Friday, March 23, 2018
The Auteurs #64: Taika Waititi
Among the current wave of filmmakers emerging into the consciousness of the mainstream, Taika Waititi is a unique filmmaker who has managed to arrive to Hollywood but with a voice of his own. Like other renowned filmmakers from New Zealand like Jane Campion and Peter Jackson, Waititi has been able to use his clout to get films made in his home country. Unlike the more poetic Campion and the bombast-adventurous Jackson, Waititi’s films specializes more on a mixture of comedy and tragedy with characters who don’t fit in with the conventions of society as they adjust to their surroundings and situations. Having just gained major acclaim and success in his contribution to the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, Waititi still uses his unique voice to provide something different that gives mainstream audiences something they often don’t see in films.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand on August 16, 1975, Taika David Waititi was the son of a Maori and a Russian-Jewish mother as he spent much of his life living at the Raukokore area in one of the northern islands of New Zealand as well as the city of Wellington where he would attend the secondary Onslow College at the suburb of Johnsonville. While attending the Victoria University of Wellington to study drama, Waititi would meet two men who would become lifelong collaborators in Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. Along with actor Carey Smith and theater director David Lawrence, Waititi, Clement, and McKenzie would form the comedy troupe So You’re a Man in the mid-1990s as they would mix elements of improvisational comedy and music as it would last for a few years. Waititi would maintain his friendship with Clement and McKenzie as the two would form the music-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. Waititi would act in short films and TV programs in New Zealand in the early 2000s while learning about the world of filmmaking where he would direct TV shows for New Zealand TV and make his first short film in 2002 called John and Pogo.
Two Cars, One Night
In 2003, Waititi with the help of the New Zealand government was given money to make a short film as it would be set entirely at a parking lot at a local pub in the small town of Te Kaha. The short would revolve around two boys waiting in a car and beside them is a girl as one of the boys is intrigued by the young girl. The eleven-minute short would be shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Adam Clark as it would convey the sense of wonderment of a boy meeting this girl as they start off as rivals and then become friends. The short would showcase Waititi’s approach to offbeat humor and low-key drama as well as life in New Zealand that is outside of its well-known locations and focus on Maori-based individuals.
The short film made its premiere at various film festivals in 2004 where it was a major festival hit as its acclaim in various film festivals including the Berlin Film Festival and the AFI Film Festival landed Waititi an unexpected Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film. At the ceremonies in 2005, Waititi would pretend to fall asleep when his name was announced as a nominee making a small but funny impression. Though the film lost to Andrea Arnold’s Wasp, the short film did serve as a launching pad for his filmmaking career.
Tama Tu/What We Do in the Shadows: Interviews with Some Vampires
Having gained a collaborator in cinematographer Adam Clark, Waititi would continue to make short films to hone his craft as a filmmaker. One short Waititi made in 2004 is set in World War II in which a small Maori battalion fighting in Europe as they await for the enemy to arrive. The short would be different from in terms of its visuals and setting as Waititi made films that would become more colorful. Nevertheless, his approach to humor remain intact as the six soldiers waiting in a destroyed building would silently entertain themselves to let time pass by. It is part of Waititi’s approach to show these men in a different light while a Maori sniper sees a Nazi crawling on the rubble where he finds a cat as the sniper becomes hesitant to kill a man who is displaying a form of humanity. The short made its premiere in 2004 through various film festivals as it would help raise Waititi’s profile.
Through his friendship with Jermaine Clement, the two collaborated on a short film that revolved around vampires living in modern-day Wellington. With Jonathan Brugh playing a vampire with Clement and Waititi, the short film would presented in a documentary style. The short would play into three vampires living their lives as they deal with what they have to do day-to-day as well as try to find blood including virgin blood. The short would also include a new vampire named Nick who would hang out with the trio along with his human friend Stu as they deal with some of the drawbacks of being a vampire. The short would premiere in 2004 as it was well-received as it would be a project Waititi and Clement would later revisit nearly a decade later.
