Interview: Taika Waititi; the writer, director and star of Boy.

Interview: Taika Waititi; the writer, director and star of Boy. By Simon Miraudo.

Taika Waititi is quickly gaining a reputation as the most beloved writer/director to emerge from the Land of the Long White Cloud since Peter Jackson, thanks to his funny, quirky and honest depictions of life in New Zealand. He scored an Academy Award nomination in 2005 for his short film Two Cars, One Night –a sweet, although melancholy tale about three young kids waiting for their parents in the local pub’s car park. In the five years since receiving that Oscar nom, he unleashed his debut feature film (Eagle vs Shark) and directed episodes of the hit TV show Flight of the Conchords. His latest film, Boy, became the highest grossing NZ film in history when it debuted in its homeland earlier this year. He stars as Alemain, a deadbeat dad who can’t quite live up to his son’s imagined perception of him as a hero. (You can read our review of it right here.)

I spoke to Taika about Boy’s impressive box office success, his idolisation of Michael Jackson (who gets more than a few shout-outs in the film) and his upcoming role in The Green Lantern. I also take the opportunity to see if he’ll apologise for the frequent Aussie-slurring featured in Flight of the Conchords. Thank goodness he has a sense of humour…

SM: Thank you very much for speaking with me today.

TW: Thank you for calling me.

SM: Oh, my pleasure. Have you been getting many calls today?

TW: A couple, for different things. Not too bad. Not as bad as working at the mines.

SM: Tell me about it, right? I’d just like to begin by asking what inspired you to get into filmmaking?

TW: It happened kind of by accident. I always had a lot of creative outlets, and film was something I hadn’t really tried before. So I had done everything else really; I’d always been writing for theatre, or writing for comedy, and I thought “Oh, maybe I’ll try doing a short film”. So I had a go. I gave it a crack, and the first short film I made did really well. The next thing I knew everyone was encouraging me to make more, you know? It was sort of by accident that I became a filmmaker; it wasn’t really my dream. But I found that I was good at it…and I didn’t have a job anyway, I thought I may as well say that was my job.

SM: Why not?

TW: So, it’s just become my job.

SM: Nice one. Your latest film, BOY, is kind of an extension of your short film Two Cars, One Night, and I was wondering, had you always hoped to feature those characters in a feature-length film?

TW: Actually, once I finished the short film, people said…the comments that the short film felt like a thing from a larger thing; it felt like it was part of something bigger. And that’s when I realised “Well, maybe I should make a feature, and just extend that. Because I quite like the world, I quite like the characters and I hadn’t really seen Maori on screen in that way before: a mixture of comedy and drama. So, yeah, again, I just started writing it in 2005, and then I kind of gave up because I didn’t know what I was doing. And then I made my first feature Eagle vs Shark and two and a half years later I came back to my script for Boy, having learnt a lot from my first feature. I just took a new approach to this movie.

SM: How did you go about casting the kids?

TW: We did a huge casting call throughout the country and interviewed hundreds and hundreds of children. We really wanted something authentic. I wasn’t interested in kids who’d acted before; I wanted someone natural that could display all the characteristics of the main boy. All the actors that I chose, as kids, are pretty much playing versions of themselves. I think that was the best way to approach working with kids. You don’t want to start cluttering up their minds with back stories and “Oh, you’ve done this and this is your motivation for the scene”. But it’s basically just like you’ve written, then you give them the lines and turn the camera on. So the hardest part of working with kids is casting the right one and it takes a long time. Took about a year to find those kids.

SM: Did you inject any of your own stories from your childhood into the film?

TW: Little bits. Just like subtle things about when I would get an ice cream, or watching Thriller for the first time and the little conversations the kids have in the film is based a lot on the way we would talk as kids. And some of the adults are based on adults I’ve encountered over the years and observed; mixtures of people. But yeah essentially the story is all made-up.

SM: As you said, it’s really hard to make kids talking – let alone people in cinema – sound authentic, and I think that’s one of the impressive things about the film. Who were your heroes when you were a boy?

TW: Definitely Michael Jackson.

SM: So, that part is autobiographical then.

TW: That part is, yeah. I think that’s autobiographical for most kids in the eighties. I think every kid in New Zealand was pretty much obsessed by him. Yeah, anyone from TV really. Heroes that I had were The Greatest American Hero and Knight Rider and people from TV. I think American culture was far more interesting to us than our own culture. And didn’t really have a resurgence in Maori pride until late 80s/early 90s. I think those were the type of heroes we had.

SM: It’s interesting that you mentioned that American culture was more popular; I think that is very much true in Australia as well. But Boy is a big hit back in New Zealand. Why do you think audiences have embraced it?

