We sat down with director Taika Waititi about his latest film, Boy, a coming of age comedy about a young boy and his relationship with his absent father.
Shakefire: Boy is about the relationship between the father and his son. What were some of your personal experiences that went into the making of the film?
Taika Waititi: The real personal part of the film is that it's set where I grew up. It's set in the country and we shot in the house that I grew up in which was my grandmother's house and we grew up like that with a lot of kids. And I went to that school. Some other personal stuff was that a lot of my uncles and my dad included were in gangs. None of them tried to invent a gang or anything like that but I just wanted some kind of humor behind that scene. It's very easy to say, "Oh, it's just gang life. Let's have a little depressing film about gangs." I just wanted to touch on the gang thing but also show how ridiculous that stuff is. It's essentially a bunch of dudes who all want to hang together and drink beer and wear little outfits that look the same.
And it comes from a very real phenomenon which is the displacement and disenfranchisement of cultures that have got no other choice but to just start clubs or hang out with people like them because they have nowhere else to go. So that stuff I wanted to touch on but not make it, you know, I don't want to exercise demons or make it like my kinda spilling my guts out on the screen and like, "This is me!" Cause it's not really me. There are elements of myself in all of the characters in the film because you write what you know. Films also have to be entertaining so you have to give them things like “where's the bag of money” and “what happened to the gold.” That sort of stuff is the fake stuff but draped across a realistic background.
SF: So was the community involved in the production? You mentioned you filmed at the school, etc.
TW: Yeah, yeah. So the community is probably about 300 strong and I'm related to everyone. So yeah, I know pretty much everyone there and they were behind it fully. Nothing really happens there. It's very, very far from the city so if anything passes through it's literally passing through. Nobody stops there. For us to bring 40 people and a crew and sort of boost the population of the town, you know. It was really cool for them. All the crew became like a big extended family in the town. It was a very lively and really homely affair. So they were all very supportive. My auntie was the head caterer and a lot of people I'm related to helped out in the film. My uncle plays the teacher at the start whose smoking. So yeah, it's cool to be able to involve the community within the film making part of it as well.
SF: What was the reasoning behind setting the film in 1984?
TW: Well they say write what you know and that's sort of the world I knew. I wanted it to be a time where Michael Jackson was huge but he hadn't fallen yet. It was a time of heroes, almost before this modern age where we know all of the dark secrets of every celebrity now. It was a time where heroes were still these mythical beasts, you know, like the age of the titans. Michael Jackson was this insane god. The film is about your heroes and the first heroes that disappoint you, which for most people are there parents. I wanted it to be set in that time. Also, in terms of New Zealand, the 80's were like the coming of age decade for us. It was like when we were really finding our way in the world and discovering who we were so it seemed good to make a coming of age film set in a coming of age time.
SF: So was Michael Jackson a big hero of yours growing up?
TW: Absolutely. I think the reason that he was a hero to kids was because he was earning millions and millions of dollars and spending it on the same stuff and us kids would spend it on. He was like buying a castle and filling it with zoo animals and stuff. He had a python. So yeah, this was a guy who made perfect sense to us. Here's a guy whose brown like us and he's a millionaire and has Pepsi Cola on tap in his house. This is the coolest dude ever! And to top it off he was the most incredible singer and dancer of all time. So yeah, he was a huge influence on a lot of us.
SF: Could you talk about the culture aspect of the film? In one scene I noticed the kids washing their hands after leaving the cemetery...
TW: Well that's a tradition. Leaving a cemetery you're supposed to wash your hands and kinda sprinkle it over yourself. It's basically just to wash away any spirits that might be coming out of the cemetery. Once you're in there, you're in that world and once you leave, you kinda leave them there. That's where that comes from.
The dance at the end of the film is the haka. Traditionally the haka is a challenge, you know, if two tribes were going to war. When two tribes go to war, you would each stand off and do this challenge. Essentially it's a song but with actions and it's really just to indicate to the other side that you are intending to kill them, haha. And why it's at the end of the film is because when we were kids we grew up learning all these different hakas and to make it interesting for us we would mash it up with contemporary stuff like breakdancing which was big at the time, and then obviously Michael Jackson moves and things like that. So that was really just homage to that style because it was a mixture of Thriller dance and haka.
SF: One of the interesting films about the film is Boy's relationship with his father. At first it seems like he's trying to redeem and make up for his disappearance in Boy's life but his character sort of teeters between good and bad.
TW: Yeah, I like the idea of a character that essentially is a bit of an idiot; he's like a man-child. He hasn't quite grown up, like when he goes to apologize for embarrassing Boy down at the shows and taking the jacket back. That evening he goes back to apologize to him and the only way this grownup can apologize is to put it in terms that he thinks are appropriate for an apology; just say like, "Oh, I'm like the Incredible Hulk. When I get angry I get really angry so you got to watch out for that. Sorry about that." It's not heartfelt like, "Listen, I'm really sorry. That was wrong and inappropriate and I'm an asshole." It's him trying to protect himself again. His whole motivation, I guess, for a lot of what he does is trying to pass the blame or not to take responsibility for his actions, and he feels a lot of guilt because of the loss of the mother and stuff, his wife, and he wasn't there. It's all about characters trying to find their place and find out who they are.
SF: What do you think can attribute to the success of the film? It's New Zealand's highest grossing film and has received critical acclaim worldwide.
TW: I think it's because we're living at a time where if you look at the billboards for films that are on, a lot of them are a muscly guy fighting against a couple of dragons or some monster.
SF: Or a sequel.
TW: Yeah, sequels or prequels or remakes. And it's overwhelmed by quite unoriginal content and I feel like people were very attracted to the idea that this was a world they’ve never been to, a country that most people can't find on a map, and a world in a time that no one really even knew existed. People here have their idea what the 80's was like, but the 80's in New York is nothing like this. To go somewhere exotic and to be around people you have nothing in common with but to see a film that is essentially universal that you can relate to, that is what really made people love the film. And in New Zealand it was more about us seeing ourselves on screen. That was a very important thing for the Kiwis.
Be sure toalso check out Shakefire's review of Boy, which is out now in select theaters.