In the new adventure-comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople (out Friday), a teenager named Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves pursued through the New Zealand wilderness by the authorities following the death of Hec’s wife, Bella (Rima Te Wiata). The film is written and directed by Taika Waititi, who made the much-loved vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows with Flight of the Conchords member Jemaine Clement, and is currently prepping the Marvel superhero film Thor: Ragnarok.
Below, the New Zealander talks about the “horrible” — yet also wonderful — Wilderpeople shoot and what it was like to pick up Thor’s hammer for the very first time. But first? His country’s ongoing, avocado crimewave…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hi, Taika, how are you?
TAIKA WAITITI: I’m good, I’m good. I have a mouthful of toast.
No, with avocado. There’s an avocado shortage in New Zealand — it was in The Guardian yesterday—and there’s a whole spate of avocado-related crimes taking place. There’s an avocado crimewave in New Zealand, where people are stealing avocados because there’s such high demand for them.
So, at any second this line could go dead as somebody mugs you for your avocado?
Exactly! [Laughs] The perils! The perils of filmmaking!
Hunt for the Wilderpeople reminded me of a certain kind of seemingly child-friendly movie my parents might have taken me to as a kid, and I would have loved, but they at times might have been doubtful about the wisdom of taking me to see something which has some pretty adult moments.
[Laughs] It’s definitely based on my experiences of watching films like that. Like, I had a copy of Blues Brothers on VHS, which I used to watch once a week. Any of those films with big car chases and ridiculous over the top characters. Rachel House, who plays the social worker, I told her to base her character on Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. In those films, there’s always, inexplicably, a police car in a car chase that hits something, and flies into the air, and flips over. I said, “We’re going to do that.” And they’re like, “Well what does it hit?” “I don’t care, it’s just going to fly in the air.” So, we just did it.
This is an adaptation of a book called Wild Pork and Watercress, by Barry Crump. How did you get involved in the project?
I got asked to adapt the book, I think, back in 2005. I hadn’t made anything of my own at that point. So, I thought, Yeah, sure. I started writing it, and, serious young filmmaker that I was, the style of the film that I wrote was actually very different in tone. The book is not funny. The book is more a poetic slow journey. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s not funny, and it’s not quite suited to the cinema. But I tried to make it this dark brooding thing and it was going to be an arthouse film. Then, I decided to leave the project and go make my own films.
I made my first three features (2007’s Eagle vs Shark, 2010’s Boy, and 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows), and then came back to this project, and asked the producers, “What’s happening with it?” They hadn’t really progressed it much further, and so I took the rights, and started to make it myself. I read [my original script] again and I said, “Thank God no one made this!” I rewrote it, and made it more entertaining, and funny, and more of an adventure.
Also, a lot of kids couldn’t go and see What We Do in the Shadows. In the States, I think it was an R. A lot of my peers were saying, “I’d love to go and see your film, but I can’t take my kids, and I don’t want to get a babysitter.” We didn’t get as big a box office as we’d hoped. So, I made a real effort to make a film that everyone could go see, that was family-friendly, but not necessarily a family film, and not a kids’ film. What’s been amazing is, the audiences in New Zealand and Australia, where it’s opened already, entire families go: kids, parents, and grandparents, all together.
How did you cast the two leads?
Sam, was one of the first people I thought of, because he’s such a New Zealand national treasure, and I’m such an Event Horizon fan, and I loved him in Omen 3. Sam was someone who you grow up in New Zealand knowing who he was, but he was like this otherworldly celebrity. He spent all this time overseas. I think I had a little bit of hero worship for Sam for a long time. It just seemed like a nice idea to bring him home, and make him go out to the bush, and go back to his roots, after playing so many international characters. I don’t think he’s played many New Zealand characters so I really wanted him to come home and do that. And then, Julian, I didn’t audition or anything. I just gave him the role. I’d worked with him about two years previously on a commercial, and I was so struck by his personality, and his energy, that I just decided that I wanted to work with him on something. When this project came up, I knew instantly, Okay, this is the kid for the film.
What was it like directing Sam Neill? I’m from Wales, and I think he’s a legend, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you.
Yeah, exactly! He’s a very relaxing person in that he makes everyone very at ease and chilled out. Very generous with information, and time, and stories. Again, I think [he appreciated] coming home and doing something very grass roots, almost like coming back to where he started. Because he did a film which was about a guy on the run from the law, and he had to go out and live in the bush, called Sleeping Dogs, which was a Roger Donaldson film. So, he was basically reprising that character. There was just something really cool about that and I think he really loved that.
He just sat around with us on set all the time, and was committed to being there for the film, instead of it just being a job, because he really cared. To the point where, after we finished the film, about a month before it came out in New Zealand, he took it upon himself to rent a car, and drive all over New Zealand, stopping in small towns, and visiting pubs, and telling locals in all the pubs around New Zealand about the film, and when it was coming out. He did his own press tour!
To be honest, that kind of sounds like an excuse to visit a lot of pubs.
Yeah. I’m sure it was, I’m sure it was.
In the film it certainly looks like you were shooting out in the middle of nowhere. What was that like?
Um, it was horrible. You know, you’re freezing cold, it’s snowing, it’s raining, your feet are wet, and there are about 40 of you standing around watching two people say words to each other. It’s such a weird thing we do. You’re standing in puddles, covered in mud, watching an old man and a little kid having an argument on a mountain. If you describe what filmmaking is to someone, it feels like a preposterous job.
So, I’d step back from what we doing, I’d look around, and I’d go, “Oh my god, we’re on a mountain in the middle of an untouched area of New Zealand, where no one’s ever filmed before, in beautiful pristine snow, and this area has remained like this for thousands, and thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years. It’s an incredible experience. It’s okay to have freezing cold wet feet for 10 hours just to get that kind of view or to get that experience.” So, every time we were out in the wilderness, it was one of the most beautiful things for me to experience. I love growing up in a beautiful country and I’ve always loved being outdoors. So, being able to do that while you’re at work, there’s nothing better.
How is it going with Thor: Ragnarok?
It’s going well. We’re still in prep at the moment. I don’t want to jinx anything, but I feel pretty good about the way things are going.
Have you picked up Thor’s hammer yet?
Yeah, I have actually. It was easy! It didn’t make me feel worthy, it made me feel responsible, like I had to build something.
You can see the trailer for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, below.