Eagle vs. Shark
Through his work in short films, Waititi was invited to the Sundance Institute in Utah to develop ideas for what would become his feature film debut. Bringing along his then-girlfriend in actress/writer Loren Horsley to Utah, the two came up with an idea about a shy woman who begins a relationship with an eccentric oddball at a costume party as she accompanies him to his hometown to confront a childhood bully. The film would play into ideas that Waititi had flirted with in his short films in mixing comedy and tragedy as the story would eventually become this journey of a woman meeting her boyfriend’s eccentric family in a small town in New Zealand who are still coping some major loss in the family. Horsley would play the lead role of Lily while Waititi asked Clement to play the other lead in Jarrod.
Having sold the script and gaining a $1.35 million budget for the film as it would be shot in Wellington and the small town of Porirua, Waititi would also assemble a small crew that would include regular cinematographer Adam Clark, film editor Jonathan Woodford-Borinson, sound editor Dave Whitehead, and the New Zealand indie rock group the Phoenix Foundation. The casting would also feature local actors as one of them in Rachel House, who would play Jarrod’s sister Nancy, would become one of Waititi’s circle of regular actors. Production began in the fall of 2005 in New Zealand as Waititi would also call upon animators Guy Capper and Francis Salole of Another Planet Limited to create some stop-motion animated sequences for the film.
The film would play into not just the idea of loneliness and not fitting in to the world in general but also characters needing to find people or a place where they can feel like they’re at home. Even as Lily would learn more about Jarrod and his family where she also discovers the elements of tragedy as it relates to Jarrod’s brother who is only seen in pictures as he’s played by Waititi. It would play into Jarrod’s own determination to not just step out of his brother’s shadow by wanting to win over his brother’s former fiancée but also prove to his family that he’s not this loser which also includes his daughter unaware that his family feel that Lily is exactly what he needs in his life.
Following a lengthy post-production period in 2006 following its 25-day shoot in the fall of 2005, Miramax decided to buy the film for its North American release at the Cannes Film Festival where they saw the film’s five-minute preview trailer. Finally being released in June of 2007 in the U.S. and Canada in a limited release, the film did OK in the box office by barely making back its $1.35 million budget. The film’s critical response was mixed with some praising the film for its humor though some critics compared the film to the 2004 indie hit Napoleon Dynamite in the fact that both films had quirky characters. Still, the film did do well in New Zealand where it had a better reception as it did help raise Waititi’s profile.
Flight of the Conchords (TV series)-“Drive-By”/”New Fans”/”New Zealand Town”/”Evicted”
In 2007, Waititi was asked by Jermaine Clement to direct four episodes for a show Clement created with Bret McKenzie and filmmaker James Bobin that is based on Clement and McKenzie’s musical duo project Flight of the Conchords. The show revolves around Clement and McKenzie as two musicians trying to make it in New York City only to cope with all sorts of things including their incompetent band manager Murray Hewitt, played by Rhys Darby, and their sole fan in Mel who is played by Kristen Schaal. Waititi would helm four episodes in the series as the first of the four was the seventh episode of the first season entitled Drive-By in which Clement and McKenzie deal with a prejudiced fruit vender, played by Aziz Ansari, who hates New Zealanders leading to all sorts of chaos and some bad advice from their friend Dave (Arj Barker) who gets the two to stand up for themselves. The episode would also feature a subplot in which Murray falls for a tech support lady at the consulate building he works at.
For the tenth episode of the first season entitled New Fans, Clement and McKenzie were asked to play at a world music festival where they unexpectedly get new fans who raises the suspicions of their biggest fan in Mel. Clement and McKenzie would act like rock stars as Waititi would even film a song Mel sings to lament the change in the two as it wouldn’t last. For the eighth episode of the second and final season of the series in New Zealand Town, Waititi would direct an episode in which Clement and McKenzie discover the wonder of hair gel which gives them some unexpected popularity. The newfound attention would give New Zealand’s prime minister a chance to create a small section of New York City devoted to New Zealand as the episode would include famed TV star Lucy Lawless in the role of the minister’s assistant. The episode would play into that brief flirtation with fame for Clement and McKenzie until they deal with the nightmare over what happens when there is no hair gel.
