That's my boy

By Helen Barlow

James Rolleston plays a young boy with a very active imagination. Photo / Supplied
James Rolleston plays a young boy with a very active imagination. Photo / Supplied

When the International Jury of the Berlin Film Festival's Generation Kplus (children's) section awarded Taika Waititi their best film prize last month for his second feature, Boy, they acknowledged how the 34-year-old approaches difficult subjects with humour. They also complimented him on his mo'.

Said the judges. "It is a rich mix of ideas which strike and collide to create poetic moments that speak, despite the remote location, to all of us today. With fantastic charismatic performances all around, including a striking moustache on the director."

That's because Waititi not only directed the film but he appears in it as Alamein, the absentee itinerant father of Boy and Rocky. He returns to see his kids - who live with their grandma and cousins - with fellow members of his fledging gang, the Crazy Horses. The film is also an affectionate homage to the 80s and Michael Jackson.

There's no doubting that the film-maker who grew up in Waihau Bay - where he set his coming-of-age tale - has come up with something highly original.

This isn't the Maoridom of Once Were Warriors or Whale Rider.

"It's definitely original for a Maori story," says the genial Waititi.

"I mean, we're a funny people, but we're not well known for our comedies. All of our films are about teen suicide and people bashing each other up, or spiritual stories about people who talk to animals and are connected to the earth.

"We haven't really embraced the Maori nerd yet and that's what I'm trying to do. I love this film. I'm really happy with the way it turned out."

Initially based on his Oscar-nominated short film, Two Cars, One Night, which presented a humorous and poignant view of two kids waiting in the carpark for their fathers to come out of the Te Kaha pub, Boy developed into something quite different in the hands of its creator.

"I keep telling people that it's the long version of the short film, but in fact the only thing it's got in common is kids in the country with amazing dialogue written by this amazing writer," he laughs.

"The first draft was more dramatic but eventually I realised that shit's already been made, so I added more of myself into the story, a bit more irreverence, and it's more a mix of comedy and drama now."

Like his first feature Eagle vs. Shark, Boy features adults who behave more like kids. That bittersweet romantic comedy starred his then-girlfriend Loren Horsley and Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement, his mate from his days of studying theatre and film at Victoria University and with whom he formed an early comedy duo, The Humour Beasts.

This time Waititi wanted his story to be more biographical.

"I wanted to tell a story that was from my area, about how we grew up, but I think it's a pretty universal style of growing up. It's about how kids see their parents, the fantasies we make up about our parents even though we know exactly who they are. What I like about it is that at the end, the 11-year-old boy [played by stunning newcomer James Rolleston] still makes up fantasies. The more Hollywood version would be that he gets over it and is stuck in reality. I mean, I know exactly who my parents are and I still make up stories about them to make them more interesting."

The son of a Maori father of Te-Whanau-a-Apanui descent and a Jewish-European mother, Waititi bemoans the fact that he hasn't yet had his own kids so they can know him as he is now.

"Audiences can relate to this idea that the people that you're closest to can often be the biggest strangers. It feels like a tagline, but it's true and it's where the idea for the film came from. It's like looking at your parents and trying to figure out who the f*** they are. The people your parents were before they had you are complete mysteries. I think of myself, that when I do have kids they're not going to have any idea of the type of person I am right now. It's bizarre because you're always going to be this older person who is never quite as cool as them."

It's not as if his parents should take it personally though, as they do seem to have been free-thinking and encouraging. "My dad's a painter, which is also my background, so I started doing that earlier. My mother's an English teacher who forced me to read a lot of books and poetry and encouraged me more towards the drama side of things, like doing the acting and the writing. The first significant play I did, I was 10. It was this surreal thing these hippies put on at an art festival in Wellington in 1985 and I got a part as a kid running around the stage.

"The weird thing was I had this girlfriend in the play who was in her mid-20s."

Having well and truly grown up - well, physically at least - in 2000 Waititi was nominated for Best Actor at the New Zealand Film Awards for his role in Scarfies.

