Taika Waititi is ready to 'twist and f--- up' expectations with groundbreaking Reservation Dogs
"I'm so sick of famous people."
With that declaration, Thor: Ragnarok director and Oscar winner Taika Waititi, explains why he was excited to cast unknowns as the leads of his new comedy series Reservation Dogs. Set in co-creator Sterlin Harjo's home state of Oklahoma, this groundbreaking comedy (every writer, director, and main actor is Indigenous) follows four teenagers (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor) as they pivot from committing crime, which will finance their escape to California, to fighting it.
"Our communities dealt with everything through humor, and that's the thing missing from any representation of us," says Harjo. Waititi, who hails from New Zealand, believes "what white culture wants from us is what crippled a lot of our storytelling in the past." Now, he says, he's ready to use Dogs to "really twist and f--- up" any expectations.
Ahead of Reservation Dogs' Aug. 9 premiere on FX on Hulu, EW chatted with Waititi and Harjo about being surprised how easy it was to get their show, bringing something new to mainstream native stories, and showing audiences a world they didn't know existed.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys have long been friends, so how did you land on this idea being your ideal collaboration?
TAIKA WAITITI: We met at Sundance in 2004 and hit it off. We were brought together by Bird Runningwater from the Sundance Institute; he's like the patriarch of Indigenous filmmaking who's brought all the voices of the world, and so we all owe him a lot. We just hooked up through that and became friends over the years, and I think our friendship really developed just based on the fact that we came from completely different places on the other side of the world, separated by 200,000 miles, but that our experiences growing up were pretty much exactly the same. So all of our conversations always inevitably lead to stories about where we're from and we related to each other deeply over those stories and our backgrounds.
STERLIN HARJO: Those stories from home, we would always tell them when we were together, and they ended up being some of the funniest things that we'd ever heard, just weird, quirky. It was like we collected those together, things that are similar but different because of the cultural differences, and then it came out in this project.
WAITITI: We might be at a party or wherever we go, and one of us would say to the other one, "Yeah, tell that story about that thing."
HARJO: And it would involve mythological creature and s---.
WAITITI: Yeah, and how they're very similar. One night, Sterlin was over at my place in L.A. and we were just hanging out and talking, and eventually we just started talking about how cool it would be to have a show that wasn't depressing about natives. Like a native show that didn't fall into the trap of a lot of films or shows that have gone before us, where it's about the hardships of being native and just that. Or it's like how oppressed we've been and just that. Dealing with some of that stuff and touching on that stuff, but doing it in a way that really is true to our sensibility, which is you only really tell those stories through humor. The only way we are even able to deal with trauma is in a funny way.
HARJO: Our communities dealt with everything through humor, and that's the thing missing from of any representation of us. We fought in wars and were badasses and had hardships, but our survival counted on our humor, and that hadn't been reflected. And that's really what made us want to do the show. But also like a celebration of our communities, the quirkiness, the weirdness.
WAITITI: Our films share those sensibilities, especially our early films, Four Sheets to the Wind and my film Boy. I remember doing a Q&A, I think it was with National Geographic, and the moderator who works for them, he was like, "So when you took the cameras and everything to your village, what was the reaction of the elders?" And I was like, "What do you mean the reaction of the elders, as if we've never seen a film?" I was like, "What do you mean," and he was like, "But when they saw the lights and all the technology." I was like, "Well, the elders took their cell phones out and took photos." But what people expect from our stories and our communities and what they want... It's basically like what white culture wants from us is what crippled a lot of our storytelling in the past. When Boy came out, I got a bad review from Variety because there wasn't enough ghosts in the movie, and there weren't enough people talking to trees, and it was too contemporary, and they said "it's not culturally-specific enough for us." I was like, "What the f--- do you want, f---ing people talking to grandmothers with sage advice?" So we make fun of all of that stuff in the show, like an ancestor coming to visit and he's f---ing useless.
At that point, you know what kind of show you want to make and some of the things you want to do, but then how did you land on these characters and this specific story?
HARJO: I remember one time I was telling a friend, "I have a script that I'm writing about me when I was a kid, and I had a perm and I was a kid who was into Michael Jackson and just a Native kid." And they were like, "Have you read Taika's new script?" I was like, "He sent it to me but I haven't read it yet." And it was Boy. So we always had these similar ideas, and we had two scripts that touched on this Maori kid in New Zealand or Native kids where I'm from, Seminole Creek kids, and they were sort of becoming vigilantes. Mine was seeking advice from an elder, Taika's was becoming like a Batman in his village. I'd always remembered that and we ended up bringing that up, and we decided to set it in Oklahoma, where I'm from, and then it was just spitballing the ideas. We really came up with the show that night. It was really easy.
WAITITI: Very easy. It was like, "It could be this." "Yes!" "And it could be this." "Yes!" Then, it was maybe a Thursday night and the next day, or two days later, I told Kate Lambert from FX, "I want to make this show." She said, "Come and talk about it," and I think within a week we had sold the show.
HARJO: While we were talking, I made notes, and then I sent Taika the notes a couple days later, thinking we would talk about this in a year and see what happens. I was in Oregon at the time and I got a call from my agents, and they were like, "What the f--- is Reservation Dogs?" I was like, "Oh, s---." Then I got a call from Taika right after, he's like, "I think we have a show."
What was the casting process like on this one?
HARJO: We had Angelique Midthunder who knows the Native community in the States. She was totally down to do street casting, and we went to all these Native communities and were meeting kids that never acted before. The last bit of it, I remember Taika had just won an Oscar, and we were laying on his bed at a hotel, with an Oscar between us, looking at auditions, just picking them one at a time. Then we flew them out to L.A., these kids had never been to L.A. before, and they auditioned and were amazing. A lot of those kids that didn't end up as the main four ended up as the other gang in the show.
