What We Do in the Shadows helmer Taika Waititi landed the biggest job of his career in October when Marvel handed him the reins to their superhero threequel Thor: Ragnarok, the 17th blockbuster in the $3.9 billion (and counting) Marvel Cinematic Universe. But last month, before he opened his latest film Hunt for the Wilderpeople around the world, Waititi crossed an enormous milestone of personal significance back home: Wilderpeople, a charming two-hander about a young foster kid who goes on the lam in the New Zealand bush with his reluctant uncle, became the top-grossing Kiwi film of all time.
In doing so, actor-writer-director Waititi unseated the previous record holder—his own 2010 film Boy, about a Michael Jackson-obsessed Maori teen coming of age in the mid-’80s. “What’s cool is that if you look at box office statistics in New Zealand the most successful films are all Maori films,” Waititi beamed during a call from Australia, where he’s prepping Thor for a July shoot. “It makes our people proud and they realize, ‘Oh, shit—we can do this.’”
Over the course of four feature films (Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and one Academy Award-nominated short (Two Cars, One Night), plus his work with fellow Kiwis Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie on Flight of the Conchords, Waititi has led the charge of comedically-gifted filmmakers coming out of New Zealand. His innate knack for comedy might have had something to do with how he landed the Marvel gig, he humbly offers.
Fans are already abuzz over the buddy potential in a story said to pair Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder with Mark Ruffalo’s fellow Avenger Bruce Banner/Hulk. But if they’re expecting What Thor Does in the Shadows, well…
“It’s not gonna be like that, mate,” Waititi laughs. “I’m sorry! It’s not like broad, stupid comedy, like suddenly, ah! We’re going to do Dumb and Dumber with Thor! It’s easygoing, human comedy. It’s human humor.”
Human humor is a specialty of Waititi’s films, which don’t just coast on laughs or the distinctly quirky Kiwi flair he’s almost singlehandedly cultivated for cinema in New Zealand over the past decade. Wilderpeople, which premiered at Sundance, stars 13-year-old newcomer Julian Dennison as Ricky Bates, a rap-obsessed orphaned city kid who’s been bounced around foster homes so many times his social worker delivers him to a last-ditch couple that live in the remote countryside. Taken in by his sweet new “aunt” Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband, Hec (Sam Neill), Ricky begins to adjust to his new life when unforeseeable events force him and Hec on the run into the bush, with the entire country on their trail.
Peppered with colorful detail and memorably funny dialogue, the loose adaptation of author Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress is buoyed by a great sense of heart and warmth—and a recurring fixation, as seen through the precocious Ricky’s eyes, for ’90s-era gangsta rap, movie references, and a particular affection for Tupac Shakur. Waititi, who also scripted, updated the novel giving Ricky’s hip-hop fantasy bravado and millennial aversion to rural life a verisimilitude he observed among several generations of youngsters in New Zealand.
“The book was written in 1984 or something and there was no indication of what Ricky was into or who he was,” he said. “There’s no comedy in it, and there’s no social welfare worker character, or car chases, all that stuff. I wanted to show a kid that was just completely out of his element, who was trying to hide who he really truly is. I feel like a lot of kids [can relate], especially New Zealand kids who are into this ‘gangsta’ culture.
“Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s we all really identified with African-American culture,” Waititi continued. “It was a big trend, to be into this sort of stuff. Even nowadays there are a lot of kids coming through growing up talking about Tupac, which is interesting. When I was making Boy, there were kids I was auditioning who were talking about Tupac, and he’d been dead for 12 years. There’s this whole thing about the second coming of Tupac, the Illuminati, and how he’s going to rise again and come back—they all fully believed this stuff.”
Ricky learns his love of rap by idolizing all things 2pac and, he explains to a bristly Hec, writes haikus to express his own feelings—a coping mechanism the sensitive Ricky adopts as he fakes a toughened façade even as he yearns to have parents and a family who loves him.
“I gave Ricky this appreciation of Tupac as a poet because he was this incredible poet,” said Waititi. “Ricky is his own sort of poet. I wanted him to appreciate and have a couple of toes in the hip-hop world but also be his own person. The gangster thing is a front. He’s not a gangster at all.”
Waititi discovered Dennison when he cast the then-10-year-old in a commercial he directed about the dangers of driving under the influence. “It was a commercial about drug driving,” Waititi recalled. “Drug. Like a PSA. I guess we had to get the message across to not get stoned and drive cars—even though I found out that it’s not actually a huge amount of accidents, because people drive so slow. The whole message was basically, ‘Yeah… but it’s still not a good idea.’”
