Behind the scenes of Wilderpeople: mud, snow, kids and fake pigs

JASON DORDAY/Stuff.co.nz

Taika Waititi talks about directing his latest Kiwi comedy.

"It was hard shooting The Revenant - well they only shot two hours a day," says Taika Waititi, looking back. "We were out there all day long in the freezing cold. Five weeks is not long to work with when you've got car chases, kids, animals and it's the dead of a New Zealand winter."

But the idea of cramming an entire filmshoot into just five weeks is central to Waititi's big new idea of rolling out a lot more Kiwi films quickly - his company Piki films has works in progress from Oscar Kightley, Madeleine Sami and others they want to get moving. 

Taika Waititi on set with Stan Walker, Mike Minogue and Cohen Holloway, who play a trio of hunters in his movie Hunt for ...
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Taika Waititi on set with Stan Walker, Mike Minogue and Cohen Holloway, who play a trio of hunters in his movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

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Taika Waititi and Julian Dennison on set in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
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Taika Waititi and Julian Dennison on set in the Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

On day one of Waititi's own project, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a blizzard descended as they headed to the set, just off the Desert Road. There had been some script notes about 'if it snows' but for some, the weather might have been considered another obstacle in the path of wrapping the entire thing so quickly.

But when the flakes stopped falling, says production designer Neville Stevenson, they were left with a perfect carpet of white. He'd used foam and Epsom salts to simulate snow scenes in the past. "But," he says, "there's nothing like the real thing."

"It's been amazing," says Stevenson, "to be in these natural environments. On occasion, when I've had a moment to take stock and have a little breather - you suddenly notice Mt Ruapehu or a beautiful forest in front of you. It's pretty exciting to have captured some of these amazing vistas.  We're very lucky to have amazing locations and lots of great nature at our disposal. We went into production embracing the fact it was going to be hard with the weather, and prepared to shoot whatever the conditions."

Five weeks of mud and snow for Taika Waititi and crew.
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Five weeks of mud and snow for Taika Waititi and crew.

And the children and animals? Well, the kids - Julian Dennison and Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne - have a remarkable poise for their years. The animals are most taxidermied, bar one horse, or in the infamous case of the Terminator Pig, the product of Stevenson's lurid imagination. And the film? Well, it got finished on time, as you might suspect, and when it opened last weekend, it broke New Zealand box office records.

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(DC) It's mid-June, 2015; three days from the end of this most frenzied of shoots. Action has shifted steadily north from that picturesque Central Plateau scene, and when Stuff visits, it's now all happening outside a sprawling old farmhouse deep in the Waitakere Ranges bush above Bethell's Beach, west Auckland. It's doubling as a home somewhere in the Ureweras. The star's trailers are actually Britz campervans parked in a gravel lot down the pathway (although there is a call-sheet note to make sure the heaters inside are turned on before Dennison and Sam Neill are due on set); there's no cell reception and it's getting cold. Luxury it ain't.

They're filming a scene where Ricky (Dennison) leaves his bush hideout with Hec (Neill) to find help for a sick ranger, runs into Kahu (Ngatai-Melbourne), consumes a sausage, listens to a song, and falls asleep. The other shots today are chiefly 'inserts' - inconsequential shots of hands, and television sets, and buildings.

They're on target. "It's been a rush, but we're going to make it," says producer Carthew Neal, with confidence. And Waititi looks duly calm, most of the heavy lifting long done. "We've saved the calmest day for you, so I'm not swearing ... usually I'm screaming," he says, smiling. 

They've shot almost the entire film, barring the climactic action sequence, on a single camera - which adds an extra layer of urgency. "You never have that camera waiting," says Neal.

It's unusual, says Stevenson, that about 95% of the scenes in the movie are shot outdoors - although he did have to build, age, and then burn down a barn for a scene on Hec's farm (for which exterior shots were filmed in Puhoi, and the interiors some 55 kilometres away in suburban Oratia, west Auckland). So when today's internal shots finish, they wander outside for a couple of bush scenes, shot literally about 100 centimetres into the undergrowth. "The good thing about bush is it all looks quite similar," says Neal. Various stuffed animals, including a pukeko, are pulled from plastic crates and heaved around, the stunt guy shows Dennison how to fall off a horse, Dennison and Ngatai-Melbourne record some vocals and then the crew applaud: Tioreore's shoot is over. 

Her rather surprised parents are watching from the back of a ute nearby. They claim no credit for her nascent acting prowess. "Her and her little sister are always making home film productions and they put together their own audition tape between the two of them: mum and dad didn't have, couldn't have, anything to do with it," says her dad, Taiarahia Melbourne. 

