A feisty little kid. A crabby old hunter. A nationwide manhunt. Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a film that sounds a little bit like movies you’ve seen before, and sometimes it looks a bit like them too (Waititi visually references films like The Lord of the Rings and Mad Max), but it feels like a new experience. It’s full of heart but overflowing with, as my grandparents might say, piss and vinegar as well.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople has debuted to rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (including my own). It’s the story of Ricky (Julian Dennison), a foster kid with a history of offenses like shoplifting and loitering, who finally finds the right home. But when tragedy suddenly strikes, he runs off into the New Zealand bush with his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill), and a series of misunderstandings makes them Public Enemy #1. The forests fill with SWAT teams, and adventure is everywhere.
I sat down with Taika Waititi to find out all about Hunt for the Wilderpeople: his influences, his innovations, his cast and fonts. And although he can’t talk in too much detail about it yet, he was able to explain the take on Marvel’s superhero Thor which earned him the coveted director’s chair on the upcoming sequel Thor: The Dark World, and reveal the new title for the What We Do in the Shadows spin-off, about the lovable werewolves of New Zealand.
Crave: Would you describe this as a kids movie?
Taika Waititi: I think when I wrote it I didn’t think of it like that. I think the more films I’ve made, the more I’ve realized I want more people to see them. So I was very conscious making this film to take a lot of swearing out that I usually have in my other films, which would then get a rating where kids couldn’t see it. So I really do think that families will love this film. You know, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say, “I like making family films.” It’s not really a family film, but kids can see it. They identify with this kid, who’s a hero. But to my mind it really is a pretty mature film even though it’s ridiculous. There’s a lot of fun to be had within that for grown-ups as well.
I think of “kids movies” as a little different from “family movies.” I feel like family movies have to be wholesome. Kids movies just have to appeal to kids.
That is true. That’s right. I wouldn’t say it’s a “family film” but I would say it’s like a little bit more mature kids film. Who knows? There’s so many crazy [elements]. The social welfare worker who’s leading a manhunt, an actual manhunt. That would never happen but it’s all in the name of having fun, and entertainment. One of the things Jemaine [Clement] and I talked about when we did Shadows was trying to make something to entertain. So this isn’t as broad a comedy as Shadows is but as far as trying to create an entertainment, not like… yeah.
Was it all in the book, the way the story escalates?
It was very, very slow. The book is very different. It’s not funny. The book is actually kind of made up of… as they move from cabin to cabin, throughout, in the book the story takes place over about three years. So it’s like they disappeared for years and then at the end of the book the kid’s like really skinny by the end and stuff. So there’s a lot of stuff that I couldn’t do, and I also didn’t want to do a thing over time like that. “Three Years Later,” like Cast Away. I thought, we’ll just make a short, powerful, energetic caper chase film.
At what point, or at any point in this movie… when a cop car is flipping over for example… do you ask yourself, “Have I gone too far or not far enough?”
Oh, every day I was like… we always talked about [it]. I just remember growing up and yeah, a lot of those films, especially in Australasia, we made car chase films all the time, and I guess you just had to flip a cop car. There’s no reason for it. Even in the shot, there’s no real logical way that that car flies through the air like that. It’s like watching all the Van Damme films when you’re a kid and stuff, and whenever he does the powerful kick it’s covered from eight angles. The same kick. It’s like that. It’s a great spectacle for people to go, “Yeah!”
I was surprised you didn’t have that one line of ADR that some films add, when you hear a cop go, “Is everyone okay in there?” followed by “Yeah, we’re fine!”
Oh, right! Yeah! [Laughs.]
For all we know that guy’s dead! That’s a serious car accident.
So tell me about casting Julian Dennison. Was it easy? Like, “Oh, that kid!”
It was that, it was exactly like that. We didn’t do any auditions because I’ve worked with him before on a commercial. I’ve been tracking him a bit because he’s done a couple of features, small parts on features…
It sounds kind of sinister when you say “I’ve been tracking him.”
