Whether they’re vampires dealing with modern life in Wellington or a group of kids growing up by the sea in the 80s, Taika Waititi’s films revel in the quirky details of their characters. In his films Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi finds delicious moments of humour in the mundane and everyday: a geeky couple bonding over their mutual love of videogames, or, in his latest film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, a profoundly odd sermon.
In Wilderpeople, Barry Crump’s book Wild Pork And Watercress is reimagined as an oddball road-trip drama about a disadvantaged city kid (Julian Dennison) who finds himself travelling through the wilds of New Zealand with a cantankerous foster uncle played by Sam Neill. It’s a charming, funny and sometimes unexpectedly exciting movie, enlivened by Waititi’s observant character touches and some really effective shifts into darker dramatic territory.
As Hunt For The Wilderpeople finally lands in the UK, we caught up with Mr Waititi to talk about making humour out of real-life experiences, working with the great Sam Neill, and switching gears to direct his next film – Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.
Congratulations on the film. You probably get this a lot, but I really enjoyed it.
Not enough, man, not enough! It’s like chasing the dragon – once you get one compliment, you just want more! [Laughs] But no, thank you.
What I liked was how you balanced the tones: it’s a quirky, humorous film, but it isn’t afraid to go to some dark places.
Uh-huh. That’s really the hard part of the films I make, is finding that balance and a tone. We really want to put jokes in there, but people get bored if it’s just jokes. They want to care a little bit about the characters and stuff, which is something I’ve always been interested in – those kinds of stories.
I haven’t read the book, I have to admit, but I understand it’s much more dark and serious. So was important to you to not just adapt it, but put your own spin on the book?
Yeah. When I wrote the first adaptation, it was actually about eight years ago. And I guess I hadn’t really found my tonal comfort zone. I’d written something a bit more authentic to the book – it was darker, and it didn’t have any of the crazier characters that you find in the film. There’s no car chase, there’s no Rhys [Darby] in there. And it definitely had a darker ending.
Then I put that project aside and went off and made my other films, where I developed my sensibility. It’s definitely a mixture of drama and comedy – balancing those tones. Then when I came back to rewriting the script, I just realised that I couldn’t make it as I’d originally written it; I wouldn’t know how to do it. So I put it into my own style. I added a lot more humour, and the priest, and all that sort of stuff. More of that situational stuff.
There’s a sense of the absurdity in everyday life in your films. Is that absurdist philosophy an important part of your humour do you think?
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The ridiculous events in everyday life are often overlooked – people don’t recognise it as potentially cinematic. The classic example is that minister [played by Waititi] and his sermon about confectionery, which is based on a real thing that happened. I went to a funeral and the minister there gave a sermon very, very similar to that. Cans of Fanta and all of this. I remember sitting there just thinking this is crazy, but it’s also filling me with this secret joy! Even back then I thought, “This is a great character.”
So that’s an example of the everyday. You know, people probably wouldn’t believe that that actually happened. If you watch the film, a lot of people will probably say, “Oh, this is a ridiculous character. He’d never say all this stupid stuff.” But it’s true.
That’s brilliant! What’s also important in your films, I think, is that you have compassion for your characters and their eccentricities. You tell the story from their level rather than from an elevated standpoint.
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t like laughing at people unless they’re in a privileged position, or if they’re in authority. If it’s poor people or people who live on the outskirts, or on the margins, or the underdog, I’d rather be laughing with them. I want to look at their point of view in life, and look at the way their eccentricities – these little things that are different for a normal audience. You know, in Boy, there’s a little moment where these kids are from a super-poor background, but they’re eating lobster for tea every night, and they’re, “Ugh, I’m so sick of lobster!” But they live next to the ocean, and so they get lobster all the time; it’s just this weird quirk. But it’s also the truth – I hate lobster tail because I had it so much of it as a kid.
So there’s those sorts of things. I love exploring that kind of stuff, and showing it off, really, rather than poking fun at it.
