Film & TV, The Muse

New Zealand’s King of Cinema: An Interview with Taika Waititi

“I must admit, this is terribly awkward for me.”

Photo Credit Transmission Productions

Taika Waititi is trying to lead a Q&A at Kendall Cinema, and can’t seem to foster discussion over his film Boy, which was just screened. A general approval seems to drift across the room, but the audience remains silent. No questions are posed. Perhaps they are in awe. But Taika Waititi lets them know how out of place he feels.

This type of honesty and matter-of-factness carries over into Waititi’s wonderful film Boy, set in New Zealand. Boy is the main character whose father, Alamein, comes home after a long absence. Boy imagined his father to be a modern conquistador, but when the father arrives, he is really just a burned-out ex-convict, fresh out of jail and leading a two-man gang of losers. Boy, the oldest son, must learn to live with the father while caring for his siblings, particularly his younger brother, Rocky, who thinks he possesses magic power. Rocky also feels guilty about the death of their mom, who died giving birth to him. Waititi compares the film to E.T.: “The dad is the alien that crashes into the town, and only the kids can see him.”

The MUSE had a chance to sit down with Waititi to discuss Boy and delve into his philosophies on filmmaking. The conversation, unsurprisingly, was much more productive than the past night’s Q&A.

Waititi quickly writes off the film as being autobiographical. He describes it as “a fictional narrative set against a very authentic and autobiographical background…that’s what it looked like in the eighties, that’s what the kids were wearing and the music we were listening to.”

He also claims that the 80s was “the greatest decade of them all.”

Waititi grew up on a farm during that time. He becomes excited as he talks about his unique childhood, which leads to quirky material for his film.

“Out in the country gets very bad reception and when shows were on, we had to send a kid up onto the roof to mess around with the antennae and say, ‘Hold it there. Hold it!’” There were only two channels available during his childhood. Now in 2012, there are six channels available in all of New Zealand. The sad state of New Zealand television may have given rise to a microwave being jokingly referred to as a TV in the film. In fact, the microwave may prove to be even more useful, as Boy uses it to melt bronze doorknobs as the melted bronze would provide money for his father. This quirky humor is easily Waititi’s strong suit in the film.

Another fabulous moment of humor and truth comes in the line about potheads: “They laugh at nothing and cry at everything.” Waititi admitted he was very proud of that line.

“I was told to write what you know,” says Waititi. “As a movie, you have to make things more interesting and have characters do crazy things.”

Waititi believes in this calculated approach to him writing a compelling story, but when it comes to directing, he believes instinct should take over.

“It really comes down to moment-to-moment decisions you make that are of personal taste… Film is a complete series of compromises. Your vision is threatened all the time. The skill in directing is picking your battles and then recognizing that these things don’t mess with the heart or core of the story.”

Waititi may be disarmingly hilarious, but when he speaks of his films, his words hold great sentiment. He particularly feels empathetic towards the father character.

“There are thousands and millions of people in the world that just want to be loved. And they deal with it in very different ways. Some become major assholes, some become recluses, and [Alamein] is one of the guys who’s dealt with it in a negative way.”

Due to the father’s harsh disposition, the film vacillates between humor and tragedy. Waititi adamantly defends the right for a film to be both. With this belief comes a hard balance to strike, which Waititi was very aware of while on set.

“Sometimes we would shoot a serious version and a comic version [of a scene] and find the best one in the edit.”

This unique approach to shooting a scene makes perfect sense to Waititi.

“Life is up and down all the time– it’s comedy and drama everyday,” he shares. “That for me is a real film, when there is a balance of being hurt, being emotional and finding the lightness.”

Waititi could be a New Zealand parallel of Woody Allen. His quirky style and humor is coupled with his ability to act in a film that he also wrote and directed. Waititi took on the role of Alamein when the potential actor couldn’t portray the character the way Waititi required.

“I thought I was pretty reliable,” he jokes. “We set up a system where we’d block the scene and then I would go away to forget about what things looked like and think about what I was going to do…That time [away from the set] got shorter and shorter as we fell into a rhythm… At other times, I was directing as my character.”

The characters in the film are lovably flawed, and always experiencing the world in entertaining and fantastical ways. The father strikes a delicate pose between the disciplinarian and father-who’s-also-your-best-friend. The kids admire him, and then grow angry with him as he fails to meet their lofty expectations. But Alamein fails at even the most fundamental level— as a father.

The disparate generations are only united through their keen ability to fantasize. Each character has reappearing inventions to his stark reality:

“Rocky has a more innocent and simple fantasy, like a reinterpretation of the world around him, and it therefore makes sense to have him draw,” says Waititi. “Boy’s was more advanced. He’s really imagining fantasies as real life, so we used live-action cutaways. Alamein’s fantasies are manifested in the physical world.”

These fantasies make life a little more livable and compensate for things the characters wish they had. But when the fantasies run dry, the characters must console themselves in the real world, and their needs always stem from the need to be loved, as Waititi stated earlier. His films, therefore, seem to rest not on the question of what people want, but how they go about getting it. And indeed, Boy portrays our less-productive means of finding love and acceptance, in all its humor and tragedy.

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