For a filmmaker with such a particular, peculiar sense of humor, New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi has helmed a surprisingly wide range of projects. He’s directed commercials and PSAs, and an charming Oscar-nominated short film (Two Cars, One Night) about two bored kids hanging out together in a parking lot. He’s directed projects with his longtime comedy partner Jemaine Clement, including episodes of Clement’s TV comedy / band spinoff Flight Of The Conchords, and the awkward romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark. He’s directed a funny Maori coming-of-age film, Boy, that became New Zealand’s biggest box-office hit, and a giggly, improv-heavy vampire mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, which he also starred in opposite Clement. But as much as his projects vary, they have some shared elements. Waititi is of Maori descent, and he often works with Maori actors and writes Maori characters. His sense of humor is straight-faced and sincere. His characters — like his put-upon den-mother vampire Viago in What We Do In The Shadows — tend to be hilarious but impotent, and they’re endlessly self-aggrandizing, without realizing how foolish they sound.
It’s hard to see how any of this familiar texture will fit into his current project: he just started shooting the new Marvel Cinematic Universe installment Thor: Ragnarok, currently slated for release in November 2017. But so far, he’s been enthusiastic and upbeat about the process of handling his first huge, CGI-heavy studio movie, and injecting his own personality into it. Some of his optimism may come from the fact that he just beat his own New Zealand box-office record with Hunt For The Wilderpeople, a widely praised adventure-comedy about a cranky, illiterate senior citizen (Sam Neill) and his 13-year-old ward (Julian Dennison) disappearing into the New Zealand bush together to evade child-welfare authorities. The film adapts Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork And Watercress, but it’s also meant as a throwback to 1980s-era mismatched-buddy comedies and on-the-run movies. I recently talked to Waititi about giving up control for Thor: Ragnarok, the importance of flexibility, and why Maori funerals are funny enough that they helped inspire his whole comic approach.
Tasha Robinson: Wild Pork And Watercress isn't available in America, but it's considered a classic in New Zealand. How close is the film to the book? How did you approach adapting it?
Taika Waititi: The thing that interested me most about the book was the relationship, the idea of an odd couple going it alone in the bush while the authorities were trying to bring them to justice. And that's about the only thing I took from the book. There are a few little incidents here and there, but it's mostly the idea of a pair of people forced to go it alone and brave the elements and put aside their differences and become a team. And potentially a story about two people trying to find family. I really loved that idea. So I took that and, in the truest sense, adapted it. I added a lot more humor, and characters like the social worker, and Rhys Darby's character, and the girl, Kahu. And the car chase, which made it more of a cinematic adventure-comedy.
There have been a lot of movies about old curmudgeons and plucky orphans, like Kolya, Annie, Ernest & Celestine, and Up. Did you look at any of them, either for inspiration, or to avoid walking into familiar territory?
One of my favorite films, and one I often went back to for this film, was Paper Moon. And that's a really fantastic example of a kid and an adult stuck together, despite the fact that they hate each other. [Laughs] And eventually they grow to love each other. I looked at Up a little bit — I love Up. There are great parts of that kind of relationship in there. Wilderpeople definitely falls into a genre, though — people on the run, buddy flicks. I think if you explain it to someone, they'll say, "Oh, we've seen that a hundred times before." So I was constantly trying to surprise people, like "This is not quite that film, not quite what you're expecting." There's a funeral, but it's not your typical funeral. Moments where you're supposed to be sad are often undercut quite quickly by comedy scenes. It's a mix of those things. I think Paper Moon does that quite well as well.
"Maori funerals are hilarious. They're quite ridiculous."
One thing that stands out about that funeral scene is the weird speech you give as the minister, about not picking the easy door in life, even though there are hamburger rings and Fanta waiting behind it. It's so ridiculously specific.
When I was writing the script, people at the New Zealand Film Commission would often say, "Someone's just died in that scene. Don't you think we should allow the audience to really ride that wave of sadness, and spend some time mourning?" Which is a fair point. But I didn't have to. Life isn't like that. That sermon was something I heard at a friend's father's funeral, and I took it and rewrote it for this film. The specificity is actually something that happened in real life, from a minister listing off foods like that — not those specific foods, but confectionaries and so forth. I was at my friend's dad's funeral, feeling sad and sorry for him, but also laughing. It was one of the most ridiculous sad moments I'd ever been in. I think that moment really solidified for me how ridiculous life can be, and how much of a pendulum we're on when it comes to comedy and drama in real life. It swings like that all the time, and you can't control it.
