Atta boy, Taika The Press
Last updated 08:19 26/03/2010
CAMERA, ACTION: Taika Waititi at work on Boy.
Taika Waititi talks to MARGARET AGNEW about directing and acting in his new film, and being told by an American critic his film isn't authentically Maori.
Taika Waititi is a busy man - far too busy to go to the New Zealand premiere of his second feature film, Boy. Which is a shame, because it's a thoroughly entertaining little film about growing up in smalltown New Zealand in the 80s and the hometown crowd are going to love it. The locals may enjoy it even more than the audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where Boy was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and more than the Berlin International Film Festival crowd that awarded Waititi the grand prize for best feature film.
What the film has already done is drawn attention to the multi-talented, Oscar- nominated, writer-director's acting.
Waititi had only a small window of time to talk about his sophomore feature film before flying to the New Orleans set of Green Lantern.
He agrees that a Kiwi audience, especially those Kiwis who grew up in the 80s will be more receptive to Boy's idiosyncratically distinctive charms. "I think people who were there at the time will get a lot of the little references - calling somebody an 'egg', things like that are really of our time." Waititi's young cast members "were definitely questioning why they were calling each other 'egg' ".
The cast is made up largely of children who've never acted before, and the pint-sized amateurs do an amazing job lending a stark authenticity to their central roles.
Waititi says it was a long process, "about a year-and-a-half all up", to find the two lead actors to play young brothers Boy and Rocky.
"Rocky [played by Te Aho Aho Eketone- Whitu] we found about three months out, and Boy [James Rolleston] we found two days before we started shooting."
Originally, when Waititi wrote the first script years ago, it was called Choice, but he thought that gave the impression it was about pregnancy, "so I changed it to Volcano, as a reference to White Island-Whakaari, which was almost like a character in the film at one point". While he shot a lot of "volcano stuff" it ended up on the cutting room floor. "We were left with a story about a kid," he laughs. "It was either going to be called Kid or Boy."
His is notably a much larger acting role than Waititi's taken on before, bigger even than his Moro bar TV advert in 2001, he notes. Working on Boy he had to juggle the roles of actor, director and scriptwriter, but says it only took him about a week to adjust. "I would rewrite stuff in my head as we'd go, also I had a lot of help on set with producers giving me feedback. If something felt weak, they'd let me know. It was important to have outside eyes. Part of it was letting go of departments I didn't need to be so anal about, such as the camera and the art department. Especially when I was acting, I put a lot more trust in them to do their jobs."
Waititi says that it's the sort of role which, if it had come up 10 years ago, he would have turned down. "I love acting as long as it's interesting - as long as it's fun. What stopped me in the past was the roles sucked."
It sounds like Waititi is joking but he says what turned him to directing was the lack of meaty acting roles for young Maori. Disheartened, he didn't want to play "a tribesman or the comic-relief friend for a main Pakeha character". He and his Humourbeasts comedy partner, Jemaine Clement, went on to create work for themselves, with Clement gaining small-screen success in the United States with Flight of the Conchords.
Waititi admits he wasn't into making films when he was a kid. "All these film-makers like Peter Jackson are like: 'Oh, we made 8-millimetre war films when we were 10 and stuff. I never had a chance to do that. It was only since I was 27 that I got an opportunity to make those things, so I've really embraced it."
As well as his debut feature, Eagle Vs Shark, Waititi has made a range of short films and music videos, especially for frequent musical collaborators - and Boy soundtrack composers - The Phoenix Foundation. "That's really fun and liberating," he says. "Basically, that stuff comes from just hanging out with mates."
Part of his do-it-yourself attitude was born of necessity. "No-one would ever put us in their plays."
He describes his friends/collaborators as "a ragtag bunch who came out of Bats theatre". Small theatres Bats in Wellington and the Silo in Auckland were where he and Clement would experiment with their prop-based comedy "and just try to make things work".
"It was very arts-and-crafty, which is still reflected in all the animation in Boy [which] I did myself at a cafe down the road."
Sitting in Dizzengoff with his coloured pencils, Waititi drew a series of pictures to illustrate a child's eye view of the world.
Boy is a personal journey in many ways. It's set in the rural town Waititi grew up in, and in the house where the young Waititi lived, using props from his childhood. He says that the film uses elements from his childhood situation, "but the actual narrative and the plot and the premise is fictitious".
The art department drew inspiration from his old family photos. The shoot in the house included "a sugar bowl that's been in the house since my dad was a kid", but these details are not likely to be picked up by the wider audience. However, Waititi insists: "I didn't want this to be like an exorcism of my own personal demons. I didn't want it to be a specific episode from my childhood."
The story, despite its distinctly Kiwi setting, is more universal. Waititi says that teenagers in Germany have particularly responded to it. "So that's a success for me - making something that is accessible to international audiences. There's no point making a film that no-one can relate to or that people feel they're being excluded from.
"If you had a parent, it's basically your story, because I don't think anyone really knows who their parents are - what goes on in their heads or what their hopes and dreams were, how they see themselves in the world. I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out myself."
Not all reactions have been glowing. There was a rather negative response from Variety magazine that in Boy Waititi had "scrubbed away any culturally specific traits". Waititi's response to that is: "They're just f..king idiots. You can quote me on that".
"I don't care if someone doesn't get it, I can handle that. But what I can't handle is someone who's not from here and who's probably never met a Maori, probably never been to a Maori community, giving their opinion on how authentic the Maori content is in my movie. Someone from America saying that there wasn't enough spirituality in it for it to be culturally specific to my Maoridom. The point is, it's not culturally specific. It could happen anywhere. It doesn't need kids riding around on whales. I don't mean this to sound like a tirade, but I've had bad reviews and I can handle that. I mean, no-one can make a film that every single person in the world likes."
Then Waititi - who seems unable to be serious for very long - cuts through his non- tirade with: "Unless you made Hurt Locker, which is awesome. Or Back To The Future. Or ET."
Of his own film, he says he knows people will relate to it. "The best films are the ones where you're still thinking about it when you're in bed."
He gives an example of how not to do it: "I went to see 2012. As I was walking down the escalator, I'd already forgotten what happened in the entire movie.
"I just want Boy to resonate with people and that's the best I can hope for." Taika gets the green light
Missing the New Zealand premiere of his own feature film, Boy, Taika Waititi is playing Thomas Kalmaku in Warner Bros' new 3D superhero feature Green Lantern, which began shooting in New Orleans last week with Ryan Reynolds in the lead role. The cast of the new comicbook adaptation, directed by New Zealander Martin Campbell, also includes Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively and Tim Robbins. The original Kalmaku, described by Waititi as the hero Hal Jordan's "best buddy", was an Inuit. However, Waititi's not sure his role requires him to actually take on Eskimo ethnicity. "In the comicbook my character is originally, like, Alaskan, but I think they threw that away when they couldn't find [an Inuit] to play it. I kind of look ethnic still, so maybe people will think he's not white and he's not black and he's not Hispanic, he must be an Eskimo," he says. Fellow Kiwi Temuera Morrison also stars in the film as Abin Sur - the Green Lantern who gives Hal Jordan his power ring before dying.