Five Favorite Films with Boy Director Taika Waititi
The New Zealand filmmaker on his acclaimed second feature, working in Hollywood, and his upcoming vampire movie plans with Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement.
A lot of those films mix drama and comedy perfectly, which seems like a rarer thing to find in contemporary stuff.
Taika Waititi: Yeah. I feel so surprised when I see billboards for films and I'm like, "Really! That's what you came up with?" -- where it's a really obvious broad comedy or farce or a really obvious drama, like a "This is gonna depress you" film; a real lack of a sense of adventure about trying to mix some shit up, you know.
It's not easy to successfully mix genres. Which is the thing you notice about Boy -- it does moves between comedy and drama so well, without feeling contrived in doing so. How do you make a "coming of age" film, so to speak, without falling into the trap of cheap nostalgia? Is it hard to balance the tones?
I think a lot of it is coming from somewhere like New Zealand or Australia, where we're so far removed from the rules on how to make films. I think even if we tried it'd be like a weird New Zealand version of those films, and I think that's what most of our New Zealand cinema is -- weird versions of popular genres. And I've always -- just because of my comedy background -- I've always wanted to do mixtures of things because I'm also into things that feel more real, or more human, and things that emotionally aren't just saying "Just laugh." Audiences are so savvy now. They know the structures of these genres. If you tell an audience they're going to a romantic comedy, they're gonna know exactly what's gonna happen. Audiences know what they're getting when they go to those movies, so why not trick them? Why not mix it up? Try to keep audiences on their toes and keep them engaged. It's just telling the same stories, delivering the same messages, life messages or whatever, but trying to package it differently. I think you have a duty as a storyteller to make that story interesting. We come from an oral background. Maori is traditionally an oral culture: we never wrote anything down and all information and history was spoken, told by story. You had to be good at telling stories, and if you weren't, someone else would get the job. If you told the same story again and again, it gets boring. And that's where myth comes from -- you're adding little bits all the time. It's like, "Oh, I forgot to tell you -- also, he could speak to the trees." [Laughs] You're making shit up, you know. That's the evolution of story, I guess. Truth will eventually become myth.
Did that notion of myth feed into the character of Boy's father, and how his stories are always slightly different and increasingly outlandish?
Yeah, yeah. His stories are changing all the time.
It's great when he's bragging to the kids about how many times he's seen E.T.. It's such a child-like thing to do.
[Laughs] It's such a thing for a kid to say, but for an adult to be competitive with a kid, you know: "I've seen it 10 times. I was one of the first." When we were kids, when Return of the Jedi came out, we were always like, you had to be the first person to see it so you could hold that over every one else -- "I saw it before you," you know. [Laughs]
Going back to the beginnings of Boy, is it based, or partially based, on your own childhood?
Not really. It's a mixture of memories, and things were changed to protect the innocent. [Laughs]
So you weren't actually playing your own father, just to make that clear.
I was actually playing a character made up of parts of myself, my father, a lot of uncles, people I've met. Basically he's just a version of a lot of different men I've known, either as a child or as an adult; a mixture of people who either hadn't grown up or were living outside of what was going on -- they were living in their head and wanting to be somewhere else. The real autobiographical part of it is just where it was shot. For instance, we shot in the house I grew up in, my grandmother's house. I grew up in a house like that, with the grandmother and all these kids. Parents and adults would come in and out of our world, but essentially our stable world was kids and the grandmother. All of that was authentic to the '80s. I needed to make it feel authentic somehow, so I thought that I may as well do it authentic to my memories. It was like recreating a real place but then telling a made-up story within that place.
You were already work-shopping this movie before you went amd made your first film, Eagle vs Shark?
Yeah. I took it to the Sundance lab in January 2005.
Was it always the same story?
It was. It was a lot more dramatic when I first did it. There was still humor in it but the dad didn't arrive 'til half way through the movie; it was more about the kids trying to survive in that world. So I took it the lab and they said "Why don't you come back to the June filmmaker's lab where you get to shoot scenes and stuff?" I didn't want to come back to Utah with kids from New Zealand and have to look after them, so I said, "Okay how 'bout I not submit that and I'll submit another script, which is this comedy about this girl who loves this idiot?" I hadn't actually written it at that point but I was trying to stall for time.
"This girl who loves this idiot" -- I don't think I've heard such a succinct log line for that movie.
[Laughs] Yeah. So I wrote it, and made that film and Boy just took a backseat. I came back to it in mid-2008 and wrote more drafts and we shot at the beginning of 2009.
Given that Boy is obsessed with Michael Jackson, how did Michael's death affect the production? What stage were you at when the news broke?
We were at the end of editing. It was really sad. When we started the film I thought, "Well, this is going to be a sort of ironic thing where everyone loves Michael Jackson and we're gonna show this at a time where everyone hates Michael Jackson -- he's been on trial, he's going through all this shit, he's bankrupt, and he's a loser, you know." I mean, I never considered him a loser but the world kind of considered him this old hack at the time. So I thought this is kind of interesting in a "What becomes of our heroes?" way, and it sort of ties in with the father, who's Boy's hero -- and Michael Jackson was such a hero to the world in the '80s and now it's like, "What's become of your hero?" So when he died it was just a real bummer. It sucked. It didn't take anything away from the film; the film was fine with him being alive, or whatever -- I just thought it was a bummer for the world to lose this dude. And also a weird bummer that everyone started loving him again once he was dead. It was great that he became more popular, but it sucks that he had to die.
Did you find that it changed audiences' reaction to the film?
Not really. Now and then some people think that film was made after he died, which again is a bummer 'cause I wouldn't want people to think it was made as a reaction to him dying, like "Oh I'm gonna make a film about somebody that likes Michael Jackson," you know, to try and cash in on his death or something. When he died we had actually budgeted to put some of his music in the film; a lot of it was quite affordable. And before he died, we were watching it and we had some of his songs in it, and it just didn't feel right. It didn't feel right having a small, intimate film suddenly kick in with "Beat It" or something. I felt like people would be wondering "How'd you guys afford this?" or it would take you out of the moment.
You always had "Poi E" in the film, though?
Yeah, oh yeah.
At least you still got to mix that in with "Thriller."
Well we used to do that when we were young. We used to mix Maori Haka with other sorts of songs. "Poi E" was such a huge hit in New Zealand. It was this mixture of traditional Maori dance with synthesizers and drum machines, so I was trying to kind of capture that as well.