Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi is an Academy Ward nominated director for short movies and in 2007 we saw him make his feature length film directorial debut with quirky picture Eagle vs Shark.

On your MySpace page, you list your favourite films as war and Love Actually. Does that explain the collision of familial conflict and hopeless romanticism in Eagle Vs Shark?

[laughing] I was being sarcastic about Love Actually. I don’t like that film. But if you want to write that I’m a hopeless romantic, I love Love Actually and that inspired me to write Eagle Versus Shark, then I wouldn’t mind. I do have a real interest in war, not that I like the idea of fighting. I have a real interest in the older wars, World War II especially. Great stories have come out of it. I made a short, Tama Tu, about that period. I don’t think we’ll ever see or maybe we will a war like that ever again, a war where it’s good versus evil. In those days, it was like the good guys and the bad guys. Today, the wars have got so much more complicated, so much more political.

So where did the idea from the film come from?

It’s was an amalgamation of me and [actress] Loren Horsley. I wanted to make a film that she could be in, and she had this character, this kind of outsider protagonist who I really liked.

Loren especially wanted to play someone like Lily because females only ever get offered roles where they play good looking, bubbly, confident girls, who are always pretty or get a makeover halfway through the film and turn into beautiful swans.

In our film, Lily has a makeover and looks even more weird. Everyone in the film is weird and when you put a whole lot of weird people together in a film, you create a very eccentric world. But I really hope that people don’t sit back and say, 'This doesn’t have any bearing on my life whatsoever, I can’t relate to it.'

I really want people to see themselves in these characters. I want them to say, I am one of these characters.

Most people have been bullied at some time, or made up stories to impress someone, so we can sympathise with Lily and Jarrod on that level.

The characters are just extreme versions of ourselves. We all do what Jarrod does, we all lie. This whole thing that kids do, the more tragic your life is, the more interesting you are.

If you’re a teenager, you think 'If I’m really depressed, people will think I’m more deep.' One of the most amazing things happened to me after a screening in the States. A man came up to me and said, 'Oh my God, that’s my family! I had an uncle who we were told died saving a kid and I only found out a couple of years ago, that he actually killed himself.' This guy’s family made up this story to kind of save face. Why do people do these things?

You developed Eagle Vs Shark at the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program. Could you talk about how the program works?

Sure. You take along a first draft. It needs to be a good size script. You take that along and you meet up with about six or seven other filmmakers, who have all read your script. You talk together, then you meet one-on-one for about two or three hours and just discuss the script.

You might go for a walk around the woods and have a chat about ideas for the story. The great thing is you have a different perspective each time you meet one of these people. You go away with these different points of view on your script, all conflicting, and then you filter out the stuff you don’t think you can use and you’re left with these little pearls of wisdom, brilliant ideas that inspire you to finish a new draft of the script.

Once you’ve polished the script, what happens next?

Then there’s the filmmaking part. You take along your improved script and you spend three weeks shooting about four scenes from you film. So you spend four or five days to rehearse, shoot, edit and screen each scene.

[American comic] Judah Friedlander played Jarrod in the labs. He’s an absolute genius. That process goes on for three weeks and you’re surrounded by all these incredible filmmakers - directors, actors who come to give you advice, see how you work, and help you out. It’s a pretty exclusive little club, full of really smart people, who are there to help you.

How much did your original vision of the film change during that Sundance process?

The film did change a lot. Essentially, the whole story was the same, most of the scenes stayed the same. I just cut ones here and there and added a few things. Eagle Vs Shark was the sort of film that if you read the script, you didn’t know if it would work.

The only way to know was to just shoot it. The nature of the film was such that we needed the option of shifting scenes around. So, we had about another half hour of footage that didn’t make it into the film - you know, ideas that needed to be shot, just so we could figure everything out in the edit.

There are so many elements to this film, it’s almost like this complete mish-mash of stuff. My next film will be much more conventional and much more straightforward in terms of narrative.

You mention letting the film take shape in the editing room. How much did it evolve?

The original assembly was about two and a half hours. Then we cut it down to just under two hours - 119 minutes and I was like, 'Yes! We did it, we got it down! I don’t think we can really cut much more guys!'

We got it down to 104 minutes and I said, 'This film is practically done, guys.' But the great thing about Sundance is that they give you ongoing support throughout editing. You can send cuts off to people and they watch it and give you notes and ideas. We got some really great feedback, which inspired me to cut out certain things and concentrate more on Lily and her point of view.

Once you give yourself that kind of freedom, you can practically cut the film down to half an hour, if you want. You can just keep cutting.

Wasn’t it hard, though, chipping away at your months of work like that?

It was quite daunting and scary, but really freeing, and we ended up with a really tight 88 minute film. I still think that the 104 minute configuration works - it’s a slightly different tone, it slows down a little bit more, it’s a bit more meditative, more of a reflection on life and love, which I really like.

