The teenage star of Taika Waititi's new film stole the show at the movie's Sundance Festival world premiere. Hitting the stage for a Q&A session after the screening, 14 year-old Julian Dennison had the crowd in stitches.
The star of Waititi's fourth feature after Eagle vs. Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, had the audience talking and cackling way out into the Utah snow as they had throughout the film.
Dennison wasn't shy. When asked how he and co-star Sam Neill forged their on-screen relationship, the veteran actor asked the youngster, "Shall I go first?" "I'll go first," Dennison demanded to huge laughs.
Further laughs came when he asserted his preference for Coldplay over hip-hop unlike his movie character.
Not that Neill, who clearly adores the kid, was a slouch in the humour department.
"Actors always suck up to each other," he said. "In this case it was just a pleasure to hang out with Julian every day. We'd sit in that truck waiting for something to happen and I'd just laugh at the stuff that comes out of him. He's one of the funniest people I've met and we continue to be friends. We have plans. I think we might set up a hedge fund. Just give us your money and we'll look after it."
"It was really great working with Sam," Dennison said at pre-premiere drinks. "I first met him and I thought he would be this big Hollywood actor, this big guy, but he is really cool and down to earth. He is a really Kiwi sort of guy."
Already an old hand at acting after roles in Shopping, Paper Planes and Waititi's "Blazed" ad campaign, Dennison here, playing his first lead role, says he had the most fun on any film.
"Taika really made it feel like we weren't working, we weren't acting, we were having fun," says the young actor.
"He was really good with doing that and helping me focus. It was not like we were getting up early mornings and doing work, which we were. He knows how to bring his inner kid out. He can be a bit silly sometimes but he is really an awesome director and an awesome person to work with."
Before the premiere the 40 year-old director was cool as a cucumber.
"My problem is I feel too relaxed and sometimes it can be to my detriment," he admits. "I'm excited because this is a really huge room with over 1000 people and it's sold out. I think my films really work well with a big audience. The most special thing is having the cast here, having Julian here to see all the hard work he's done and how it paid off after those long nights and arduous days out in the wilderness in New Zealand's winter."
Waititi told the crowd how his film "is a real homage to 80s Australasian filmmaking with a lot of zooms, crossfades and music. I was trying to make Roger Donaldson meets Geoff Murphy, the guys who forged a path for us. I grew up with those crazy wacky adventures. In general the world's full of depressing movies so I wanted to make something fun."
Basing his screenplay on Barry Crump's Wild Pork and Watercress, Waititi splits his story into ten sections. It follows Dennison's misfit orphan as he goes to live with the curmudgeonly Hec (Neill) and Aunty Bella (Rima Te Wiata).
When Hec is accused of abusing the boy the pair, who initially didn't get on, head off into the wilderness. (Neill had played a fugitive in Roger Donaldson's 1977 film Sleeping Dogs and Waititi's film is replete with cinematic references.)
"The Hec character is very different to Barry Crump from all accounts," Waititi says. "I didn't want to do a Barry Crump movie though the way the book is written it's a fully formed adventure and was perfect for adapting to a film." Neill essentially plays the straight man to Dennison's.
"I am not the funny guy, I am surrounded by funny people," Neill says.
The Guardian notes how the actor, now 68, "hasn't been tasked with such a gravely amusing role in years. Together, the two are comic dynamite".
At the premiere Waititi, who will go on to MC Sundance's awards ceremony, naturally generated some laughs as well. He explained how 80 per cent of the film's exteriors we were out in wilderness, "basically The Revenant with no money, no luxuries and trudging through the snow. But we didn't plan for it. It just snowed one day and I figured, 'I guess some of the film is in the snow now and we'll work it out later'."
In early reviews, Variety said "there's a cornier, more formulaic core here than in the writer-helmer's prior successes ... the pic is sure to be another home-turf hit.
While The Hollywood Reporter described it as "a deliciously good time at the movies" .
The movie also stars Oscar Kightley, Stan Walker and Rhys Darby.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in New Zealand on March 31.