TW: I think they’re just far more interested in local content now. For the most part they’re way more supportive of New Zealand music back home now. We love our own music, and I think the same is happening with our TV and our comedy. People are starting to believe that we might actually be funny. And some of our TV shows are getting more and more popular, so we’re learning how to embrace our own sense of humour and our own style of storytelling. And yeah, the same is slowly happening with film. I think actually most people want to see themselves or versions of themselves on the screen, and I think this film kind of captures New Zealand at a time that had sort of been forgotten, and a lot of people – especially in my generation – never thought they’d see on screen. I think it’s about being able to see yourself at the movies. And all New Zealanders can relate to everything in the film, they don’t have to be Maori, they don’t have to have grown up in the country. I think that’s the thing with most audiences that have seen it internationally as well. Basically, if you’ve ever been a kid and if you’ve ever fantasised about who your parents were, if you’ve ever had a parent, I think you’re going to get the themes behind the film.

SM: Now here in Australia, audiences haven’t exactly flocked to a lot of recent local releases.

TW: Yeah, that’s the same here in New Zealand as well. This has been a surprise hit for me; I didn’t think this film would do as well as it did back at home. I thought it would have like an audience of people who liked films that I liked, and the Maori audience as well, because we don’t get to see ourselves on screen as much. But for the most part, it’s taking a while for us to jump on the New Zealand film-wagon.

SM: Well, are there any other New Zealand filmmakers or films that you would recommend that aren’t being really widely seen?

TW: I guess so. To be honest, there are a lot that I wouldn’t recommend. We’ve made some pretty good documentaries in the past couple of years. And we have some really interesting filmmakers such as Florian Habicht who makes very experimental films and experimental documentaries who I think is brilliant. There are some classic New Zealand films that are really good; like there’s a film called RAIN, not many people have seen it but it’s great. In My Father’s Den is a really good film. Of course you’ve got the classic classics like Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors. You know, I can’t say there are films that are really amazing that people wouldn’t have heard of. There are definitely Australian films that I think are brilliant that not enough people have seen. I know The Castle was a huge hit both here and New Zealand. One of my favourite films was Love Serenade. Have you seen that?

SM: I haven’t, no.

TW: It’s one of the all-time great Australian films. It’s so brilliant man. Miranda Otto is like genius.

SM: That won a prize at Cannes I think [Caméra d’Or], and the director [Shirley Barrett] has only made two films since.

TW: That’s right, I think she just made one recently [South Solitary].

SM: On that note, what other films and filmmakers out of New Zealand do you like, or inspire you?

TW: Films like that. Films that are different and have a unique voice. I don’t really aspire to make the big money-spinner films. The obvious money-spinner films. Obviously I want a lot of money. I don’t want to be poor forever. But I feel there is a new generation of filmmakers who don’t care so much about million dollar deals and they take a little more pride in what they make. And I think people are realising that filmmaking isn’t really a specialised…well, it’s specialised, but it’s not a “special” job where you deserved to be paid five million dollars. It’s actually just a job, and I think nowadays people are getting paid the normal rate. Which is a more realistic rate. So we’re not making a lot of money, but we make more money than a lot of other people. And it’s a really fun job.

SM: I mean, Tom Cruise has to take a pay cut for Mission Impossible 4 but that’s not so bad. I’m sure he’s fine.

TW: Exactly, you know. It’s probably what he deserves in the end. Whatever he’s getting.

SM: I just want to ask you quickly about The Green Lantern, which just wrapped production. Can you tell us briefly about your role in that?

TW: It’s basically “friend of Green Lantern” [Thomas Kalmaku]. I don’t do any action stuff really. I’m that typical tech geek/best friend role. The wisecrack guy. I have no idea how I was in the film, but I had fun.

SM: How’s your Inuit accent?

TW: That’s the thing. It’s sort of funny, I’m not black or white, yet I didn’t feel like I was playing the token brown-skin role. It’s sort of just a plain-American accent; it’s not alluded to where the character comes from, or what his background is. Which I think is a nice thing to do. Finally you don’t have to call this character Rodrigo, so that you know where he’s from. His name’s Tom, you know! (Laughing) There’s no way of telling where he’s from; it’s never said that he’s an Inuit, even though in the comic book he is. I don’t even look Inuit. I don’t look anything like an Inuit. I even have Inuit friends who tell me that, so I know for sure.

SM: Well at least they’re making sure.

TW: It’s probably better if we didn’t mention that I was Inuit.

SM: Can you quickly tell us what you’ll be working on next?

TW: Yeah I’m just writing. Trying to finish up a few script ideas so I can get one made next year. I don’t know which one; I’m working on a handful, so whichever one is ready first and gets funding first. I’m open to ideas.

SM: Great, well I’m really appreciative of your time today. I have one more question. You’ve worked on a few episodes of Flight of the Conchords, including the one in which Jemaine and Bret bond with Aziz Ansari over their hatred of Australians.

TW: Yes…

SM: And I was wondering if you’d like to take this moment and potentially end the decades of tension between New Zealand and Australia.

TW: Uhh, would I like to?

SM: Would you care to?

TW: I’ll just say sorry. This is my sorry day. I’m just apologising for that episode, but only today.

SM: That’s OK. Thank you very much Taika for your time.

TW: Thanks.

Boy opens across Australia on August 26th. You can read my review here.

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