RT Speaks With Eagle Vs. Shark Director Taika Waititi

by | June 18, 2007 | Comments

With “Eagle vs Shark“‘s frequent comparisons to “Napoleon Dynamite,” it’d be easy to think of director Taika Waititi as New Zealand’s answer to Jared Hess. But look closer and its apparent Waititi’s more like (this is a compliment, of course) the Kiwi Miranda July. Both are easily distracted by non-film pursuits, both have a seemingly endless reservoir of friends to call upon for their talents, and both now have made offbeat comedies exploring the precious, ugly, and plain weird sides of coupling.

Waititi’s film is a monument to clumsy, messy geek love, and, in a subgenre that happily turns male misfits into motley heroes, is a rare instance of a story taken from the viewpoint of the girl. Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Waititi in San Francisco to talk about “Eagle vs Shark” (which expands into more theaters this Friday), Sundance, and New Zealand in the grip of 1980s pop culture.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve worked in lot of mediums throughout your career, including photography, stand up performance, and acting. Do you foresee losing interest in movies?

Taika Waititi: I do foresee it. (laughs) I will find something and hit this complete passion for it and then something else will come along. I’ll be like, “Whoa. Sewing machine! This is the best thing ever.”

When you’re actually making a film, it’s just people on your back all the time wanting stuff and you’re constantly having to it deal with them. It’s probably the most time consuming of all the arts, but I do love it because it is a great mix of visual art and music and writing. I probably eventually will lose interest for a little while. But because it’s a mixture of all the things I really love, I’ll probably stick with it longer than most other things.

RT: Did the Oscar nomination [for his short film, “Two Cars, One Night”] at the very beginning encourage you to stay with film?

TW: I think so, because it was pretty much my first film.

But [the nomination] was weird; it was like someone playing a joke on me. Like, “No, it’s not that easy. How did this happen?” After an experience like that you’ve all these people saying, “Wow, you’re so amazing. Yeah, you’re so great.” And a big part of you recognizes that talk. You’ve got to take it with a grain of salt and put things into perspective.

RT: How much did making short films prepare you for feature length filmmaking?

TW: A feature film is an expansion of budget, stress, story, hours, time, workload, everything. What I wasn’t really prepared for was [how time consuming it’d be]. There are so many other elements to consider and the way to tell the story is so different. Short film: you can be poetic and you don’t have to answer anything. You can make whatever you want. You have creative freedom with short film. No one cares because it probably didn’t cost that much and it’s a very low pressure workload.

With a feature film you’re dealing with so much more money and you’ve got to be very aware of the fact that you’re really working with an audience. You’ve got to have a relationship with the audience. Play with them and show them things you want them to see.

RT: How has the reaction been to “Eagle Vs. Shark” compared to New Zealand and the US?

TW: This is the West so it comes out here first. It gets released in New Zealand in mid-July. From the two screenings we had in New Zealand, people really love it. I think it’s got a distinct New Zealand flavor. A big part of the humor is in identifying with the tragic elements of the film. The New Zealand sense of humor is very dark. Our films are usually very dark and it’s always someone being killed. Usually a child.

RT: From the trailer, you expect “Napoleon Dynamite,” but “Eagle Vs. Shark” has a much sharper mean streak, like something from Todd Solondz.

TW: I’m a huge fan of [Solondz’s]. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is probably one of my favorite films.

But that’s one of the things with distribution and the movie business. Everything changes once you start trying to market the film. Part of you feels like everything is slipping away from you. For me, I don’t want people going to the theater thinking it’s going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, like a Will Ferrell film or something. Because it’s not. It’s just simply not going to be that.

RT: “Eagle Vs. Shark”‘s script was workshopped at the Sundance Lab. What was that like?

TW: You submit the script and you get accepted. They have these two different labs: the writers’ lab and the filmmakers’ lab. In the writers’ lab, they have different advisers who read your script and talk to you one-on-one. You discuss the script and you get all these different ideas, different opinions. Some would say, “I think it’s this kind of film and it’s great that this and that happens.” Then someone will completely conflict with that idea. So you have this different, bouncing, weird mix of ideas and opinions. And it really stays with you. It’s just so helpful, having that process. Then the filmmakers’ part is even more incredible.

RT: So you have to do both Sundance labs.

TW: Yeah. [“Shark” actress] Loren [Horsley] came to do the lab as well [because Lily] is a character that she made up. We workshopped about four scenes and, in the end, two made it in the film and two didn’t. It’s a great opportunity to test drive a lot of your material. I found the tone of the film through the labs.

RT: Did Loren conceive Lily for the movie?

TW: Sort of. I asked her if she wanted to make a film with me and she came up with the character after that. But it was based on other roles she’s done in the past. I think a lot of it was based on her as a teenager.

RT: How did you two start collaborating?

