Without disruption, we’re doomed to repeat ourselves,” says Taika Waititi. He applies the label to his own sense of adventure in filmmaking, insisting that he must disrupt his own comfort in order to push himself as a director. “When something feels like an obvious choice, it feels a little too easy, and I need to disrupt it and be a bit more chaotic.”
But it’s the quiet kind of disruption with which Waititi has upended Hollywood that has earned him a place among our 2019 class of Disruptors. Few could have imagined, as his body of work built through Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, that the brand of odd New Zealand humor practiced by him and his regular collaborators, including Jemaine Clement and Rachel House, would be so warmly and universally embraced that it would lead him to the set of a Marvel movie.
Many directors have passed through the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, 22 films into what has proven to be an unbeatable run, and each has left their own mark on the big-screen adaptations of comic book heroes that have dominated multiplex screens for the past decade. But 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok was different. It was a Taika Waititi film that happened to exist in the MCU; a fan favorite Marvel movie that was simultaneously just as appetizing for people who don’t like Marvel movies.
It did not, though, mark a transition to blockbuster cinema from which Waititi would never return. It wasn’t the end of his particular yellow brick road. Instead, with Ragnarok on release, he pivoted back to one of his own projects, Jojo Rabbit, loosely adapted by Waititi from a Christine Leunens novel.
His mother had tipped him off to the book, Caging Skies, and it sparked something in him that reflected a hallmark of his work to date. Just as Boy was, in Waititi’s description, a “comedy about child neglect”, and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople a hilarious examination of grief and the foster system, so Jojo Rabbit is a moving tale about a little boy in wartime Germany whose steadfast commitment to the Nazi party is thrown into chaos when he discovers his mother is harboring a Jewish girl in their attic. Oh, and his imaginary best friend is a Waititian version of Adolf Hitler.
It shouldn’t be funny, nor heartwarming, and yet, in Waititi’s deft hands, it is very likely to be both. There’s a certain fearlessness to Waititi’s attraction to dark subject matter that makes him such a master disruptor, and his films have worked so well precisely because the darkness is balanced so delicately with heart and humor.
As he continues to keep an eye on another mooted project of his, an animated film called Bubbles, which tracks the Michael Jackson story through the eyes of his pet chimpanzee, even as the revelations of Leaving Neverland lead to a reexamination of our relationship with the King of Pop (Waititi says the project is still hovering if not imminent), it seems there are very few limits to where Waititi’s curiosity will take him.
He is now one of Hollywood’s hardest working filmmakers, with a slew of projects in development. Wherever he goes next, Waititi is certain to raise eyebrows, ruffle feathers and keep us laughing for many years to come.
When you set out, did you ever think that the kind of humor that is your stock in trade could one day lead to Hollywood blockbusters?
What I and my friends were doing when we first started out just felt different for New Zealand, I think. New Zealand cinema was always considered kind of dark, and we did more dramas than anything. It wasn’t like we’re known for this mix of drama and comedy—tonally what I ended up doing in my films. That wasn’t really usual. But once we started doing things like that, I think we just realized that there was an audience for it.
That tone didn’t feel out of the question in New Zealand, it was just that I don’t think we’d had much of an opportunity to do it, so when we did do it, everyone felt like, “Oh, this is exactly how we are, and this is our sense of humor, and this is not an unusual way to look at ourselves; nothing weird.”
But then, we didn’t make a lot of movies in New Zealand before. Not many people had been given the opportunity to go down that road with a feature film. In the past, we probably only would have made six films a year, on average, so when you’re using taxpayers money and you’re trying to make the best films as possible, for the New Zealand Film Commission in the past, it’s just been less risky to stay with what we were known for, and not disrupt that habit.
A not uncommon attitude from many publicly-funded arts bodies.
Yeah, and I think I got lucky, in that at the point I came in they probably started recognizing that they needed to change things, otherwise they were in danger of perpetually repeating themselves and doing all the things that I’m trying not to do.
What has resulted, with shows like Flight of the Conchords and your movies, is that the world now identifies this particular tone with New Zealand and its filmmaking.
I think that sense of humor is very definitely New Zealand. It was a style we developed, and the Conchords definitely put it on the map.
It was how we always sort of communicated, comedy-wise, over the years; for a decade before the HBO show, so that wasn’t unusual to us. But it has been nice to know that the style of comedy of the mundane is appreciated a bit more now. Even when Conchords first started the show, it took a little while for people to figure out that nothing else was going to happen, and that was OK.
Were you surprised it worked in America?
Yeah, that took a while. It did take a while for them, and I think there are still people that just don’t get it. They’re getting better though.
It’s definitely more in line with British humor. We grew up with a lot of British shows, and also a lot of American shows, so our ability to mix those two kinds of comedy from two countries—as well as Southern Australia and other places—I think we’ve had the best of both worlds. So our comedy is a mix of all of that stuff, though I do think we tend to gravitate to British comedy more.
The dots I’m trying to connect are these: how does the man behind Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople wind up on the set of a Marvel movie, delivering a picture that didn’t feel at all disconnected from the body of work that came before it or the MCU?
I hadn’t made Hunt for the Wilderpeople at the time, actually, though it came out first. It wasn’t finished. I’d done my first three films, and they’d watched Shadows and loved that, but if I’d only made that I don’t think it would have been a great indicator of what I was capable of.
