Hunt for the Wilderpeople: A taxi ride with Sam Neill, Taika Waititi and Julian Dennison
I'm in a taxi with movie star Sam Neill, director Taika Waititi and young actor Julian Dennison driving from Christchurch Airport.
We are talking about their latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, when the taxi passes a school. Sam Neill is immediately transfixed.
"Tense up. Tense up. S.... There is one of my old schools," he says.
He lets out a mock cry of agony.
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Dennison interjects: "Don't pass out, Sam. Don't pass out."
"God, I hated that place," says Neill.
"I was nine-years-old in those dormitories when I was boarding."
"It was like we were all little Rickys," he says, referring to Dennison's character in the film, who is shunted from one foster home to another.
"[There were] seven or eight nine-year-olds in this dormitory. Not me, but the rest of them were crying themselves to sleep. Can you imagine?"
He pretends to weep and crys out dramatically.
"You have never had anything as rough as that."
"Ricky has," says Dennison.
Then Neill's face immediately relaxes.
"Anyway, onto more cheerful things."
It is a funny exchange that reflects the tone of their new film – playful and funny but with an undertow of melancholy.
The cast and director of Hunt for the Wilderpeople have landed in Christchurch from Auckland to appear at a question and answer session after a screening of their film at Hoyts Riccarton. The trio are touring New Zealand, appearing everywhere from Nelson to Raglan, to promote the film on its opening weekend.
I was invited to interview them in the cab ride from the airport and watch the Q&A.
The new film is an instant Kiwi classic – an anti-authoritarian adventure story in the vein of swashbuckling New Zealand movies from the 1970s and '80s like Smash Palace, Came a Hot Friday and Goodbye Pork Pie. It is Waititi's follow up to vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows and 2010 comedy drama Boy.
Ricky Baker (Dennison) is a foster child who is in trouble for a string of petty crimes. He is given one last chance with a foster home in the backblocks with taciturn Kiwi bushman Hector (Neill) and his loving wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata).
Things quickly go south, forcing Ricky and "Uncle Hec" to escape into the bush pursued by angry hunters, police, helicopters, swat teams and an overzealous social welfare officer.
Neill says it wasn't a big stretch to play a gruff Kiwi bushman.
"I drew from the deep well of grumpiness in myself," he says in the taxi.
"That well is deep," adds Waititi.
"Very, very deep," agrees Dennison.
"Yes, thanks Julian," Neill adds drily through his wolfish grin.
Waititi says he was drawing on the Kiwi films of his 1980s youth and their adventurous, anti-authoritarian spirit.
"I think I am an anti-authoritarian," he says.
"I grew up with all those films, so that sense is instilled in me, my mother was anti-authoritarian and my father certainly was.
"I feel like that attitude is deep within me. I have always loved the underdog. All my films are about the marginalised and people who are struggling to fit in and don't cop a fair go. Even the vampires. They are not accepted. They are the immigrants."
Neill interjects with a thought about his role as the devil in his 1981 Hollywood breakthrough movie Omen III, also known as The Final Conflict.
"The only person who likes to reminds me of Omen III is Taika Waititi. I always thought he was the ultimate outsider. You can't go around saying you are the anti-christ."
"No, you can't," replies Waititi.
"Who is going to be your friend if you say that?" says Neill.
"Only half of America would vote for you", adds Waititi.
Neill says that director Roger Donaldson, whose films Sleeping Dogs and Smash Palace influenced Hunt for the Wilderpeople, loves the new movie.
"There are many conscious nods that Taika makes in this film to people like Roger [Donaldson] and [Goodbye Pork Pie director] Geoff Murphy. I saw Roger the other night and he was very touched."
"I had dinner with him last night and he wouldn't stop talking about the film. He said you couldn't ask for anything more entertaining than what I saw. How good is that?"
Waititi's next project is directing Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok. He can't say much about the film, except that it will star Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo.
How will he adjust to the difference in scale?
"The scale is bigger, but the actual craft is exactly the same. When someone says action, you are still looking at people trying to remember words and say them convincingly. It doesn't matter what the budget, they can or they can't.
"It comes down to that for me. The action stuff takes care of itself. I've done a lot of commercials and some were with big celebrities. Once the camera is rolling all the entourage and ego stuff disappears."
After that he wants to tell more Kiwi stories.
"After Thor I will probably need a break from the American accent and will probably come home and do a Kiwi film," he tells the audience at the Q&A in Christchurch.
"I have three or four New Zealand films, three that I have written, four ideas that I want to do over the next few years. I will hopefully do one over there and one over here. I have a full slate."
An audience members asks Dennison, 13, what is next for him.
His mother, sitting in the audience, answers the question before he gets a chance.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (PG) is now screening.