Will the longer version of the film be on the DVD?

Yes, you’ll get a lot of the extra scenes on the DVD; a lot of scenes of Jarrod being a prick. We cut a lot of that stuff out because he was being too much of an arsehole. I guess it’s just me, but I love all that stuff.

When people think of the New Zealand film industry, it tends to be orcs and hobbits, or girls riding on the back of whales and domestic violence. Was it tough pitching the idea of an offbeat comedy?

People don’t automatically think about comedy in New Zealand films. We’re often known for our darkness, usually someone dies in our films. I don’t think New Zealanders put much faith in their ability to be funny or to tell a different type of story.

For me, I just wanted to make a small, intimate film that, in reality, we never thought would do anything but maybe play in a couple of festivals.

Something really small that I would be able to cut my teeth on; this strange, kind of comedy, kind of romance, kind of dark dysfunctional family drama. I’m never going to get the opportunity to play around this freely again, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

So was raising funding difficult?

It’s a difficult film conceptually for people to grasp. The fact that we got the money was really lucky - that was purely because my short films had done so well. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time. And I think people were ready for something different.

There was also another comedy that was being made at the same time called Sione’s Wedding, and that was like a pretty broad comedy. People were starting to think, 'Okay, maybe we can branch out and make different stuff that proves to ourselves we can actually do.' It still baffles me how we got funded.

Were you worried that the film wouldn’t translate for foreign audiences?

You always want to make something that has universal appeal, that on the off chance someone in Poland watches it and says, 'This applies to my life'.

But you also have to realise that you’re from a certain place and shouldn’t cater to international tastes. You’ve got to make your own stories with your own voice. Plus, the budget was so low that it didn’t matter.

If the film only came out in New Zealand and nowhere else, I was confident that we would make our money back, which was all I cared about - making back the 1.5 million dollars, New Zealand dollars that is.

And now here you are releasing the film across the UK!

More people have seen Eagle Vs Shark than I ever thought would. I’m really happy that it’s had this extended life. When I was writing it, I just wrote what I wanted to see in a film because I was sick of seeing certain types of films, and situations where the character would make the right decision. I just wanted to see something a little more challenging in that respect. Some of it is pretty specific to New Zealand but family dysfunction - people relate to that everywhere.

You had Loren in mind to play Lily from the start but did you also have Jemaine Clement in mind for the role of Jarrod?

No, he came in and towards the end of the casting process. Jemaine, Loren and I use to flat together for years and years, we’ve known each other for about 12 years.

Basically, all of the character’s lines were written and we were casting the role. I was in three minds about who I wanted to play it and then thought actually maybe Jemaine would be good for it, so I called him, got him to screen test.

I thought it would be good to work with friends, people you can trust and you know won’t bring egos to set, emotional baggage. Making a film with friends was such a good experience.

Would you have considered say an English actor for the part?

Jarrod needed to be played by a New Zealander. The New Zealand accent is just so impossible for most foreigners to nail. I haven’t ever heard an actor do it properly. Anthony Hopkins did a pretty good accent for The World’s Fastest Indian but even then, it wasn’t quite there. Because I’m making a film for New Zealander’s to watch, I don’t want them going, 'What accent is that?'

On screen, Loren and Jemaine are such a wonderfully strange combination.

I really loved the way they looked together: he’s so hulking and weird and gangly and she really changed her physicality for the role. In real life, Loren is really energetic I wouldn’t say extrovert but she’s very open and for the film, she really closed herself down, sucked all of the energy inside and kind of withered. When I put them together, it was so good.

You show a lot of affection for your characters.

I love the characters. Lily is the kind of person who is usually the best friend of Julia Roberts and never gets her own movie. I often say that Jarrod is the guy who gets left in the Julia Roberts movie for Richard Gere, or whoever. He’s like the guy who gets left behind because no one likes him.

Lily and Jarrod are two of the people who usually never get a chance to change in the movies, they never get an opportunity to redeem themselves. People will either get Eagle Vs Shark or they’ll go, This doesn’t fit into my idea of what a romantic comedy is.

And they’ll freak out. That’s why audiences really love the film, because it’s something really different, or they really don’t love the film because they are so used to the formula of these types of story. When something doesn’t quite fit the mould, it kind of startles them.

Does that kind of reaction disappoint you?

It drives me crazy when people say, 'Oh it’s obviously meant to be funnier than it really is.' Eagle Vs Shark is not funny all the time, it has depressing moments in it, otherwise I may as well have taken the script to America and made it there.

We’ve been fed this diet of crap, fast food moviemaking from the States and there’s no other way to tell a story now. We judge everything and compare it to something that has come out of a conventional oven. Make something to a slightly different recipe and all of a sudden, people start saying, 'Wait a minute, this is not how you make it!'

You use beautiful, stop-go animation throughout the film as Lily and Jarrod’s relationship evolves. Why did you decide to combine live action and animation?

