On Relinquishing Control

Actor-turned-filmmaker Taika Waititi talks influences and improvisation in his latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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On Relinquishing Control

If you’re the type to watch a film to pick out its references and influences, Taika Waititi’s latest effort, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is your jam. To start with, it’s based on a novel by Barry Crump, one of the best-known authors of Waititi’s homeland, New Zealand. It’s also a joint entry in a handful of well-worn genres, at once a manhunt movie, a coming-of-age movie and a road trip movie melded into a unified whole. What you get out of it hinges in part on what you bring into it. Do you see any shades of Federico Fellini’s La Strada, or notes from François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films? How about bits and pieces of Wes Anderson and Shirley Barrett, Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak?

You could spend hours interpreting homage in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, or you could just call it what it is: A Taika Waititi movie. Waititi has been making movies since 2007, when his first feature, the comedy Eagle vs Shark, premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. He’s made three others since then: 2010’s Boy, 2015’s What We Do in the Shadows and, of course, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, his most ambitious release to date (at least until Thor: Ragnarok hits theaters in 2017). Watching each of these lends the distinct sense of a filmmaker who unabashedly loves the medium of cinema, but as much as he draws inspiration from other movies, he applies that inspiration toward making his movies his way.

Despite obvious visual callbacks to the films of Terrence Malick and Peter Jackson, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no different than usual for Waititi, though it outweighs his previous films in scope. It’s a big movie about intimate, human ideas, in which young Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), an orphan caught in New Zealand’s foster system, very nearly settles in with his forever family—Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (Sam Neill)—only for Bella to die suddenly and leave him at the mercies of his social worker, Paula (Rachel House). But Ricky isn’t going back to foster care, so he runs off into the bush with Hec hot on his trail, inadvertently sparking a national search for both of them in doing so. At times the film will break your heart, at others leave you riddled with laughter. At all times its humanity will resonate, no matter if showcased through absurdism or tragedy.

Waititi spoke with Paste Magazine in late June about Hunt for the Wilderpeople in the context of his filmmaking career, how he approaches his influences, bucking convention with his scripts, and his new, increased focus on directing before acting.

Paste Magazine: I’m curious about the source material. Obviously, Barry Crump wrote the book that you based this off of, but how closely did Wilderpeople stick to Wild Pork and Watercress?
Taika Waititi: Only really the scene and the situation, the idea of the old man and the boy out on the run so that he doesn’t come back into foster care. It’s the background of the book that I kept. The rest of it, I added the social welfare workers, Paula and Andy, I added all of the comedy, and also the book takes place over about three or four years. So I changed all that as well, just to make it a bit more immediate and give it a bit more movement. And that’s it. Yeah, so, you know, definitely a lot of new material in there. And Rhys [Darby]’s character is new. He’s not in the book. There’s no big car chase or shootout at the end, or anything like that, in the book.

Paste: I actually am not surprised to hear that. This feels very much like what I would expect from one of your movies in terms of its emotions, its tone. I think that’s really interesting. A lot of filmmakers tend to wear their references on their sleeves. I don’t think you do that.
Waititi: Well, that’s good!

Paste: [laughs] Do you find it freeing not to be burdened by your influences?
Waititi: Yeah, I mean, I know my influences. I’m really open about what they are, and usually—I’ll just throw them out here—the films I constantly go back to are Paper Moon and Badlands. I think I go to Badlands a little more than not. But yeah, but those two films, definitely a lot of ’80s chase films. Thelma and Louise a little bit. My films in general, I love a mixture of a lot of films. I love successfully marrying drama and comedy together. I really love that. That’s, like, a tone that I’ve fallen in love with. I think The Graduate is an example of comedy which has darker, deeper things, you know? It touches you at the core as well as makes you laugh.

I’ve seen that film 50 times, and I laugh every time. So there are certain films and certain filmmakers, Hal Ashby films would be another good example, people that you always come back to. And that tone. That’s the kind of thing that I guess I’ve come to love. But I don’t find it a burden at all. I just unabashedly pick a style that I like. I try not to copy someone’s particular style, but I kind of think at this stage of the game that, you know, I’m very happy just to pick and choose and take shots, just steal shots from a film that I love and put it in. I think it’s a free-for-all now.

