30 Mar 2016

Taika Waititi - Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From Nine To Noon, 11:28 am on 30 March 2016

Taika Waititi's latest film is a return to his trademark Kiwi outsider story, which shows a new side of Sam Neill and reveals the charm of Julian Dennison.

The director says his latest New Zealand film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is quite a different take on the 1986 book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

Listen to the interview on Nine to Noon:

When he first wrote the screenplay, in 2005, it was a very different beast to how his final product would work out, too, partly because he found the perfect young actor to play the lead character, 13-year-old foster child Ricky Baker.

"When I wrote the first draft, I had in mind a very different character. I had more in mind a harder character, like a hardened street kid.

"The draft that I wrote back then was kind of very dramatic, very dark, wasn't very funny and full of tragedy, and I think that was me as a first-time filmmaker wanting to make my mark as a serious filmmaker."

But between putting the draft on hold and filming three other feature films, he realised he was better at comedy, and working with Dennison on a commercial also changed things.

"I thought there's a strong enough actor here that isn't the character I originally wrote, and I changed the character in the script to fit this actor. 

"It's an innate sense of self. He's very confident being with himself in his own presence, really.

"He makes you feel very relaxed because he's so relaxed, and there's something very unnerving but also you gravitate towards that."

Julian Dennison plays the rebellious Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Julian Dennison plays the rebellious Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Photo: YOUTUBE / Piki Films

The plot of the film revolves around Baker, whose rebellious nature leads to a national manhunt through the bush for him and his foster father, Hec, played by Sam Neill. 

"I cast children knowing that they don't have to act, they just have to say the lines ... and that's how you get natural performances is by not asking a kid to be different from how they grew up.

"I imagine he's a kid who wants be cool and is overcompensating a lot by dressing like he's a gangster and pretending he's a gangster - but he's never been in a fight and is actually a really loving person, which is exactly what Julian is."

Taika Waititi on the red carpet at the 2015 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.

Taika Waititi on the red carpet at the 2015 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Neill was a different story, a man whose prominence on the screen over decades had lent him a certain image.

"I was really concerned that I didn't want Hec to come across as well-to-do or whatever.

"I was like 'oh man, but he's always in tuxedos and stuff, how's he going to pull off being this Barry Crump character'."

But Neill's history with New Zealand cinema and his strength in films like Sleeping Dogs reminded the director of the kind of talent he was working with.

"I actually thought, wrongly - you know, when I first considered him, I thought he's a bit soft, but, you know, he's not soft at all. Sam Neill is a really hard dude."

Waititi has a long history with stories about New Zealand outsiders, but more recently has been finding wider success in Hollywood. 

Sam Neill in his third feature film, Sleeping Dogs, released in 1977.

Sam Neill in his third feature film, Sleeping Dogs, released in 1977. Photo: NZ On Screen

With Wilderpeople following critically acclaimed vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows, Waititi was already moving on to direct Thor: Ragnarok from the major Hollywood blockbusting Marvel Avengers franchise.

But the action blockbuster was not his staple, he said, and he would always return to his quintessential Kiwi outsider comedy. 

"You do one for you and one for them," he said.

"I'm always going to come back to the early stuff that I did because in a way I feel like it's the purest that I've been as a filmmaker or a storyteller - is because those were the ideas that I had before I knew anything about film-making or the rules." 

His rise as a filmmaker was also partly to do with growing up, he said. 

"Once you hit 40, I feel it's like a positive way of giving up. 

"I've stopped caring that much about things I don't need to care about - I've stopped caring about being liked by everybody, I've stopped caring about things I can't change. 

"All humans have that feeling like that at some point. I think humans in general, in the animal world, feel like they don't belong, they're the odd ones out. So, we're all rejects." 

That understanding of a sense of otherness was informed by his youth on the East Coast and in Wellington, where he always felt like he wanted to fit in, and wanted everyone to "be together". 

"When you're living out there, it is the outside world, on the East Coast we were the last to get any kind of cultural things.

"Going to the city was going to Whakatane, which if you've been there it's a city now but back then it definitely wasn't.

"I feel like most of my life I've been trying to find my place."