For the series finale called Evicted, Clement and McKenzie deal with being evicted as they try to find a place to live as they briefly stay with Mel and her husband Doug. The episode would also have the two stage an off-Broadway musical to save their career but also deal with Mel and Doug being separated as it would lead to Clement, McKenzie, and Murray eventually returning to New Zealand. The episodes that Waititi directed would be popular as well as help give the show an immense sense of popularity despite its two-season run.
During his time developing ideas for Eagle vs. Shark at the Sundance Institute, Waititi had another idea for a project that was much more personal to him than the project that would become his first film. When it was called Choice in its early stages, Waititi was invited to the Sundance Writer’s Lab where he worked with Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, Frank Pierson, and David Benioff in coming up with ideas and develop this story set in the early 1980s in a small New Zealand bay village about two boys who deal with the return of their estranged father unaware of his true intentions. The project would go through many drafts as Waititi ended up doing Eagle vs. Shark as his first film while honing his craft as a filmmaker through other projects. After a few years of work on TV, commercials, and music videos, Waititi felt the time was right to make his sophomore film which he would retitle as Volcano.
Waititi decided to play the role of the two boys’ father in Alamein while he would call upon many of his collaborators to take part in the project including actress Rachel House in the role of Aunt Gracey. Rather than bring upon established or emerging actors, Waititi and casting director Tina Cleary chose to get locals to be part of the film with other collaborators in Craig Hall, Stu Rutherford, and Cohen Holloway in small parts and cameos. Though Waititi was hoping to shoot the film near Waihau Bay where he spent much of time growing up as a child, the region proved to be unsuitable due to the fact that the area was a popular tourist destination. Waititi would eventually find the right location as he and Cleary casted Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu as the role of the protagonist’s younger brother Rocky. Though the actor Waititi chose to play the role of Boy, Waititi would discover an unknown in James Rolleston who shown up for a costume fitting as an extra where he gave the young actor an audition and eventually giving him the lead role.
Filming took place during the spring of 2009 as Waititi would infuse elements of reality and fantasy as the latter represents Boy’s idea of what his father is doing as Waititi would draw inspiration from the music videos of Michael Jackson who was a big deal to young kids in New Zealand as there’s also a few kids in the film dressed like the King of Pop. The film would also play into Waititi’s thematic exploration of comedy/tragedy as the character of Rocky is consumed with guilt believing he killed his mother during childbirth. The film also has elements of coming-of-age and growing pains as it play into Boy dealing with the reality of who his father is and his father’s lack of compassion as he only returned home to retrieve stolen money he had hidden years ago. Yet, his reluctance to be a father for his two sons hides the fact that he’s still unable to cope with the loss of his wife who would appear in recurring flashbacks.
The film made its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival that January as part of the World Cinema section where it was a major hit while the film would garner rave reviews. Two months later, the film was released in its native country of New Zealand where it was a major box office hit in the country as well as being a hit with the local critics. Though the film only achieved a limited release around the rest of the world, the film did manage to get some buzz through international film festivals as it would prove that Waititi is a unique voice in film.
What We Do in the Shadows
Following a contribution to the omnibus film series One 42 Dream Rush as well as directing the first season of the New Zealand TV series Super City and appearing in a small supporting role as Thomas Kalmaku in the ill-fated 2011 big-budget film version of Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds. Waititi would also get married to film producer Chelsea Winstanley as the two welcomed a daughter in 2012 named Te Kainga o Te Hinekahu Waititi. It was around this time he and longtime friend/collaborator Jermaine Clement decided to revive an idea based on their 2004 short film as it would have the same presentation as well as the same actors from the short while expanding on the ideas of vampires living in the 21st Century to play into their encounter with modernism.
