I sat down with the half-Maori, half-Jewish director (who is also known as Taika Cohen) in New York to talk about "Boy," a heart-warming and unexpected film about a young boy living in rural New Zealand who has to suddenly reconcile the dreams he has of his absent father when the man (played by Waititi) suddenly shows up in his life. After the interview, check out an exclusive clip of the opening sequence of "Boy."
Jacob Combs: I wanted to start with "Two Cars, One Night," the Oscar-nominated short film you made in 2003. There are a couple of scenes in "Boy" that pay a really nice homage to "Two Cars." Give me an idea of where the short came from and how it eventually inspired "Boy."
Taika Waititi: "Two Cars, One Night" was an idea I had whilst I was still acting. I was really bored with acting and I hated it so I decided I wanted to tell my own stories. I was interested in making films, but I didn't really want to be a filmmaker. So I started writing a story — basically, I started writing dialogue between some kids based on how we used to speak when I was a kid and including what I thought was a quirky way of interacting. I wrote it out and thought maybe I'd do it for the theater, but eventually I whittled it down into this ten-minute piece. I went to my friend who's a producer and she said, "Let's make this into a little short film." I thought, "I've never done a film, but let's have a go!" We did it, and it did incredibly well. I also really wanted to do something from where I grew up. No films have been made there before, because it's way out in the middle of nowhere, a six hour drive from Auckland. Once you're there, there's no internet, no cell phone coverage, nothing. So we went out there, the film gets all these awards and does amazingly well, we go to the Oscars, and then I suddenly get all this encouragement to make all these films. So I thought, "Wow, I think I've got a job now." I think my job is filmmaking, even though I don't know how that happened and I don't know if I'm comfortable with it. Obviously, short films are a step into the feature thing. So it felt like "Boy" would be a natural progression as a script to make. And I wrote the first draft.
JC: But it wasn't "Boy" back then, right. It was "Choice."
TW: Right. That's a New Zealand thing we say when something's cool. We're like, "Aw man, that's choice." But I had to change it because I thought people in the States would think it was a film about teen pregnancy. So I changed it to "Boy." I did the first draft and took that to the Sundance Writers' Lab and I felt like I cared quite a lot about the film and what it could be, but I wasn't prepared for it to be my first film.
JC: So you kind of put it on hold.
TW: I put it on hold for a year and a half, because I wasn't exactly sure how I wanted to change the script. And I went off and made "Eagle vs. Shark," which was a film that could handle me learning to make a feature. I did that, learned a lot and then came back to the script in 2008 to finish making it into what I wanted. I made it funnier and added in the elements that were more me, like the animation, and then I took it home and shot it. That was the first third of 2009.
JC: So how'd you finance it?
TW: All the New Zealand films usually get financed through the government film commission.
JC: Fully financed?
TW: Pretty much. We included some U.S. financing because it was good to have for the deal. We did that and that was pretty much the same group that put equity in "Eagle vs. Shark" that put equity in "Boy." It's sort of like my U.S. producer now, this company Unison. We're going to make a few more films together in conjunction with my New Zealand company. And in between all of that and making "Boy," I've been off doing stuff like "Flight of the Conchords" and a U.S. remake of UK show called "The Inbetweeners," which is coming out later this year.
JC: That was directing?
TW: Yeah. And then doing a bit of acting here and there as well.
JC: So were you always going to be in "Boy"?
TW: Not at all. I knew the kind of character I wanted — a mixture of comedy and this idea of someone who's a complete loser, but not a typical Maori guy like we would normally see in our films. Those guys are usually a tough alcoholic or a sort of stoic warrior type. I wanted someone who was a bit geeky, a bit of a buffoon, clumsy and not tough. But someone who desperately wanted to be liked. And then in all the auditions we did, I just wasn't getting it, I wasn't getting anything from people. They were all going down one of those two paths with the character. So because I'd done a lot of acting, and my background is comedy, I just felt like it was easier in the end. Six weeks before we started, I was just like, "I'm going to do it."
JC: And it worked well.
TW: Yeah. I was actually really happy to do it because it gave me a hardline into the kids and just being able to work with them and direct them in the scene. So I would be with them in the scene and we'd be doing a line and then I'd throw something in to throw them off.
