ABOVE: TAIKA WAITITI SHOOTING BOY. IMAGE COURTESY OF UNISON FILMS
In Taika Waititi’s Boy, the eleven-year-old titular character, played with comic freshness by James Rolleston, is a daydreamer. Living with his siblings, he is prone to staring out the window and imaging a world that resembles Michael Jackson music videos starring his absent father, Alamein (played by Waititi himself). When Alamein returns from jail, he throws himself back into the life of his kids with abandon, hilariously waxing poetic about his three-person-deep gang, samurais, and the money he buried in a nearby field and can’t seem to find. The film travels a familiar coming-of-age path and manages to reveal something rewarding on the other side.
Interview spoke with Waititi on a warm morning in midtown Manhattan about his early days as a painter, the dramatic origins of the film, and casting a film full of children.
CRAIG HUBERT: You started out as a visual artist, as well as a little acting and comedy. Was filmmaking always on the horizon?
TAIKA WAITITI: No, I never wanted to be a filmmaker. I still, sometimes, think I got sidetracked by this, like this is a tangent. My main thing was painting; I was just going to do that. I always doing comedy and acting, and I really enjoyed doing that—just making stuff up with my mates. I was basically trying to do everything. In Wellington, we had this big studio space where we all worked. I had a studio in there, and Bret and Jemaine [of Flight of the Concords] would come in and out—all these people who met at university, and we all sort of hung out in this place and made stuff. Eventually, I thought I would love to have a go at making a film, because I’d been in a few New Zealand features, and some TV shows, and thought I would want to try it out. So I wrote this little short script and threw it together. It ended up that the film did so incredibly well and I got so much encouragement to keep doing film after that. When something like that happens—I made that film, it got nominated for an Oscar—it meant film had to become my job, in a way. Suddenly, I inadvertently got a job.
HUBERT: Do you ever think of going back?
WAITITI: Every day. There are lots of parts of filmmaking that I don’t like. At the end of the day, especially on features, the film turns into a commodity. You have to play this entirely new game I’m very uncomfortable with. Also, going from something as individual and personal as painting to something where you have to interact with so many people every day—
HUBERT: You’re forced to collaborate.
WAITITI: —which is fine. But often, you’re lumped in with people you don’t really know, you don’t know their style or how they work. On the job you find this stuff out. Like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know this person was like this!” You’re fast tracking all these relationships.
HUBERT: I read that the original idea for Boy started to take shape before Eagle vs. Shark, but then you got sidetracked, eventually coming back to it. Did the project change a lot from its beginnings to what we see on screen now?
WAITITI: The first draft was a lot more dramatic. I took it to the Sundance Lab, and they liked it, but I just felt like it wasn’t right. I recognized that the script, as it was, was too much like other New Zealand films that had been made. It was kind of falling into a traditional New Zealand genre.
HUBERT: What is that tradition?
WAITITI: Very dark dramas, bad things happening to nice people, very heavy. I didn’t want to make a film about child abuse, or child neglect, which was unwatchable. Also, my background is comedy—I couldn’t ignore that, really. There were so many things I wanted to put in the story I found funny from growing up in those times. New Zealand was such a weird place in the 1980s. For instance: we used to have this commercial, in the late 1970s, where this guy drives this car and stops outside a corner store. He goes in to buy something, and when he comes out his car is gone. He’s like, “Huh?” Then a voice says, “Don’t leave your keys in the car.” [laughs] We had to advertise to tell people not to be too trusting.
HUBERT: Do you see a larger shift in New Zealand, in terms of other artists embracing that weirdness?
WAITITI: We are a funny nation. We have a really good comedy scene; it’s just taken a while for us to recognize it’s OK to have our own voice. For a long time, our films were very derivative of American films. Whatever the latest in America, we would make it down there.
HUBERT: Was there a lot of British influences?
WAITITI: Our comedy, in general, is a good mix of British and American.
HUBERT: We talked about the 1980s a little bit. Why was it important to set the film during that decade instead of in the present day?
WAITITI: I have no idea what kids are into these days. My point of reference is really what I experienced from being a kid. I also hate the modern day the kids live in. I don’t think it’s very cool. Everyone’s interconnected. I feel like, to tell this story, it would be very different if everyone had cell phones and was connected by Facebook.
HUBERT: While watching the film, during the scene when the kids are hanging around outside, that you would never see that now. Do kids hang out like they used to?
WAITITI: I know! When it does, people think they’re forming a gang. [laughs]
HUBERT: Was it stressful to have to go out and cast a ton of kids for the film?
WAITITI: Yeah. It was the most stressful thing, finding the kids. We had this huge casting call around the country, but mainly concentrated in the area we were shooting. We wanted kids from the country because they speak a certain way. With the city kids, it’s not the same feel. We went to all these schools, hundreds and hundreds of kids. We found it really hard to find the two brothers. The adult characters were fine, except the dad character.
HUBERT: So when in the process did you decide you were going to play the role?
WAITITI: Two months prior to shooting. I was re-auditioning people, calling them back again and again. Maori characters are always a certain type. Have you seen Once Were Warriors?
HUBERT: No, I haven’t.
WAITITI: The characters are always violent, alcoholic tough-guys or warrior-type, Dances with Wolves character. We never embraced the buffoons in our culture. Maori nerds or Maori dorks. I had taken a couple of years off from acting, and I found myself falling into the character. In the end, it turned out to be really good because I could direct the kids within the scene. We found James, who plays Boy, three days before shooting. He was a real late addition. We had another kid who I was rehearsing with and he was hitting adolescence. He started talking about getting a tattoo, and he was almost as tall as me. [laughs]
HUBERT: What were you looking for in the children when casting? They all seemed very natural.
WAITITI: None of them had acted before, which is always something great to look for when trying to find kids. I find that a lot of child actors are ruined once they’ve done a job. I honestly feel most of the kids in this film are ruined for anyone else. Toss them aside; find some more for the next film! [laughs] We were straight up with them from the beginning. We said, look, acting is tough, let alone for a kid from the country—don’t get your hopes up. Take this opportunity and run with it. It’s hard enough for adults to get jobs.
BOY IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE FRIDAY.