One of my favorite films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was writer-director Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The adventure comedy follows a troubled young boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison), who comes to find himself under the care of a cantankerous man named Hector (Sam Neill). Over the course of the film, the two set out on a hilarious, shenanigan-filled adventure in the New Zealand bush that’s filled with laughs, inventive storytelling, and a hefty dose of heart. As a big fan of What We Do in the Shadows (which he also directed), I expected a lot going in, but the film absolutely exceeded my lofty expectations and I can’t wait to see it again. For more on the film, read Matt’s review.
Shortly after the world premiere I sat down with Taika Waititi for an exclusive interview. He talked about how the film is a “celebration of those adventure-comedies of the ‘80s about misfits, rebels, manhunts, and people on the run,” his first cut, if he sticks to the script on set, how he’s changed as a director, co-writing Disney Animation’s Moana, getting ready to direct Thor: Ragnarok and what he’s going to add to the script, shooting the Marvel film in Australia, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: Is this your new thing, every year you want to be at Sundance?
TAIKA WAITITI: It just happened. Sundance felt like a natural fit. When we were making the film, we didn’t have a deadline, really. We just wanted to make the film, we tried to do it kind of fast, and it just turned out that as we were finishing it, Carthew [Neil], one of our producers, submitted it. They ended up loving it. I’ve got a good relationship with them, I love coming here, and I do think that this festival suits my films rather than most of the festivals I’ve been to. I’m not going to Cannes, you know.
It fits very well at Sundance. A lot of people aren’t going to really know much about the movie so how are you going to tell people about it?
WAITITI: I think that the film is a celebration of those adventure-comedies of the ‘80s about misfits, rebels, manhunts, and people on the run. It’s really me trying to make something that’s a bit more exciting and entertaining rather than a lot of stuff that you see at festivals which is often very dark and emotional even though my film has got lots of heartfelt moments, they’re often undercut with humor. The whole thing kind of amplifies to this whole over the top car race and that’s the kind of stuff I grew up with so I love those sorts of films, I think it’s time to bring them back.
How much did the film change from the first cut to the final release?
WAITITI: The first cut probably was only like two hours, not too crazy. We didn’t overshoot, we really stuck to the script, as opposed to [What We Do in the] Shadows where we shot like 140 hours of footage.
When you did the edit, were you losing scenes or just tightening up what you had?
WAITITI: We didn’t lose many. Really small ones, actually. We did a couple of days of pickups just as we thought of new material, stuff for some of the other characters. We wanted to do more with the social welfare worker, the same kind of work you do on every film, I think.
I saw it this morning and the crowd loved it. They’re laughing huge laughter, they’re sad at certain moments, it’s a huge audience movie. What’s it like for you when you put your heart and soul in a film to hear 1200 people like that laughing so loud?
WAITITI: That’s amazing. Over the years, as I make more films, I’ve come to the realization that it’s nicer when people see them. (laughs) Whenever you can get a crowd and get a dialogue between the audience and the film, it’s cool. That means that the ideas that were banging around your head for the last year or two that people can relate to them, and can empathize with the characters. It made me really proud this morning because we got a big standing ovation for Julian [Dennison].
I don’t usually like to ask about casting but, that kid needs to be perfect to make this project work. Did you meet with 1000 people?
WAITITI: No, I didn’t audition anyone, I just gave it to him. I’d worked with him before on a commercial and I knew he was super talented. I think just from working with him on this other project I really got a feel for his personality and how professional he is, he really throws himself into the work he doesn’t mess around. I knew he’d be fine, so I just offered it to him. Same with Sam [Neill], he’s experienced. Most of the cast where people I’d worked with a lot before like Rhys [Darby], we didn’t do too much auditioning.
How much are you on set, sticking to the script versus finding it in the moment? Because one thing about this movie is it seems so tight.
