Sam Neill and Rhys Darby Talk Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Actor Sam Neill and actor/comedian Rhys Darby talk working with Taika Watiti, New Zealand, and creative control.

Spend all your money on disappointing sequels that nobody was asking for this weekend, and realized quickly what a terrible mistake you’ve made? Want to find a way to cheer yourself up? Simple, take a trip over to your local arthouse/indie theater, and buy a ticket to one of the best films of the year, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

The new film by Taika Watiti (Eagle V. Shark, Boy, What We Do In The Shadows, and the now filming, Thor: Ragnarok) is hilarious, touching, outrageous, and overall brilliant. We jumped on the phone to have a quick chat with the film’s stars, Sam Neill and Rhys Darby to talk about what is now the highest grossing homegrown film in New Zealand.

Den of Geek: Now, Barry Crump is an author who may not be very familiar here in the States, but was it extra special making a film for one of his stories, knowing his reputation in New Zealand?

Rhys Darby: Yeah, absolutely. He wrote a lot of books and they were really special. They were kind of the quintessential, mild for the most part, kind of southern man, kind of the true heart of what it meant to be a Kiwi kind of farmer; very kind of outdoor man living off the land. That kind of thing, you don’t see so much anymore these days with everyone being metrosexual and lattes and laptops. But back in the day, he not only had these stories that talked about that kind of rustic personality, but also, he spoke volumes, I guess, of the relationships in the stories that he told in these books.

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And this particular one was very, very heartwarming and is the relationship of an older man and a young boy that are essentially on the run. And so yeah, as I say, he wrote a lot of books and this one got into the hands of Taika who then writing the screenplay decided to really vamp up if that’s the word, or ramp up and modernize certain phrases [LAUGHTER]—getting in the humor. So he added a lot of a real comedy perspective onto it which is what I think the story needed anyway, especially for it to turn into a film. And it worked.

It took him awhile, you know, he worked on this screenplay for a couple of years and just getting it right and the result is there. He’s made really close to a perfect film… Perfect as you can be.

Sam Neill: Nobody knows who Barry Crump is, anywhere, but in New Zealand he’s huge. I am of that age, where I sort of grew up with Barry Crump books. Look, if you read the book, you realize it is actually not a funny book at all… A lot of the humor and indeed a lot of the sort of dark sensibilities is actually what Taika’s brought to the material.

RD: Yeah, but what Taika still bring to it, it really sums up what life is like in New Zealand, or what our sensibilities, our sense of humor, how we come together, how easy it would be, feels like. You know, we have a small population and so you know the bizarreness of the police getting involved in this manhunt, how the men… And then eventually, the army all get intwines.

It’s kind of like you believe it because New Zealand is a small place, we always call it “the village” or “the shire” because actually there are two degrees of separation really between the people. We always know someone who knows someone and it’s kind of like you can imagine this scenario taking place even though it’s a bit a work of fiction. It’s believable and I think it’s even believable for people in America to look at it and go, “Okay, I think that would happen over there.” You know?

SN: On a side note, I never met Barry Crump, but I was in an audience once for a play once. There was a drunken man at the back of the auditorium that was shouting during a performance of a one man play, and it turned out later on that was Barry Crump and he was in a state of inebriation.

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What about Taika’s additions to the material. Were you concerned if they would work?

SN: No, because I was familiar with Taika’s work and there’s a very subversive, funny streak amongst all of them. I don’t think he turned it into a sort of drama, there’s too much dark material underneath it for it to be a comedy; it wasn’t designed to be a comedy. I think it’s a comedy… I think it’s a drama that’s funny; which is different.

How was working with young Julian? He has done work with Taika in a commercial before and some other things here and there, but this was his first starring role. Did you feel like you had to be there to mentor him in anyway?

SN: It was clear from day one I wouldn’t have to mentor him. He’d done two feature films prior to this, not as the lead, but he was… He knew what film production was. He knew his way around a film set, you know? He’s a smart kid who learned it fast, that was clear to me that I didn’t have to teach him anything more than I had anything to teach later. He was ahead all the way.

But more than that, I liked him. We became friends very quickly and it was an enjoyable experience hanging out with him.

