Although "Eagle Vs. Shark" may sound like the title for a kung fu epic, the only thing epic about this little New Zealand comedy is the size of its heart. Arriving in U.S. theaters on June 1, former comedian Taika Waititi’s feature directorial debut recounts the wonderfully sweet and strange romance of Lily, a lonely fast food employee, and Jarrod ("Flight of the Conchords"' Jemaine Clement), a geeky introvert whose singular goal in life is to settle the score with the bully from his old high school. After the two meet at a party by playing a Mortal Kombat-style video game where Lily is dressed as a shark and Jarrod dons an Eagle costume, it’s love at first sight for Lily. What follows is a film full of inventive characters, the strangely poignant stop-motion animation that tells the love story through rotting apple cores, and plenty of laughs. We spoke to the film’s director Taika Waititi and the film’s star Loren Horsley, who plays Lily, about the experience of fine tuning the film at the Sundance labs, finding some of the film’s unusual props, and the film’s influences.
Taika Waititi: Loren and I really wanted to work together and we basically started talking about what kind of character she wanted to play in a film and that character of Lily started developing there really. Once we had found her character, we created the world that she lived in and eventually the person that she would be romantically involved with and then the story just bloomed from there.
Loren Horsley: It happened really quickly. Sundance wanted Taika to go to the feature film lab with another script, which he didn’t want to take because it was full of children. So he said, “Can I write another script?’ So he wrote this one up really quickly from the story we had done together and before you know it, we were at Sundance workshopping this film.
What was the Sundance Lab experience like?
LH: It’s like the best experience of your life ever. They have like 12 different advisers. They have directing advisers, acting advisers, cinematographers and editors and musicians come and talk with you. So for a month, you’re up in this mountain resort and people are just giving you feedback all the time.
TW: And it’s an ongoing support as well. When you’re shooting, you get to talk to lots of the advisers and ask for advice. And then when it came to editing, you can send rough cuts of the film to different editing advisers and they give you feedback.
LH: They gave us more money to finish doing a bit more editing and they’re very generous.
30 Rock star Judah Friedlander was in the special thanks section. Was he part of the help at the Sundance labs?
TW: He played the character of Jarrod when we were at the labs, so he helped me especially figure out a lot of what Jarrod was about – how the character should be played and the tone of the scenes.
How was the stop-motion animation incorporated into the film?
TW: I don’t know what the inspiration for it was, but I just really love animation I did think this would be my only opportunity to put this into a film where the budget was low enough that I had creative freedom to do that without having to go through a lot of stress.
LH: And there’s such a beautiful handmade quality to it, you can really feel the human in it. It’s an artform that’s really beautiful and [is] vulnerable and delicate like the characters.
TW: It’s also a little bit awkward. Stop motion is so kind of…
TW: Yeah, it’s not quite right, which is the same as the entire film and all the characters. They kind of stumble and they’re a bit awkward.
TW: Those mouse wheels used to be pretty popular when we were kids and all of the city councils banned them because they were pretty dangerous. We wrote the mouse wheel into the script and then realized that there weren’t any anywhere, and so the production designer actually found a guy who was making some..
LH: Kind of black market mouse wheel. (laughs)
TW: He was remodeling the mouse wheel and making it safer and so he had designed this mouse wheel and he hadn’t tested it. He was about to sell them to the city council and so it was a good opportunity for us to test it out.
LH: (laughs) But it was put in a playground and it was cornered off and all of the kids wanted to play with it and they weren’t allowed to.
TW: The other kids came and watched no one was allowed to jump on it.. And all the other production design stuff…none of the stuff is specific to New Zealand or anywhere else. We made up the names of everything like [the fast food restaurant where Lily works] Meaty Boy and the video game [Lily and Jarrod play]. Everything’s completely made from scratch just so that we didn’t have to do any licensing rights, but also so that it wasn’t specific to a certain place. It could be anywhere.
I was wondering about the Mortal Kombat-esque video game Lily and Jarrod play. How was that created?
LH: The same guys that did the animation did that and those guys are being all the characters, so it’s all of those guys in it.
TW: Yeah, those are friends of ours in the actual game.
LH: They had a lot of fun making that. Like boys’ heaven. (laughs)
Taika, you’ve made short films before, but what was it like working on your first feature?
TW: It’s completely different to the short films. [It’s] longer obviously, so you quadruple all the stress and the hours of work and the tiredness, but it also is deeper. You get to go deeper and really explore things.
TW: We saw it after we had written the script and it wasn’t influential. It wasn’t even really in our minds when we were shooting. There just wasn’t the time to think ‘oh, better not do this because it might be like 'Napoleon Dynamite.'’ I think that we like to maybe take more inspiration and influence from something like 'La Strada' or even like 'Love Serenade,' for me, was like a big influence. I really love it.
LH: It was so, for me, it was huge. Miranda Otto in that part, I really admire her for that.
TW: Yeah, Loren actually purposely didn’t watch that film because she didn’t want to get influenced.
LH: I watched it years before and I didn’t want to…I just wanted to wait. Like I can’t see it.
What are you guys working on now?
TW: I’m working on finishing a script that I’m hoping to shoot by the end of the year, which is based on one of my earlier short films and that’s set in New Zealand and it’s about kids in the ‘80s.
LH: At home, we’ve got kind of a film collective, so again, I’m trying to find good characters that we can create and play one day.