaries do it better. Besides happiness and joy are valid emotions too.
"To me, spending millions of dollars recreating the world's sadness with actors and props and sets – it seems like a kind of arrogant waste of money…Unless, that is, it's a film about an historical event.
"People overcoming the odds is actually a really important part of humanity and I don't think we kind of get to celebrate that as much as we should."
Celebration is definitely what you'll get when Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in New Zealand this week. Billed as action-packed chase film that harks back to the New Zealand adventure films of the 1970s and 80s (think Goodbye Pork Pie and Sleeping Dogs), critics have praised the loveable characters and audiences have laughed and laughed. Plus, there's an epic car chase. It's a film, says Waititi, which "rewards a group viewing".
Wilderpeople is based on the Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress and tells the story of Ricky Baker (Dennison), a young troublemaker who is forced to go bush with his grumpy Uncle Hec (Neill) and fight against the odds. "We all have to remember that New Zealand is built on these kind of people who are rebels and renegades, people doing it their own way, fighting for freedom and braving the elements. I think it's cool to celebrate that."
Waititi will be attending opening weekend events, often with a Q&A, and hopes to return for as many weekends as possible, drumming up enthusiasm for the film.
"It's special to me to open the film in New Zealand, because that's my main audience, that's the people who, over the years, have responded to my work and who I really make the films for in the first place."
Waititi, who worked as a comedian, actor and visual artist in Wellington, before starting a career in film, says making movies is "one of the greatest jobs in the world".
"No matter how hard you're working, your job is essentially pretending stuff and trying to make people feel things by showing them images. I think that's really awesome. And your training for a job like this is to watch movies."
And yes, making Wilderpeople was as fun as it looks.
"There's nothing cooler than going to work and hanging around with your friends and laughing, because it's something that you get told off for throughout your entire time at school…it's just like a big 'in your face' to those bully teachers that you had when you were a kid…"
Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in New Zealand cinemas on March 31.