The family come from remote Hick's Bay, near Gisborne, a seven-hour drive to Auckland but they've come in numbers after gathering at home for the tangi of their eldest son Perohuka, who had died just three weeks earlier. "This has been so good for us, to all be together," says Kararaina Ngatai-Melbourne, her mother. "She was very close to him, and it helps take her mind off it," says her father. Ngatai-Melbourne's scenes were delayed a fortnight to allow her to grieve for her brother.

While she's never acted before, this was the third feature film for which she'd tried out. Neal says they had about 160 submissions after a call for video demos to play the part of Kahu. Ngatai-Melbourne was chosen after a two-hour trip to find a functioning skype connection for her final audition before casting director Stu Turner finally called. While her parents both admit to nerves and mainlining cappucchinos, they say the new star is unperturbed. ​"She's got her own way of doing things. She's always been different and I'm pretty sure that's one of the traits Taika saw in her," says her father.

Her parents are right. Ngatai-Melbourne finishes a scene and looks supremely laidback. "I was really nervous for like ten seconds... but then I felt really relaxed doing it and being someone else," she says. "It's similar to doing kapa haka: being really focused. Everyone is really nice, asking you if you want a drink every ten minutes. I just really like being someone else."

They're not the only parents there. Just behind the camera, leaning on a walking stick, is Dennison's mother Mabelle, who accompanies him everywhere - film festivals in Russia, China, the US, and onto every set. She's got a complex plan to keep him energised (beef jerky in the afternoons) and ways to keep his education going (on the Central Plateau, they discussed the geology and weather of the region). "This is the exception," she explains. "This is extraordinary to life Our family is more concerned about turning young boys into good men; what we do doesn;t matter if we're not good people."

The other person charged with keeping an eye on the kids is Rachel House, who has a surprisingly mellifluous voice in real life compared to the harsh 'he's a bad igg' tones she employs in the film as a crazed child welfare officer pursuing Hec and Ricky. House wears three hats: comic sidekick, director's intern and dialogue coach. That means shadowing Waititi around the set as preparation, she hopes for one day shooting her own film (an adaptation of a play called Hui) and leading the child actors through their parts, "ensuring they have an understanding of what's going on in the film".

In addition, Waititi's daughter is wandering around; so too Neill's two year old grandson and the daughter of the houseowners is wandering around with a fat, tame rabbit in her arms. It's all rather laidback.

The plot sends Hec and Ricky on the run in the bush for five months, which calls for clever costuming. There's between six and eight of each key item of clothing, two at each level of disrepair, so that the stunt men and stand-ins aren't swopping trousers with Neill. Professional textile artists have used cheese-graters and blowtorches to get them to exactly the right level of dishevelment. For costume designer Kristin Seth, it's meant some crafty collecting: a hunting shop in Invercargill during another film shoot, raiding family wardrobes. "You beg, borrow, and yes, I do steal from my partner," she says. "I've got half his wardrobe in the car - he'll see it in the movie though."

And that Terminator Pig? That was inspired by the technical dramas faced by the crew of Jaws with their mechanical shark. "I remembered the less-is-more approach we saw in Jaws - the less we see of the shark, the better, because it's nor working," smiles Stevenson. "So maybe we utilise that idea." He spent a couple of weekends with the art director building "basically a pantomime horse ... with the stipulation that I was the front and he was the back".

"It didn't sound like it would be possible," says Neal. "But every few days, we would see a new incarnation of it and it slowly built into this thing." The suit got destroyed in the rough and tumble; Stevenson planned to preserve and mount the head, once he figured out what the scientific name for terminator pig would be.

In that particular scene, as the angry pig charges Neill and Dennison, you've no doubt it's real. "What was interesting," says Stevenson, "when you look at that footage is there are little moments where you believe you are looking at this giant pig, and little moments where it looks like two clowns in a suit: but that's where the beauty of editing lies." 

Filming is all but done; six months of post-production where the manipulation of fake pigs occurs is to come. 

Unit assistant Russell King, clad like a real-life Hec in swanndri and akubra hat, has been wandering around with trays of sandwiches with the crusts cut off. But then the real Hec finally arrives. Sam Neill is in almost every scene of this film, but today he's not yet been needed so it's in the half-light of the afternoon that he walks on set. "It's been ambitious to do it in five weeks," he says. "But we've got a really smart motivated crew working like the clappers and there is so much talent here. All these comedians. My job is to be the straight guy and let everyone laugh at my expense. It's been hard work: but all filming is hard work... and I couldn't think of anything more fun to do."

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in cinemas now.

 - Sunday Star Times

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