JC: As the camera was rolling?
TW: Yeah! It was really good, instead of me being a voice in the distance. It wouldn't work all the time doing something like this, but working with kids it was a really great thing.
JC: So there's almost an element of improvisation in it. Which is part of your background.
TW: That's right. So now and then, they would try and improvise. It was quite playful a lot of the time. Obviously, some of the kids you had to just line read with because they were so young. I was like, look at me, look at me, look at me, say the line, go! Because some of the kids are young and they get distracted and they're like, "When's lunch?"
JC: But I have a feeling James [Rolleston, who plays the title character Boy] wasn't like that, right?
TW: No, three days in, James was saying things like, "Cut, cut, cut, this just doesn't feel real."
JC: And how old is he?
TW: He was 11 then.
JC: And he wasn't the first choice?
TW: He wasn't the first choice. Not even near the first choice. I think he came in for one of the preliminary readings, months and months before.
JC: For Boy?
TW: Maybe. Or maybe for another character. Because I'd found Boy like eight months before and he was amazing. But in those eight months he just kind of crossed over into adolescence and went through a growth spurt. So when I went back for rehearsals and saw him, I was like, "Oh my god. This dude is a young man." And I didn't think the audience would really care if he was looking after all these young kids.
JC: Right. It wouldn't be the same emotional response.
TW: Yeah. James is smaller and you're like, "How is this kid going to cope with looking after all these kids?" Whereas I felt like it was only another year before this other kid would be able to fight his dad, you know?
JC: And win!
JC: But that was a happy accident, because he's so engaging.
TW: He was way better for the role.
JC: And this is his debut role, right?
TW: Yeah. None of the kids had acted before. He literally blew me away. When we actually found him and I decided to cast him and we rehearsed, he was amazing in the rehearsals. I was like, "I don't have to do anything except turn the camera on and let him say the lines." I just completely chilled out. I knew this kid was going to carry this entire film. It was amazing because I feel that, especially with kids, casting is 80-90 percent of the job. When you find that perfect kid, it just works. And when I was casting "Two Cars, One Night," when I found the little boy who drove that film, the same thing happened. And it's cool because then I can just worry about actual filmmaking.
JC: So does he want to continue in acting?
TW: Now and then. He's got an agent. The thing is, we were very straight up with the kids in the beginning. We said, look, it's a very fickle business and for an 11-year-old to suddenly get plucked out of obscurity and put into a movie is a cool thing to happen, but it's very rare. So you should just enjoy this opportunity for what it is, because there's a huge chance that you'll never work again. It's not just you. You know, the two kids in "Two Cars, One Night" let the success of that go to their heads, and they were the same age. The main boy in the that was eight years old and all of a sudden his face was in the Oscars. And I think they thought, "Wow, this is it. I've become the Will Smith of New Zealand." And then nothing happened for them again. They did a couple of short films here and there, but that's it. So to avoid that disappoint I thought it would be nice to just sort of crush their dreams at the beginning (laughs).
JC: With kindness.
TW: With kindness. Which is fine, because most of the kids, since they didn't come from acting, got really bored working on a feature film. I think they realized what it's like.
JC: Right. It's not as glamorous as it seems.
TW: Right. They were like, "Why do we have to do this again and again and again." "Well, because you didn't do it right!" And I know that James, although he'd like to keep acting now and then, he just wants to play rugby and be a kid. He's more interested in going out fishing and hunting — he's a real outdoors kid.
JC: Which is probably what made him so good for the part. He's real.
TW: Yeah. He's so open and engaged with everything. He's so inquisitive.
JC: My last question is about tone. I was really struck by the consistency of the tone of the movie and how you managed to keep it authentic, but also never dipped into melodrama or feeling fatalistic. Did you set out with that in mind, or did that just occur as you were going?
TW: Tonally, it was really hard to get this film right. Very hard.
JC: Was it in the editing room?
JC: So it wasn't writing or production.
TW: It was a little bit writing and then on set I would do versions that were a little bit funnier or a little bit more dramatic, just to give ourselves options, but the edit was just a real balance trick. The second half of the film is much more dramatic, so it was about finding lighter moments.
JC: Yeah. Because it never turns.
