The Essential Guide To Taika Waititi

Every filmmaker has their own vision when creating a piece of cinema, trying to convey their personal message with each film they make. With the film industry worth reaching well into the billions every year it would be impossible to see everything that comes out, but sometimes you’ll come out enjoying it so much, keen to see what the filmmakers do next. In this series of articles, we aim to guide you through the career of some excellent artists and their craft, highlighting the masterpieces and dissuading the lesser work.

For our first craftsman we’re taking a look at the career of New Zealand born Taika Waititi, coming through the industry originally as an actor but quickly creating a path as a writer/director with a very unique voice. His first professional outing was a short film channeling the enviroment of his own childhood.

Two Cars, One Night (2004)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Shot in black and white and with a brief runtime of 12 minutes, it certainly comes across as a low budget independent piece. This doesn’t mean a lack of quality, however, as a very simple story of two kids who don’t know each other sitting in the car park of a bar their parents are drinking at connect over their situation. Although Waititi’s screenplay gleams of the talent that would soon follow, the real stand out is from the two leads both only around 10 years old. Very engaging and realistic delivery makes Two Cars, One Night a surprisingly captivating first film, and would serve as inspiration for one of his features a few years down the line.

Not to understand the importance of the film on it’s own however, even receiving a nomination for Best Live Action Short at the 77th Academy Awards. Between this and his first feature length film, Waititi did a few more shorts mostly positively received, but it was 2007 when he really moved to the big screen.

Eagle vs Shark (2007)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Perhaps the most striking element of his feature debut is the quirky and awkward voice potrayed excellently by leads Jermaine Clements and Loren Horsley – the latter who coined the characters Waititi based the screenplay from. It oozes independent feature, with a budget of roughly $1.35m it reflects it as well. Much like Two Cars, One Night he takes two unique characters with very distinct voices and places them in a simple enough story, and just lets them flourish. Lily is a fast food worker and once alone a singer-song writer, who has a crush on Jarrod. He invites a friend of Lily’s to a favourite animal fancy dress party, who throws it away, Lily using this as an excuse to go along herself.

We get a awkward relationship, awkward family and plenty of beats that would otherwise seem mundane if it wasn’t for the bizarre characters and their unconventional behaviours. Although this should make for a better piece, it does lean a bit too heavy on the inspiration from Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and some of the unique voice is lost in the process. It still makes for a enjoyable watch though, and the brief 88 minutes will certainly fly by.

After this, Waititi took a foray into TV with four episodes of Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009), a fantastically unique show following two New Zealand folk-rockers attempting to find fame in New York. Weird and wonderful, it was co-created by James Bobin, Bret McKenzie and the aforementioned Jermaine Clements, and shows us another glimpse of the magic that he and Waititi would later create.

Boy (2010)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Really stepping into his element, Waititi not only created a very successful piece with the critics but one that resonated with the audience as well, surprising the then-Film Commissioning chief in New Zealand, becoming the best opening week domestically. If you watched the previously mentioned Two Cars, One Night you’ll see the inspiration Waititi took into Boy, even using a similar scene to convey a more serious message through the lead and a close friend.

Much like the short, the young actors are expertly cast really creating the authentic tone that he wants to come across. It follows Boy, played by James Rolleston as his absent father returns from prison in search of money he buried at his grandmothers farm. Many credit the acclaim to the off-beat humour that New Zealand became known for (early successes like Flight of the Conchords helped as well), working this in with emotional punch very effectively. Waititi plays the father Alamein (a recurrence of roles in each of his films became regular, but this being his most prominent and narratively importantly) and shows the reason he originally took up the acting craft.

Blending the grounded and realistic coming of age story with plenty of fantastical sequences really puts Boy head and shoulders above many other independent films of this ilk. They don’t just serve as a fun escapisms, but thematically important and character developing moments as well. Much of this comes from Boy’s younger brother Rocky, whose mother died during his childbirth, and Boy himself constructs a number of different stories lionising his father as a way to excuse him of his absence.

Affecting, funny and thoughful Waititi really takes strides from Eagle vs Shark to create a must watch for anyone with an interest in independent cinema.

Between Boy and his next feature, it was mostly TV that Waititi directed. The most notable is the first season of Super City (2011), in which Madeleine Sami portrays a number of different characters living in Auckland City. Clever and unique, it’s certainly a driving machine for Sami and although a pleasant addition to his filmography, it doesn’t stand out quite like many of the other notable pieces.

What We Do In The Shadows (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With a similar budget to Boy, 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows didn’t quite reach the same financial success, reaching a still respectable $6.9m box office. It doesn’t have the same emotional punch, or discuss the same sort of layered issues of human relationships. That being said, it is outstandingly funny. The genius of the film really just boils down to two traits; the simple premise of making a mock-documentary about ageing vampires attempting to live in the modern era, and getting a group of actors together that have the chemistry and skills to improvise almost all the dialogue.

If you didn’t know before watching, there wasn’t actually a full screenplay written. Instead, Waititi and Flight of the Conchords co-creator Jermaine Clements created a brief script with the basic story, absent of any cast. Throughout filming they shot 125 hours of footage that was cut down to the finished 90 minute feature, and that hour and a half will have you smiling from ear to ear throughout. Arguments about the chore rota, using magic powers to convince the police that their vampiric screams are nothing to worry about and a near bloodbath due to the human IT-nerd they befriend create one of the funniest and genuinely easy to watch films you’ll encounter.