With Winstanley serving as a producer for the film and helping Waititi and Clement obtain the film’s $1.6 million budget, Waititi and Clement agreed to share directing duties for the film like they did with the short as well as expand a lot of ideas that short had hinted. The film would play into three vampires living in Wellington as they try to find blood as they also deal with the shortage of virgins in the 21st Century where they transform a man into a vampire who would have a friend that would introduce the three to technology. The film also showcases a secret culture of creatures including werewolves, zombies, and other things as it is told in a documentary style by a film crew for the New Zealand government.
Waititi, Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, and Stu Rutherford would reprise their roles from the short as Rutherford’s character of Stu is expanded greatly as the IT tech man named Stu who helps the vampires discover technology including the Internet. The cast include another of Waititi and Clement’s collaborator in Rhys Darby as the head of a local werewolf clan as there’s tension between vampires and werewolves. The film also showcase Waititi’s fascination with the drawbacks of immortality as his vampire longs to reunite with his soulmate whom he would watch over every now and then as she is in Wellington as an old woman. The film would mix the ideas of humor and horror with the latter being played for laughs as well as creating silly moments involving vampires fighting each other or dealing with consequences that would harm vampires where the character of Nick is being punished for his actions where the character of Viago didn’t want to do the punishment as what is unveiled prove to be one of the funniest moments in the film.
The film made its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival that January where it was a big hit as it would be played at various film festivals while being released in New Zealand and Australia in June of that year. The film’s American release took longer due to the search in finding a distributor as it was bought by various American studios including Paramount for a limited release in February 2015 where it surprisingly did well making more than $2 million in the U.S. with the rest of its worldwide grossing nearing $7 million.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The success of What We Do in the Shadows would give Waititi not just a bigger visibility with Hollywood as Walt Disney Animation hired Waititi in writing a draft for their 2016 film Moana as the film would feature voice contributions from Waititi’s collaborators Rachel House and Jermaine Clement. Waititi’s ideas for the film were eventually scrapped though Waititi wasn’t upset about what happened as he was eager to work on another project based on a book by Barry Crump called Wild Pork and Watercress as he had been adapting the book into a script since 2005. The script went through many changes where Waititi finally found the approach in the need to tell the story as he decided to focus on the relationship between this troubled young teenager and a remote old man who both go on the run through the New Zealand bushes following a series of misunderstanding.
Waititi would be given a $4.5 million budget as well a lot of freedom of what he wanted to do as he also shuffled his crew a bit as he had gained editors Tom Eagles and Yana Gorskaya as part of his collaborative team as well as cinematographer Lachlan Milne. The casting which would include Rachel House in a key supporting role as the child welfare worker Paula and Rhys Darby as a recluse who would help the film’s protagonists. Waititi decided to cast Julian Dennison in the role of the teenager Ricky Baker as Dennison had worked with Waititi on various commercials Waititi directed. For the role of Ricky’s adopted uncle Hec, Waititi was able to get Sam Neill who had been famous for being in films such as Possession, Dead Calm, Jurassic Park, In the Mouth of Madness, and many other films while remaining in his home country of New Zealand. The part of Hec’s wife Bella went to local actress Rima Te Wiata who would provide a sense of warmth and love to the character of Ricky as well as the source of tragedy that Ricky and Hec would endure in their journey to the bushes.
The shoot lasted five weeks at locations such as Waitakere Ranges and the Central Plateau where many of the countries’ bushes are shot as Waititi wanted to explore the locations and use it as a character in the film. Especially as Hec and Ricky are joined by their dogs where they encounter all sorts of things such as nature and idiotic hunters that add to their adventure. Waititi didn’t just want to make Hec and Ricky’s growing relationship into something that is offbeat but also show these two sharing common ground in not just their encounter with tragedy but also their disdain for authorities. All of which play into these two in need of a family and to not feel lonely as it would be a recurring theme that Waititi continuously explored in his films.
