Multi-talented New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi established himself on the local comedy circuit and scored an Academy Award nomination for his 2004 short, Two Cars, One Night, though chances are you’ll be most familiar with his behind-the-scenes work on TV’s Flight of the Conchords, where he collaborated with friends Jemaine Clement, James Bobin and recently-minted Oscar winner Bret McKenzie. Waititi’s first feature, Eagle vs Shark, earned cult notices, but it’s with his follow-up, Boy, that the director really comes into his own.
Set in suburban New Zealand in 1984, it’s a keenly-observed story about an 11-year-old boy called, well, Boy, whose heroes are pop star Michael Jackson, and his mostly absent, tall-tale spinning dad (played with mythic weirdness by Waititi himself). Capturing that all-too elusive tone in such films — where genuine comedy and drama mingle with the just the right hint of nostalgia — Boy is arguably among the best films about growing up to emerge in recent years. Local audiences seemed to agree, too: the movie became the highest-grossing New Zealand production ever when it was released there in 2010.
With the movie opening in the US this week, we sat down for a conversation with Waititi about making Boy, his experiences with Hollywood (he appeared in last year’s Green Lantern), and his plans with Jemaine Clement to make a vampire comedy. But first, here are his five favorite films.
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964; 100% Tomatometer)
Dr. Strangelove. I think purely because of Peter Sellers. I love his characters; he’s just having so much fun. And that kind of subversion of very serious things going on is right up my alley; I really like that. I love Kubrick’s films, but that for me is also a very different Kubrick film. People either get it or they don’t. I love that film.
The Graduate is always a good one to have on my list. It’s hilarious, but also has that element of treading between comedy and drama and doing it so well, and actually being about something. It’s probably the best version of those films about rich people and their boring problems, you know, that anyone’s ever made. People have tried to do that since — that film has totally inspired generations of filmmakers. For me it’s just fresh. There’s also the energy of the actors: Hoffman, just young and going for it; he hasn’t become jaded. That film could come out today in a fresh print and still be incredible; everyone would think “Oh, Wes Anderson made a new film,” or “Sofia Coppola made a new film.” I’ve always loved that film.
Stalker. I went through a big phase, a Tarkovsky phase, when I was in my mid-20s, and that film always stuck with me. For me, I think visually there’s something about that film that manages to get inside your head and touch you on your emotional synapses or something; it somehow just gets in there. And visually: for instance just the shot of this dog, this black dog that’s always wandering around by itself, that… I mean Tarvovsky was a master of symbolism and just knowing, for example, that a candle in a certain place would trigger in most audiences’ minds something to do with memory. And working on an amazing sensory level, with the composition of shots; these big, long shots that just go on forever. And it doesn’t always matter what people are saying — because the film’s full of dialogue, full of poetry and stuff, but that’s what I love about that film, and also The Mirror. It just washes over you, and you can watch it again and again and take more and more in each time. Mirror is also one of my favorites but it’s a baffling, baffling film.
It’s the same as in painting, you know: people have to go back and study the old masters to see how they did shit. They’re called masters because they’re still the best that ever were. It’s the same with Kurosawa and Ozu and Tarkovsky: if you look at their films and what they were doing, you kind of feel safe watching those films. With Tarkovsky’s stuff I have to keep going back to it to remind myself that there’s an alternative to the 90-minute American film, you know where it’s all fucking three acts and information, boom-boom-boom, and just to go, “Hey, you know what — there’s a way of communicating that’s different and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t be scared to appreciate that stuff.”
Another one’s Coming Home, by Hal Ashby. I mean, I love all of his films — if there’s any filmmaker I would love to be, it would be him. It’s just an amazing film. You think about something like Harold and Maude, which is to me one of the most flawless films there is. There’s always the great films, like Harold and Maude, sure; but then there’s ones that people kind of forget about, you know, or they sort of get swept to the side a little — and I think Coming Home is one of those films. Even The Last Detail is one of those films. But Coming Home: amazing performances, it’s about something, amazing emotional stuff, and it’s just about people — people trying to connect. There’s a simplicity to it, but it’s really engaging the entire time. Waldo Salt wrote the script. I saw a documentary on him. I think just knowing how a film’s made makes me love it as well. He wrote a 200-, 300-page script for this thing, and went and talked to vets and recorded them for like a year. Jon Voight went and lived with paraplegics and war vets who had been injured and stayed in his wheelchair the entire time. It was just a good commitment to making a film, you know, whereas these days it’s like, “I’ll get my double to do it.” I feel like that was made at a time when people still had passion.