Standup gigs followed and in 2004 this irrepressible talent launched his solo show, Taika's Incredible Show following up the next year with the sequel, Taika's Incrediblerer Show. In 2004 he directed the short film Heinous Crime, featuring Horsley and Cliff Curtis (who would become the very hands-on producer of both his features) and in 2005 followed up with the high scoring Tama tu, about a squad of Maori troops in WWII Europe who silently entertain themselves in a destroyed house before going into battle. Waititi went on to direct four episodes of The Flight of the Conchords, appearing in one episode and writing two.

In many ways Eagle vs. Shark became his calling card for bigger things to come in movies. Now Boy looks set to bring him international recognition on more than one level. When he attempted to cast the boy's hapless ex-con dad, he could think of no one better than himself.

"In the end I wanted something so specific it was better for me to do it," explains Watiti, a handsome man who uglied up with that moustache "It could of course have been Jemaine or one of our friends, someone who's grown up with theatre and a good sense of comedy, rather than having attended drama school. We never learned how to act; we just do our own style that we developed over the years. Upon close inspection you'd say it wasn't really acting," he sniggers. "I like people who don't know how to act. I like watching that in films."

After taking away the Berlin prize, Waititi headed off for a spate of meetings in Los Angeles. America has been kind to him, particularly Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, which has helped him develop his two features in its writers' lab before hosting the films' premieres at the prestigious Sundance Festival.

Waititi acknowledges, though, that Americans, who famously fail to understand irony, don't always get his humour.

"In Europe it's been great just watching the film with audiences, because you get the feeling that people f***ing love film. It is pretty cool here. I really love the EU, how close everyone is together. There are so many different cultures with people from all over saying I should come show my film there. You get a better sense of the universality of your story than in the States where they take things far too seriously."

He admits that American audiences "didn't get" Eagle vs. Shark. "Possibly it was the accent because in Europe movies are subtitled but in the US they're renowned for being earnest, and for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They see something we find hilarious and they think it's heartbreaking."

The naive style Waititi adopts cleverly allows him to get away with some rather outrageous moments, I suggest. "Totally!" he agrees, "and also not really trying to [outrage], especially with the marijuana, not trying to say, 'Oh look it's marijuana,' trying to be matter-of fact about everything. The stuff with the drugs and the money is beside the point of the actual story. The film could easily have been about someone searching for the money, a kind of race-against-time heist movie, which again has been done a lot."

Always striving for originality, Waititi concedes that Michael Jackson would surely moonwalk in his grave if he were aware of the film's musical finale where Thriller meets The Patea Maori Club's Poi E. Slumdog Millionaire, eat your heart out. "I was actually inspired by Zatoichi, Takeshi Kitano's version of The Blind Swordsman with all the tap dancing at the end," Waititi stresses. "They were all in traditional costume but it's a Japanese tap dance. I'm attracted to that mix of two cultures and it was the same with the Thriller thing because Michael Jackson was a huge influence on Maori culture, especially in the 80s. At parties all my friends and I used to try to mash up the Thriller dance with Maori moves, and I thought it would just be funny to stick those two together in the movie. Jackson died during editing. "It was tragic because I am a fan of his so I found it really sad."

Currently Waititi has a collection of Maori stories and screenplays he wants to make; he is writing material for the US and is preparing something with Clement.

"I'm split down the middle as half of me is Maori, and half of me is Pakeha, so I have stories from both sides," Waititi notes. "I'm not really committed to one style."

Not wanting to rush into anything, he is still deciding whether he will make his next film in the US or at home. "Essentially I'm going to keep living in New Zealand and trying to make stuff there because it's a good place and it's a good place for a film-maker - if you have the doors open, that is. If the doors are closed, it's pretty difficult."

LOWDOWN

Who: Taika Waititi, director and actor

What: Boy, his second feature after Eagle Vs Shark.

When: Releases at cinemas March 25

Info: boythemovie.co.nz and crazyhorses.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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