What about your character Rhys, Psycho Sam? For those who maybe know you more from Flight of the Conchords and other work, I’d say Sam’s mannerisms are more like your stand-up persona.

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RD: I think he’s closer to the real me in some ways which is frightening to admit, but I guess… I mean, I’m definitely into the paranormal. I’m not really a conspiracy nut, but I think if I went down a slightly different route in my life instead of meeting and marrying the person I met, I may have gone down this other direction and got myself stuck in my head with my ideas and my thoughts and I’m into UFOs and paranormal subject matter. S

o I think I can relate to this guy that ended up… This desire to go off the grid and live on his own and didn’t trust anyone or anything and I guess the thing that saved him in my head was that he had a great sense of humor. And so I mean, I have met a few nutty folks that do have that kind of sense of humor as well because… And you would go slightly mad living on your own and you’ve only got yourself to amuse and I think there was certainly an element of that as you see that the great way of coming into the film where he’s just a bush. [LAUGHTER] As I imagine, something that he would probably do on a daily basis even if there’s no one around.

Did you take the character at face value of just being comic relief or did you go digging for more meaning, such as, maybe it was important for Uncle Herc and Ricky to meet your character, because it gave them an idea of what they may become if they stay in the bush?

RD: I think there’s both those elements there, but the main element was that at this time in the screenplay, they’d been on the run for quite some time and it’s nice to inject a comical character that is almost, gives sort of a light of laughter, a light of kind of ah, here we go… It takes another part again and you do wonder, yes, he’s funny, but is he going to be a risk? You want to keep the audience thinking, is this the right move, getting with this guy? Or is this a bad move?

And of course, it’s both because without giving too much away, obviously, you know what happens… Yeah, and I think… I’ve had people tell me in the past that it got to a point in the film where it’s… You don’t expect I’m even going to be in it and then suddenly I appear and it gives it that extra little boost that the story might need at that point in the film.

SN: Watching them react though, is the most important thing. The core of the film is that relationship. Whether they’re getting on or whether they’re not. If that relationship works, then everything else works as well. And you kind of almost, sort of, gives into a realm of something like New Zealand magic realism… There is no world in which social work is actually pursues some kid into the woods in this manner.  Magic realism—somebody used that phrase the other day that is familiar with South American literature. That rang a bell. It resonates with me.

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RD: I think it’s one of those things that’s hard to explain how he does it or indeed how I do it. The only thing I can say in comparison is when I play comedy characters; I definitely put empathy in right up at the forefront. I think if you believe in someone because you not necessarily feel sorry for them, but you can see how they are the way they are and you can laugh with them, but rather than laugh at them, you are on their side and I think it’s… And it gives that… It makes it extra special and also more human and I think he’s done that on a big scale by making the film like that.

So you’re on the side of these guys right from the beginning. And first and foremost, you’ve got to be… You’ve got to have a likeability factor, I think, in your comedy characters. If the guy’s really, really funny but you just don’t like him or her, then you’re never going to root for them. So I guess on a grand scale of the film, it works the same way.

You seem to be cast in characters that suit your personality, but what is the difference when you get to have complete control, such as with your show, “Short Poppies?”

RD: Yeah, I’ve been lucky so far that I have had that control and I think when I’m cast in things, people take that as part of the package that I would like to have some sort of creative control and they know what I’m capable of, so they let me come on the day with my own ammunition. So yeah, it’s kind of a… It’s always a collaborative effort when I’m involved. I’ve been lucky.

I mean, when I did The X-Files, there was certainly less of that because the script was as it was and it was such a wonderful script and it was quite complex and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of improvising I could do to bring to the table, but I guess what I did bring was a sense of self and that the reason I was cast was because I did come across as someone who possibly was only human for a short time. [LAUGHTER] Something about me and the quality of, I guess, of me in that way that came through on the day for that one.

Now Rhys, you’ve worked with Taika plenty in the past, but Sam, this is your first time on one of his films. What was the experience like for you?

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SN: This was only his fourth film, but I think he brings a very original way of looking at stuff and I think if you look at Boy, for instance, which is a beautiful film, that was his second feature, and it’s heartbreakingly sad, but it’s also simultaneously very funny. There are not many people who can do that.