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973; 98% Tomatometer)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974; 95% Tomatometer)
I’m sort of torn on my last film between Badlands and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I’m on the fence — I love both of those films. Badlands, for me, is a very important film because I feel like a lot of the time it’s the kind of film I would love to make, if I could just make one. It’s so small, but really perfect. I think another great example of a film, which is like a second film, that people don’t think about, is Days of Heaven, which is again another flawless film. His use of voice over is the best out of any filmmaker. Linda Manz, her voiceover, nothing can beat it, you know. I always think that if there’s a voiceover in a film, it’s gotta be like that, where it?s not telling you what’s happening, it’s talking about completely different things. It’s incredible.
Did you see The Tree of Life? There are passages in there that are uncannily of a piece with Badlands.
Yeah. Especially in the street, when they’re out in the street in those opening scenes [in Badlands] when he first meets Sissy Spacek, all that stuff with the trees and the old ’50s feel. I fucking love Sissy Spacek. She’s incredible in that film, as is Martin Sheen. Just those two together, and the way that those shots just drift along, and the casual nature of their conversation. It’s so perfect. That character, actually — that character of Kit — in a very sort of subtle way I based a little of the father character in Boy on him. Just the way he was sort of distracted by the world and daydreaming and off somewhere else. I think I rip off a lot of films, but that specifically…
Ripping off the best, as the saying goes.
Yeah. Well, the beginning of Boy, with the cutting and stuff, was based a lot on the opening of Jules and Jim, which a lot of people have done now, but I just love that film so much. And Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore — one of the greatest performances of a woman, and that kid as well, that little boy; those two together. And again, it’s just something about a film about normal people just trying to follow their dreams. It’s those films that haven’t got a really complex narrative or complex structure that are literally just, “We’re gonna leave town and drive.” That’s again a great mixture of drama and comedy, like when Harvey Keitel threatens to kill her and breaks up the motel room, and then a hard cut to one of the most hilarious scenes in the film where they’re trying to pack up and get out of the room, and the kid’s trying to tell that joke to the mother and she’s fucking going out of her mind. So Ellen Burstyn’s like a goddess in that film. I really love strong female characters, and for my next film I’ve actually written a mother character who borrows a lot from Alice in that film. I feel like a mother character should be that interesting.
Next, Waititi talks about his latest film, Boy, the experience of working in Hollywood, and what he and Conchords Jemaine Clement have planned next.
A lot of those films mix drama and comedy perfectly, which seems like a rarer thing to find in contemporary stuff.
Taika Waititi: Yeah. I feel so surprised when I see billboards for films and I’m like, “Really! That’s what you came up with?” — where it’s a really obvious broad comedy or farce or a really obvious drama, like a “This is gonna depress you” film; a real lack of a sense of adventure about trying to mix some shit up, you know.
It’s not easy to successfully mix genres. Which is the thing you notice about Boy — it does moves between comedy and drama so well, without feeling contrived in doing so. How do you make a “coming of age” film, so to speak, without falling into the trap of cheap nostalgia? Is it hard to balance the tones?
I think a lot of it is coming from somewhere like New Zealand or Australia, where we’re so far removed from the rules on how to make films. I think even if we tried it’d be like a weird New Zealand version of those films, and I think that’s what most of our New Zealand cinema is — weird versions of popular genres. And I’ve always — just because of my comedy background — I’ve always wanted to do mixtures of things because I’m also into things that feel more real, or more human, and things that emotionally aren’t just saying “Just laugh.” Audiences are so savvy now. They know the structures of these genres. If you tell an audience they’re going to a romantic comedy, they’re gonna know exactly what’s gonna happen. Audiences know what they’re getting when they go to those movies, so why not trick them? Why not mix it up? Try to keep audiences on their toes and keep them engaged. It’s just telling the same stories, delivering the same messages, life messages or whatever, but trying to package it differently. I think you have a duty as a storyteller to make that story interesting. We come from an oral background. Maori is traditionally an oral culture: we never wrote anything down and all information and history was spoken, told by story. You had to be good at telling stories, and if you weren’t, someone else would get the job. If you told the same story again and again, it gets boring. And that’s where myth comes from — you’re adding little bits all the time. It’s like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you — also, he could speak to the trees.” [Laughs] You’re making shit up, you know. That’s the evolution of story, I guess. Truth will eventually become myth.