The film made its premiere in January of 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was a big hit as it got released in New Zealand to rave reviews as well as being a hit in the box office. While the film was later released internationally in the middle of the year including the U.S. in a limited release. The film was able to become a box office success grossing more than $23 million worldwide as well as being a major hit with film critics as the film’s critical buzz and art-house success was a big surprise for Waititi.
Team Thor/Doctor Strange mid-credits scene
During the post-production for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi was contacted by Marvel Studios’ president and film producer Kevin Feige about helming the third film about the comic hero Thor. Waititi was one of several filmmakers in consideration as they were given ideas of what Feige and the studio wanted where Waititi created a sizzle reel that ended up impressing Feige. During the development for the third film on Thor, Waititi decided to come up with an idea of a short relating to Thor’s absence over the dispute that was happening in Captain America: Civil War. The short revolved around Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, living in Australia with an officer worker named Darryl Jacobson, played by Daley Pearson, as it is told in a documentary style of sorts. Notably as Thor wants to take a break from fighting as he learns about the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America. The short would also feature a cameo from Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner who had also disappeared following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The short premiered in July of 2016 at Comic-Con in San Diego which proved to be a major hit with fans as well as being a popular short on YouTube which prompted Waititi and Feige to make a sequel in which Thor continues to slack around in Australia while hanging out with Darryl as the short would also be popular with fans. During the post-production for Doctor Strange as Waititi is set to work on the next film about Thor, Waititi was asked to shoot a mid-credits scene in which Thor meets Doctor Steven Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, where Thor is trying to find his father. The scene wouldn’t just be a set-up for the next film about Thor but also have Doctor Strange become an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While being approached about helming the third film about the Nordic mythological prince of Asgard, Waititi’s sizzle reel featured a key element that would surprise producer Kevin Feige which was the use of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song which featured a lot of Norse mythology in its lyrics as Waititi felt the song was perfect to accompany Thor. In early 2016 as Waititi would develop ideas as he would collaborate with Feige, actor Chris Hemsworth, and one of the film’s screenwriters in Eric Pearson who was re-writing ideas by the previous film’s screenwriters in Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost about where the character should go. Having seen many of the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe including the previous two films of Thor as the first one was directed by Kenneth Branagh and the second film helmed by Alan Taylor. Waititi knew they had to do something different as Hemsworth expressed wanting to show Thor in a more comical side.
While Waititi would work with an entirely different crew including the famed Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe and music composer Mark Mothersbaugh from new wave band Devo. Waititi was able to infuse his own ideas in casting with casting directors Sarah Finn and Kirsty McGregor where one of his regular actors in Rachel House was given a small but memorable supporting role as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz. Along with Sam Neill making a cameo in the film with Matt Damon, Chris’ brother Luke, Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his role as Doctor Strange, and Stan Lee who created the comic for Thor with Jack Kirby and Larry Leiber. Waititi also wanted to bring in an offbeat ensemble that would include Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins respectively reprising their roles as Loki, Heimdall, and Odin with Jeff Goldblum as the eccentric ruler of Sakaar in the Grandmaster and Cate Blanchett in the main antagonist role of Hela, the Goddess of Death.
During its development, Waititi and co-writer Eric Pearson went to Feige about having Bruce Banner/the Incredible Hulk into the story as a reference to Planet Hulk storyline from the mid-2000s in which the Hulk had become a champion gladiator as Mark Ruffalo agreed to appear in the film as the cast had expanded to include Tessa Thompson in the role of the former Asgardian warrior Valkyrie. Waititi would create a character that he would play through motion-capture in a rock-based gladiator named Korg who acts as a comic character for Thor to encounter as production began in mid-2016 in Australia as Hemsworth wanted to be closer to his family while at work. Though the film would be this extravagant superhero film in which Thor has to battle Hela who is revealed to be his half-sister that Odin had imprisoned for her dark ambitions. Waititi was given the chance to use the film to explore Thor coping with his shortcomings as well as the sins that his father had unfortunately kept secret.
