By John Lichman | The Playlist February 2, 2012 at 2:05PM
After screening “Boy” for the first time in the United States since January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival, writer-director-actor Taika Waititi had only one thing to say: “Thanks for watching this film in a space-age room.”
The room in question was the screening room of the Core Club in New York City, fittingly across the street from the Friar's Club. As for his second feature, which premiered back in 2010, it remains one of the better odes to childhood that's rife with '80s pop culture and features an unheralded star in James Rolleston, who plays the titular 11-year-old. The film follows him as he strives to get the attention of his ne'er-do-well father (Waititi) among fitting in, getting the girl of his dreams and seeing Michael Jackson.
“It stemmed from a short version of this film ['Tama Tu'] in 2005 that did really well,” said Waititi. “I was encouraged to keep up the theme of neglected kids mixed with comedy. I workshopped the first draft at the Sundance Writers Lab, then they invited me back for the Filmmakers Lab, which is in June. I didn't want to hang around with a bunch of kids so I submitted another script which was a film called 'Eagle Vs. Shark,' and I got to do that.”
Once he got back to “Boy,” he went to his hometown of Waihua Bay, and filmed in his old school and grandmother's house. “It wasn't a very unique upbringing in that town to be looked after by your grandmother while your parents went off partying. It was really cool—You were left to your own devices. It was a town run by kids. It was cool, you went off, explored the country and the beach,” he said. At the same time, the love for The King of Pop was especially earnest, which shows up in imagined dance sequences referencing “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and a nod to “Thriller,” which could be the best mash-up of Maori and American culture ever put on film.
As it stands now, “Boy” is one of the top grossing films in New Zealand despite not dealing with death or the decline of modern society, which Waititi acknowledged. “Making something bearable to watch without crying or being depressed about who we are. In general, New Zealand films are very dark, especially films dealing with Maori stuff. One of the most famous films is 'Once Were Warriors,' which is an incredible film, but man it's hard to watch. I know a lot of our films that deal with—I like New Zealand films because they're very dark with a black comedy slam on things. But there's only so many kind of dead kids you can put in a film without changing it up a bit.”
As for inserting himself into the film, he worked against the typecasting for most Maori actors (“it's either an alcoholic killer or a 'Last of the Mohicans' tribal dude who talks to trees and sees ghosts”) to his own memory of the local bad-asses: “Skinny alcoholics who were trying to be tough, who were essentially wimps that surrounded themselves with losers.”
The other problem he's faced? The accent. After asking the crowd how long it took to get acclimated, most said it was fine from the start, while one joked that it took 75 minutes. “We had debated the subtitles thing. We had a screening in Kenya and the subtitles really helped the English-speaking audience. But you guys are tuned to accents,” he said to the assembled room.
As for what he's working on next, it seems a reunion with "Flight of the Conchords" co-creator Jemaine Clement: “I've written two new scripts I'm trying to make. One of them's a World War II comedy set in Europe. It's my Nazi comedy. The other one, my mate Jemaine and I are writing a vampire film. Which we would like to make because we think vampires could take off as a genre. We feel like we've had this idea—for six years—where no vampire films have come out. We should write this movie! We finally finished the first draft, it's only 160 pages long. I just shot a TV show last year, a remake of the British show 'The In-Betweeners.'”
No titles currently, but as long as the humor remains we can't possibly see a problem with a vampire comedy from the guy who forgot his own final shot: a dead goat appears at the end of the credits, walking across lighted panels: “Mm, a gag with the goat,” said Waititi, as the audience laughed. “Forgot about that. That's where we all go in heaven—to the set of 'Billy Jean.' "
"Boy" opens in the U.S. in limited release on March 2nd.