WAITITI: This is really different to [What We Do in the] Shadows in that we stuck mainly to the script. Because of time constraints and because Julian isn’t a big improviser, there’s really no point in going off page. Sometimes we came up with stuff on set. One time, we had this big circular 20-degree shot and it snowed on us that morning even though we were supposed to do a part of non-snow storyline. It snowed like eight inches of snow within two hours. It was insane. So we were in the middle of snow with all of our actors and gear just stranded, didn’t know what to do. So I put the camera on the tripod and started shooting and turning it around and around and we had characters pop up into the screen, we had doubles dress up as other characters, and we just did it. It made this wonderful little shot.
When I was watching the movie, I was wondering, is that a real shot? Is that CG?
WAITITI: Yeah, all in camera. All those people were standing there we needed to do something with them, it was great. Sometimes there are really happy mistakes.
What’s great about that is you’re adding production value for free.
WAITITI: A lot of people see those scenes and they see that snow and they think, “Wow that’s big production value,” and it’s actually like that’s just real snow. It ruined part of the schedule but gave us extra stuff as well. Like the Lord of the Rings joke.
That’s great. I laughed so fucking hard at that one. How would you say your style has changed as a director? I feel like you’ve gotten better and better, how do you feel on the inside in terms of the way you prepare, knowing you have the shot. How have you changed as a director?
WAITITI: I think I’m way more relaxed. I’ve always been a relaxed person on set, but I think the main thing is I think about it from an editing point of view way more than I did before. I’ll think about how things are gonna get cut together and then I’ll shoot it from there. I’ll prepare for myself with boards and notes and that’ll be the plan. Often I’ll throw that away when we get to the location. I’ve become more like water, I’m more relaxed and I’ll say, “Okay, let’s just completely change it and do it that way.” I like to find comedy or something interesting to look at with whatever I’m working on
You wrote or co-wrote this upcoming Disney animated movie?
WAITITI: Yeah, yeah I did. Wrote the first few drafts and then I actually left to go make Shadows. But I consult on it still and give notes.
Sure. What can you tease about it?
WAITITI: I’ve got two young daughters, and one of them was obsessed with Frozen. It drove me bananas.
By the way you’re not alone on that.
WAITITI: You know, becoming a parent and thinking about the times that my mother took me to the movies as a kid compared with who I am today. Like I remember going to E.T. the first movie I ever cried at. I guess those are these movies nowadays. Frozen is an emotional movie, it works. Kids love it and you can’t take that away from them. So to be part of it and to help out a corporation that doesn’t have the greatest track record in terms of cultural sensitivity, I wanted to be involved in that to help kind of guide it. I’ve made two other films since I’ve wrote this film, I still hope it’s going the right direction.
I think some people don’t realize how long animated movies take.
WAITITI: Oh yeah, I wrote the first draft in 2012.
Exactly. But also, one of the things with animation is they might do the storyboard and then decide something doesn’t work, and then keep working until they find something that does.
WAITITI: It’s a testament to Lasseter and those guys at Pixar. Their influence has come into the Disney animation and it’s a huge influence and really… Frozen. All these films are great now.
What they’ve been doing lately is phenomenal. Do you think working on this and doing something with Disney helped you in terms of landing other big budget movies?
WAITITI: Well, they had not heard of the Disney thing so I know that wasn’t part of it. They have a record making out there and exciting choices and I think what they said to me was, “We want it to be funny and try a whole new tack. We love your work and do you think you can fit in with this?” To make filmmaking interesting to me, I want to keep learning things. This is my fourth film at Sundance and it’s very similar to my second film. I don’t want to keep doing that. I want to do weird things and big budget things and no budget things. I don’t have a five-year plan. I’ve loved comics since I was a kid, collected them, I’ve always dreamed of being involved in comics. So this is really cool for me.