Another aspect of the film Waititi wanted as he worked closely worth Aguirresarobe, production designers Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent, and the people in the visual/special effects department in wanting to create a look that was similar to the artwork of the late Jack Kirby. Especially in creating different looks for the planet of Asgard and Sakaar while Waititi brought in actor Stu Rutherford in creating a special lighting system for some scenes for the film. Waititi also wanted the film to be offbeat in its humor while he and Feige were successful in getting permission from the surviving members of Led Zeppelin to use Immigrant Song for two of the film’s major action scenes as well as its theatrical trailer.
Following a lengthy post-production period and re-shoots in 2017, the film was finally released in early November of 2017 where it was a huge box office hit grossing more than $854 million worldwide against its $180 million budget. The film was also a hit with critics who felt the film wasn’t just the best film about Thor but also one of the strongest entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film didn’t just become Waititi’s most commercially successful film but also provided him with a sense of clout and visibility in the world of cinema as someone who can create offbeat films and appeal to a wide audience.
As a bonus short for the DVD/Blu-Ray release of Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi decided to create a sequel to the Team Thor shorts as it relates to Darryl moving to Los Angeles for his new job where he gets an unexpected housemate in the Grandmaster. The short is the most recent release from Waititi as it is told in a documentary style where Darryl copes with the Grandmaster’s oddball persona and how he deals with those don’t do what he says as he laments over Thor whom he felt was a better roommate.
Future Projects: We’re Wolves/Bubbles/Jojo Rabbit/Akira
Having created a lot of buzz and a following film buffs and film critics, it is clear that Waititi is someone that Hollywood wants to work with yet he has already attached to several projects that are in the works. Among them is a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows in We’re Wolves that would explore the werewolves living in Wellington while a TV series based on the original film is also in the works for FX that is executive produced by Scott Rudin though Waititi’s involvement on the series is uncertain. The second project Waititi is developing is a collaborative project with Mark Gustafson in a stop-motion animation bio-pic on Michael Jackson told by his pet chimpanzee Bubbles as it would mark Waititi’s foray into animation as he created animated sequences in a few of his films.
Another project he’s attached to that has attracted some controversy called Jojo Rabbit which Waititi will direct and star as Adolf Hitler who appears as a ten-year old boy’s imaginary friend during World War II. Though it’s a project that’s been developed for years since it was part of the 2012 black list of unproduced scripts, Waititi’s involvement might create something offbeat as well as baffle audiences about a German boy’s fondness for Hitler. The fourth and final project that Waititi is being attached to is a live-action version of Katsushiro Otomo’s 1988 anime cult film Akira. Though it’s unsure if Waititi will stay on board though the filmmaker wants to retain elements of Otomo’s original manga and the ethnicity of the characters in order to not whitewash anything which had been a source of controversy in relation to the 2017 film version of Ghost in the Shell.
Having made some short films, be involved in different TV projects, and with five feature films under his belt including a strong contribution to one of the most popular film universes. Taika Waititi is definitely a filmmaker with his own unique voice who can find the balance between comedy and tragedy as well as put it into places or in characters that might seem unusual at first. Yet, there is something in these films and characters whether it’s two video-game loving oddballs, boys in a rural New Zealand port town, vampires living in 21st Century Wellington, a juvenile delinquent and a cantankerous old man on the run in the bushes, or the God of Thunder in a planet full of trash that make them so endearing which allows audiences to connect with them as well as be able to laugh with them or cry whenever they deal with something. That is the gift of a storyteller and why the world of cinema is fortunate to have someone in Taika Waititi to tell these stories.
© thevoid99 2018