Taika Waititi on Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the road to Thor: Ragnarok
There has been quite a lot of quantifiable praise for Taika Waititi’s clever comedy adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Not only did the film see the biggest New Zealand box office opening weekend off all time, but it helped set Waititi on the road to helming next year’s Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi, who some may also know as an actor and comedian, is the writer and director on acclaimed features like Eagle vs. Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows. Before he teams Thor and the Hulk, too, we’ll get the Waititi-scripted Disney animated feature Moana, which boasts new music by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dwayne Johnson as the voice of the Hawaiian demigod Maui. Suffice to say, Taika Waititi is a filmmaker to keep an eye on and, if you haven’t already checked it out, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is playing in theaters now.
In the below interview, Taika Waititi chats with ComingSoon.net about how Wilderpeople began as a book that he was first planning to adapt a decade ago. He also discusses some of the different kinds of comedy he’s played with on the big screen so far and talks about the changing experience of moving onto a project the size and scope of Ragnarok.
CS: Can you take me back to the origins of “Wilderpeople”?
Taika Waititi: I got involved in the project back in 2005. I was up to adapt the book that it was based on and I did a couple of drafts of that. Then I had the chance to make a feature from one of my other scripts. One thing led to another and I ended up making a bunch of other features. After “What We Do in the Shadows,” I had a little more down time. I wanted to make a film that would be kind of fast. I basically just got in touch with those producers. It had been like eight or nine years and I said, “What’s going on with this project?” They weren’t doing anything with it and they gave me the rights. I quickly wrote a draft and then did it, very fast. It was really a very fast process once the ball started rolling.
CS: I understand that the script went in a very different direction than the source material.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, it’s very different tonally from the book. The book isn’t funny. It doesn’t have a lot of the crazy characters that I put in there like Paula or the Psycho Sam character. A lot of that was added because I just wanted it to be really entertaining. It’s a beautiful book, but it takes place over about four years. It’s a slow-moving thing. I felt like it needed to be a short, sharp, exciting journey.
CS: Do you think it’s a very different film than it would have been if you made it ten years ago?
Taika Waititi: For sure. The third draft I wrote was very dark. It was a little more like the book. At the end of the book, they disappear and it turns out they die out in the bush. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want this story to go somewhere like that. I guess I had embraced the dark tone of the book. It was much more a drama back in 2005. Having kids and understanding that films need to be seen and enjoyed, I thought we could find a broad audience, especially a New Zealand one. I just wanted to give it the best chance possible to make it accessible.
CS: If there’s a consistent quality to all of your films, it seems to be the sense of humor.
Taika Waititi: I think I have a style of humor that is very quick to content. It’s not just one style of humor that I find funny. You’ll see visual gags and physical comedy as well as ridiculous dialogue exchanges. When dialogue seems too long, I’ll improvise. I find comedy can come from mundane things, really. I find that appealing. Coming from New Zealand, I think we all really like that. But I do think it’s varied and, when I’m shooting, I try not to force the comedy too much. I’ll try to do a few different versions of something. I usually try to do a comedy one, a dramatic one and then something in-between.
CS: Is there a process by which you sync the cast as far the tone goes?
Taika Waititi: The cast is usually on the same page, because I work with the same people again and again and again. They understand tone and what I’m trying to do. For all the films previous to Thor, they’re all people I’ve worked with. On the new film, though, they’re all really funny as well. They have the ability to go between comedy and drama.
CS: Do you find that it’s easier to get a sense of trust from new actors now that you’re becoming more well known as a director?
Taika Waititi: Yeah, maybe. You kind of couple yourself with your previous work. But then also it comes down to personality and people trusting that you know what you’re talking about. That you’re not going to make them look like a d*ck. That you’re not laughing at them when you’re doing stuff. They’re in on it as well. Comedy is very hard thing to do. I think it’s much harder than drama. Some people are just plain not funny. Some people are funny and they have no idea that they’re funny. They’re funny for that reason. It’s about working out why people are funny and how they’re funny. The drama stuff, to me, comes a lot easier. I’ve found that you usually have to work harder to do comedy. For me, friendships with the actors is probably the best way to get what you want. Then you can just be straight up with them. You can be like, “I think it should be like this. You’re funnier when you do it like this.” Otherwise, it can be too much having to fight against people’s ego.
CS: How did you go about picking your role in the film?
Taika Waititi: I actually planned on having a friend of mine doing that, but he wasn’t available. I already knew the speech and how I might do it. I knew I was going to be the backup at one point. It’s very much a caricature of a certain type of minister.
CS: The Ricky Baker song is so catchy. How did that come about?
Taika Waititi: We were actually shooting that scene and had done about eight takes of Rima [Te Wiata], who plays Bella, singing “Happy Birthday.” Then it turned out there was a problem with the rights to “Happy Birthday.” When it didn’t look like it was going to happen, we had to change the song. We ended up in that kitchen just on the spot composing that new song. The song that you hear her play in the movie is just ten minutes old. There was something special about that song.
CS: There’s an impressively monstrous wild pig in one scene. What went into making that as far as effects go?
Taika Waititi: That pig was created by Weta Digital. We knew the pig had to be really huge and scary. We did it in CG because it would have been hard to do practically. It would have been hard to find a pig that big, too, nevermind training it.
CS: It seems like that blend of scary and silly is really what the heart of ‘Wilderpeople’ is all about.
Taika Waititi: Yeah, it is silly and scary and exciting at the same time. It’s an exciting chase film and then it seems like a silly adventure as well. It’s not silly in the negative sense where it’s just stupid, but it definitely embraces the silliness of the characters and the situation. The script is really fantasy come true. The idea of a kid who just really wants a family. All he wants is people to love him. To get that, he’s pushed to do things where the entire country wants him. The police want him. The army wants him. Everyone wants him. Because the idea of that is so dark. The idea of a foster kid who has never really found a home. You don’t want to make that too heavy. I don’t want it to be commentary on the social welfare system. I wanted it to be much more of a family and an adventure. Something that a family can come see.
CS: There are a lot of elements that carry over from film to film, but most of your features are very, very different as far as genre and style. How mapped out has your career path been, especially leading into such a huge blockbuster with “Thor: Ragnarok”?
Taika Waititi: Nothing’s been planned. I didn’t even want to be a filmmaker. I hadn’t thought of being one until after I had made my first short film. I just got poached by people to do it and I started getting into it. Now, I really love it. I think I’m good at this. Early on, it really wasn’t anything that I felt like I wanted to do. Now, I’ve been doing it for ten years. I still enjoy it and I’m very happy in this job. As far as Thor, there was no plan. It’s been literally a year since I heard about this film and now I’m doing it. It was never my plan to do small films and work my way up to do a giant film. It just sort of happened. It was a big surprise, really, even going in to meet on it. I think I just felt, “Why not?” I like a lot of types of film and I wanted to try something new. You want to watch out for repeating yourself. You don’t want to get stuck in a place in your work. What better way to challenge yourself than with a giant studio film?
CS: Is the filmmaking process very similar?
Taika Waititi: You have a lot more people to talk it through with. I think the biggest difference is having to explain what’s in your head to way more people than you normally have to. To have them understand what you mean. Films are a coming together of so many personality types and all those people have brains that work very differently from what you’re saying all the time. Normally on my films, I’m used to working with 30 people. There’s a huge different between 30 people interpreting your ideas in the right way and then working with 300 people. It’s a lot more people to get on the same page.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in theaters now. Thor: Ragnarok arrives November 3, 2017.
(Photo Credit: AEDT / WENN.com)