Yeah – and also, establishing empathy for your characters give you so much latitude in terms of storytelling. It’s a bit like Die Hard; because you like the characters, you accept the escalation from low-key thriller to exploding tanks and helicopters. It’s a similar thing in your film.
Yeah, yeah. I had to escalate the situation a lot. I guess because I didn’t want to ignore the ludicrous nature of their journey and how far it got. I think, in order to embrace the idea of adventure and the entertainment aspect of their journey, you have to give the audience what they’re expecting. Or maybe it’s a case of giving them more of what they’re not expecting – they’re not really expecting a car chase and helicopters. But with Ricky being the main character, it seemed important to give him everything he wanted from his fantasies.
There are some great shots in this film. How closely did you work with your cinematographer to capture those, given your budget and schedule? There are some lovely uses of silhouettes against a night sky, for example.
We worked closely together throughout the shoot. That particular shot was something I always wanted to do – it’s a little nod to Badlands because that’s one of the ultimate road-trip, underdog, outlaw buddy flicks. There are lots of those throughout the film; Badlands, Paper Moon, Up, 48 Hrs, a bit of Thelma And Louise obviously. Any of those sorts of films. Planes, Trains And Automobiles. We were shooting so fast, and working through scenes so fast, but we had this amazing, beautiful environment.
There’s a bit of Rambo: First Blood in there, as well.
A little bit, with the headband stuff – that’s very First Blood-esque. The bits where they’re running around the bush, going hunting. I think these characters have watched far too many American movies! [Laughs]
It’s a really generous performance by Sam Neill; he’s a big name actor, but he doesn’t dominate the film – there’s a lovely chemistry between him and [Julian Dennison].
Well, he’s a very generous person. I think you’re right, it is a generous performance. Early on, he mentioned that his character isn’t as funny as some of the others, but you really need that – he’s the grounding force in the film. He’s the one that retains a sense of reality. He’s very much the eyes of the audience, the way he reacts to everything. So yeah, obviously he’s extremely important to the film, but he’s also very generous in that he would spend time with Julian and help him out a lot, and he really gave him a lot of time and energy. I think Julian learned a lot. He also spent a lot of time with the crew, and he was very invested in the film doing well. After we wrapped, a few weeks before we were due to open the film in New Zealand, he took upon himself to rent a car and go travelling around all the small towns in the country telling people about the film. He’d just go from place to place and tell them to go and see his film when it came out. Nobody asked him to do it!
That’s amazing. So what was the atmosphere like on set? I remember a quote from John Carpenter which said that making comedies is very serious, but horror films are the ones with all the laughs behind the scenes.
It was actually pretty fun most of the time. I think I usually run a very relaxed set; there’s good camaraderie and it’s very inclusive. The crew have family, and they often have their kids on set. Families are always welcome. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun, and an easy environment to be creative in. One of the hardest things we had to contend with was the weather. We were shooting in winter and it was very muddy and wet. There were tempestuous days with flooding. It felt kind of cool at the time, but doing that also felt very frustrating, not being able to move as fast as you wanted. Some of the time we were having to shoot a scene really fast because we only had an hour of light left.
There must be quite a contrast between making this and something like Thor: Ragnarok, then. How have you found adapting to such a big movie?
Well, so far I’ve been able to put a decent sized stamp on it. The process is really not that different – at the end of the day it’s all pointing a camera at a handful of actors and hoping everybody remembers their lines, and that they say them at the right time. That’s what you hope on any film – it doesn’t really matter what the budget is. That’s what you’re trying to aim for. It’s just the whole machine around it that’s a lot bigger. Scenes often take a lot longer but that’s actually good in the long run because you need more time to get things right – the emotion of the scene, or making sure the dialogue is as perfect as it can be. I think in superhero films – and most studio films – it’s really important to get those things right.
Taika Waititi, thank you very much.
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is out now in UK cinemas.