After creating a cult classic for vampire-loving genre fans with What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi has turned to more traditional storytelling with his new film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, loosely based on Barry Crump’s classic novel Wild Pork and Watercress, which is well known to Kiwi audiences.
There are traces of Waititi’s hit film Boy in that he again has a young Maori kid in the lead, Julian Dennison, from Paper Planes and the BLAZED ad campaign who is like a bouncy hilarious younger male version of Rebel Wilson. Though here the 40 year-old director also references the Australasian films of his youth and casts Sam Neill who appeared in many of them.
"It’s a real homage to '80s Australasian filmmaking with a lot of zooms, crossfades and music," he says. "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."
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) who tragically dies. When Hec stands accused of abusing the boy the pair head off into the wilderness. Neill of course had played a fugitive in Roger Donaldson’s 1977 film Sleeping Dogs.
After playing major roles in Boy and his vampire flick, Waititi only has one crazy cameo here.
Currently he’s in Los Angeles preparing his move to the big time with Thor: Ragnarok and in a few months will head to film on the Gold Coast. He says he’s looking forward to working with Chris Hemsworth, "a good guy."
"I’ve been to Australia a lot but I’ve only been to Sydney, Melbourne and Byron and a few places for film stuff. I’ve got a lot of family on the Gold Coast so it will be quite cool to see them."
Los Angeles-based comic actor Rhys Darby who plays Psycho Sam in his new film says his friend has been clever to make four films at home before taking on Hollywood. (Eagle vs. Shark starring Jemaine Clement was his first).
"I’m excited that he’s doing Thor, but then he can come back to me again."
In Sundance, Waititi has indeed said that after Thor he will return home to to make a vampire follow-up, We’re Wolves.
What drew you to direct the film?
Unemployment mainly. I got involved as writer a few years ago for this film, which is based one of these brash hunter guys who disappear into the bush, a larger-than-life quintessential Kiwi bloke. I grew up with the story and a lot of people have always wanted to see it as a film. And I’ve always wanted to tell one of the iconoclastic adventure tales that's not sad.
Was it a difficult shoot?
Eighty 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. We didn't plan for it. It just snowed one day and I figured some of the film is in the snow now and we’ll figure it out later.
Essentially for Waititi the film is a two hander so it was important for Neill and Dennison to get along. Clearly Neill ensured that was the case.
"It was really great working with Sam," says Dennison. "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."
As in Boy, the piece de resistance is the film’s finale where the illustrious duo are pursued by New Zealand Army tanks. Darby made much of that at the film’s Sundance premiere.
"You should have used me for some of the army stuff," complained the actor, who had once been in the military and plays Psycho Sam in the final scenes. "I knew how to drive a tank and I knew some of those guys. It was amazing to see that huge chase; it blew my mind. That was our whole army right there."
At one point Ricky had uttered such a comment in the truck. "But the New Zealand Army helped us a lot, so we took that out," Waititi noted wryly.
There’s no doubting that with its stunning North Island vistas and rugged bush, the film is an homage to New Zealand and its people. As Neill noted proudly when asked regarding drawing on his experiences in the wild on Jurassic Park, as if to downplay any notion that that was the case, "We’re all New Zealanders, that's where we come from," he said. "We’re bush people."