The film could survive without the animation, and would probably stand up pretty well without it, but it wouldn’t have that same kind of handmade feel to it. All the characters in the film are weird, eccentric, clumsy, awkward. They stumble around, not quite sure what they are. They try to be one thing and then realise they are something else.

The film is basically the same a clumsy, awkward piece that fumbles around, trying to be at one moment a comedy, trying to be a drama, trying to be an art film, trying to be Svankmajer animation. I really love the animation. It’s probably one of the few and only opportunities I’ll get to make something that hands on, something that human, with flaws, with real emotional depth, even when you’re dealing with such 'extreme' characters.

Was the animation always in the script from the early drafts?

Yes, the animation was always in there. I really like animation, especially stop-go animation. It’s the last animation that’s used today where you know someone has gone in and moved something with their hand.

You can’t do it without the human going in and actually moving stuff around. It’s the last great cinematic art form because you need a human to do it. I really like the fact that there’s no dialogue in those moments of animation.

They are like little chapter points, or like little moments of meditation where you can say to the audience, 'It’s okay to sit back and just think about what’s going on. Sit back and look at this wonderful visual treat,' which hopefully connects to people on a more visceral, basic, childlike level. Just moving images, pure cinema.

And yet the fashion nowadays in films seems to be characters talking incessantly about their feeling?

I think dialogue ruins 80% of movies that I see because it’s badly written, it’s over expository it’s only there to explain stuff. I just think it’s a complete waste of time. Which is why there are lots of things that are never explained in Eagle Vs Shark: you don’t know why the father can walk but sits in a wheelchair, you don’t really know why the brother kills himself, you don’t really know anything about Jarrod’s daughter who just wanders around the house. I just love that you pick up information through the eyes of Lily. You see the whole thing unfold from her point of view.

Miscommunication, or rather an inability to communicate, is central to the film.

People are so protective of their feelings. It takes more work, in real life, for people to communicate on an emotional level. Most of us don’t have the emotional tools to be honest in our conversations with one other, to say, 'This is how I feel' In most movies, people say, 'This is how I feel and I’m going to open up to you really easily, tell you the truth, blah blah blah.'

In reality, people just skirt around the subject again and again, going round and round in circles. Which again, is why I think the animation really works, because it gets rid of all that crap.

In the film, when Lily attends the fancy dress animal party, Jarrod tells her, I almost came as a shark then I realised an eagle was slightly better. But he never explains why?

I think Jarrod secretly wanted to be a shark but I think he looks at Lily’s costume and is kind of jealous. His whole thing is to go on the attack as a form of defence, before he can be attacked. He sees this incredible shark suit and probably wanted to come as a shark, but had no idea how to make the costume, so decided to just go as the eagle that he went as last year.

Those costumes look fantastic!

They were originally too good and I said that they needed to look more like the characters made them. So I started chopping things off, making the eyes crooked, making the beak crooked, screwing them up a little bit so it didn’t look like costume person had made them.

That was one of the main aims of the film actually to make stuff look like it was badly made. Meaty Boy and stuff, none of that actually exists.

Really? There is no such thing as the Meaty Boy burger chain?

No, we just took over KFC. The Cinesaurus Rex cinema doesn’t exist, the Fight Man computer game doesn’t exist. I didn’t want it to be a specific world. I also like the fact that all those elements are slightly more shit versions of existing stuff. The Fight Man game is a crappier version of Mortal Kombat.

Why did you choose to make Lily work in a burger bar?

In most films, most characters have jobs that are not really that mundane, not like real life jobs. So we walked through town and looked in shops and thought, Where would Jarrod and Lily work? Originally, she was going to be a stagehand in a theatre, someone dressed in black who sticks stuff on stage, but that would have taken her to another world.

And then there’s the sweet yet surreal sex scene

In the original script I wanted to show the sex. I wanted it to be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Not that you were going to see anything, it all happens under the blankets but just seeing their fumbles, all their horrible sex stuff. It looks weird with Lily still being dressed as a shark - she looks like a nun sitting there in that costume.

Has anyone taken offence at the scene where Jarrod picks a fight with a man in a wheelchair?

It surprises me that no one’s complained about that. No one’s complained about the Twin Towers candle either. I always get so nervous when that scene comes up. Jemaine actually used to make candles when he was young. Not candles like in the film, normal style candles. I stole that from his life before he was even in the movie. It’s one of the things that I thought would be interesting for Jarrod to do in his spare time: to make candles, to make all these inventions. I like characters who have got projects because I’ve got hundreds of ideas that have never gone anywhere. Like a guitar with an emery board neck after all, a guitarist’s first problem is keeping their fingernails tidy.

Do you think American audiences will appreciate the idea of your hero setting light to his George W Bush candle?

We should have done a burning Bush candle. Burning Bush ha ha ha! Why didn’t I think of that? Idiot!

Damon Smith