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Director Taika Waititi's New Film Is a Love Letter to 1970s New Zealand Cinema

The guy behind "Boy" and "What We Do in the Shadows" talks about his latest offering, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."

by Frances Morton
11 March 2016, 12:00am

Take one chunky teenage troublemaker and an old bushman and send them off into the soggy New Zealand bush on the run from child welfare. That's the story of Taika Waititi's new film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which stars Sam Neill, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, and Rhys Darby. Julian Dennison plays a 13-year-old wannabe gangster who loves hip-hop so much he names his dog Tupac. Sam Neill is his reluctant foster uncle who has just as much emotional growing up to do as his young charge.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople trailer

The film is based on Wild Pork and Watercressa novel by late Kiwi legendary bushman, hunter, and author Barry Crump. It's a project that's been around since way before Waititi's 2010 hit Boy. Last year he chucked out the dark, depressing version of the script he wrote a decade ago and smashed out a family comedy loaded with references to Sleeping Dogs, Crash Palace, Thelma and Louise, Lord of the Rings, and everything Wes Anderson.

VICE called up Waititi, who is currently in Los Angeles working on Marvel's massive Thor franchise, to chat about his 10-year process to get Hunt for the Wilderpeople made.

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

VICE: Hi Taika, you've been working on this project since 2005. Why did you stick with it so long?
Taika Waititi: When I first wrote this it wasn't my project. I was writing it for other producers. I was making Eagle vs Sharkand I'd writtenBoy, which got financed. I was getting more and more swamped with my own projects. Then after What We Do in the Shadows I had a little break. I decided I wanted to do something really fast. A friend of mine reminded me of this project. I had a look at the script and it was terrible, so I rewrote it all.

Was it always crammed with references to New Zealand films and commercials?
When I was writing I realised the film has a chance to celebrate New Zealand's heritage of great adventurous filmmaking. Those guys who went before us who didn't go to film school. They didn't know what the equipment was called. They just made it up as they went. There's something really cool about that. Like throwing out a lot of the rules and trying to make the best, most enjoyable, most uplifting, and adventurous film possible and not be bogged down in the trends.

What is it about Hunt for the Wilderpeople that ignores trends, in your mind?
It takes a lot of Australasian cinema from the 70s and 80s. There's a lot of zoom shots, dissolves, cross fades, the character types. Even to have a manhunt is such an old school Kiwi thing. All those things we used to love so much when we were young. It's a little love letter to that style.

There's a reference in the film to the famous Kiwi Flake ad. How does that go overseas?
The ads with the beautiful woman in them were also in the UK. I think Americans still get it. When I used to see those Flake ads as a kid I used to think they weren't for kids. They were naughty ads. It's like an adults-only chocolate commercial. There's allure and something so romantic.

Were there any references you had to take out?
We had a Tupac song at the end of the film in our edit that we knew we would never be able to get because a lot of the music back then is in dispute because of the samples. But I just thought it would be cool.

Tell me about working with Sam Neill. What does he do before a take?
He doesn't do anything. He's the most casual guy. He's so funny. I think a lot of the time you think of actors, especially really established ones, there'll be this arduous big thing when they need five minutes between each take to ground themselves and connect to the ether. I was very surprised by him. He just knows how to turn it on and off. He's probably the most relaxed person on set.

Was Julian Dennison the only kid you wanted to cast?
Yes. I worked with him on a commercial a couple of years earlier. I wasn't thinking about this film then but when I made the commercial I thought I'm definitely going to find a film role for this kid because he's so unique. Not only in his talent but his energy, his presence, the way the camera just falls in love with him.

Taika Waititi on location. Image supplied.

How tough was it shooting in the bush?
Very tough. We had five weeks to shoot this film and we were probably outside for four and a half of them. It was the New Zealand winter. We were cold. It was usually raining. It was treacherous damp muddy conditions. It was great because there was a feeling of camaraderie—this group of people with one mission who worked their arses off to get the film made.

What about the car chase scene?
We've got no right having a car chase that epic in this film given the time we had. It was a celebration of how determined our people are. When people over here in the States find out how much time we had, and that we didn't have 10 times the money that it would take to do that stuff we did in the film, they're so amazed.

You've made a couple of very funny films where the kids have shitty family situations. Is the way we raise our kids in NZ an issue that concerns you?
I'm concerned with a lot of the poverty that our children grow up in, especially in the Far North and the area where I grew up [in the Eastern Bay of Plenty]. I definitely feel passionate about that but I never like saying that is the message of my film. I feel I can subvert the idea that there are some things that need to be worked on within the social welfare system and how we all raise our kids.

Some people told me they thought Boy was a sad view of the Maori community. I wholeheartedly disagree with them. I think it's a celebration of how a people can thrive and survive and make the best of what has been forced upon them. I never see those things as a subliminal message of my film. For me, it's more realistic and more human to have humorous and uplifting things happen against a slightly darker backdrop.

What flag are you voting for in the change the flag referendum?
I'm not voting for any flag. I hate the whole thing. I have my own flag designs I'm trying to peddle on Facebook but no-one's interested. Everyone should shut up about the flag. We should fix the problems in our country and when we've fixed racism and poverty, then we can celebrate by designing a new flag.

You're getting a lot of tweets about not fucking up Thor. How are you handling the pressure?
I love those tweets. I feed off that stuff. I have to hold myself back and stop myself from engaging too much. I'm a sucker for trolling people on Twitter. I'm one of the few people that realise that Twitter is Twitter, and that Twitter is not real life. Nothing on Twitter is real.

Have you not ever met someone on Twitter and formed a meaningful relationship?
God knows I've tried. Also, whenever people want to talk about Thor, it's so ridiculous because it's so early. We haven't even started. They're upset over something that hasn't happened.

You did get a good tweet from Guillermo del Toro. He called you "a great NZ director. Ingenious, funny and a nimble storyteller triumphs again."
That's real life. He's real life. But the people who hate me aren't real life. Once you turn 40 you don't care about anything other than your family and people being good to each other.

VICE has five double season passes to Hunt for the Wilderpeople to give away. To enter email nzcomps@vice.com

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is in New Zealand cinemas March 31.

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