Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a wonderful New Zealand movie that is about to be released in Australian cinemas.  I spoke to director Taika Waititi (Boy) about the film…

Matt:  I was talking to Anthony LaPaglia last week and he was saying that the lower the budget, the more ingenuity that is required on the part of the cast and crew to get the film made.  Was it like that here?  Was it easy in the case of Hunt for the Wilderpeople?

Taika:  Nope, not at all.  I had to come up with innovative way of getting the story out without blowing the budget.  There were plenty of obstacles and compromises that had to be made.  The weather was a big factor here as 80% was shot outdoors in winter in New Zealand that brought it with it rain, snow and wind.

Matt:  What part of New Zealand was it shot in?

Taika:  It was a bunch of different places on the North Island. 

Matt:  It’s an obvious question but I have to ask – where did you come across Julian Dennison?  It’s a great performance but what I think I’ll remember most is his assortment of puzzled facial expressions.

Taika:  I actually made a commercial with him a few years ago when he was about 10 years old.  Everyone was blown away by his comedic and acting talents but he’s also a very mature, sensitive kid who “disarms” you very easily when you meet him.  I wanted to put him in a film and I did it here without even auditioning him.  He’s a real star.

Matt:  And tell me about Sam Neill – “the scruffy white drifter who smells like methylated spirits”?  Was it easy getting him on board?

Taika:  It was.  The timing was perfect as he had a break in his schedule.  He had been in the UK for a long time and he wanted to come home, be close to his vineyard and do some work.  I think he also found the role interesting – playing a man of the land who is more grizzled and rough than he’d been accustomed to.

Matt:  Watching this play out, I was reminded a little of a Coen Brothers movie in that the supporting characters are so distinctive and memorable.  I’m thinking about Rima Te Wiata as Aunt Bella and Rachel House as Paula.  How easy it to get that casting right so that these supporting players stand out and don’t get lost in the background?

Taika:  I did concentrate a lot on those characters because it is easy to forget that they should be layered and deeper.  For example, the “villain” in the film is the social worker spearheading the manhunt… I didn’t want her to be a flat, one-note, efficient bureaucrat.  I told her during the shoot that she should model herself on Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive – he’s a relentless professional who will stop at nothing to do what he thinks is right.

Matt:  It’s a nice tough how you squeeze in references to films like The Terminator and The Lord of the Rings.  They got huge laughs at the preview I attended.  How did those end up in the final script?

Taika:  The Hobbit hiding behind the tree roots is an iconic image in The Lord of the Rings.  With the location scouting, I kept noting all these places that reminded me of that scene.  I’d already put a bunch of movie references into my films and since everyone knows this particular moment, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to make fun of it.

Matt:  The tone of the film is really interesting.  There are moments that are quite tragic but they’re blended with moments of humour.  A great example is your own cameo where you play a confused priest at a funeral.  Was behind the choice to add laughs to those darker moments?

Taika:  Believe it or not, that actually happened at a funeral I went to.  That was pretty much the same sermon.  I remember being at the funeral thinking this is a sad moment but at the same time, this is both ridiculous and hilarious.  I always wanted to explore having a funeral scene like that.  It’s nice to undercut some of the tragedy from time-to-time during the movie and keep audiences on their toes.

Matt:  Your good friend Rhys Darby makes a cameo appearance in the film.  Was that part written just for him because it seems to suit him perfectly?

Taika:  I wrote the part having no idea who would play it.  In the script, I wrote a bunch of those parts thinking that I’d use my friends but not knowing who in particular.  I knew I wanted a crazy old guy who had been living in the bush for years who represented what Ricky and Hector could become if they stayed on the run.  Rhys’ schedule freed up close to the shoot and he ended up being perfect for it.

Matt:  I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a death early in the film but we don’t get told the cause.  A deliberate decision?

Taika:  Yeah.  I didn’t think the information was important.  A lot of people have died that I’ve known and I actually have no idea how they died.  The fact that they’re dead is often enough without needing to know why or how.  You can make up whatever symptom or cause you like in this particular instance.

Matt:  I’m a big fan of film scores and this one stands out.  I’m not sure how to describe it but it has an electro-type feel.  How did it come about?

Taika:  A lot of the movie is influenced by Aussie films from the 1980s and so I wanted embrace that.  There were even a few Peter Weir-style shots with zooms and cross-fades.  We got in touch with Jean Michel Jarre at first because the Gallipoli score is amazing.  The story is over-the-top and in today’s age, that manhunt would be over pretty quick.  I wanted this to me more of a kid’s fantasy as to what happens when you go on the run and the whole country is after you.

Matt:  The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and it’s done a few other film festivals since.  How’s it been received by international audiences?  I know there’s a few jokes that maybe only Aussies and Kiwis will get such as reference to the All Blacks.

Taika:  They’ve loved it.  We had great reviews at Sundance and then recently at the Tribeca Film Festival.  People get it.  There are a few small jokes that are specific to Australasia but they’re connecting with the story and it’s great.

Matt:  Are there plans for a proper release in the United States?

Taika:  Yep, it opens on June 24.

Matt:  It’s a curious time for the film world at the moment.  We’re seeing more and more big action blockbusters and there seems to be less room for smaller films, at least here in Australia.  I can’t think of anyone more appropriate to comment since you made this tiny film and are following it with the next Thor movie.  What are your thoughts on the film industry at the moment?

Taika:  I agree.  There’s less room for the smaller films but I compare it to fashion.  There are trends in films.  People get tired of seeing the same thing and so will switch.  For instance, people became sick of blockbusters in the 1990s and we saw a resurgence of independent cinema and foreign language films.

A lot of it has to do with what’s going on economically.  I have this theory that when people are struggling financially, they don’t want to go see a movie about other people with no money.  They want to see superheroes and escape from this world for 3 hours in 3D.  With my small films, I try to make stuff that is more entertaining than depressing.

Matt:  To finish up, we know you’re working on the next Thor movie at the moment - Thor: Ragnarok.  How’s it coming along?

Taika:  It’s coming along great.  I’ve discovered that’s not all that different from the independent world except that you don’t hear the word “no” as often.  It’s a big learning thing for me.  I wanted to challenge myself and do something out of my comfort zone.  This was never really part of my life plan but I guess I’ve now changed that plan.