Taika Waititi is busy. Normally, when you're talking to the director of a $3 million, quirky indie comedy based on a novel that's beloved in a place like New Zealand, but virtually unheard of elsewhere, they've got plenty of time to answer your questions. Usually, they're eager for the chance to get into the themes of their story, to speak at length about how they first found the book, how they thought for years about how to translate it to film, how they used to carry a dog-eared copy of it around in their backpack or give it to their friends. Most of the time, they're excited that anybody cares about their little movie, and they make plenty of time to ensure that whoever they're talking to comes away with a good impression.
Taika Waititi has ten minutes.
That's not because he's aloof or distant, or that he doesn't care about Hunt For The Wilderpeople, his adaptation of Barry Crump's Wild Pork and Watercress. He's excited to talk about the film, and its cast, and his creative process—even if the movie did see its wide release in his home country of New Zealand back in March, and has made its rounds on the festival circuit throughout 2016, it's clear that Waititi hasn't moved on. It's just that he's busy. His career may have started with weird, intensely personal indies—his first film, the 2003 short "Two Cars, One Night," earned him an Oscar nomination, and he followed that up with the teenage romantic comedy Eagle vs. Shark in 2007, the dramedy Boy in 2010, a stint working on Flight of the Concords, and the vampire mockumentary What We Do In Shadows—but after Hunt For The Wilderpeople, he's on to the big time: He wrote the screenplay for Moana, the 56th film in the Disney Animation canon, and that'll be in theaters in November. When he finds his ten minutes on the phone in late June, meanwhile, he's down in Australia, filming Marvel's Thor: Ragnarok, which he was hired to direct back in October.
"I've got a work ethic, and I know what I want," Waititi says of what working on a movie like Hunt For The Wilderpeople taught him that he's brought into Thor. "I think that even though Thor is a bigger film—like, the scale is bigger—the intention is the same, and that's just to tell a good story."
That's something Hunt For The Wilderpeople does well. The movie has been out in New Zealand for months, and critics at festivals from Sundance to Tribeca to SXSW and more have written about the film—and with more than 75 reviews on the critical aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, it still enjoys a 100% rating. It's no surprise, of course—all of Waititi's previous efforts were well-received—but it speaks to the way that, sometimes, Hollywood actually can resemble a meritocracy when someone like Waititi starts leveling up to bigger things.
"My focus is usually on the story—not so much on, like, style or cool shots, even though I do a lot of cool shots in my films," Waiti says. "I feel like my strength is in tone and in story, and, like, emotional tonality in my films—rather than some trendy, fast-cut montage, pan stuff, and all of this kind of Guy Ritchie-like amazing, fast style. That's not really my focus, that kind of stuff."
On Hunt For The Wilderpeople, the story sort of came to Waititi. Following the unlikely success of his debut short, he found himself approached by people who wanted to be in business with him, and one of them gave him a copy of Wild Pork And Watercress. "That's when I read the book for the first time. It's pretty famous in New Zealand—a lot of people read it when they're young, but I hadn't heard of it. But I thought it was very cool, so I wrote a draft of it, and after a couple of drafts, I decided I wanted to go and make my own films, so I made three features—then I came back to this material a few years later."
Hunt For The Wilderpeople is about a boy from the city named Ricky (Julian Dennison) who gets sent to live with his aunt (Rima Te Wiata) and uncle (Sam Neill) in the country, and who—through a series of misunderstandings—ends up the subject of a nationwide manhunt. The film isn't a straight comedy, but it's funnier than its source material. Waititi was empowered to add characters and change the tone to suit the story he wanted to tell, but the process of adaptation taught him a lot about how to look for what's important in a story.
"It was actually great [to adapt a book]. It was a lot easier—the story was there, and you just want to choose all the best parts of the story. You concentrate on what the story really is about, and then it's a luxury to have it kind of laid out for you," he says.