Did that notion of myth feed into the character of Boy’s father, and how his stories are always slightly different and increasingly outlandish?
Yeah, yeah. His stories are changing all the time.
It’s great when he’s bragging to the kids about how many times he’s seen E.T.. It’s such a child-like thing to do.
[Laughs] It’s such a thing for a kid to say, but for an adult to be competitive with a kid, you know: “I’ve seen it 10 times. I was one of the first.” When we were kids, when Return of the Jedi came out, we were always like, you had to be the first person to see it so you could hold that over every one else — “I saw it before you,” you know. [Laughs]
Going back to the beginnings of Boy, is it based, or partially based, on your own childhood?
Not really. It’s a mixture of memories, and things were changed to protect the innocent. [Laughs]
So you weren’t actually playing your own father, just to make that clear.
I was actually playing a character made up of parts of myself, my father, a lot of uncles, people I’ve met. Basically he’s just a version of a lot of different men I’ve known, either as a child or as an adult; a mixture of people who either hadn’t grown up or were living outside of what was going on — they were living in their head and wanting to be somewhere else. The real autobiographical part of it is just where it was shot. For instance, we shot in the house I grew up in, my grandmother’s house. I grew up in a house like that, with the grandmother and all these kids. Parents and adults would come in and out of our world, but essentially our stable world was kids and the grandmother. All of that was authentic to the ’80s. I needed to make it feel authentic somehow, so I thought that I may as well do it authentic to my memories. It was like recreating a real place but then telling a made-up story within that place.
You were already work-shopping this movie before you went amd made your first film, Eagle vs Shark?
Yeah. I took it to the Sundance lab in January 2005.
Was it always the same story?
It was. It was a lot more dramatic when I first did it. There was still humor in it but the dad didn’t arrive ’til half way through the movie; it was more about the kids trying to survive in that world. So I took it the lab and they said “Why don’t you come back to the June filmmaker’s lab where you get to shoot scenes and stuff?” I didn’t want to come back to Utah with kids from New Zealand and have to look after them, so I said, “Okay how ’bout I not submit that and I’ll submit another script, which is this comedy about this girl who loves this idiot?” I hadn’t actually written it at that point but I was trying to stall for time.
“This girl who loves this idiot” — I don’t think I’ve heard such a succinct log line for that movie.
[Laughs] Yeah. So I wrote it, and made that film and Boy just took a backseat. I came back to it in mid-2008 and wrote more drafts and we shot at the beginning of 2009.
Given that Boy is obsessed with Michael Jackson, how did Michael’s death affect the production? What stage were you at when the news broke?
We were at the end of editing. It was really sad. When we started the film I thought, “Well, this is going to be a sort of ironic thing where everyone loves Michael Jackson and we’re gonna show this at a time where everyone hates Michael Jackson — he’s been on trial, he’s going through all this shit, he’s bankrupt, and he’s a loser, you know.” I mean, I never considered him a loser but the world kind of considered him this old hack at the time. So I thought this is kind of interesting in a “What becomes of our heroes?” way, and it sort of ties in with the father, who’s Boy’s hero — and Michael Jackson was such a hero to the world in the ’80s and now it’s like, “What’s become of your hero?” So when he died it was just a real bummer. It sucked. It didn’t take anything away from the film; the film was fine with him being alive, or whatever — I just thought it was a bummer for the world to lose this dude. And also a weird bummer that everyone started loving him again once he was dead. It was great that he became more popular, but it sucks that he had to die.
Did you find that it changed audiences’ reaction to the film?