You obviously have an appreciation for his work, but did you think coming out of the production you were part of the highest grossing nationally produced film of all time for New Zealand?

SN: Well, I think it took us all by surprise. I mean, I knew that people in New Zealand would like it, but no one really anticipated how much they would embrace it as it is. And it’s playing widely in Australia now; they’re running it as well. It’s going to be interesting to see how it does it in the States, but I think if Sundance was any indication, I imagine it could do well.

I mean obviously they’ll find different things funny, because there’s a lot of, a lot of references that you probably have to be brought up in that very peculiar little corner of the world to understand. It doesn’t matter; people seem to be just finding it hilarious in Sundance. I would think that judging on the feedback I get; it’s a very warming film. It’s not sentimental, but people are sort of heart warmed by a message that’s pretty rare.

Now, seeing as your part of another large grossing film that had a lot of CGI and animatronics, what is it like shooting on a set like this? Were you really in the bush at times? Does having that natural setting around help create the performance?

SN: Yeah, to film it was pretty remote. Some of it was only half an hour from town, but you don’t necessarily have to go a long way in New Zealand to be in some pretty dense and scary bush. Hopefully I’ve got it nailed down before we start, but that isn’t always the case. And in the case of Wilderpeople, I walked on the first day with some apprehension actually; because it doesn’t come anywhere close to anything I’ve really played before, this part.

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But yeah, we were working in real snow.  There’s a couple sequences where its real snow, and we certainly didn’t have the budget to make fake snow. We were just lucky on that day, and my God, it was cold.

Rhys, you also have a big premiere on Netflix right now, handling the voice of Coran on the new Voltron series they started.

RD: Yeah, absolutely. That’s the first time I’ve been involved in such a big way as a voice actor and this script is very matter of factly, my character is from another world and he speaks… Well, he speaks English, but there’s a lot of space jargon, a lot of made up words that I have to come across, I have to say and that I have to rehearse to get them right because there’s, you know… And that’s a lot of fun; I have a lot of fun with it and he’s a great personality…You have empathy for him because he’s got a little bit of a screw loose. He’s got a lot of information and energy and because he’s been in a cryogenic sleep for 10,000 years…

I see he has your trademark copper red hair, was that a request of yours?

RD: [LAUGHTER] Sure was. Yeah, no, I mean, it wasn’t actually, but I was very happy to see he had the same hair color as me.

So here you are with Voltron, you mentioned The X-Files earlier, and you’ve had a role in a Thunderbirds reboot as well. It seems that when people want to bring legends back to life, they call Rhys Darby.

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RD: [LAUGHTER] I don’t know what it is. It’s very, very weird. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know how things come up like this. I don’t know why I’m chosen. I know as far as things like the Thunderbirds, there’s a New Zealand connection. X-Files, my connection there… I mean, it could be zeitgeist. I mean, I’m into the paranormal. I have a podcast about cryptozoology. So it’s out there that I’m into weird stuff.

Yeah, and then Voltron, I couldn’t… I mean, I guess it comes down to people know me for my comedy sensibilities and this character, I really… The old Coran wasn’t quite… He certainly wasn’t very humorous, and I think I’ve brought something different to the role just to, the revamp… That’s the word, revamp. I think it brings it more into the modern aspect of if you’re going to put out a cartoon these days, it’s got to be funny. Otherwise, the kids just sort of move on. And I know I have a 10 year old boy and a 6 year old boy and the stuff that they watch, it’s always… I mean, it could be because we’re a funny family, but they love the humor and combining humor with space action, I mean, you know, there’s a winner right there.

Thank you gentleman for your time, and I guess there is only one thing left to ask; have you gotten your call from Taika yet about your Thor: Rangnarok cameos yet?

SN: The phone has been strangely silent.

RD: No. I’ve been by the phone since we left and nothing’s been… No call yet. But I’m guessing he’s either lost my number or I won’t be in this one. Yeah, I mean, Thor is a legend after all and if you’re getting a legend back, you’ve got to get the Darby in.