Interview: Taika Waititi on “Boy,” the Boredom of Acting and the Excitement of Childhood

The director of "Eagle Vs. Shark" lets his imagination run wild with this story of a young boy who reconnects with the father he never knew and talks about...

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There’s a wonder about Taika Waititi’s second film “Boy,” not just emanating from the naturally lush shoreline of the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand where its titular young’un resides with relatives, but also from the artificially sweetened call of Michael Jackson and James Clavell’s “Shogun” that allows Boy’s mind to wander. It’s set in 1984, just a month after “Thriller” has been released down under, and the film unfolds as if it were a daydream, the sound of mechanized pop introduced just a beat ahead of traditional Maori folk music before they become intertwined for its score in the opening moments.

Waititi’s return to the place where he grew up, following the whimsical and well-received 2007 romance "Eagle Vs. Shark" bursts with bright colors that were missing from his black-and-white Oscar-nominated short “Two Cars, One Night” that inspired it, an explosion that ripples with unstoppable force personified by its 11-year-old protagonist (James Rolleston). Only the memory of his father Alamein (Waititi) threatens to hold Boy back and even then, before Alamein is released from a prison stretch, he simply uses the absence of a tangible relationship with his pops to forge a far more rewarding one in his mind.

Although “Boy” isn’t autobiographical, Waititi is clearly a kindred spirit with his lead, sharing the same freedom of imagination as a writer/director to deliver a warm, bittersweet coming-of-age story in the reconnection between Boy and his dad that often articulates emotions in hand-drawn sketches, grand gestures and even musical numbers what language cannot. Still, that’s not to say the former comedian doesn’t have a way with words and in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the U.S., beginning with a March 1st appearance at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, as well as plotting his next film, which either could be a vampire flick he co-wrote with Jemaine Clement or a World War II-set comedy he’d like to shoot in November, Waititi spent a few on us, talking about the film finally getting its due in the States, growing up in New Zealand and why he turned to Kickstarter to get it released here.

TaikaWaititiWhen we spoke about “Eagle Vs. Shark,” you were talking about what became “Boy” even then, so now that you’ve had some distance from it, how do you feel about the final product?

You know what? I haven’t seen “Eagle Vs. Shark” since I pretty much finished it and the same with “Boy,” really. I’ve seen little bits of it like the beginning a lot and I’ve checked in the theater and had to leave because I can’t stand watching myself, but I’m still really proud of it. The parts I do see, I really love. I think when you’re writing and directing, you try and make films that you would want to see. Obviously, by the end of the process when you’ve watched it 200 times and sound mixed and everything, it’s the last film you ever want to see again. But having said that, I’m really happy it’s coming out here [in the U.S.] and I’m still a hundred percent behind it even though it’s kind of strange that I made it years ago.

Since this is like a cousin to “Two Cars, One Night,” what made you want to return to that milleu?

I always wanted to shoot something back home in the town that I grew up in because it’s a place that’s never really been committed to film. It’s such a beautiful place and I really consider my upbringing to be quite unique. Growing up in the country is not that unique, but the people I grew up around in the ‘80s in that environment was a really cool thing and I’m always interested in these themes about people trying to be heroes, who our heroes are and who they really are when we find out what they’re really like. Within it, there’s also this family dynamic. “Eagle Vs. Shark” was kind of similar — the disconnect between people in these close-knit environments — so I just keep coming back to those themes because I think they’re fascinating.  

Even though the film is set in a remote village, Boy is exposed to plenty of American pop culture and idolizes Michael Jackson. What was it like for you when you began to realize there was a world beyond New Zealand?

I grew up on a pretty heavy diet of U.S. pop culture. The music was really dominant when I was growing up and even though I grew up in the country — there wasn’t any internet or cell phones and there still isn’t, actually, in that same area — we still managed to find out about the latest movies. On the odd occasion we’d go into the city, we’d make sure and go see those movies and we’d see music videos all the time on TV. When “Thriller” came out, the TV guide, the thing that tells you what’s on every night, used to advertise the time of night that “Thriller” would be on. [laughs] It was like “Thriller, 7 p.m.” and then like “Coronation Street at 7:15,” so we were very aware of the different things that were going on. Breakdancing hit New Zealand probably in 1982, so it was very much at the time it was becoming popular around the world as well. And I think New Zealand, especially people in small communities, embraced all of that stuff whole-heartedly.