I’ve been stalking this little 12-year-old kid. [Laughs.] He was getting a little bit more well known in New Zealand. He’s a real natural actor. There’s this air of confidence about him and he’s just so sweet-natured as well. I usually cast people who I guess display the traits of the character that I’m looking for.
Does he loiter a lot?
No he doesn’t, but I think Ricky needed to have a really sweet nature underneath it all, that he was like covering up with this gangster façade. Even though Julian doesn’t do that, he’s one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, it’s good to have that base. I’d rather not get a kid that thinks he’s a gangster and then try and infuse that character with some sweetness, you know? […] And I’ve always wanted to work with Sam [Neill]. So actually yeah, I didn’t audition anyone for both of those roles.
Sam Neill is one of the actors whom I think everyone associates with New Zealand. There might be a perception from the outside that he’s royalty in New Zealand. Is that true?
I think in New Zealand a lot of people… I mean, he’s definitely a kind of national treasure in New Zealand. I think he’s a lot like, I feel like overseas a lot of people wouldn’t know where he’s from.
I have a select circle, perhaps.
Maybe you do. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m like a really big Event Horizon fan, so on the set I was always asking him about the movie and I was like, “What the fuck’s going on at the end of that movie?” I know they go to Hell but I heard there was a director’s cut that no one ever got to see.
It’s like way longer and really grotesque, and I think some of the footage of Hell is online with extra violence.
I want to see that!
I’m more of an In the Mouth of Madness fan myself.
Oh, I don’t know that one.
The John Carpenter movie?
He was telling me about it the other day.
It’s incredible. It’s like the best H.P. Lovecraft movie that isn’t an H.P. Lovecraft movie.
Amazing, yeah. Cool, cool. Well, John Carpenter is like… a lot of his scores and stuff, and Peter Weir films were an influence for me for this synth soundtrack. I was trying to do a lot of dissolves and zooms and stuff. Just because again, embracing that kind of older style of filmmaking which I don’t think is out of date or uncool.
I think it’s coming back, because everyone who grew up with those movies is now making movies…
What other films are an influence? You namecheck Lord of the Rings, which I was laughing about before you even made the joke. You recreated the Lord of the Rings shot [where the Hobbits are hiding from the Nazgul]. Did you shoot where they shot that scene? It looked really close.
We were looking for some roots under a tree, and we were rushed that day so we sort of chose that. It was a ridiculous amount of effort to go to just for that joke! [Laughs.]
It was worth it.
Thank you. So the films we were really looking at were, obviously, I always look at Badlands for every film I make. Especially for when they make their little village out in the woods, you know? I was looking at Romancing the Stone, Paper Moon…
I’ve actually never seen Paper Moon.
Paper Moon I really love. It’s a great flick. You know, a comedy with grown up and a kid. So yes, those kinds of films. Again, I guess Paper Moon is a funny film but it hits you when it needs to as well. Those things. What else? Pretty ridiculous things. Things with monsters, and even a lot of the New Zealand car chase films like Shaker Run, Came a Hot Friday, Goodbye Pork Pie, even Mad Max. Actually, old Mad Maxes. Actually I hadn’t even seen Fury Road when we did that chase, and then I watched it and I was like, “Yeah, that’s the way to do it.” [Laughs.]
There’s one thing in Hunt for the Wilderpeople that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It’s the 360 degree montage.
Oh yeah, the 720 [degree]. It goes around twice. Yeah, so that morning we had planned to start doing the car chase and we got out onto the army land and it just dumped snow. A good eight inches of snow. We hadn’t planned for it. We couldn’t do the car chase so we had to come up with another plan.
So while we were figuring out what to do, we were figuring out what to shoot at lunch time, in those few hours before lunch all the actors were there and I was just standing around and I thought, “Why don’t we do a little montage, passing of time thing with all the characters?” We just put the camera on a tripod and we just slowly turned it round and around, and we had all the actors hiding in the trees and underneath the camera. It was really theatrical. We had doubles with all the different costumes on, walking away, and then they’d run around the back of the camera and they’d sit there, and then Julian would run around. It was really complex, like a sort of music video.
