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Taika Waititi, Eagle VS Shark

JEMAINE CLEMENT AND LOREN HORSLEY IN TAIKA WAITITI’S EAGLE VS SHARK. COURTESY MIRAMAX FILMS.

To describe Taika Waititi as simply a filmmaker would be to do him a disservice. Just watching him as he talks – fiddling with anything and everything within reach, getting up and walking around the room, constantly active – it’s apparent that his inherent energy and enthusiasm make it impossible for him to focus on just one thing. He first rose to prominence in his native New Zealand as part of the comedy duo Humourbeast (along with Eagle vs Shark‘s leading man, Jemaine Clement), and was later named New Zealand’s best stand-up comic; at the same time, he was pursuing careers as an actor, painter and photographer. The first short film he made, Two Cars, One Night (2004), was nominated for an Academy Award, which helped him get funding for his first feature, Eagle vs Shark.

Premiering at Sundance this year, Eagle vs Shark won the hearts of festival audiences, as well as numerous comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, which has a similar ramshackle charm. Waititi’s movie is the most unlikely of love stories: awkward fast food joint employee Lily (Loren Horsley) falls for arrogant, bespectacled nerd Jarrod (Clement), who then takes her back to his hometown and troubled family in order to face the demons of the past. The film relies on the comedy of unease, yet manages to make his bumbling characters inexplicably lovable. Though comic and romantic elements are at the fore in Eagle vs Shark, the darker moments are genuinely challenging and hint at a bravery and rare sensibility in Waititi’s vision of the world that we will hopefully see more of in future films.

Filmmaker spoke to Waititi about being nominated for an Oscar, a possible career as a fashion designer, and why a time machine would be useless to him.

TAIKA WAITITI (CENTER) DIRECTS LOREN HORSLEY AND JEMAINE CLEMENT ON THE SET OF EAGLE VS SHARK. COURTESY MIRAMAX FILMS.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the initial stages of the film.

Waititi: The project originated with Loren and I just wanting to tell a story with a female protagonist who wasn’t your normal bubbly, confident woman who had a lot of stuff going for her. She’s the friend of the main character in a lot of films, who you never really get to know. We were just wanting to do something different, and not setting out to make a romantic comedy. We just wanted to start out with an interesting character and see where the story came from then. It was really a character piece.

Filmmaker: How involved were Loren and Jemaine in the creative process?

Waititi: Loren and I worked out this character, then started building the world around her and then eventually started asking the question, what kind of guy would she be interested in? For someone like her, I thought it would be really great if it was someone really intense, who provides a sense of danger and brings some adventure into Lily’s world. I went away and wrote a screenplay based on a lot of the discussions that we’d had, and came up with a lot of the other eccentric parts of the story.

Filmmaker: You’ve gone through quite a transition from stand-up comedian to acclaimed filmmaker.

Waititi: Well, I didn’t do stand-up as my main thing, and I’ve always been involved in lots of different creative outlets. I spent years doing visual arts, doing painting and photography, and throughout that whole time I was acting quite a lot in theater and New Zealand film and television. But for that whole time I wasn’t really sure which one of those artforms I wanted to concentrate on, and eventually just started tinkering around with writing little short films. I made one short film which ended up doing really well, and then suddenly I was propelled into this job as a filmmaker. But actually I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, I just wanted to make short film to try it out! I still don’t really think I’m a filmmaker.

Filmmaker: Your short, Two Cars, One Night, was nominated for an Academy Award. How did that impact on your life?

Waititi: It didn’t really impact that much, it just made it easier to get my feature made – the rest of my life didn’t change at all. It was really good for getting my feature made, because I kinda got fast-tracked in the funding process. In New Zealand, the only way of getting a movie done is through the Film Commission, the government agency that funds everything. So I got nominated for the Oscar in March 2005, I wrote the screenplay for Eagle vs Shark in May, then we went to the Sundance Lab in June, got funding from the Film Commission in August, and we were shooting in October. So it was a really quick process, but if it hadn’t got funding after a year I probably would have moved on. I wasn’t saying, I’m going to push for this for the next 10 years and toil away on the script and work and work and work. It wasn’t that kind of film, just a small, intimate, strange little character study which had room to experiment and make mistakes. It had to be a low budget film for that to work, to have that freedom.

Filmmaker: What were you experiences like of the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs?