What actually inspired them to talk to me was they saw Boy. With these movies, you can have a background in horror or comedy or whatever, and people assume that’s what they’re looking for, but what they’re actually looking for is people who know how to tell a story emotionally, and create characters that you care about. Directors unafraid of using emotion in their films.
Shadows certainly doesn’t do that. To be honest, it’s basically a five-minute joke that we stretched out for an hour and a half. There are characters you care about, but it’s not really a big, emotional journey. It’s definitely the broadest film I’ve done.
I think Eagle vs. Shark and Boy are a little closer to what they were interested in. They watched Boy, and they really loved that, and thought that even if I were to come in and deliver a comedy, we’d still be dealing with the characters on a more emotional level as well.
And I was really happy that they let me do my thing. They allowed me to bring a lot of my own ideas and a lot of my style, and I put a lot of myself into the treatment of the movie.
Was that hard fought at all?
I was able to try just anything, really. They do a great job of keeping you in their lane, so you don’t veer off too wildly and crash the Marvel bus. And that’s good, because you do just keep suggesting stuff. It’s like you’re a kid and you want to test their boundaries the entire time, waiting to see how long it is before they put you into time out. They will either tell you to reel it in or to keep going.
Is it tricky to balance this almost surreal sense of humor with the heart and pathos demanded by films like Boy and Eagle vs. Shark?
Well, coming from New Zealand, we shy away from sentimentality, and anything that feels cheesy or over-earnest. So with any of the emotional stuff in my movies, it was about trying to do it in a very non-cheesy way. If you look at Boy, it’s a very un-American coming-of-age film. It’s more like a comedy about child neglect. Eagle vs. Shark, too, is a very un-American romantic comedy; it’s neither a romance nor very funny.
So it’s about trying to do things that feel unique and authentic, even though a lot of these films feel a bit over the top. The situations seem more quirky—which is a word I hate—and more fantastical in a lot of ways. It still feels authentic to me, because it’s based around how I see the world.
Performances and situations in these movies do feel very New Zealand, and have a unique style to them that I think sometimes only we understand.
Your next film is Jojo Rabbit. 10-year-old Jojo, the lead character, is absolutely in love with the Nazi party and a proud member of the Hitler Youth. He’s unkind, to begin with, to the Jewish girl he finds in the attic. Which is not necessarily my first go-to when I think, Here’s a set up for a hilarious situation.
No, it’s not at all, is it? [laughs] And it’s not even a super hilarious film; there’s a lot of comedy in it, but again, as with my other films, it’s more of a drama with a lot of light moments throughout. I’m not even sure if it could be construed as a comedy. It’s definitely not a broad comedy.
Having said all that, it’s the most original way I feel I would want to look at tackling this subject.
You play his imaginary friend: Hitler.
Yeah, but he’s not really Hitler. He’s like a 10 year-old kid’s version of Hitler. So he doesn’t have to share anything with actual Hitler, because 10 year-olds never meet Hitler. He’s basically a 10 year-old who happens to have a tiny little mustache.
I didn’t have to do any research, and I didn’t do any research. I didn’t base him on anything I’d seen about Hitler before. I just made him a version of myself that happened to have a bad haircut and a sh*tty little mustache. And a mediocre German accent.
It would just be too weird to play the actual Hitler, and I don’t think people would enjoy the character as much. Because he was such a f*cking c**t, and everyone knows that as well. I think people have got to relate to really enjoy the ride.
Do you have to be aware of crossing lines when you write a movie like this? Is there a line?
Of course there’s a line. There’s always a line. But for me I think I find it naturally; what would I feel embarrassed to show people? Then I wouldn’t put it in. If there’s any time I feel like something is inappropriate I pull back.
That’s the other thing you’ll find about New Zealand stuff, is that we’re not inappropriate or really provoking. We don’t really tend to do that. We’re not into shock value; it’s polite comedy is what I’d say New Zealand comedy is. We don’t want to insult people too much, we don’t want to push it too far. We’re just too embarrassed and shy for that.
There’s no way I’d do anything just because it might be controversial and might seem like it’ll get people talking. We find that kind of shock comedy act disingenuous and fake.
Speaking of controversy, you were planning to do an animated film following the exploits of Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee. Is that still an active project?
That script has been around for a long time, and it’s a little bit stuck in the early stages of trying to figure out what it could be and what it would look like. It’s a f*cking brilliant script, though. It’s so cool to look at the idea of telling a story like this through the eyes of a chimpanzee.
But right now I’m finishing two other features—one which I’m looking to do this year—and finishing Jojo, and there are a couple of TV shows I’m developing. There’s about two or three that I mentioned to the press, and they’re way back on my backburner.
You talked about Bubbles as being a film that you’d develop in between other things.
Yeah, but I’ve actually had to start pulling out of other things, because I was just becoming too busy. And so even doing something like that delays everything else. Even with an animated movie, it turns out, you have to be pretty present.
How much of that workload has come off the back of the success of Thor: Ragnarok, do you think?
A little bit, but my Jojo film came up before Thor with Fox Searchlight. A lot of these things are in development for years. There have been a couple of opportunities, but all these little films of mine, they haven’t really come together off the back of Thor. Thor was not the sign to producers that I would be able to make an animated film about a chimpanzee. That’s probably not the kind of director they’re looking for. Most of the films I’ve got in development have less to do with Thor and more to do with everything else I’ve done.