TW: Right. And in the beginning it's more of a jaunty journey, but we don't want it to be all comedy and then just go into disaster. So it was a balancing trip the entire way. Every day is a mixture of laughs and tears.
JC: And they're intertwined.
TW: Right. It's like that weird thing where you have an argument with someone you love and suddenly you're laughing together. But you're still in the middle of an argument. Those weird things that go on. And that I think is what makes it very hard to market or present a film like this. If you market it as a romp, but there's darker moments in the film, people can come out going, "That wasn't what I thought it was going to be." It's just trying to figure out how to say, "This is this," but without putting one genre label on it.
JC: Genre questions aside, though, "Boy" was big in New Zealand.
TW: Huge. I mean, it's the biggest film in New Zealand to date.
JC: And you released it there in 2010!
JC: So what's the path. What took it so long to get from there to here?
TW: Esentially, there were companies in 2010 who wanted to buy and distribute "Boy." But in New Zealand, we have a government agency that both gives you money — which is great, because they give you final cut and all this support — and is also the sales agent. But because they're not very connected, it's hard for them to really get a grip on how to best place the film and distribute it. So it took a long time for them to figure stuff out. And by the time people were interested, the deals weren't really good enough for us to get the film out here. We wouldn't really get anything out of it. In New Zealand, the film made so much money and our back-end deal was so small because it was made during a recession that the investors wanted all their money back first. In the end, you think, "Do I want to make my film or do I want to get reamed on the back end?" And of course I thought, "I just want to make this film." So we made it, it did really well, and 95 percent went to the cinemas, the investors, the distributors, all that. So then you're like, "There's not much left."
JC: So that was 2010.
TW: Yep. And then we decided to self-distribute.
TW: Here in the States. This was around mid-2011. At least the second half of 2011 was raising finance for P&A and getting investors on board for the film. It was a time that people were a little more open to independent films like this and people were becoming interested. Years ago, we saw all those specialist divisions like Vantage closing down and everyone thought, "Independent film is dead."
JC: But that's changing now!
TW: Definitely. But that was part of the reason that it was so hard to sell a film like "Boy" in 2010 as opposed to 2012, when people are a little more easy with the cash.
JC: But it took from 2011 to now to get the apparatus up and running here.
TW: Yeah. And also trying to find the best time of year for us to launch it.
JC: So how'd you pick March?
TW: I didn't. Talk to the scientists! It's so weird making a film that long ago and coming back and having this thing still going.
JC: Right. Well, that was something I wondered. Where do you find yourself? Part of you has definitely moved on, but then you're still here talking to me about "Boy."
TW: Right. It's good though because I love this film and I know it's great. I think when you make a film, you can be very snobby about it and say, "I made it for myself." But filmmaking, I feel, is really something that you should be making for an audience. They kind of command you. And so you kind of owe it to as many people as possible to show them this film. I feel like, if I'm going to spend so much time making this thing, I can put in a few weeks of work to try to get it seen by as many people as possible. That's why I'm still here.
JC: But the success in New Zealand must already feel like a big victory. Because you made a film there, and for there, and you got it seen. So is this icing on the cake?
TW: Totally. It's a cool new thing that's happening. Also, I don't know — it's not arrogance, but I really kind of think, whatever happens, happens. I've seen how distribution works a couple of times now. Basically, lots of people have graphs and charts and they say, "This is going to happen and then this is going to happen," and they do all the science, but then the day that the film's released, they just cross their fingers and go, "Please, please, please, please, please." All the science gets thrown out the window and it all comes down to chance, since people go to the theater and just think, "Hmm, I think I'll go see… that one." Which is another thing people don't tell you — a huge percentage of moviegoers choose right when they get to the theater. So it can come down to the title and how it looks up on the sign. So if "Boy" is next to something like "Shark Attack 3," it just depends on who's standing in line. So I've kind of relaxed about it, actually.
JC: So what's next for you?
TW: I just finished two scripts, one with Jemaine [Clement] from "Conchords," which is a vampire film, and then another film which is a World War II comedy set in Germany. I want to shoot at least one of those this year, preferably both.
JC: Would you be in either of them?
TW: I'd be in the vampire one. I don't think there's a place for me in a German period film.