It’s not every day that you can watch a movie that gives you a Tupac-loving teenager, lush New Zealand forest, Sam Neill, a battle with a giant wild boar, and a car-flipping chase wrapped in an earnest and touching coming-of-age story. With its charming misanthropy, ridiculous-bordering-on-fantasy scenes, and pop culture-driven dialogue, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which releases June 24 in America, is undeniably the work of Taika Waititi, the director behind Eagle vs Shark (2007), Boy (2012), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and the upcoming Marvel blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on the book Wild Pork and Watercress by New Zealand author Barry Crump, is centered around Ricky Baker (played by Julian Dennison), a city-slicker foster child who child services deems “a real bad egg.” Despite being dumped in the remote New Zealand bush, Ricky finally finds a kind, loving family (well, a kind, loving foster mother and a curmudgeon of a foster dad in Hec, played by Sam Neill). But when tragedy strikes and Ricky is forced to return to child services, he does what any defiant kid does: fakes his own death and runs away. He is soon joined by a reluctant Hec, and the two embark on a hilarious and poignant journey through the stunning bush, evading a government manhunt and learning to survive and thrive with each other.
Part of what makes Waititi’s style so distinct is how he wields humor while seamlessly incorporating New Zealand’s indigenous Maori heritage (his father is Maori, his mother white), into his films. Which is even more exciting given that he’s about to break into the mainstream. His dedication to telling unique (and funny) stories comes with an understanding that it works in partnership with other portrayals.
“It’s like when Boyz n the Hood came out—if from then on, you’re only allowed to make films like Boyz n the Hood, how sad would that be?” Waititi told me. “It’s a brilliant film, but it’s not the only way you want to portray African-American communities.”
I had the chance to chat (and joke) with him over the phone about his latest release, incorporating his own Maori heritage into his films, and how he finds comedy in darkness.
What drew you to Hunt for the Wilderpeople?
Actually, I had a few projects that I was deciding between, and this one seemed like the most exciting in terms of having fun with making a film, car chases, running through the bush and hunting and animals and stuff, and it seemed like the biggest challenge also in terms of budget and time.
I wanted to make a film that was going to be fast to shoot. Between writing the script and finishing it and delivering the film, I could spend the least amount of time worrying about it. I had just come off Shadows, and we had edited for a year and a half, and we’d written it for five or six years, and we were releasing it for two or three years. I mean the whole process took, like, eight years. And I just didn’t want to do anything like that again.
So I decided to just do something as fast as possible, and so I took the script and I just blasted it out. We started shooting in May of last year. I think it was nine months from the start of shooting to the premiere at Sundance.
Damn, okay, real quick.
Yeah, it was a real film baby.
I think especially with this movie, but also with all of your movies, the main character has some pretty big issues with authority. You’ve definitely perfected this renegade type–how much of that is you? Does that sort of reflect your personal relationship with authority?
That’s just me trying to stick it to the man, Isha! I don’t think that we need to be held down by the big oppressive thumb trying to crush us under the weight of society’s laws and their rules—these bullshit rules that we’ve got to stick to!
I’m not really that rebellious. I definitely don’t like authority and I definitely rebel against it. I’ve grown up in a family who hate authority and who are very rebellious and will challenge authority and have challenged the police a lot and have challenged the law a lot. And I have grown up around a lot of renegades, so I very much sort of sympathize and empathize and am drawn to them.
It’s not even just renegades, but just underdogs and people that live on the margins, the ones who are just shoved off to the side. They’re the big heroes to me. I love people who fight against the system. I would just live in a world of Erin Brockoviches if I could.
Sounds good to me. On sort of a similar note, another theme that’s in a lot of your work is the coming-of-age story. What is it about that theme that speaks to you?
All the films I’ve loved growing up were about kids trying to take control of their world and trying to make sense of the adult world, and also forging their own paths. One of my favorite films was 400 Blows which was a big influence on my second film Boy. And I think there’s a lot of similarities in this film as well. It’s a boy who’s basically been abandoned by what should be a system that is there to help. And he’s really being let down by that system. And sometimes it’s the family system that let’s you down, sometimes it’s the actual system system that lets you down.
Everything is failing Ricky.