So that was just seat of your pants?
It’s so unique. I haven’t seen that before.
Yeah, I tried to do more as well. I mean there’s a short one that we do when Ricky is eating sandwiches and walking in the woods. We’d have a double in the background and then again he’s eating sandwiches for one shot. I always love that sort of thing, especially if it has a kind of transience. It’s a sort of meditation in the middle of the film. I like that kind of stuff.
Yeah, it resets you a little bit.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, and then ah, okay! New chapter.
Literally. I love your Harry Potter font.
I know! I originally used Times Roman, italicized, because I thought it was so ‘80s. I loved it but then everyone was like, “You can’t do that! It’s ugly!”
I know you can’t talk much about it, but you’re transitioning. You’re doing the Sundance movies and now you’re doing the giant blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok. How much freedom is there for you to innovate like that?
Well, I guess we’ll see once we get on set. I think on set it’s a different story. It’s basically about coming in under budget. [Laughs.] That’s all it’s about. If you come in under budget and on time you can do what you want, really. Just stick to what the idea of the story is. I always do that. And I’ve talked a lot about my style and the way I work on set, which is very improvisational. I make up a lot of shots on the spot sometimes but I always have a plan. I always plan what I’m going to do and then I’ll throw that plan away when I see what the actors want to do, and then we have to come to a common ground and figure that out.
But then often, yeah, like that trap door that opens up [in Hunt for the Wilderpeople] and there’s dirt? That’s something we came up with that morning and just said to the art department, “Come up with a trap door and we’ll shoot that in a couple hours. It’s nothing, just leaves and dirt.” They built that and the whole thing, yeah, and I like working like that because I think creativity is always going on set. It means you don’t start getting dull and slow.
Is there a danger with that, once you get a huge budget, where you can just say “We’ll add it in CGI and we’ll figure it out later?”
There will definitely be that danger, yeah, but as much as possible I like to shoot practically and on locations. This will be very different for me but luckily I’ve done a lot of commercials before, some big ones, so I’m used to changing pace on bigger sets. There’s a lot of waiting around, and nobody likes to wait around while they’re setting up green screens and weird CG stuff. But yeah, these movies are so big that they have to.
Did they come to you or did you have to pitch them?
They came to me and asked me to pitch.
Did you pitch Thor or did you pitch them something random?
No, I was asked to pitch on Thor. They watched Shadows obviously, and they watched Boy, and I think the combination of those two films, you get that I wasn’t just like a crazy comedy director or too dramatic. They wanted to weave a little bit away from that.
What was your take on it that was so successful? What did the other directors not tell them?
I have no idea, actually. I have no idea. I did a sizzle reel for the tone, and some joke stuff.
What sort of stuff is on the sizzle reel for something like this? I remember Kenneth Branagh kept talking about David Lynch’s Dune, and you can see it in the sets. I’m curious what came to your mind.
I don’t even know… Basically how I pitched it was like, he just needs to be the most interesting character.
That would be nice. I think we missed that last time.
Yeah, if you’re going to call the movie Thor, Thor has to be the best character.
Or “Ragnarok” has to be the best character, I suppose.
Just introduce a new guy.
There you go!
Are you planning your next movie after that, or is Thor taking up too much of your time?
I’m still planning. I’ve got two other films that I won’t be working on really quickly, but I’ve got two other ideas that I want to go straight into once I’m done with Thor, and they’ll be smaller because I feel like I will probably need to go back…
Is it too early to tell me about either of those?
One of them is like this crazy… it’s like with a kid, so I’m not sure I’m actually going to go straight into, since I might need a break from working with kids. But it’s set in World War II and it’s a kind of comedy about a kid in the Hitler Youth.
That does sound funny!
[Laughs.] And then Jemaine [Clement] and I are trying to write a werewolves spin-off.
I really want to see that.
Yeah, so that will most likely be the next thing.
Will it be called “Swear Wolves?”
It’s going to be called We’re Wolves, like “We are wolves.” We’re Wolves.
Top Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.