Sundance Film Festival: Taika Waititi on The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi on The Hunt for the Wilderpeople

New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival, having brought most of his works there from his first film Eagle vs. Shark through 2014’s What We do in the Shadows, both done with his frequent collaborator Jemaine Clement of “Flight of the Conchords” fame.

That brings us to his fourth feature film, The Hunt for The Wilderpeople, based on a popular New Zealand novel “Wild Pork and Watercress” by Barry Crump, which teams newcomer Julian Dennison with veteran Sam Neill as a troubled teen and his foster father who go on the run through the New Zealand wilderness from authorities who think the older man has kidnapped the teen.

It’s a really fun film that includes all the quirky humor of Waititi’s earlier films like Boy, but also harks back to some of the great ‘80s action movies like The Terminator and the Rambo movies, the teen protagonist giving it a vibe much like the underrated Sundance fave Son of Rambow.

Wlderpeople might be Waititi’s last small movie for a while though, as after years of making smaller independent movies in his home country, Waititi has been hired by Marvel Studios to direct the upcoming threequel Thor: Ragnarok. ComingSoon.net sat down with the filmmaker the day after Hunt’s well-received Sundance premiere.

RELATED: Thor Ragnarok Director Taika Waititi on How He’s Changing Things Up

ComingSoon.net: When I last spoke to Jemaine Clement, I asked what you were up to and he said you were off doing one of your little coming-of-age films…

Taika Waititi: (snickers)

CS: I don’t think he was being dismissive, but then you see this movie and you expect it to be this little coming-of-age movie and by the end, there’s so much going on in terms of the action. I wish I hadn’t seen it so late at night, though, after four other movies.

Taika Waititi: Yeah, we had another great screening this morning actually, similar crowd, really awesome response. 

CS: You’ve been coming to Sundance a lot. It’s been your home away from home in some ways.

Taika Waititi: Yeah, I’ve actually missed so many New Zealand summers because of this festival, but you’re right. The thing is that when I started making this is that I could see the approaching mainstream feel-goodness coming towards me, and I thought, “How am I going to screw with this a bit and try to fill it with as much weird ‘80s adventure tropes. We used to make great car chase films in Australasia, there’s vintage big adventure films. We sort of last that for a while and we started making these “festival films” and I think this is the least festival film in terms of a car chase. You don’t see a car chase film at a film festival, you know? I love the fact that it got shown here, but it really is for me embracing the source material, which is a very cool book. 

CS: Did someone bring that book to you?

Taika Waititi: Yeah, years ago, a producer brought me to the book and said, “Do you want to write it?” I started writing it and then I went off and made a couple other films and then I checked in on him last year, “What are you doing with that film?” and he said, “Oh, we gave up on it” so I bought the rights, I rewrote it last year and got it up and running, really really fast, then cast Julian and Sam without any auditioning or any other people. Just said, “You guys should do this” and we moved really fast. I think we decided to do the film in October (2014) and got the money in February and started shooting in May.

CS: Was it easy to find Julian to play Ricky?

Taika Waititi: I had worked with him before on some other stuff. I worked with him on a commercial, he was the star of this commercial that I made, a two-and-a-half minute short film, anti-drunk driving campaign. He plays this kid who is explaining to his friend how his Dad drives when he’s stoned. It’s really funny, so after meeting him on that, this film was already on my mind and he’s the right guy for this. 

CS: You didn’t want to see him and Sam together just to make sure they had the right chemistry?

Taika Waititi: Nope, nope, we just cast them and just said, “We’re going to have some rehearsals.” Because we were moving so fast, it just had to work. We wouldn’t have been able to do another casting call, because it’s so hard to find decent connectors. It’s amazing that they actually got on.

CS: Does Julian have a lot of acting experience?

Taika Waititi: This is his third feature, but this is his first one as the leading man. He’s been in a couple other Kiwi films. He’s in an Australian film called “Paper Planes” which did pretty well down there in Australasia but I hope he goes on to do more. 

CS: There’s a famous quote, I think it’s WC Fields, about working with kids and dogs…
Taika Waititi:
Oh, I agree with them!

waititiwilderpeople2CS: I’ve seen three movies at Sundance already where filmmakers are working with kids and dogs.

Taika Waititi: We should all talk. All the filmmakers should talk, “Are you going to put a dog in your movie?” I agree with them. It’s really hard. Not to mention just the hours you have to keep working with kids, and just how much it slows things down with animals and dogs. We had very many frustrating days waiting for dogs to do what we want and what we were asking him to do, and they are trained animals. 

CS: And you were shooting mostly out in the wild. Did you already know that area?

Taika Waititi: No, we didn’t, but we went all over the shore. We went to places where they would never let film crews in before. Because of the book, because the book’s so well loved, and the writer is so well loved, that actually helped a lot getting permissions to go into places, because everyone’s read that book as a kid and it’s like, “Oh, you’re making that? Oh, great, go for it!” We got a lot of support. 

CS: I really liked the rest of the cast which seemed to include a lot of character actors. Are they mostly fairly well-known actors down there?

Taika Waititi: They’re not like massively well-known in New Zealand, but they’re well known within the industry, but like Cohen Holloway, who plays the head guy in the hunting party who are after Sam, he’s been in all of my films, and he’s one of my buddies in Boy in my little gang, he’s one of the werewolves in Shadows, he’s the nerdy friend in Eagle vs. Shark, so he’s an amazing character actor.

CS: So he’s like your De Niro.

Taika Waititi: Yeah, yeah, but I only give him small, tiny parts. (laughs) I mean, I love working with my friends ‘cause it’s more relaxed and there’s a short hand. You don’t have to skirt around with people’s egos and “How does this actor work?” ‘Cause also the way we make films in New Zealand is fast. We cannot f*ck around. You just gotta do it and go go go and you just have to tell people what you want. “You just need to do this and it needs to be that and this is the emotion we need to get to… Go!” We’ve got five minutes. 

CS: Besides shooting in an area where they don’t film much, you’re also doing some pretty heavy stunts. The film starts small but by the end, it’s just mayhem.

Taika Waititi: Yeah, well you know, I think all those ‘80s films, even from here, even if it makes no sense, you have to flip or crash a police car. It’s something that audiences of all ages just respond to. They just love seeing a police car crash or flip over, so we wanted to do that, so we just put that in there because that’s what you do in ‘80s action films. You do Peter Weir zooms and dissolves. You do crazy characters. We went for it.

CS: The actress who plays the child services woman is amazing. That character really gets into that “Rambo” headspace as the hunt goes on.

Taika Waititi: Well, she’s Tommy Lee Jones from “The Fugitive,” so she’s relentless. What’s cool is that would never happen. She would never be allowed to do that! This is the world that I enjoyed creating, this world where that kind of stuff can happen. It’s outrageous and people speak like they’re in the movies. Most of their dialogue is pulled from movies. There’s version of her being on TV and talking to the two presenters and she looks at the camera and starts talking to Ricky and she does the Daniel Day Lewis speech from “Last of the Mohicans.” “I will find you, no matter where, no matter how long it takes…”

CS: You must have really had to resist having her do Tommy Lee Jones’ speech from “The Fugitive”…

Taika Waititi: Oh, yeah, she was so close to that character.

CS: You also made a reference to “Lord of the Rings,” a movie by the other well-known New Zealand director.

Taika Waititi: I know. I was just thinking that we always wanted there to be a moment when they’re very close to the cops. I think we were on the location scout and we saw some of those root systems where they’re hiding in that classic shot, and I was like, “That would be so ridiculous, but we should do it.” So yeah, we tried to do it.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople will be released by The Orchard sometime later this year.