Paste: I would agree with that for sure. And I totally understand what it is that you’re saying about the tone. I know a Taika film when I watch a Taika film, but they don’t feel the same. It feels like you’re making an intentional effort not to repeat yourself by making the same movie.
Waititi: Yeah. And I’ll say, on the surface, it would probably be accurate that I do repeat a lot of themes, a lot of family, and kids who are troublemakers to the world, and relationships within families. But yeah, I try to keep myself interested in a way every time I do it. I try to mix it up and do it differently.

Paste: I think that’s really cool. And I definitely get that. It’s such a leap to go from What We Do in the Shadows to Wilderpeople in terms of tone, and scale, and style. This feels like a much bigger movie than any movie you’ve made before.
Waititi: Yeah, for sure. But we’re also telling a very simple story. You know, when you look at it simply, it’s just another film about two people on the run, and that’s been done a hundred times before. Two people on a road trip. But you know, I tried to get into it and make it nothing like those films. So things like the funeral scene, I always wanted that to be really weird, and awkward, and very different, and not what you’d expect. I wanted to do something different. I think the obvious choice would just be to make it a really sad scene, and a lot of people involved in developing the script were saying, “Oh, it should be really sad, this moment, you know? Don’t make it funny, because the audience needs to feel sad for this character.”

I don’t agree that you need to do that just because it’s expected and because people read the script and expect the next thing to be sad after someone dies. You know, I think you can have both. You can have everything you want.

Paste: Oh, I absolutely think so too. I think there are a lot of different things to read out of each scene. There’s a flexibility to huge components of the entire film in terms of what you can read out of it.
Waititi: Yeah.

Paste: You started off in your career acting, and now you’re in this directing mode. You’re still acting, obviously, but you’ve kind of transitioned into being director first, actor second. Is that the Taika Waititi we should expect to see from now on?
Waititi: Hmmm… I think for the next few years, yeah. I love acting, but I only really enjoy it now when it’s something that, you know, I’ve written, when I’m in my own films or in my friends’ stuff. I have zero interest in auditioning for things. I just don’t have time. And also the things that people have to audition for these days are terrible. The roles are no good. So I don’t want to do that. 99 percent of the things that people audition for at the moment, they’re just for a career. It’s not because of the level of the role. They need this piece of material because they’re trying to get on a TV show.

Paste: You said the roles just aren’t that good anymore. Why do you feel that is?
Waititi: It’s the way things are written in Hollywood, and not even in America—it’s just like that everywhere. Especially in TV. Obviously cable TV is very different, but, you know, actual TV TV? It’s no good. [laughs]

Paste: [laughs]
Waititi: So yeah. I’m no good at that. Plus, if I was to do something like that, I wouldn’t even be able to commit any time to it. I love making films. I love film stories, I love being in control of the world, and being able to create. The sense of achievement that I get is way higher than anything I’ve ever experienced when I was acting, you know? But because I respect acting, and I love it as a thing, as a game, I’ll always do it. The difference is I don’t care about a career as an actor. I just care about it as a fun thing to do.

Paste: I think there’s something kind of beautiful about that. The word that’s sticking in my head is “control.” Do you feel like you gain a little bit more, or maybe a lot more, control from one picture to the next in terms of how you direct, in terms of your style?
Waititi: Yeah. The thing is, I think that over the years what I’ve learned is that control, true control as a director, is relinquishing control, and not actually trying to grasp too hard onto the idea of whatever it is you’re trying to do, and to be very open and fluid, and be available to enable change, and to be there and be open to all the ideas that are flying around your head, to be able to just grab one and go with it, and not try and control this original idea that you showed up to set with, and be very open to the idea that anything can happen. You’ve got to recognize when more imaginative things present themselves and take them.

I’ve become more relaxed in the way I direct and the way I make films now. A perfect example is the “happy birthday” song in Wilderpeople, which we made up on the spot. We just sat there making it up, and then filmed it, and it was a completely unplanned thing. We came to work with the plan to sing “Happy Birthday,” but because it wasn’t out of copyright, we had to do something else, and we had to just do it, and we came up with an infinitely better song.

So yeah. Be available to embrace those happy mistakes.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.

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