A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky to sit down with New Zealand director Taika Waititi and talk about his new film Boy. It’s become the highest grossing local film in New Zealand history and is now getting a release in Australia. Taika was a very down to earth guy and great to speak with. Here’s how it went down…
Matt: We’ll start with your background. You’ve had quite an interesting start to your career. You’re only two years older than myself and I’m sort of jealous that you’re already so successful in the film world. How’d you get started? When does the interest come from for film?
Taika: I’ve actually only been doing film for about 5 or 6 years. My background is in painting and visual art. I’ve basically done that since I was a kid. Along the way, I was encouraged by parents to do creative stuff. My dad’s a painter and my mother’s a school teacher and a writer. Right from an early age, I was encouraged to do that sort of stuff. Filmmaking was something I hadn’t tried out and I wanted to give it a go. I’d acted in some films and on television and I was interested in what the director was up to with the “behind the scenes” stuff.
I remember one day watching something with a TV show I was on and I thought “I could do that better than you.” I didn’t say it out loud but I went off and started writing my own stuff. It started off as dialogue between some kids in a situation involving them for their parents to come out of a pub. I wrote this piece which I thought might end up being a theatre piece – a little one act play. I sent it to a friend of mine who said “hey, you should make this into a short film”. I thought I’d give it a go and I found that I really loved the experience. The film did phenomenally well and was nominated for an Oscar.
Next thing, I was being encouraged to keep doing film stuff. I was hesitant at first. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do this as a job. I then made another short film which did incredibly well. I finally kind of gave in and thought it would be a good job. I never really had a proper job before that and I hadn’t stuck with something so long. It’s a good job, a great job.
Matt: You’re doing pretty well for yourself, so far anyway. You mentioned that you were nominated for an Academy Award for the short film Two Cars, One Night. Did you find that opened up a lot of doors for you?
Taika: Absolutely. It led me to making my first feature in New Zealand which got fast tracked. A lot of people get put into “development hell” trying to make their first feature but I had the benefit of being nominated for an Oscar and then by October that year, I was shooting my first feature.
Matt: This is Eagle Vs Shark. It was a real cult hit. Did that surprise you how well it took off?
Taika: It did actually and I was really happy with that. There was a certain expectation I was going to do a Mauri-style film because my short films dealt with those themes. I wanted to move away from that and the expectations and make something that was more awkward and which stemmed from my comedy background more than my theatre background. I loved the experience.
I wrote the script for Boy before I wrote Eagle Vs. Shark. It was actually the first script that I wrote. I took it to the Sundance Writer’s Lab in 2005 and workshopped it for a couple of weeks. I then took a break from it. I felt so strongly about the script and I thought this would be my most important film in stepping onto the filmmaking scene. I thought I owed to the film to be a good director. I had no idea how to make a feature film and I can’t just stumble into this and hope for the best.
So I decided to take a break from it and go and make Eagle Vs. Shark. I wrote that and made it really just to learn how to make a film. It was to test myself. Some people can make the transition from short story writing to novel-ing. Some people can do it and some people can’t. Some people can make a short film and then massacre a feature film. I wasn’t sure which I was. I made Eagle Vs. Shark and I learned from that. I made a few mistakes, stumbled a bit but the point was to take a risk with something which could handle the bumps and learn the craft of making a feature.
Matt: Well you learned well considering how many people loved Eagle Vs. Shark.
Taika: It was fantastic. It was such a small, delicate little film and people loved it. It was really encouraging. I realised there was an audience for this kind of film that has a mixture of tone. It’s not just broad comedy but there’s some sad bits, some beautiful bits in it. I think that’s turned out to be my sensibility – mixing up tones. I took that into Boy and it shares a similar feeling I think. It’s got this nice, haunting soundtrack by the Phoenix Foundation. It uses animation but not for comedy or fun but more to highlight some truths that are going on in the kid’s heads.
Matt: Who did those drawings in the film?
Taika: Me. I did those.
Matt: We should talk about the film because that’s why we’re here. You’re the director of the film, you’re the writer of the film and you’re one of the stars of the film. I’ve never had the chance to speak to Woody Allen because I know he does that so well. How do you juggle all those roles while going through the process?
Taika: It takes a little getting used to. The first week we were shooting when I was acting for the in the film was a little bit of a juggling act. I was trying to re-write scenes on set while figuring out how we were going to shoot the thing and then think about how to say the lines. Eventually, we worked out a system where I would “block” the scene and then get a stand-in so I could see how it would look. I’d then kick everyone out and then figure out what I had to do and shoot out. We got into a routine where it all kind of worked. By the second week, I knew the character really well and knew how to “fall into the character” quite quickly. It was quite easy in the end.
Matt: I’m getting the impression you like spending more time behind the camera than in front of the camera?
Taika: Yeah, I think I am a better filmmaker than an actor. Having said that, acting is something I’m more experienced at. I still love it and the fun aspects of acting. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to do the “method thing” and take it really seriously. Like, lose 100 pounds to convince people that I’m skinny and that I’m a “real actor”. I want to keep doing it but I don’t really have time to commit to acting in other people’s things. If I feel like acting, I think I’ll just put myself in my own stuff.
Matt: We’ll tell people a little about the film. The central character is an 11 year old kid named Boy. He lives with his grandmother and his younger brother, Rocky. His mother passed away a few ago and his dad hasn’t been around. He’s at a very impressionable age, looking for a bit of guidance and then wham – your character, the father, returns out of the blue. It’s an interesting character - he’s cool, he’s funny, he’s laid-back but I think he’s just as immature as the 11 year old. Where’d you come up with this character?
