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.
Multi-talented New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi established himself on the local comedy circuit and scored an Academy Award nomination for his 2004 short, Two Cars, One Night, though chances are you'll be most familiar with his behind-the-scenes work on TV's Flight of the Conchords, where he collaborated with friends Jemaine Clement, James Bobin and recently-minted Oscar winner Bret McKenzie. Waititi's first feature, Eagle vs Shark, earned cult notices, but it's with his follow-up, Boy, that the director really comes into his own.
Set in suburban New Zealand in 1984, it's a keenly-observed story about an 11-year-old boy called, well, Boy, whose heroes are pop star Michael Jackson, and his mostly absent, tall-tale spinning dad (played with mythic weirdness by Waititi himself). Capturing that all-too elusive tone in such films -- where genuine comedy and drama mingle with the just the right hint of nostalgia -- Boy is arguably among the best films about growing up to emerge in recent years. Local audiences seemed to agree, too: the movie became the highest-grossing New Zealand production ever when it was released there in 2010.
With the movie opening in the US this week, we sat down for a conversation with Waititi about making Boy, his experiences with Hollywood (he appeared in last year's Green Lantern), and his plans with Jemaine Clement to make a vampire comedy. But first, here are his five favorite films.
Dr. Strangelove. I think purely because of Peter Sellers. I love his characters; he's just having so much fun. And that kind of subversion of very serious things going on is right up my alley; I really like that. I love Kubrick's films, but that for me is also a very different Kubrick film. People either get it or they don't. I love that film.
The Graduate is always a good one to have on my list. It's hilarious, but also has that element of treading between comedy and drama and doing it so well, and actually being about something. It's probably the best version of those films about rich people and their boring problems, you know, that anyone's ever made. People have tried to do that since -- that film has totally inspired generations of filmmakers. For me it's just fresh. There's also the energy of the actors: Hoffman, just young and going for it; he hasn't become jaded. That film could come out today in a fresh print and still be incredible; everyone would think "Oh, Wes Anderson made a new film," or "Sofia Coppola made a new film." I've always loved that film.
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979; 100% Tomatometer)
Stalker. I went through a big phase, a Tarkovsky phase, when I was in my mid-20s, and that film always stuck with me. For me, I think visually there's something about that film that manages to get inside your head and touch you on your emotional synapses or something; it somehow just gets in there. And visually: for instance just the shot of this dog, this black dog that's always wandering around by itself, that... I mean Tarvovsky was a master of symbolism and just knowing, for example, that a candle in a certain place would trigger in most audiences' minds something to do with memory. And working on an amazing sensory level, with the composition of shots; these big, long shots that just go on forever. And it doesn't always matter what people are saying -- because the film's full of dialogue, full of poetry and stuff, but that's what I love about that film, and also The Mirror. It just washes over you, and you can watch it again and again and take more and more in each time. Mirror is also one of my favorites but it's a baffling, baffling film.
It's the same as in painting, you know: people have to go back and study the old masters to see how they did shit. They're called masters because they're still the best that ever were. It's the same with Kurosawa and Ozu and Tarkovsky: if you look at their films and what they were doing, you kind of feel safe watching those films. With Tarkovsky's stuff I have to keep going back to it to remind myself that there's an alternative to the 90-minute American film, you know where it's all fucking three acts and information, boom-boom-boom, and just to go, "Hey, you know what -- there's a way of communicating that's different and there's nothing wrong with that. Don't be scared to appreciate that stuff."
Another one's Coming Home, by Hal Ashby. I mean, I love all of his films -- if there's any filmmaker I would love to be, it would be him. It's just an amazing film. You think about something like Harold and Maude, which is to me one of the most flawless films there is. There's always the great films, like Harold and Maude, sure; but then there's ones that people kind of forget about, you know, or they sort of get swept to the side a little -- and I think Coming Home is one of those films. Even The Last Detail is one of those films. But Coming Home: amazing performances, it's about something, amazing emotional stuff, and it's just about people -- people trying to connect. There's a simplicity to it, but it's really engaging the entire time. Waldo Salt wrote the script. I saw a documentary on him. I think just knowing how a film's made makes me love it as well. He wrote a 200-, 300-page script for this thing, and went and talked to vets and recorded them for like a year. Jon Voight went and lived with paraplegics and war vets who had been injured and stayed in his wheelchair the entire time. It was just a good commitment to making a film, you know, whereas these days it's like, "I'll get my double to do it." I feel like that was made at a time when people still had passion.
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973; 98% Tomatometer)
Next, Waititi talks about his latest film, Boy, the experience of working in Hollywood, and what he and Conchords Jemaine Clement have planned next.
I'm sort of torn on my last film between Badlands and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. I'm on the fence -- I love both of those films. Badlands, for me, is a very important film because I feel like a lot of the time it's the kind of film I would love to make, if I could just make one. It's so small, but really perfect. I think another great example of a film, which is like a second film, that people don't think about, is Days of Heaven, which is again another flawless film. His use of voice over is the best out of any filmmaker. Linda Manz, her voiceover, nothing can beat it, you know. I always think that if there's a voiceover in a film, it's gotta be like that, where it?s not telling you what's happening, it's talking about completely different things. It's incredible.
Did you see The Tree of Life? There are passages in there that are uncannily of a piece with Badlands.
Yeah. Especially in the street, when they're out in the street in those opening scenes [in Badlands] when he first meets Sissy Spacek, all that stuff with the trees and the old '50s feel. I fucking love Sissy Spacek. She's incredible in that film, as is Martin Sheen. Just those two together, and the way that those shots just drift along, and the casual nature of their conversation. It's so perfect. That character, actually -- that character of Kit -- in a very sort of subtle way I based a little of the father character in Boy on him. Just the way he was sort of distracted by the world and daydreaming and off somewhere else. I think I rip off a lot of films, but that specifically...
Ripping off the best, as the saying goes.
Yeah. Well, the beginning of Boy, with the cutting and stuff, was based a lot on the opening of Jules and Jim, which a lot of people have done now, but I just love that film so much. And Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore -- one of the greatest performances of a woman, and that kid as well, that little boy; those two together. And again, it's just something about a film about normal people just trying to follow their dreams. It's those films that haven't got a really complex narrative or complex structure that are literally just, "We're gonna leave town and drive." That's again a great mixture of drama and comedy, like when Harvey Keitel threatens to kill her and breaks up the motel room, and then a hard cut to one of the most hilarious scenes in the film where they're trying to pack up and get out of the room, and the kid's trying to tell that joke to the mother and she's fucking going out of her mind. So Ellen Burstyn's like a goddess in that film. I really love strong female characters, and for my next film I've actually written a mother character who borrows a lot from Alice in that film. I feel like a mother character should be that interesting.