In Hunt For The Wilderpeople, the keys are the relationships—between Ricky and his Aunt Bella, and between Ricky and his Uncle Hec—and maintaining those as central throughout the film. When he figured out how to keep those as the important parts of the story, he felt free to explore other ways to tell the story. ("In the book, there are no car chases," he says.) Much of the plot got re-shaped, and some of the things that Waititi kept were there more as homages to the source material than because they were absolutely necessary in telling the story.
"In the book, there are no social welfare workers or anyone hot on their tail. There are a few people looking for them and stuff, but I wanted to create [something different]," he says. "There are the animals and stuff, because I wanted to have a few little things that were loyal to the book, but they could have easily gone in the edit. The thing that couldn't have disappeared from the film were the relationships."
There are 4.4 million people in New Zealand. That's roughly as many as live in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area. Fortunately, there's a lot of talent in the small island, and Waititi was able to tap into that—he found the young teen actor Julian Dennison as his lead while filming a commercial, and he cast New Zealand soap star Rima Te Wiata as Aunt Bella. The cast was rounded out with Flight Of The Concords collaborator Rhys Darby as the hermit "Psycho Sam," and Waititi managed to get the New Zealand-raised Sam Neill to play Hec.
"Julian I'd worked with a few years earlier on a commercial, and I really loved working with him," Waititi says. "He's really talented, and I decided that one day, I was going to work with him on something—I didn't know what. And then when this project came about, he was my first choice." But Neill was a bit of a coup for the film.
"He's amazing," Waititi says of Sam Neill. "Growing up, I'd seen him in so many things, and I've always loved his work. We actually both have been trying to work together for a little while, we just hadn't had the opportunity—so when this came about, I sent the script to him and straightaway, he was like, 'Yep, I'm in.' This was the easiest casting I've ever had to deal with on a film."
Waititi wasn't intimidated by Neill, but he was aware that he was dealing with someone who's got a long career and who's worked with the most accomplished filmmakers in the world. "As a person, he's very generous, very kind—I kind of didn't realize that he's done, like, 65 movies. He doesn't have a big ego, and he doesn't use that when he's around you," Waititi says. "He's just one of the team, and very humble—he doesn't go, 'When I was working with Spielberg, we did this...' He's going to do a good job, and make this film good."
When we spoke in late June, Waititi was preparing to begin work on Thor: Ragnarok. It's a big process—they started in earnest on July 4th, and will continue through October—but it won't be the first time Waititi worked on a long, involved shoot. His 2015 vampire mockumentary, What We Do In Shadows, was surprisingly complex, too.
"On Shadows, it was very improvisational, and we shot everything. There were 150 hours of footage at the end of that process, and we had to go through it and edit a film," he says. Which made Hunt For The Wilderpeople sort of a refreshing interlude on that schedule.
"The process on this film was very fast. There was no improvising—basically, 'Here's my plan. This is what we're doing.' We didn't really have enough time to just sit around and think things up. Working with kids, you're on a time constraint, and working with animals as well," he says. "Also, working with natural light out in the wilderness—you lose light really fast when you're in the forest."
Of course, Waititi's definition of "rigid" is a little looser than most people's—as a filmmaker, he has a loose flow generally, and he's constantly open to creative ideas. "I can say it's really rigid, but then halfway through a scene, we might just stop and move it over to another location and redo it there because it's a lot better, and we may come up with some ideas."
That looseness of spirit is something that Waititi is excited to be able to bring to Marvel, and to Thor, too. And he's excited that a studio like Marvel sees his work as the sort of thing they need to be able to do—both in terms of what that means for the future of big-budget filmmaking, and also because it means that movies that carry that free spirit, and that value character and connection over set pieces and plot, will continued to be valued.
"It's so nice that people who started out doing the kind of films that I'm used to doing aren't overlooked in this conversation," he says. "They don't need someone who is experienced with blowing stuff up—they need someone who is experienced in telling stories, and dealing with human emotions and drama, and communicating. They're the experts in blowing stuff up. They've got plenty of experts in that department. That's the easy bit."