People loved the funny bits from The Avengers, and from what I understand, the movie you’re making is almost a buddy cop, Midnight Run kind of movie on the road and that’s what [Mark] Ruffalo has talked about. I think that they’re asking you to add humor to that. When you watch the first Avengers do you think, “I have so much to work with,” are you spinning ideas?
WAITITI: Totally. I love that one moment in Avengers when Hulk grabs Loki and rag dolls him. It lends itself to great humor, do you read those comic books? They’re wacky. They’re crazy. I think that‘s exactly what they need, to keep changing it up. They’ve got their dark films, some are more serious, and I think it’s great that they’re mixing it up. I really want to inject my style of humor into this.
I think the only way for a genre to survive is to constantly innovate and break away from what’s been done before. The Russos have talked about how Civil War is a radical departure from Winter Soldier. You look at what Marvel has done with Guardians of the Galaxy, everything they have been doing is so different, which is why I think they keep exceeding people’s expectations. What do you take away now that you’ve watched everything or really gone deep into the vault reading? What have you learned from studying?
WAITITI: I’ve learned that there are really no rules. There’s no road map. They’re very similar to Pixar in that way. They are constantly looking for the best story, they’ll tear everything down to rebuild it to make sure they have the best story. That’s why Marvel is good they keep pushing and pushing and trying to get the best thing possible. That’s what I’ve discovered the way things have changed.
For you, as a filmmaker, the movies you have made have been on a finite budget. You’ve never had the tools if you will, to do a big CGI scene. Or to write wherever your imagination might see. I know other people are writing it, but what is it like being given the keys to like the most expensive Ferrari in town and have them be like, “Have some fun.”
WAITITI: This is how I deal with it. I constantly remind myself that there are terrible movies out there. I try to watch them, some of them, to give myself an understanding of what not to do. Because also with that money comes the idea, “Let your imagination run wild.” Which I think is a very dangerous thing. I think it’s dangerous because you can get into pretty wacky territory. There are things that are too crazy. So the films I like to watch are when they make it relatable to human audiences. I’m used to working with restrictions and that’s when you come up with the more creative stuff. So I’m really not trying to do everything that comes to mind because that’s when it can be dangerous. For instance, I believe as much as possible, how your camera moves and flies around should be limited to the physics of how you could do it in real life. If you’re tracking with a character that’s running off a thing and diving off, I would leave the camera there and not follow them down, because cameras don’t do that. The audience understands that. I’ll definitely bring that understanding of keeping things a bit more grounded.
You’re obviously a very talented writer and Marvel has writers on the script are you collaborating, are you very involved in the screenplay?
WAITITI: Well, at this stage, a little bit. I’m not sure. I think the most use I’ll be in terms of humor. Trying to find funnier ways of doing stuff. That’ll be my strength. They’ve got structure and stuff but I’ll be useful at putting jokes in there.
I have found the best filmmakers with the studio with Marvel, are the ones that understand is that it’s all going to a specific place. How do you get it there using your specific strengths?
WAITITI: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. (laughs) I don’t know. I don’t know how that works or how it’s going to work, I just hope it does.
Do you know where and when you’re filming?
WAITITI: We’re filming in Australia.
Oh, look at that! I heard more Marvel might be moving down there from Atlanta.
WAITITI: Yeah. That’s where we’re going and I actually don’t know when, definitely this year, but they haven’t actually, there are a lot of things with actors and things.
I hear Chris Hemsworth is busy.
WAITITI: He’s always busy.
I did see a picture of him recently though, his brother was making fun of him for having small arms, they’re the size of this chair.
WAITITI: I should have given him the memo that Thor’s got an eating disorder.
That would play very well. You’ve never actually said the title of the Disney movie.
You never actually said what it was about!
WAITITI: It’s a girl on a quest. Here’s the thing. The last draft I read is probably a year ago, I’ve got a bit of catching up to do if the story has changed, but when I was writing it was about a girl on a quest. Set in the pacific. Yeah, a young girl from the islands. Set a long time ago. About her on a big ocean.