When it came time to cast Wilderpeople, Waititi didn’t need to audition either of his leads; he offered Dennison and Neill their roles straightaway. Whale Rider actress Rachel House, a frequent Waititi collaborator who acted in Eagle vs. Shark and Boy, landed a key third role as Paula, the comically self-serious social worker who makes it her mission to hunt down Ricky under the misunderstanding that Hec has kidnapped the boy.
“It’s all about people living in their own fantasies,” said Waititi. “Ricky lives in like a First Blood—Rambo fantasy where he is on the run and a renegade. Paula lives in her own fantasy where she believes she is some sort of cyber cop, on a mission to bring people to justice and restore balance to the universe. I told her to base her character on Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, who is relentless and will never give up. A lot of her quotes she gets from films because she thinks she’s in a movie.”
Waititi laughs, admitting the nonstop pop culture references come in part from a childhood growing up worshipping British and American comedy, and watching movies.
“We watched so much TV it was probably unhealthy, way out in the country, a six-hour drive from the city, and we only had two TV channels in New Zealand,” he explained. “In 1992, when we got our third TV channel, it was like the moon landing. It was the biggest deal—national news. If there was a VHS tape of a movie you’d have to wait until it did the rounds all around school until it got to you.”
For Boy, he staged a culture-blending credits dance sequence combining Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with the traditional Maori haka.
“We would do stuff like that as kids, mix up our culture with Western culture,” Waititi said. “I remember when Beat Street came out with the breakdancing; we were all into movies like The Warriors. We loved the idea of America and the culture that came out of it. We had the best of American TV and movies and British comedy and I think we assimilated all of that and combined it with our own ideas of what was funny. It was a mishmash of ideas. That’s why I think our comedy is really different.”
That unique brand of cross-cultural humor is also what makes Waititi’s Thor sequel seem promising, even in the sea of superhero movies made under strict Marvel control. So how did he land the job?
“Arm wrestling!” he joked. “No, I had to go in and talk to them about the film and just get to know them. You have to basically prove to them that you’re not a psycho who just made their own IMDb page. That you’re a real person and know what you’re talking about.”
He paused and got serious for a moment. “I think it’s more about your personality and if you can work with these people. I think that’s secretly what it’s about. Will you be OK hanging around at a party with these people?”
As with any Marvel moviemaker, Waititi is finding he has to watch what he lets slip about his movie. But back in January, Ruffalo described Thor: Ragnarok as “Midnight Run in space.” Is that an appropriate characterization?
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Waititi deadpanned. “No, I don’t know! I mean… sure? I wouldn’t say Midnight Run. You don’t want to put these things in people’s heads but definitely there’s the element… I don’t know. How am I gonna answer that? I can’t tell you anything!”
What he can talk about, and gladly, is the thrust of much-needed inclusiveness that his Thor movie will add to the Marvel pantheon. Audiences are already excited for Black Panther, which will mark the first MCU movie to be led by an African-American superhero and is being directed by Creed’s Ryan Coogler. But Waititi’s Thor 3 will release three months before Black Panther hits, bringing along with it Creed’s Tessa Thompson as the Asgardian superheroine Valkyrie and Cate Blanchett as Hela—the MCU’s first female supervillain.
“Everyone’s aware of the need [for POC casting] and also the need for female characters,” Waititi said. “But female representation is something I feel is even still behind in the conversation about representation. It’s something that’s equally important to my mind. So it’s great having female heroes.
“This film has [Marvel’s] first female villain, and that’s exciting for me,” he continued. “I want to see more females onscreen and not just dudes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a lot of it in the world. We need more representation of all kinds. In all seriousness, from what I’ve seen—although it’s not like I’ve been around a lot of studios—they are aware of it, and they’re very conscious and vocal. I’ve heard people say, ‘We need to make them better.’”
Waititi is also credited as a writer on the upcoming animated film Moana, an ocean-bound adventure that will feature the first Pacific Islander Disney princess.
“When I worked with Disney on Moana they were definitely proud of it, and everyone right from the beginning knew it was going to be a female character,” said Waititi, who left the project to helm his sublime vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. “That’s so cool. I really liked the idea of trying to do something with Pacific Island cultures even though it’s Disney, and there’s a part of you that’s like, well, how are we going to do this? I hope they do a good job. I’ve got high hopes.”
Amid all these high-profile projects, Waititi is humbled by the thought that when he was growing up, he never dreamed a career in film was even possible. Now, even his young Wilderpeople star Dennison has shared his goal to direct one day. “The thing that makes me feel like it’s even worth doing this job is when, and I can really only speak for my own culture, I see young Maori youth excited about the idea of being a filmmaker,” said Waititi.
“There was never any consideration that you could be a filmmaker or even an actor, or even work on a film set,” he continued, his voice swelling with emotion. “That wasn’t even a world that existed when I was growing up, and now it’s thriving and we get opportunities to let indigenous youth be part of these worlds—and that, to me, is at least some sort of success.”