Taika Waititi on Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From the set of Marvel's latest movie, Taika Waititi takes a break from shooting Thor: Ragnarok to discuss his thrilling indie coming-of-age film Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Feature by Michelle Devereaux | 05 Sep 2016

“There are so many movies these days where everyone’s separate and you don’t even really get to hang out,” Taika Waititi laments while speaking on the phone from Australia. He talks about a friend who, after twelve weeks working on a film, only met his co-star once. Waititi sounds a bit tired, but he’s still unfailingly affable and polite. The Kiwi filmmaker is currently directing inevitable blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, his first major studio film.

Ironically, the films from the Marvel “cinematic universe” that Thor inhabits, with their heavy emphasis on computer-driven effects, are some of the biggest offenders of this divide-to-conquer filmmaking mentality. Still, if anyone can build a sense of community within the confines of such a big-budget behemoth, it’s probably the 41-year-old Waititi, who excels in creating films about makeshift families of social misfits and oddballs.

Waititi is probably best known in Britain for his brilliantly funny cult vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which he co-wrote, co-directed and starred in (as lovelorn dandy Viago) with longtime collaborator Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords). Since his 2007 feature debut, Eagle Vs. Shark, the filmmaker has specialised in creating off-kilter, visually inventive films that straddle the line between comedy and pathos, a tonal register sometimes derisively referred to as “quirky.”

The story of ...Wilderpeople

Despite his cult status over here, Waititi is something akin to filmmaking royalty in his native New Zealand. His latest, the utterly charming Hunt for the Wilderpeople, recently became the highest-grossing homegrown film in the country’s box office history, supplanting 2010’s Boy – also directed by Waititi.

While Shadows, despite its singularly goofy premise, is targeted at a “mature” audience, Waititi seems to have a soft spot for telling stories about kids, especially ones who tend to fall through institutional cracks. Like Boy, Wilderpeople is about a young Māori, and it’s a tale told in a typically sympathetic yet unsentimental fashion.

The film centres on 13-year-old Ricky Baker (newcomer Julian Dennison, possibly the best thing in a film full of great things), a chubby, troubled yet good-hearted foster kid from Wellington who thinks of himself as the consummate gangster living the “skux life.” Ricky is unceremoniously plunked down in the middle of the country to live with the enthusiastic Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, ornery and gruff bushman Hec (Sam Neill, clearly relishing one of his best roles in years).

When Bella suddenly dies, Ricky flees for the bush in order to escape the authorities who want to re-institutionalise him (including psychotically intense social worker Paula, played with gleeful abandon by Rachel House). Hec chases after him, and soon the two are both on the run from the law, who assume Ricky has been kidnapped. Part comic pas de deux, part heartfelt adventure film, Wilderpeople is at turns hilariously deadpan and moving without being cloying, and it never stoops to mining archetypes or clichés.

“What I was trying to avoid was saying this is what it’s like for all Māori,” Waititi says. “Every New Zealand film that involves Māori, they’re always the ones that are connected to the spirit world, or the wise old grandmother and all that, which I’m really sick of.” Waititi is Māori himself, and he refuses to romanticise Māori culture. “There are Māori who are not connected to their family, to their culture. Ultimately the movie is just about people looking for family.”

Wilderpeople also touches on what Waititi considers a national foster care system that “could probably do with some attention,” but never in a polemical way. In one scene, Ricky tells Hec his friend Amber died, but he doesn’t know the details behind her death. It’s actually an allusion to a real New Zealand foster kid who took her own life. “I’m not going to name names,” Waititi says. “I’m going to kind of hint at it, and anyone who knows about that may know, okay, this is the world [Ricky] is from. It’s all about him though. It’s gotta be focused on him.”

Waititi’s use of hands-on, low-tech effects jibes with the humanistic sensibility of his narratives. Practical effects are “more French,” he deadpans, “more arrogant.” Wilderpeople in particular contains a complicated, bravura shot whose very attempt seems slightly mad: a 720-degree long take (the camera pans around the action twice) where characters pop in and out of frame on multiple occasions to suggest the passage of a much longer stretch of time. Actors hid behind bushes and hustled to make their new marks over and over in an intricately choreographed arrangement.

“Those are the things that make me most satisfied with making films,” he says. “I still love in-camera trickery, and I love animation, and I love things that are handmade… even if the audience doesn’t really know what they’re looking at.” True to form, Waititi wasn’t just interested in having everyone involved be there on the same day just to explore his technique.

“It makes everyone feel part of the team,” he says. The film contains several unexpected cinematic allusions, from Robert Altman’s classic Western McCabe and Mrs Miller (that long take is set to Leonard Cohen’s The Partisan) to Apocalypse Now to Psycho, the latter two during a queasy scene involving Bella butchering a wild pig. This wasn’t so much an attempt to make his family-friendly film “edgier” as it was part of a desire to ground the story in the reality of its milieu.

While Waititi says he hated the idea of depicting animal killing onscreen, considering his source material (Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress) is “all about hunting,” he didn’t have much of a choice. For the pig-killing scene, he took pains to exercise as much restraint as possible while still conveying gruesome reality. “Watching it back I feel like it’s actually super graphic, whereas all you really see is the knife go down and then there’s blood on the knife,” he says. “There’s only one shot with blood spraying, and it’s so kind of abstract.”

Waititi on music in film

The film’s tonal mix of affable goofiness and darker reality can be felt in Waititi’s eclectic music choices. “I think [songs] help me imagine the scene, visualise it – what’s going to happen and the tone,” he says. “So music’s super-important right from the very beginning.” In addition to the downbeat Leonard Cohen song, the film’s soundtrack features Nina Simone’s Sinnerman, cheesy calypso disco, operatic tribal-infused sounds, and retro-modern synths.

Wilderpeople is scored by New Zealand band Moniker, and Waititi has also worked with Wellington-based indie rockers The Phoenix Foundation. But currently he’s in the process of getting prolific composer Mark Mothersbaugh on board for Thor: Ragnarok. The Devo frontman is known for scoring quirkier films, which hints that Waititi might be able to preserve some of his idiosyncratic style regardless of his monster budget. He insists he wants to be surrounded by as many artists like Mothersbaugh as possible. “There will always be opinions from the business side of things,” he says. “As much as possible you need the people who balance it out.”

If you’re worried Waititi won’t make another small film like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Shadows, don’t – he still plans to direct a follow-up to the latter, shifting focus to the werewolves. Regardless, he seems intent on making films where people can still “hang out,” collaborate, and form a sense of community. He even actively pushed for a large percentage of Aboriginal crewmembers on Thor. Despite his ascendance to the major leagues, it seems he isn’t willing to forgo the concept of makeshift family, both on and off the set.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is released on 16 Sep by Vertigo