Boy WonderTOM FITZSIMONS
Last updated 09:43 24/09/2011Next are warriors: For his next Kiwi film, Taika Waititi has the Maori Battalion in his sights - only it might be too big.
Taika Waititi is driving when I call. "I'll be parking in about ..." he says and pauses. "6.4 minutes." Pause. "Do you want to call me back in about seven minutes?" I do as he says. So how's his internal GPS system?
"Timed it perfectly," he says from an Auckland footpath. "I'm just walking out on to the street. The safety of the street."
Waititi, actor, joker, sometime Wellingtonian and, of course, brilliantly successful film-maker isn't easy to pin down.
Most of the time, he doesn't pick up his phone. His answerphone message directs you to send an email to [inaudible]@[inaudible].com. He's back in town on a week-long break from filming in the United States.
But when you do get him, he is funny and lively and smart and abidingly quirky, as all his movies get called. 6.4 minutes indeed.
Since we last spoke with Waititi, 36, his second feature film, Boy, has become the single highest-grossing Kiwi movie ever, eclipsing Once were Warriors and The World's Fastest Indian. It took $9.3million at the local box office. Something about his funny, dreamy tale of an East Coast Maori boy captured the national mood.
"Didn't see it coming, that's for sure," he says. "Like, I thought it was a good film, but I didn't expect a public explosion of support for it."
It's the tall poppy part of being a New Zealand film-maker, he says. You learn never to expect a great local reception. So, yes, a surprise.
"And a really nice surprise as well. Not that I would ever brag about it, but I'm quietly pretty chuffed with myself.
"And I think also just happy that New Zealanders are supporting New Zealand films in such a way. So often you can get a bit disheartened and think, `Man, what's the point, because people aren't going to see it'."
To be fair, he says, one reason they might avoid some Kiwi comedies is that we're not great at making them. We either lean on other countries' formulas or don't try them at all.
"So perhaps it was good timing just having a film that people wanted to see, a New Zealand comedy, which we don't make that often ... maybe it was that as well, but I don't think I'll ever really know why it did so well."
The other thing about making a Kiwi film or really any film is that everything moves slowly. So while Boy has won all sorts of gongs at film festivals, it's only now getting set for an American release where it will open in February.
Those long intervals also explain how he can barely recall another notable gig of the past couple of years: an acting role in superhero flick Green Lantern. He played Tom Kalmaku, sidekick to the titular hero.
"It's so weird. I pretty much forgot that I was in it. It was over a year ago that I filmed it, and then it came out in June."
He went to the premiere, which was big, glamorous and fun. But he always felt removed from the movie, he says. It wasn't a reflection on the film's quality, just the whole business of working for another director.
"When you make up your own film, you feel very much part of it. But there I just felt like I was a very small cog in a monstrous machine. And it was someone else's project and someone else's dream, and it wasn't my dream."
Now Waititi is deep in the middle of another American project, working on a TV series for MTV, a channel otherwise "renowned for shows about children who get pregnant", he quips.
The show is The Inbetweeners, a transplant from Britain where the original series was such a huge success that it's spawned a hit film.
Waititi has already directed the first four episodes, and he's about to head back to the US to do the season finale.
Both versions follow a group of four teenage schoolboys – "the invisible group", he says, the sort who "just glide through school not really being picked on too much, but not at all being popular".
"They basically just pass their time trying to have sex, trying to get girlfriends, trying to get alcohol, and just going through all those experiences that people in college, high school, do."
There are plenty of quirks to filming in the US, he says. The actors who play the schoolboys are all in their early 20s – "that's classic". Most of the swearing and smut from the British show has had to be excised from the script. "We're not allowed to be as crass as the UK version, because the standards in the States are way higher ... It's really hard. You've got to do weird versions where you're making alternative swearwords."
There have been personal challenges too, such as spending weeks sweating in the heat of Orlando, Florida, the theme-park town where the series is being filmed.
"Orlando's not the most picturesque town I've ever been to," he says, laughing.
But it does have some perks. For one, it's got an "anywhere in America" feel, perfect for the show's fictional location.
For another, it's helped him focus on his writing. And Waititi is a writer, a creator. He cooked up Boy and his first feature Eagle vs Shark, and his two breakout short films from scratch.
You get the feeling he's comfortable in his own head, teasing out the next little bit of whimsy.
"I think the good thing about going somewhere boring like Orlando is that it forces you to just work," he says. "There's nothing else to do. It's very hard to write somewhere like New York, because you just want to go out."
He's got a couple of ideas for US shoots. He's upbeat, too, about what he thinks will be his next Kiwi film – an expansion of his 2004 short about the Maori Battalion, Tama Tu, which won international festival awards.
The only problem is that subject is almost too big. Even on the East Coast, where he's from, there are too many war stories to count, he says.
"I'm kind of spoilt because there's so many incredible stories from all over. And you want to try and include so many of them, but it's very hard to make something that would be authentic if you used all of these stories ... You'd have like 100 different characters."
Writing for the screen is so hard, he says.
"Screenwriting is probably one of the hardest things you can try to do, I think. It's not like writing a novel where you can just waffle on and there's no limit to how many pages you have."
Screenwriters have to land their finished product between 90 and 120 pages, he says. They have to keep the whole thing logically watertight. They have to be constantly attentive to the audience. "What is going to drive the story? Who are the main characters? What do they want?"
Writing is what occupies most of his time, he says. But this movie-star, MTV, jetsetting life, that's got to be good, right?
Like his friends and Flight of the Conchords stars Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, Waititi has spent the past five years or so extending his talent beyond the most outlandish predictions, proving that it wasn't just a one-time thing.
He seems to wear it all pretty lightly: the lifestyle, the success. He likes the travel, likes the chance to get away.
That Green Lantern movie? Fun, but "I wouldn't say it changed my life".
Travelling to Orlando? "Not exactly my dream come true."
The Hollywood payday? "Now their dollar's so dead, there's almost hardly any point earning money over there."
Another pause. "But I am enjoying it, yeah. It's nice to have a break from here [New Zealand], especially after spending 30-odd years here. But I'm not going to live there. I always want to live here. I think just for now it's nice to go over and take advantage of some of these opportunities."
The free-to-air television premiere of Boy is on Maori TV at 9pm on October 1.
- Waikato Times