TW: Her, I, [“Eagle” actor] Jemaine [Clement], Bret [McKenzie, co-starring with Clement in HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”] and a lot of these other guys, we’ve known each other since about ’95. It’s been a long relationship working together in different variations. For ages, I’ve wanted to work with Loren in a film. Since I started making films I’ve told her about the possibility of her being the protagonist because I think she’s a really great actor and no one was using her for lead roles. I was so amazed by that. I was like “Are these people crazy?” (laughs)

RT: In the movie, a separate little story unfolds through stop motion. Was this always the plan?

TW: The plan originally, in the first draft of the script, was to have different kinds of animations throughout the film. But [doing] that lost what I was trying to achieve with a very kind of human feel.

So I chose one simple little storyline and stop motion because it’s such, in a way, a clumsy animation style. Going in to move stuff, getting a feeling; it’s a little bit stilted, and a little bit wrong. And it’s the same as a lot the characters and even the film itself. It’s clumsy and sort of stumbled. And you really feel that it’s a person who has come and stuffed their hand in and shape it into something. I really love watching films like that as opposed to things that are clinical and precise.

RT: The soundtrack by The Phoenix Foundation is memorable. What was the nature of your relationship with them?

TW: We’re all from Wellington. Their sound is so cinematic I think it really lends itself to the medium. While I was writing I was listening to a lot of their music and just thinking “Wow, it would be really great to use it in this and this scene.” So a lot of the music is existing music that I’d imagine would be in the film and so it just stayed there.

RT: Did they write any songs specifically for the movie?

TW: Half and half. The song for the fight scene towards the end that was written for the film. The great thing is that their music that they wrote could stand along just on a CD. You don’t have to watch the film to get it.

RT: What can you tell us about your next project?
TW: The next one is based on “Two Cars, One Night.” It’s basically about these kids growing up in the country in the 80’s. I guess the 80’s are the theme of my cinematic sensibility. I guess I like how everything that was made in the 80’s is now quaint and antique-y.

So the film is set around the time that “Thriller” came out. When we were kids they used to advertise when they’d be playing “Thriller” on TV. The television guy wouldn’t stop. We didn’t have MTV or anything; we only had two channels in the 80’s: Channel 1 or Channel 2. And they’d be advertising, “At 7:00, we’re playing ‘Thriller!'”

RT: Were you swept away by “Thriller?”

TW: Yeah, totally. Everybody was. It was incredible.

RT: Have you started filming the “Two Cars, One Night” feature?

TW: No. Still fresh into my script. Just two years later.

With "Eagle vs Shark"’s frequent comparisons to "Napoleon Dynamite," it’d be easy to think of director Taika Waititi as New Zealand’s answer to Jared Hess. But look closer and its apparent Waititi’s more like (this is a compliment, of course) the Kiwi Miranda July.

Both are easily distracted by non-film pursuits, both have a seemingly endless reservoir of friends to call upon for their talents, and both now have made offbeat comedies exploring the precious, ugly, and plain weird sides of coupling.

Waititi’s film is a monument to clumsy, messy geek love, and, in a subgenre that happily turns male misfits into motley heroes, is a rare instance of a story taken from the viewpoint of the girl. Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Waititi in San Francisco to talk about "Eagle vs Shark" (which expands into more theaters this Friday), Sundance, and New Zealand in the grip of 1980s pop culture.

Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve worked in lot of mediums throughout your career, including photography, stand up performance, and acting. Do you foresee losing interest in movies?

Taika Waititi: I do foresee it. (laughs) I will find something and hit this complete passion for it and then something else will come along. I’ll be like, "Whoa. Sewing machine! This is the best thing ever."

When you’re actually making a film, it’s just people on your back all the time wanting stuff and you’re constantly having to it deal with them. It’s probably the most time consuming of all the arts, but I do love it because it is a great mix of visual art and music and writing. I probably eventually will lose interest for a little while. But because it’s a mixture of all the things I really love, I’ll probably stick with it longer than most other things.


Waititi with "Eagle" actors Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement.

RT: How has the reaction been to "Eagle Vs. Shark" compared to New Zealand and the US?

TW: This is the West so it comes out here first. It gets released in New Zealand in mid-July. From the two screenings we had in New Zealand, people really love it. I think it’s got a distinct New Zealand flavor. A big part of the humor is in identifying with the tragic elements of the film. The New Zealand sense of humor is very dark. Our films are usually very dark and it’s always someone being killed. Usually a child.

RT: From the trailer, you expect "Napoleon Dynamite," but "Eagle Vs. Shark" has a much sharper mean streak, like something from Todd Solondz.

TW: I’m a huge fan of [Solondz’s]. "Welcome to the Dollhouse" is probably one of my favorite films.

But that’s one of the things with distribution and the movie business. Everything changes once you start trying to market the film. Part of you feels like everything is slipping away from you. For me, I don’t want people going to the theater thinking it’s going to be a laugh-a-minute comedy, like a Will Ferrell film or something. Because it’s not. It’s just simply not going to be that.

Check out the rest of the interview here!

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