Also, coming from my culture — Maori funerals are hilarious. They're quite ridiculous. You go to a funeral expecting to laugh. A lot of tears are shed, and it's a very emotional time, but it runs the gamut. These funerals last up to a week, and it swings back and forth every day: grief and happiness and remembering people. So just from growing up like that is why I do that in a lot of my films. I don't mind going from sadness to comedy in a split-second, or mixing the two up.
Do you have a personal interest in getting more Maori actors onscreen, or bringing Maori culture to a wider audience? Or is it more that you're writing what you know?
It's a bit of both. I'm more interested in getting Maori stories out there, and having Maori storytellers telling their stories. And a lot of those actors are friends of mine, or people I like as actors. Also, I put a lot of people into my films that people wouldn't think of as Maori. People don't know Jemaine [Clement] is Maori, probably. And people don't know that Cohen Holloway is Maori, and he's in all my films. So it's something I definitely like doing, but not just because they're Maori. I always want the best person for the job. Luckily, I get the best of both worlds, because the best people for the job happen to be Maori as well. [Laughs]
Do you often draw on your own life for your features?
I often do, but I draw on other people's lives as well. I may hear a story someone's told, and ask if I can use it in a script. In my films, a lot of the situations come from real life. And again, I feel like I've observed and been able to log in my memory some of the most ridiculous things imaginable, that have actually happened. I'm not sure I could write something more ridiculous than what I've seen in real life. And that's a great thing. I'm aware some of my films might seem too outlandish and crazy. But Rhys' character in Wilderpeople, I know people like that! I have uncles like that! I think everyone's known someone like that. Rhys is like that! I think Rhys is playing himself in 30 years. He is a conspiracy theorist. He's into that stuff! He believes in UFOs and the X-Files. He believes in the yeti! So that was a very personal role for him, I believe.
One of the things that makes this film stand out is the deadpan humor. Why does that flat affect appeal to you? How do you get that performance out of actors?
I don't know! Now and then I'll specifically want a pause or a gape at a weird moment, and it'll just happen. Sometimes I find it in the edit outside the moment we were shooting, from after we called cut. Or I'll say, "Don't answer him when he says that. Just stop and stare at him." Just to break it up a bit, and make it a bit weird. Because normal human conversations are like that. People get distracted. I daydream all the time. I asked you to repeat a question earlier, and I'll be honest — I was thinking of something else. [Laughs] I got distracted by a thought. And that's what happens. When people watch a film and there's something complicated going on with the characters, and you're trying to work that out, it's more interesting than watching good-looking people say words. That becomes boring really quickly.
You had to work around an unexpected snowstorm in this film, but you've said those kinds of shooting problems don't faze you. Was it hard to get to that level of chill? Did it develop out of your work?
I think it's something I've always had, because I don't know what I'm doing. I always have plans, but I never went to film school, and I don't know how you're supposed to really do this. All I know is, I turn up, I want people to say the words, and I want them to surprise me. I want it to feel like it's the first time I've heard those words, and like I'm being allowed a little insight into something. So often it'll happen in blocking, or rehearsal. I might just meet someone and suddenly get an inspiration, and say, "Let's recast." You have to roll with the punches. There's something to be said for planning, so you have something to fall back on, but you have to be flexible and open. There are often all these ideas buzzing around, and if you're too fixed on what you've planned, you'll miss even better ideas that are flying around your head. If your head is down, looking at the storyboards, you're gonna miss the cool shit happening in front of you. And nine times out of 10, that off-the-cuff, spontaneous stuff is more interesting.
You're shooting Thor: Ragnarok right now. Do you have that kind of freedom to be spontaneous on a big studio-run, CGI-heavy film?
It hasn't been that different. So far it's been good! I've been more organized, which is saying something, for a guy like me to be organized. I'm surrounded by really intelligent, amazing people. I've got access to great minds and great resources. So I'm at a real advantage. In terms of the studio thing, these people don't act like a studio. They're cool, smart storytellers. I've been enjoying hanging out with them. And I've made commercials, so I've worked with the worst people in the world. Nothing could be more restrictive than working with people in advertising.
"I've made commercials, so I've worked with the worst people in the world."
Your sense of humor is so specific, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe sense of humor has evolved into something very differently specific. Is this film going to feel like one of yours?
Yes, it will. Until it doesn't. [Laughs] I don't know, I can only hope. I've got to bring as much of myself as I can to this, and then see how it goes. You obviously need people overseeing the bigger picture, the next five movies or whatever. Otherwise we'd all be left to our own devices, and God knows what would happen.
How important is control to you at this point, as opposed to having a huge budget, a built-in audience, and collaborators you like?
I don't think it's as important with someone else's source material, with someone else's stuff. I didn't invent Thor, so I don't feel a passionate need to have creative control over him. I wonder how Stan Lee feels about me doing a Thor film? [Laughs]