When most people think of movies and New Zealand, they jump to Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. As well they should, since Jackson's movies introduced international audiences to New Zealand as a picturesque fantasy land. But New Zealand's film industry hasn't only given great landscapes to the world, it's also exporting some very talented people who are climbing higher and higher in Hollywood.
One New Zealander whose career is taking off is Taika Waititi (pictured above). He first caught our eye in the late 2000s thanks to work on Flight of the Conchords and Eagle vs. Shark, but it was 2014's vampire "documentary" comedy What We Do in the Shadows that seemed to really lift his career, helping to put him in the director's chair for Thor: Ragnarok.
But between Shadows and Thor, Waititi climbed the mountains of New Zealand with Sam Neill and a young actor named Julian Dennison (who may just be your new favorite movie kid) to make the delightful, crowd-pleasing comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, about a young boy who goes on the run from the law with his foster uncle. That sounds like a heavy, dramatic premise, but Wilderpeople is more like an '80s family adventure movie than it is your average Sundance drama. Fandango recently spoke to Waititi about how this special movie came to be.
On putting real characters into increasingly unreal scenarios
"Wilderpeople is almost like a fantasy film. It's like a kid's fantasy of what could happen if you went on the run. I feel like the world is such a ludicrous place to live in, that there's so much going on all of the time that far surpasses the ridiculousness of anything I could imagine, so I feel like already the situation my characters are in and the things they do aren't even as crazy as things that happen in the real world. If you look at the news every day, you'll see.
"I love characters that live on the margins, that are underdogs really struggling to make their way in the world, and dealing with what life has thrown at them. I always like those characters, I grew up in a household of renegades and people who have been struggling, and in a country where people are struggling, so those are my heroes. That's why I always get drawn to these characters."
On movies about a kid's journey
"People say I must love working with kids, which isn't true because it's actually really hard. But I love the final result of working with kids. If you get a good kid and a good story, there's just something about the purity of a kid's journey and how they see the world and how they deal with what life throws at them. It's a very refined and the pure idea of the human spirit. Using imagination, or humor, to survive, we try to find the light and make the best of crazy situations. I just love characters like that."
On the early version of the movie you'll never see
"I actually wrote the first draft way back in 2005 when another producer had the rights to the book. And back then it was closer to the book, which took place over the course of three years. The character of Ricky grows up and gets skinny. We were wondering how the hell we'd do it. We talked about finding a couple twins, maybe finding a skinny twin and a fat twin, but that never happened. I ended up making my first three features, and leaving them to it, then came back to it and decided, why do we care about that? It's not about a kid losing weight. It's about a kid trying to find family. So we did away with that idea, and by the time I'd worked with Julian [Dennison] on a commercial and knew I wanted to use him in something else. So by the time it came to work on this movie again, I knew he was perfect.
On why he sits on movies for years
"I step away from everything I write. My second film, Boy, I wrote the first draft of that in 2004 and then I stepped away and shot that in 2009, nearly five years later. What We Do In the Shadows, wrote the first idea for that in 2005, but we didn't shoot until 2012. I really believe things take time. I have a lot of scripts I wrote years ago that I'm only just now starting to think about doing again. It's good to have those few years between writing something and reading it again. It feels like somebody else wrote it. You lose that preciousness of feeling like everything you write is perfect. You have to give yourself distance.
On mixing comedy and tragedy
"I've grown up in a culture that has a lot of funerals. And one thing about the kind of funerals we have is there's a s**tload of laughter at them. A lot of tears are shed, but there's an equal amount of laughter. I feel like it's quite specific to a few cultures, and it's very specific to my culture, to Maori culture, and how we deal with tragedy. We sing and dance and laugh, as well as mourn and cry. It's how we've dealt with many hardships and a lot of the s**t that life has thrown at us, and in some way that's probably rubbed off with tragic or overly sentimental stuff in my films.
"I don't dwell on them, I keep counterbalancing them with jokes. The hard thing is making sure you don't undercut the drama and devalue it by making a joke. You try to complement it so you're in a place where the audience doesn't know if they should be laughing or crying. I like that rather than signposting everything with 'This is how you should be feeling right now.' It's creating more complex options for the audience."
On the ridiculous true story that wound up in the movie
"In Wilderpeople, there's a death of a character followed by a really ridiculous sermon at the funeral. And a lot of people have told me it's funny, but it's too ridiculous. One of the concerns before we even shot the film, because it is written like that, was that it didn't seem realistic and might take away from that character's death. And my argument to that was that the sermon is based on a real sermon that I heard at a real funeral for a friend of mine's family member.
"It was a really tragic funeral and yet this guy did the sermon and I was laughing on the inside because it was just so weird to be in a situation like that and having this guy going on and on about confectionery and doorways and going through doorways and finding more and more food. He was really losing the audience, too. It was such a weird day. He wasn't a comedian, but it was like watching a stand-up comedian bomb. And it was at a funeral."
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in theaters June 24, 2016. Click here to read more from our Taika Waititi interview, about We're Wolves and who Thor would've sided with in Captain America: Civil War.