But I like characters that sort of pick themselves up and keep going. I think there’s something pure about seeing younger people deal with that stuff. When they don’t have to rely on grownups or they have to become the grownup, there’s something special about that. You see it every day in real life. There are kids who live like this, who control their own destinies and literally raise themselves, and in a way, it’s the purest form of the human spirit, of how we’ll fight for survival, and at the end of the day these films are about humans and how humans survive. You see refugees or people who are in camps, the human spirit will always crawl out of the darkness and find the light. And you see that again and again with how people deal with the darker situations. Coming of age to me is more, like, um—where are you?
(A firetruck wailing down the street adjacent to the Fusion office—ugh, New York—has interrupted his train of thought, to my horror.)
I’m so sorry, our office is on a busy street in New York. Actually, I’m running away from the cops right now as I’m doing this interview—just kidding.
YEAH, RENEGADE! [Laughs.] But yeah, I really do love stories like that. Here’s the ironic thing. I don’t like working with kids.
It really drains me. I find it really tiring and draining. It’s definitely easier working with grown ups, but I love the performances that kids can give you, if you find the right kids. It’s not the easiest thing working with kids. It’s not like I find it easy. I just love the end result.
I love kids! Hey, hey don’t get me wrong! Lady! Don’t get me wrong, I love kids! I’ve got kids of my own, I love them!
That’s what they all say! Okay, so one thing that I think is interesting specifically for American audiences is how you incorporate Maori culture and heritage with what, at least for me, seems like normalcy. Does that reflect Maori representation in general?
It is very normal there. I don’t think any New Zealander would find any of the cultural stuff we’re talking about strange or has some sort of incredible insight. It’s very much part of who we are, and most New Zealanders grow up knowing about Maori culture. A lot of New Zealanders have no idea about Maori culture, but it’s definitely assimilated a lot more than, say, Native American culture.
It’s very different there in the States because there are literally different nations, whereas Maori is all one people. New Zealand is very bicultural, and there’s a lot more, like—I don’t want to use the word interbreeding. What’s a better word? Interbreeding sounds like a science experiment. Like a lot of mixed relationships, that’s like, not weird at all. I don’t know if you guys can get this concept of mixed race relationships, but it’s quite normal where I come from.
I take out a lot of stuff in my films that I feel audiences would be really baffled by or that might detract from the story. My stories are always super universal and they’re very simple. They’re always about relationships or families, or people looking for family or looking for love. It’s just the settings that are different.
Even though my films are in English, essentially, they’re foreign films. Just like a Japanese film, it’s just the language that is different. You’ll often see in Japanese films or Korean films, culturally there are so many different things that we as a Western audience never consider. Like In the Mood for Love. In Wong Kar-wai’s film, you can understand it at an even deeper level due to the foods that people are eating because the foods they are eating are seasonal. So when they’re eating a certain thing, you know it’s winter. Westerners have no idea about that, none of us have any clue. None of us are from that culture, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect your appreciation of the film.
It’s some seasoning. It’s some seasoning on that poached chicken. And without it, without the seasoning, Isha, it’s just boiled chicken and who the hell wants to eat that?
I certainly don’t. Definitely needs some seasoning.
I don’t want to eat boiled chicken! I want the chicken to be slowly roasted with some vegetables and some garlic.
Is that the, uh, traditional Maori preparation of chicken?
You've mentioned the darker, violent representations of Maori culture before, so by bringing comedy into it does that provide that normalcy?
Yeah, absolutely. We had a film Once Were Warriors, which is still probably the greatest Maori film produced in New Zealand. But from then on, everyone thought that the only films we should be making were about us killing each other and being alcoholics and drug addicts and super depressing films that were destined to play at Cannes.
I feel like a lot of the films are great, but also we’ve got to diversify the tone of our films and how we’re represented. We are a very funny people. And growing up in the culture, I know that we’re funny. I know what makes us funny is the fact that our humor comes from a very dark place and that comes from being oppressed for almost 200 years. I’m very much into that.
You’re finding something new and light in an otherwise exhausting gloom.
It’s like when Boyz in the Hood came out—if from then on, you’re only allowed to make films like Boyz in the Hood, how sad would that be? It’s a brilliant film, but it’s not the only way you want to portray African-American communities. Every culture is both funny and has a lot of problems.
And my films aren’t even like broad comedies. My films are sad situations with jokes. My second film Boy is about child neglect, but I tried to make it funny. My first film, Eagle vs Shark, is about people who are so disconnected from emotion and from each other who are desperate to find love. If you look at the film there’s some pretty dark stuff about it, but it’s also pretty funny. It’s okay to mix up the weird stuff.