WAITITI: That's one of the cool things about this is. A lot of TV shows, it's like someone who got their last TV show canceled and they're looking for a new job. It's the same people again and again. Sundance films get a lot of that, like, "Oh, it's a guy who's on hiatus from Parks and Rec, and he's being taken seriously, and he's walking through a wheat field, and it's an hour and a half of him, and then he screams into a canyon." We were never in danger of that. There was nothing written for anyone famous, which is awesome, because I'm so sick of famous people and I'm sick of seeing them in anything. And so this was the perfect antidote.
HARJO: These kids were amazing. They're just like, "Never acted before, don't care. Watched Thor, loved it." They're just so natural and really talented. It was what we were looking for: we don't need seasoned actors, we need kids that know this world that we're creating.
WAITITI: Every single one of them, they're all unique, and there's something very special and very watchable about them. You get really drawn in. The girl who plays Willie Jack [Alexis], even just her alone, it's very, very hard to find someone like that who's natural and does it effortlessly.
HARJO: That role was written to be a male character, but she was so great that we were just like, "Ah, that's easy, it's now a female character." These kids have a humor that no one's really tapped into but they can tap into and it translates.
It doesn't matter if you're making a project about superheroes or Oklahoma teenagers, you need protagonists that people are going to be invested in. What is it about these four main characters that will connect with audiences in that way?
WAITITI: I think they're like every kid. Anyone who's been a teenager, especially in a suburb, has had to wonder what they want to do with their lives. I'm always drawn to shows about young people because there's that time in your life before you think you've figured it all out, where you know you haven't, but you have to act like you have. I think everyone in the world can relate to that.
Sterlin, you've set most of your work in Oklahoma, a region that often isn't seen in film and TV. What does that unique setting add to the story?
HARJO: It adds everything to it. No one's seen it. Early on, everyone wants to shoot in New Mexico, or places where there's already an infrastructure, but I was like, "Oklahoma, it's Indian territory, it's where they forcibly moved us to, which is what we're talking about." So there's such a backstory to that that doesn't get mentioned, which is so much survival, so much fighting against attempted genocide. For me, with an Indigenous or Native project, the land where you shoot it is one of the most important things. To FX's credit, I went and took photos of the place where I wanted to shoot, and I said what I just said but in more words, and they were just like, "Yeah, that's cool. It looks great." But it does give it this character; it's like this decay of Western expansion, and these kids make it their playground. Those stories that we're talking about, they take place right there, and I think you feel that.
WAITITI: It's sort of similar to how I grew up. I grew up in a really small town in the middle of nowhere where you're basically related to everyone. So everyone knows every single person, and there's that feel with this. Also, growing up, there's a lot of gangs in our areas, people trying to start gangs, and all factions of people want to join other gangs, and there's not many opportunities job-wise.
HARJO: It's hard to be cool in a place like that when the cop knows your whole family. You can try to be cool but everyone knows you, which lends to a lot of humor.
WAITITI: I like the idea of kids going, "Well, we've seen too much TV." There was a version of this where the kids were watching Black Panther and they're like, "Oh, god, man, so awesome. How come haven't gotten like a Black Panther? Like a Brown Panther!" And then they're like, "We've got to do it ourselves."
HARJO: Pop culture is important, because in these rural places, especially now with the internet and everything, that's what you have. They know Wu-Tang Clan, they know Tupac, they know all the movie references, they know Quentin Tarantino. They're fans of pop culture and they kind of recreate it where they're at.
Fitting that you would bring up pop culture references and Quentin Tarantino, since Reservoir Dogs clearly had some impact here!
HARJO: Taika's the one that said it. We were riffing through this thing, and "Rez Dogs" is a cultural thing. If you know a native community, you know what a Rez Dog is. They're tough, they somehow survive everything, they're always there, they usually run in gangs, and there's a built-in humor to it. I remember when we were thinking of names and Taika was like, "Reservation Dogs." It just was like, "Yeah, that's it." We were kind of talking about some of the cultural references and pop cultural references, and that's what Tarantino does too. He's referencing things all the time, so that's what we do. And it was a funny title! [Laughs]
For those who may be curious about Reservation Dogs, how would you pitch them on checking it out?
HARJO: You don't know what's coming. It's crazy.
WAITITI: There's a great idea of mixing the supernatural world with our reality. It's almost like subverting the idea that people have about native culture and about native communities, and they're like, "Oh, let's all be okay with ghosts and shape-shifters." And then going, "Okay, well, if that's what you think it is then let's give you that version as well, where people talk about that stuff all that time like it's absolutely normal." There's a heightened version of what people think it's like in these communities. It's like whatever you expect it to be, it's going to go to be that but we're going to really twist and f--- up what your expectations are. You think you know what you want from the show but you don't know what you want until we give it to you.
HARJO: I think it references what people think of native people in popular culture and makes fun of that, but also shows you a more real version, which Taika and I come from. There is a version where people are shape-shifters and this is what is discussed. It's not like, "Let's sit around a fire and I'll tell you what I know and all of my mystical knowledge." It's just like, you're on the sidewalk and your auntie's like, "Yeah, that guy right there, he turned himself into a dog, got shot, and then we saw him limping." It's so real and matter of fact, and that's something that we wanted to capture.
WAITITI: What people can really expect is a version of native content that doesn't make you feel guilty. A lot of times it's like, "Let's show you guys this culture from this part of the world," and you already instantly know, "I'm going to feel terrible after this. And I'm going to feel bad about who I am, and I'm going to feel like this is all my fault." It's not that. This is fun and it's funny. It's exposing you to a world that you didn't know existed, because it's just never had a chance to be presented this way. It's always of another version of what it could be.
A version of this story appears in the August issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.