It's typically the case that when a young director gets pulled into Marvel's orbit, we don't hear from them again until their blockbuster is ready to storm the box office years later. That could have been expected of What We Do in the Shadows filmmaker Taika Waititi, who signed on last fall to direct Thor: Ragnarok. But fortunately, the New Zealander had already shot another movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which comes out this Friday, almost a year and a half ahead of Thor's November 2017 release date.
It's not hard to see how Waititi made the leap from indie fare to tights-and-capes duty. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a gleefully mismatched old man and young boy (played by Kiwi royalty Sam Neill and new talent Julian Dennison) take off into the bush and become the object of a national manhunt. Waititi handles comedy and action with equal élan, making this low-budget indie look like a well-financed studio film. After Hunt became the highest-grossing local production in New Zealand history (breaking Waititi's own record, established in 2010 with Boy), Vulture caught up with him to talk buddy movies, tackling Thor, and why acting is a horrible life.
For ignorant American audiences like myself, would you share a little bit about Barry Crump? You adapted his book, Wild Pork and Watercress, for the film.
I'd actually never read the book. A producer approached me and asked me if I wanted to be part of it, so I read the book then, but Barry Crump is an iconic New Zealand writer. For lots of people growing up, there would be a couple of Barry Crump books in your house.
The thing that touched me about the book was the relationship between Hec and Ricky. I love films like Paper Moon, 48 Hours, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, buddy flicks like those, and I just really loved the idea of an old guy and a short city kid lost in the bush while the authorities are trying to bring them to justice. In the '80s, New Zealand and Australian films used to make a lot of these kind of crazy, outlandish adventure films around big car chases and stuff.
So really, I wanted to do that. And do a villain character who's the relentless cop on their tail — that was Paula, the social worker. We wanted to take that model and make it a little bit more ridiculous, a bit more Australian. I added a lot of stuff to it — there's no comedy in the book, and there's no social welfare, there's no car chases. I made it more of a cinema experience. And we retained a bit of heart as well.
New Zealand is a constantly surprising source of beauty onscreen. Did you see the movie as being in that tradition?
Yeah, for sure. And I'm not a big fan of films that are just all about nature and landscapes and stuff. Traditionally in New Zealand films they say, "The locations and the nature was like a character in the film," and I never understand what they mean. One way to try and keep people interested when you're watching a boring film is to have beautiful shots of landscapes. But I wanted to have it both ways — make it interesting, but also utilize the places we were shooting. In shooting the film, I really realized how beautiful a country we do have, and then I became more obsessed with showing it off. We ended up getting access to places that you normally wouldn't be allowed to shoot in, like tribal lands and army lands, which was very special.
The relationship between Ricky and Hec is awesome. What interested you about the pair of them? Even just the way they look is so starkly different.
A wiry old skinny white guy and a short, fat Maori kid. It's like Laurel and Hardy in the bush.
Absolutely, there's a real physical comedy element to it.
Yeah, they're both kind of bumbling and stumbling around the bush. In a way, they're both out of their element. Ricky's out of his element in the natural world, and Hec is out of his element in the fact that he has to be a parent. All those dynamics are in play and they all work. That way you can keep watching them, because they're both struggling for something.
Obviously Sam Neill is a legend, but you give Julian Dennison a lot to pull off, and he's terrific. You met him on a commercial, right?
Right. I had a similar experience on Boy with James [Rolleston], and he was only 11 when we did that film. The thing you've got to watch out for with children is that they often get bored after about a week. They'll be excited about being in a film, and then they realize it's a long job — and it's a boring job because you're sitting around for most of the time. And it's work. It's hard work. Then after work, you go home and learn lines for the next day. A lot of kids actually hate it. I think you have to find kids who display some sort of commitment and ability to focus and aren't brilliant for just five minutes, they're brilliant all day long. That's what we found with Julian. I didn't audition him or anything. I just sent him the script, and I said, "Please do this film."
The movie really doesn't look like an indie — it's got this grand visual conceit to it. Now you're making the jump to a big, expensive studio movie. As you're preparing to do that, what do you see as the differences between working on something like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and working on something like Thor, in terms of imagining the world and language?
I don't feel like I have to be too loyal to the visual language of the first two Thor movies, because they're quite different from each other.
And from very different directors, too.
Yeah, and I'm a pretty different director from both of those guys. To make it work for me, I have to understand that I'm not making an episode of something. I'm making a film. But I've been lucky enough to work with really, really talented people — designers, cinematographers, and people who bring something extremely special and amazing to this job — and it makes me relax. So whenever I make films, I'm very, very relaxed. Unless things are going terribly, and I freak out.
That's a good quality to have, especially on a big, expensive project. There are rumors that Thor: Ragnarok will be a buddy movie, which is interesting considering that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is also a buddy movie. Is that true?
Yeah, there were a lot of ideas in place before I even showed up. There were a lot before I'd even finished Hunt for the Wilderpeople — I mean, with that one, I was just making a buddy comedy. But I wouldn't say this is really a buddy film, you know. There are elements of that in there, but the film is so different from anything else that I'd ever seen. I can't really say too much about it, but it's going to be an amazing film.
The obligations that come with a Marvel movie can be stifling, since it has to fit the universe and the tone. Going into Thor, has that been something you've noticed? Or do you think that you've had the opportunity to just make it what you wanted it to be?
Well, no, it has to fit within the universe. Also, there's a good reason why I'm not a part of the studio — I don't have a brain for that, to see outside of this one film I'm making. All those guys know exactly what's going on with all the other films and how they relate, which is good, because I'm somebody who can mess that up a bit. I might suggest something and they'll say, "Oh no, you can't do that, because it's already been done," and I'll say, "Oh cool, great, forget it." You need that. You need someone to oversee all that stuff.
When you showed up in Hunt as the minister, it was one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Do you want to do more acting in the future? Is that something that appeals to you, or are you focused on directing?
I'm in all of my films, so I will be probably always do that. My friends are always putting each other in each others' stuff, and that's the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I don't like going for auditions and stuff. Before I was a filmmaker, I was an actor, and it's horrible. A horrible existence. But if it's your film, you can make up your own roles. You play roles that you want to play, as opposed to having to wait for someone to do something for you, you know? Now I'm coming at it from a realistic point of view, of how hard it is to successfully make a living as an actor. I much prefer being the boss of the story. If there's a funny role or something that is fun to play, then good — and I can also still control the story and still be the master of the universe.
Will you show up in Thor?
Possibly. My mom will be looking.