Taika: He’s really a mixture of men that I know. There are elements of myself in there. I just think that men in general don’t grow up. We pretend very well but I don’t think we’re that mature in general. I tried to take all the fun, eccentric elements of people that I know and things I find interesting to look at in characters. I cobbled them together and wanted someone who feels so unpredictable that it’s fun to watch them but you know that underneath is a deeper problem, a serious problem. There’s some stuff he’s not dealing with and his only way of trying to deal with it is to act like a kid and keep believing his own myths that he’s putting out there.
What’s interesting is the story is about this kid who doesn’t know his dad and as a result, the only way he can feel like that he knows his dad is to make up fantasies about him. So he’s always fantasising that his dad is off having adventures around the world and doing these incredible things. When the dad arrives, we all know that the dad’s not going to be the same as a kid’s fantasies. But then the dad starts perpetuating these myths as well by believing he’s a samurai warrior and he’s starting a new gang. He’s got this romantic idea about who he is and that he’s some sort of outlaw who is on the run all the time. That’s what compounds the situation. Both of them are living in this fantasy about who the dad is.
His younger brother, Rocky, is also trying to understand who the dad is. So you’ve got this weird triangle between the two brothers and the dad and the shifting of allegiances. In the beginning of the film, Boy is obsessed with the father and doesn’t really think about his mother that much. Rocky is obsessed by the mother and doesn’t really want to know the father. By the end of the film, those alliances change a little bit and that creates more of a balance. People start getting “real”.
Boy knows who his dad is by the end of the film. We all know that’s going to happen – that he’s going to have a dose of reality and come to the realisation that his dad isn’t who he thinks he is. But at the end he still makes up fantasies about him. I think that’s an important thing – it’s ok to make up fantasies about people if you know the truth. I still make up stories about my parents and in my mind, imagining them as far more amazing than they are.
Matt: You’ve spoken about Boy and Rocky. Every time I see films with young actors, I’m so amazed and wonder where they find these people. Was it a tough process trying to find the two kids?
Taika: Yeah. The kids actually came from the same area around the coast. We wanted local kids so it would feel authentic. We didn’t want a “city kid” to pretend to be from the country. But it’s not a place where many kids get to do any acting so we knew that none of the kids had acted before – it was their first time.
We wanted someone who was going to be natural. You can always tell when a kid is acting especially when they’ve acted before. These kids were so natural and so very real that it’s actually shocking to watch how good they are.
Matt: I think the audiences are going to fall in love with them. The 80s setting I have to ask about. Especially the clothing – it’s so daggy. Why the 80s setting?
Taika: Well I don’t really know what kids are into these days and I don’t particularly care for the latest fashions and I don’t really care too much for the music of today. But I really like the 80s aesthetic and I like how the 80s were a coming of age time for New Zealand. We had this flood of American culture coming through which threatened to take over our Mauri culture as well.
Then, you’ve got someone like Michael Jackson who epitomises that period for me. As a kid, this was a hero who was not only the greatest entertainer in the world, but he was also super-rich and spending his money on stuff that kids find cool. He lives in a castle surrounded by zoo animals and he’s got Pepsi on tap. It was a time of disgusting excess where being a kid growing up in a really poor area of the country where you have nothing, you see this “world” by watching Lifestyles Of The Rich & Famous on TV and that’s what you aspire to, it’s what you want. That’s basically the environment.
You’re in the middle of nowhere with nothing but all you can think about is owning a Lamborghini. It’s so strange that your world is surrounded by that stuff but you’ve got no tangible evidence of it even existing in real life. I didn’t see a real Lamborghini until I was 17 or something.
Matt: The film was an enormous smash hit in New Zealand. I think it was number 1 at the box-office for 4 weeks beating all the other American films that had come out. The public really took to it. Then it became the number 1 grossing local film in New Zealand history. That’s just fantastic. Has it been difficult releasing to try to release the film overseas, like here in Australia?
Taika: A little bit, yeah. With the current financial climate, it makes it very difficult to sell a film like this. I think there is a market here in Australia and I know that people here will “get it”. Internationally, I think audiences will love it but the problem is finding someone who can figure out a way of marketing it to America. It’s a big risk to try and put a film out like this. At the moment, people are flocking to see films like Avatar and Inception – any film that takes out of reality because reality is not so great. When you go to the movies , if you get the chance to go to another planet for 3 hours in 3-D, that’s what people are going to spend their money on. It’s very difficult but I know there is an audience for the film and so we’ll see.
Matt: Looking forward, I believe you’ve been working on Green Lantern which is a big super-dooper blockbuster. Was it a cool experience?
Taika: It was amazing. It was really cool coming from my filmmaking background. I’d never seen a set as big as Green Lantern and there were hundreds of people working on this thing. It was amazing for me to see how it’s done. I’ve always been amazed by big movies and how they make them – the organisation and the disorganisation.
Matt: Do you think as a director when you’re on the set?
Taika: Yeah. I spent most of my time watching what was going on with a director’s eye. As an actor, I can’t say I was really “acting” – I was more just standing in front of camera with words coming out of my mouth. I didn’t do any action stuff. My character is pretty normal – an every day guy, a tech geek. I didn’t get to fly around or anything.
Matt: I look forward to seeing it when it comes out next year but right now, everyone can check out Boy. Thank you very much for joining me.
Taika: Thanks. Cheers.
All Rights Reserved. Matthew Toomey. 2012.