Waititi: It was just totally amazing, totally amazing! I think the biggest thing I took away from the lab was finding the tone for the film. In the marketing, it’s going to be presented as a comedy, and I think that’s where a lot of the problems will lie. Even in the criticism of the film, people don’t get that it’s not pure comedy. They’re confronted with real, tragic elements in the film, actual human emotions, and moments where you might have to feel something like empathy or sympathy, and they freak out and go, “Huh? This isn’t funny…” When your treading that line between comedy and tragedy, there’s a danger that you slip into broad comedy and make this a wacky film with oddball characters, and it’s easy to make that film. On the other hand, you could also slip into a darker, more depressing film. What was really hard was finding that balance where there’s so many hilarious moments but also some heartfelt moments of truth.

Filmmaker: The way the film is composed, with its animated segments, the music, the comic and tragic elements, seems to reflect your multi-faceted creative personality.

Waititi: I didn’t want it to look like a filmmaker being smart and showing off, it’s just that I am interested in all those things. I love animation, and I think it’s really cool to incorporate those aspects into film because it adds a fantasy element that helps an audience tap into their inner child, and these characters are children trapped in adult bodies. That style of animation, stop-motion, is very organic, clumsy, hand-made, and you really feel the human element, that someone’s come and touched everything. I think you feel that with the film itself, that in a lot of ways it’s just stuck together with Scotch tape – it’s almost like the characters themselves made the film.

Filmmaker: How do you feel about the constant comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite?

Waititi: When I first heard about Napoleon Dynamite, I didn’t want to see it because I thought it was one of those films where you laugh at the weird, quirky guy. But after I wrote the script, someone read it and said it reminded them of Napoleon Dynamite, so Loren and I went and saw it. I really loved it, thought it was really funny. It was never part of my thinking that we had to watch out not to be compared to Napoleon Dynamite, because we were making a small New Zealand film which I thought was only going to play in festivals. But it’s not a bad thing, there are worse things to be compared to. I mean, imagine if it were being compared to Big Momma’s House 2?!

Filmmaker: The film has done really well with American audiences.

Waititi: You always hope that the story is universal enough that everyone gets it. American audiences totally get it. One of the things I was worried about was that they wouldn’t get the subtle humor, or they would only laugh at the slapstick, broad comedy. I’m not sure if they find some of the dysfunctional family stuff so funny because it’s quite sad over here – but in New Zealand, all we can do is laugh at that stuff because it’s so comic. A lot of people freak out and say, “Who looks after Jarrod’s daughter?” Over here, it’s the kind of thing where they need to call Social Welfare, but in New Zealand if you’re in a small town or from a poor background it’s so common that you grow up in households where there are kids and you don’t even know who their parents are. You always have people coming in and out of the house – it’s like staying in a train station sometimes.

Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?

Waititi: It might have been The Wiz or Clash of the Titans, or the animated Lord of the Rings. Those are some of my earliest cinemagoing memories. I know I must have been pretty young when I saw Lord of the Rings, because my dad drew the animated Gollum character on my wall. Clash of the Titans scared the shit out of me, but I actually remember seeing Harold and Maude when I was pretty young as well, but not knowing what it was. Those images of him killing himself stayed with me. It freaked me out because he was hanging in the bathroom and talking to someone, and it stayed with me until I re-watched it only about four or five years ago. It was like, “Holy shit – this is that film!” The images in that film stayed with me my entire life, so it was really amazing. Hal Ashby’s my favorite director – I’m in love with all his films.

Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?

Waititi: When I began this press junket! [laughs] I can’t say I’ve ever had a job – even directing isn’t a job. I don’t think any of this stuff is a job if I’m doing what I love, it’s just creating. I’ve never stuck with one thing long enough for it to feel like a job, I’ve always mixed it up. I still even think that my days as a filmmaker are numbered because I cannot concentrate on anything for very long. My attention drifts and I get interested in something else. I always say I’m going to do something really different, like fashion. It would be fun to do something like that. [laughs] I’d make really ill-fitting clothes, that would be my point of difference.

Filmmaker: What is your dream project?

Waititi: Anything where I get to collaborate with talented people who are free of ego and attitude, where you get to be true and creative, and it’s not for the money. I’ve never done something for the money. Yet. But the idea of that petrifies me. In this business, where you give up a year or two of your life to a project, I think it can really destroy your soul. Anything where I don’t go to bed at night feeling depressed that I’m selling out, I’m happy.

Filmmaker: Finally, if you could do it all again, what would you change?

Waititi: I often think after I’ve done something really stupid, “Shit, this is the one time I need a time machine.” But that’s happened so many times in my life, I think there’s no point in having a time machine and changing anything because I’m obviously the kind of person who’s going to do stupid shit again and again, so what’s the point in going back. I’m just going to go on doing stupid things.

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