What I also like about your film is that I enjoy it as an American, but I imagine that there are some New Zealand jokes that I don’t get, which I appreciate, even though I still think it’s funny. How do you keep that balance?
That’s the hardest thing, really. I often edit for a lot longer than a lot of people do because I need to find that balance. And figure out whether or not it’s tonally going to pull the audience out of the story. For instance, not providing a Spoiler Alert, but when a character in Wilderpeople dies, and we go to the funeral, everyone in the development process, the financiers and everything said, “Well it’s a funeral scene. It’s going to be sad. You can’t just cut to a priest giving a ridiculous sermon. And I totally understood where they were coming from, but I didn’t really believe they were right because that sermon is from a funeral I’ve been to. It’s almost verbatim what the priest was saying, and I basically copied it. I just remembered it from 10 years ago.
So I know that shit happens. There are weird characters all the time. That’s why I try and do these things. It does exist. I think any preposterous, ridiculous idea I come up with in a movie, I guarantee it exists in the real world or has happened. There is crazier stuff that I could not imagine, that I could not conjure up in my mind that is happening right now. Even the films like Being There or Network, or films with the insane characters who become super popular in the American public eye. Or Face in the Crowd, like, that’s happening right now in your politics. Right now. Life goes beyond often in terms of ridiculous situations coming through.
When I filmed that funeral scene, I also did do a version where I didn’t do a serious sermon but no one said anything and it was a really silent scene and it was sad, just to give myself a backup if I ever need it. I’m glad I never did need it because I feel like it’s a great moment.
I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that you have to keep mixing it up.
Not only with happy and sad themes, but also with people in society interbreeding. [Note: Sometimes I don't think before I speak.]
Oh my god. [Laughs and for some reason entertains my dumb joke.] Exactly. Interbreeding is cool! People have to realize! Gotta mix the bloodlines!
So you’re set to direct Thor, which is super cool. What’s it like being on the cusp of the indie filmmaking world and the blockbuster mainstream movie world?
I’ll be honest. I feel like there’s zero difference. I don’t see the difference between the indie world and the studio world. All I know is that I’m in a car park right now looking at some golf carts and I’ve never had any golf carts in any of my films. But that’s pretty much the only difference. I get free coffee on my other films. I think the main difference is that it’s more time. It takes longer—oh my god, here’s what the difference is, Isha. My assistant just delivered me avocado on toast and a boiled egg. Now that—you know what? That actually happens on my films, too.
The thing that’s really different is obviously the budget. The whole thing is bigger and there’s more people. But everyone is here with a common goal, and that is to tell the best story that we can. Outside of that, higher up, I don’t know what the goals are, but that’s what my goal is: to tell a really good story and make a great movie. And it’s good because I don’t know if I could do a lot of these types of films because I feel like I might run out of ideas, but right now I’ve got so many cool ideas that are actually making it into the film and it’s really great and really exciting for me.
That must be pretty validating as a filmmaker to get so many of your ideas and your vision into such a huge franchise.
Yeah, totally. I’m amazed at what they’re letting me do. I wouldn’t let me do half the things I’m suggesting if it was my money.
I have one more question about Moana [Disney’s upcoming movie about a Polynesian girl]. I know you worked a bit on the script—can you give some background on where the story came from?
So the story was something they were developing when I came on board. This was a few years ago, before What We Do in the Shadows was filmed. I did a few drafts for them. I was really interested in the idea of it. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t that interested in the idea of what Disney might do to another culture in one of their films. Maybe if they have people who are from that culture involved, maybe that’s one way of helping them get it right.
So far there’s been really great reports and stuff. I ended up leaving to make What We Do in the Shadows. I liked the project, but I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting in Burbank for a year. So I ejected. But I’ve had contact with them and have checked in to see how they’re going. I have high expectations and high hopes for this film.
Well you’ve answered all my questions. Was there anything you wanted to add?
I just want to say keep the breeding going.
That’s why we’re here. We gotta make a melting pot. There’s no such thing as "pure blood" anymore! We gotta mix it up! Interbreed!
Interbreed, just get the whole world to a nice shade of brownish-beige!
That’s it. Brown babies.
That’ll be the headline. "Brown babies."