Not really. Now and then some people think that film was made after he died, which again is a bummer ’cause I wouldn’t want people to think it was made as a reaction to him dying, like “Oh I’m gonna make a film about somebody that likes Michael Jackson,” you know, to try and cash in on his death or something. When he died we had actually budgeted to put some of his music in the film; a lot of it was quite affordable. And before he died, we were watching it and we had some of his songs in it, and it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right having a small, intimate film suddenly kick in with “Beat It” or something. I felt like people would be wondering “How’d you guys afford this?” or it would take you out of the moment.
You always had “Poi E” in the film, though?
Yeah, oh yeah.
At least you still got to mix that in with “Thriller.”
Well we used to do that when we were young. We used to mix Maori Haka with other sorts of songs. “Poi E” was such a huge hit in New Zealand. It was this mixture of traditional Maori dance with synthesizers and drum machines, so I was trying to kind of capture that as well.
How was your experience with Boy in the US? Did the distributors leave it alone?
They have, because we already had a lot of the prints. Which is great. They can’t change it or cut stuff out of the film.
They can’t dub over the accents…
Yeah. That was always a question, you know: Do we cut the accents? Do we put subtitles on them? But then I thought, “Fuck it,” you know? It’s like, open your ears. [Laughs] It’s English. Isn’t it a nice experience to hear how other people speak?
And how has the the response been to the film?
It’s been mostly positive. It’s good to be affirmed and have people say, “Yeah we get it, and this is good.” A big thing for me, as well, is the kind of stuff I make I want to be able to show it to my friends and get their approval, you know — I don’t wanna be at a party with my friends and for them to say, “Uggghhh! You made What Happens in Vegas.” I’d be too embarrassed. I feel like it’s quite good coming from a place like New Zealand where you have all those friends to tell you that shit, you know. I’d rather do small films that a small audience loves, which could grow, in a style that I’m proud of, rather than a couple of shitty big films that everyone will go and see.
Have you been approached to do bigger films by the studios?
I’ve read some scripts that I’ve turned down.
Did they offer you a certain kind of film?
Definitely after Eagle vs Shark, for sure. They’d send me all the “quirky” ones and the romantic comedies. It’s not even a romantic comedy. It’s a depressing romantic movie, with uncomfortable comedy. They started sending me broad shit and I was like, “That’s not me.” [Laughs]
What was it like going from a small movie to doing something like Green Lantern?
How did you end up in that?
Well, Boy played at Sundance, and the casting director from Warners happened to see it and at the time I guess was looking to fill that role. So I came back to LA and did an audition, then a follow-up audition, and a “chemistry read” with Ryan [Reynolds], and then it just sort of worked out. I was pretty happy with doing it, with getting that chance to do it, but then I don’t know, I feel like that time down in New Orleans kind of disappeared; it was like, “What happened to that three months?”
What are you doing for your next film?
I’ve got two. One of them is one I’m doing by myself, which I’ve written, which is gonna shoot in Europe — and that’s a World War II comedy. And then Jemaine [Clement] and I are writing a vampire movie that we’re both in with a bunch of our friends, and that will be shot in New Zealand. So that’s the New Zealand film and that’s a hard one to get up and running because there’s a lot of effects.
Is it a comedy?
It’s a comedy, yeah. We actually came up with the idea in, like, 2005, when no-one was making vampire films and the only films that were coming out was something like Blade, or Underworld. We were like, “Man, vampires are fucking lame, no-one’s into vampire movies — let’s make a vampire movie.” And it took us five years to write a script and get our shit together… and now vampires are lame again. So it’s kind of cool to come in at the end of the reign of the vampire stuff.
Are you directing?
We’re both gonna direct and be in it together. It’s just hard to make, really. We just wanna do stuff outside of studio control. Not that we’re big studio-involved people, but just me having been in a movie like [Green Lantern] and having worked with studios on a lot of things, and Jemaine’s done a lot of work in the studio system now… we just would like a lot of freedom with this film, and we wanna make it cheap. Ultimately our attitude is just that we wanna do it like how we would make something in New Zealand in the ’90s — by ourselves, with our friends, and just being left alone to do our own stuff and then showing people at the end without contracts and things going on and lots of people giving comments and stuff like that.
Boy opens in select theaters in the US this week.