Filmmaker Taika Waititi grew up in a very small New Zealand community amid poverty and intense challenges, but those dark and adverse situations taught him to cope with laughter. He spent his youth in the 1980s consuming a diet of British and American TV comedies, working in tiny underground theaters and creating his own madcap nonsense. Now he’s a recognized rising star as a comedian, writer, actor and director.
He wrote “Moana,” a Disney animated film coming to theaters in November, is currently directing Marvel’s next Thor sequel in Australia, and has just been recruited to join the exclusive ranks of Academy Award voters.
While it’s “far above expectations,” Waititi said he’s hardly filmmaking royalty. “Peter [Jackson] is still the king. I’m more like a distant relative coming for a visit.”
Waititi’s background also played a role in drawing him to his new film, the dark and comic romp “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” It’s about the bond that forms between a sourpuss old man and an orphan boy as they run from child welfare authorities.
Waititi gave himself a cameo as a nincompoop preacher who tells a group of mourners that life often makes us feel “like a sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves.” He admitted he could have been speaking of his own beginnings.
While the film plays continually for comedy, it’s adapted from an entirely serious 1986 novel by Barry Crump called “Wild Pork and Watercress.” Waititi’s first draft in 2005 stayed true to the template, with people being shot and dying. Then he went off and made three other films, most famously “What We Do in the Shadows,” a mock documentary about vampires adapting to mundane Kiwi life after death. When he returned to his earlier project, his slant was considerably more optimistic, as was the government’s interest in funding a backwoods comedy.
Shot outdoors in remote natural areas over five weeks, “crazily trying to get as much material as possible” on a limited budget, “Wilderpeople” has become a sizable box-office success there and abroad, a development Waititi greeted with considerable relief.
“It’s getting harder and harder for films to do well, especially New Zealand films,” he said. “It’s a struggle, but for a small independent film it’s been incredible, and I think it’s going to have a strong, good life.”
Joining the Oscars club
Waititi also is excited about his inclusion in the Academy. Increasing the organization’s diversity is a big deal, he said, especially for someone coming from a Maori community.
“Filmmaking was something I never even heard of growing up,” he said. “That I should be doing it and inspiring other Maori to have an interest in storytelling as a career is something very important to me because part of what makes us stand out in New Zealand is our cultural differences. The indigenous culture that’s unique to every country, you should be showing that off.”
Having entered the big budget big leagues as director of “Thor: Ragnarok,” he said he feels free to bring the assignment his weird sense of creative freedom.
“I wouldn’t really take a job where I felt my input wasn’t valued,” and he has played a major role in shaping the story line and adding newcomers like Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Karl Urban and Tessa Thompson to the cast.
“A lot of [Marvel’s] directors come from humble film backgrounds, and that’s what makes them work. When unique people bring their vision to something very, very mainstream, that makes them cool.”