Although it may not have reached huge box office success, What We Do In The Shadows definitely took the eye of the critics and secure slightly more funding for his next feature, an adaptation of Barry Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress.

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Renaming the book to the just as catchy Hunt For The Wilderpeople it did take Waititi some time to get the project made, starting to adapt the novel as early as 2005. The wait was certainly worth it though, standing as the best entry in his filmography thus far.

Perhaps the biggest success of Hunt For The Wilderpeople is how the potential tropes of a the three leads could easily have fallen into cliché. Ricky, A misbehaving teen in and out of foster care has his last chance at a family. Bella, a full on but incredibly caring mother who quickly breaks down the shell surrounding Ricky. Her husband Hec, a older much harsher man, although doesn’t show his any appreciation for Ricky really just wants what’s best for him.

The film is split into 10 chapters as we follow the untimely death of Bella, the fallout of Ricky faking a suicide that Hec gets the blame for. Ricky escapes into the forest, which Hector finds him in, realising that the authorities are after them both, the older of the pair has to make the decision to keep the boy from being taken away and lose the only emotional security he has had in years.

Ricky puts on a tough, city gangster exterior that grates on Hec, but even he is worn down by the reminder that the boys only real family was tragically lost – the pain he is also experiencing. Although the same heightened realism you’d come to expect from a Waititi film is prevalent throughout, the balance of absurdism and tragedy is balanced with a much more beautiful sense of finesse, touching on a much deeper and affecting topic than many of his previous films.

The poignant tragedy of both Ricky and Hec’s situation is made that much more endearing by making them both outsiders in their own unique way. By putting them through the unconventional manhunt with many eccentric events throughout, Waititi explores the elements of loss and relationships between loved ones creating not only one of the best films of 2016’s, but of the 2010’s.

If nothing else, Waititi is certainly unpredictable, as his next film after Hunt For The Wilderpeople was an entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the third in the solo films for original Avenger Thor.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Moving from a budget of $2.5m to $180m is a leap of some proportion. Other independent directors taken up to the blockbuster scene have unfortunately failed (Josh Trank, from Chronicle [2012] to Fantastic Four [2015] failing to impress audiences and critics alike), Waititi was not one to suffer this fate, though.

The previous entry into Thor’s filmography is often considered one of the MCU’s worst, Thor: The Dark World (2013) wasn’t a commercial failure, but didn’t reach the financial or critical success many of the previous films had received. Waititi takes the dark, brooding Nordic god and makes one of the more original entries into the comic book genre. Arguably, this is Marvels first comedy-first-action-second film, utilising the skills of Hemsworth and Ruffalo that had yet to really shine, with wonderful comedic timing and delivery that only really was shown by Thor himself in the fish out of water elements from his first MCU project in 2011.

As expected, much of the humour is deadpan and dry, but a admirable element by Waititi is the way he blends the New Zealand comedy into a film much more accessible to the casual Americanised audience. Loki has always been a standout for much of the early phases of the MCU, and Ragnarok is no change from that, allowing Hiddleston to bring wit and humour to the same level his Thor and Hulk co-leads display.

The only real downfall of the film is the foregoing of emotional subsistence for persistent humour throughout. There are many times that a affecting or poignant beat is either had or can be had, but looses the effect for more humour. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it didn’t happen during every emotional beat, but unfortunately does succumb to this, which is that bit more bitter by knowing how well Waititi balanced humour and emotional impact in previous films. However, it still stands in the upper echelon of comic book cinema, as well as being one of the easiest to watch 2+ hour films you encounter.

Although Thor: Ragnarok was his last feature film directorial outing, he has since worked on the TV adaptation of What We Do In The Shadows (2019), directing three episodes and writing all ten with Jermaine Clements (and a number of rotating staff). Aside from this, he has been working on a number of different films yet to be released.

Upcoming Projects

The two he has been confirmed to have been working on are titled Jojo Rabbit, and a live action adaption of Akira, originally a 1988 Japanese animation. As well as this, Waititi has been announced to be directing and co-writing for the upcoming TV adaptation of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981).

The first of the pair of features has been given a release date in October this year, and is starring Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas McKenzie. It follows a boy wanting to join Hilter Youth discovers that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their home, and attempts to confront this with the help of his imaginary friend Adolf, played by Waititi himself. The screenplay is based off Caging Skies, although the extent to which he used his own creative direction is unclear, but initial images and interviews with Waititi really make this a fascinating film well worth waiting for.

Of the other confirmed project not a huge amount is known. Leonardo DiCaprio is producing, and Waititi co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Golamco, who is best known for being a integral member of the NBC series Grimm (2011-2017) and the Netflix original Always Be My Maybe (2019). Akira is set to film this summer, and has been described as “a huge detour from the original work”.

Compared to other directors and writers Taika Waititi hasn’t created the largest filmography available, but he has certainly made one of the most interesting collections in recent years. Using the unique humour New Zealand has become known for, he blends happy-sad elements of cinema to create semi-surreal adventures explores different aspects of human relationships, quickly mastering the style he is know easily recognised for. With the aforementioned upcoming projects he doesn’t seem to be missing a step and certainly not resting on his laurels, pushing the boundaries that bit further and keeping far away from anything that you could consider a safe choice.

Author: Phil Wilson

I watch and make films.

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