BoyTaikaWaititiThrillerWhen the film premiered at AFI Fest, I remember you said you wrote “Boy” because you were getting disheartened by the roles available to you as an actor…

I didn’t write it for myself. I actually wrote it just because I was more disheartened with how the Maori were portrayed usually in film and how these kind of characters seemed flat. I really like the idea of characters who had a lot more going on for themselves and how our idea of someone who should be the shitty father [can] actually [be someone] you can sympathize with if you figure out where their inadequacies come from. In most films, the villain is the villain and that’s it.

Is directing now the thing that you’re the most excited about?

I think so. I feel like I still have the most freedom doing directing and writing as well. I really enjoy making my own scripts and in the last year, I’ve written two really cool screenplays that I really want to make. I’ve done a little bit of acting here and there just over the last two years and it’s fun if it’s a role that’s interesting, but really a lot of the acting roles, I can’t see how people want to be actors sometimes. Like they’re just ughhh…sometimes it can be so boring.

You certainly can’t say that about your directorial efforts. I noticed you shot a music video with Method Man for Sour Patch Kids. How did that come about?

That was strange because it was like a…I don’t even know what that was. It was like a music video that they got him to write a song about Sour Patch Kids and you’ve got like this hard dude from Wu-Tang Clan singing about candy directed by a guy from New Zealand who’s only really made comedies and never made a hip-hop video before.

That’s what was interesting about it.

I think that was really kind of a cool move on the part of the agency to bring together these very weird elements.

The Sour Patch Kids are CG, so that had to be enticing as an opportunity to add that to your toolbox.

Totally. Any of those little experiences, they’re just great to give you more skills and you always just try and use anything you can as a learning experience.

Speaking of learning experiences, you’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign for the U.S. release for “Boy” (it’s been a success, though as of publication, there’s still two days to go) – why is a U.S. release so important to you?

It’s probably easier to say, “Okay, well, it came out in New Zealand, it did incredibly well and that’s that.” But it’s a small bit of effort to try and promote the film and get it seen by as many people as possible because yeah, I spent all the time making the thing, why not try and put it in as many countries as you can and try and get it seen. It’s a good film and it stands out from most of the stuff that’s on. I think it’s a film that I’d rather see when I look at all the depressing films that are out there right now. [laughs]

BoyTaikaWaititiI agree. How did the Kickstarter campaign come about?

Because we decided to self-distribute in the States. The kind of deals you get for a small independent film from distribution companies are not at all in the best interest of the artist. We saw that a bit on “Eagle Vs. Shark” and also on “Boy” in New Zealand and Australia and we thought it’s great that the film does well, but in the long run, the profits are still going back to companies and investors and the cinemas and we needed to find a way of doing it ourselves where we retained as much control as possible. Also, if the film is successful, we get rewarded for that.

The Kickstarter thing came about because [prints & advertising] on the film can be anywhere from like half of the original budget of the film to the full budget of the film and maybe even more, so it’s not unrealistic for a really big Hollywood film to spend tens of millions of dollars on the prints and advertising, which is not what we’re doing. If we get a little bit more money, then we get to put it in that many more cinemas and in front of that many more people to try and reach a tipping point where it becomes something that people talk about and then more and more people come and see it, to try and create a wave instead of a ripple.

Since you’ve been around the world with “Boy,” was there a particularly great moment from the road?

The only thing that I thought was really funny was when we premiered in Sundance and James, who plays Boy, came to Utah to the festival and he had never seen snow before.  We told him it was going to be cold and he turned up in flip-flops and shorts to one of the coldest film festivals in the world. He really was Boy when we cast him. I thought that was sort of perfect.

“Boy” opens in New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center on March 2nd and Los Angeles at the Monica 4-Plex before expanding to other theaters around the country. A full schedule is here.

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