Boy becomes man

Has the boy become a man? Director Taika Waititi has had to come out from behind the camera to get his huge Kiwi hit, Boy, on to US screens. James Robinson watches him in action in the Big Apple

Taika Waititi.
Photo / Jane Ussher
Taika Waititi. Photo / Jane Ussher

On a bitingly cold March evening, the theatre at the Angelika Film Center complex in downtown New York is heated at a level toasty enough to induce sleep. The 200-seat room is a third full, which feels like an achievement this day.

The lights go down, and Boy starts. Those in attendance are taken back to the 1980s and transported to small town New Zealand. The movie draws warm laughs, with Michael Jackson, Dukes of Hazzard, and E.T. references inevitably resonating more with the American audience than nods to Billy T James and Goodnight Kiwi.

The credits roll to applause, and director Taika Waititi and producer Emanuel Michael spring from the back doors, microphones in hand. It is almost two years exactly since the movie started its ascent towards becoming the highest grossing New Zealand movie of all time at the local box office, but Waititi's Boy, a personal story set in the small East Coast town he grew up in, is finally enjoying an American release.

In 2010 Boy drew standing ovations at Utah's prestigious Sundance Film Festival, but was overlooked by American distributors for a US release.

No distribution meant there would be no financial backing to send the movie into different markets of the US. But two years later, spurred by an online fundraising campaign through the website Kickstarter, Waititi and his producer are now self-releasing the movie, personally taking it on an 11-city, coast to- coast trip through cinemas.

The duo are fronting their eighth audience in three days. Waititi looks tired, understandably, and occasionally loses his train of thought. The slightly wry, sardonic New Zealand humour of Boy springs easily from him. "We could just go to a bar," he jokes to open the interchange with moviegoers, and quickly the audience seems onside with him.

He answers questions about the movie, its young star, his presentation of Maori culture and 1980s New Zealand. He retains an obvious fondness for the film. "As kids, we all thought Bob Marley was Maori," he quips to more laughs.

An older woman asks the two film-makers about their self-release and fundraising campaign. Waititi is effusive in his praise for the Kickstarter site for settingupthe ability to crowd source arts funding and giving power back to an audience. They needed to raise $90,000 to release the movie in the US and have raised $110,000 so far. The money will go to making prints of the movie, adverts and promotion.

Days before, Waititi had appeared on a New York news broadcast to read the weather and boost awareness of the release. A cardboard cutout for Boy is prominently displayed in the theatre lobby, adorned with a favourable New York Times review. "Basically the big studios and companies distributing your movie just take a big cut of profit for making posters," Waititi says.

Michael, Boy's producer, cuts in. Major studios all loved the movie following its festival debut in 2010, but didn't know what to do with it, he says. It was foreign, and the actors had accents. It was a little bit of a comedy, and a little bit of a drama. By selfreleasing Boy they are hoping to show that a small-scale, word-of-mouth campaign can still be a factor in driving success.

Getting in front of cinemagoers is an important personal touch with a smaller release, Waititi says via telephone. Most of the administration falls to him and his producer, with some help from local public relations companies in each market they enter. It may be a tiring schedule "but it's not as bad as coal mining", he says dryly.

He admits it was a let down when no American company bought the rights to distribute Boy. In 2010, the recession was taking its toll in every major movie market. "The companies that were buying movies at festivals were only wanting a sure bet."

Waititi has since moved on from Boy to a major role in the Green Lantern and has directed the pilot of the American remake of Inbetweeners. But he has also moved more towards salesman. He began contemplating an independent American release of Boy in April last year.

The campaign to raise $90,000 was launched in February on the Kickstarter site.Without the money, the release would have been New York, Los Angeles and home. Every dollar raised counts in pushing Boy closer to success ,Waititi notes.

The money afforded by big studios in promoting their movies is "why you know that Spiderman 17 is opening next week and you don't know that a brilliant film from Iran is playing too". And despite its distinctively New Zealand accents and settings, and its supposedly unmarketable mixture of comedy and drama, Boy plays well to an American audience.

Its themes of innocence, coming of age and adulthood appear to hit home the same way on the other side of the world.

The audience in New York crowded the two speakers following the question and answer session and people left smiling. A showing was sold out on the Saturday, and music legend Grace Jones was photographed in attendance. The New York Times praised the movie's "surprising rhythmic genius" and the popular A.V. Club called it "unexpectedly poignant".

Following its first weekend, Boy was placed at No 58 on the American box office charts, taking in $26,000 on two screens. It had more revenue per screen than any other independent filmin the nation,andwas second only overall to the big-budget animated version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.

"We've bought it here, now go tell a friend about it, see if we can keep it here a while,"Waititi tells his audience to a round of stirring applause.

- Herald on Sunday

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