This article was first published for the 2016 cinema release of Hunt For The Wilderpeople. You can now watch the film at SBS On Demand (scroll down for link).
In Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sam Neill plays a gruff mountain man whose quiet life in the wilds of the South Island is upended by the arrival of a mouthy foster kid, Ricky (Julian Dennison). Tragedy, rotten luck and a series of awkward misunderstandings conspire to make the pair fast friends, as they bolt for the bush to flee an obsessive child protection officer (just go with it).
A kind of Up-meets-Rambo hybrid, Wilderpeople bears Waititi’s signature quirks and dance breaks. It’s definitely a departure from some of the heavier roles for which Neill, the statesman of Antipodean cinema and American character roles, is best known.
“It has a strange retro feel to it,” says Neill, over a tea, in the lead-up to the film’s Australian release. “It’s straight out of the ‘80s, and Taika’s very fond of those films. I’m a relic of the ‘80s myself, a fossil, but it was really Taika that got me interested in this and I’m pleased that I did it. It was kind of an adventure in itself but also it’s been unusually rewarding to get that warm response to something – that doesn’t happen very often.
It had a huge opening weekend…
That must feel good.
Yeah, it’s not often you’re number one!
Do you get approached very often to do films in New Zealand?
Not a lot. I mean, not a lot of films get made in New Zealand. But I always feel I’m always in touch with and feel part of what we do here in Australia and New Zealand. I always feel kind of grounded when I’m working here.
"I always feel I’m in touch with and feel part of what we do here in Australia and New Zealand. I always feel kind of grounded when I’m working here."
You give the impression of always working – and of course, you have your ‘other life’ with your vineyard as well. Have you reached a point where you can bat away projects, and just do what you please?
Whatever they tell you, no actor has as much choice as he would ideally like. But I have enough choice; I’ve got nothing to complain about. At all. It would be churlish of me to do that. It’s funny that you should mention the vineyard because sometimes you think, maybe people think you’re more interested in making wine than you are in making films, or conversely, that you’re not really serious about making wine because you make films. So it’s entirely possible that these things work against you but I don’t see any reason why one shouldn’t do more than one thing in your life.
Back to this film: You mention it is a bit of a throwback, and there are even a few nods to Sleeping Dogs. [Roger Donaldson’s 1977 film about a reclusive renegade was Neill’s first major film role]
There are. It’s weird, there is a full circle going on there, isn’t there? You don’t have to be a student of film or a fan of New Zealand films or anything like that, to enjoy the film but if you are, there are lots of little Easter eggs to pick up along the way. Little egg hunt.
People are calling this a comedy. I don’t think it is a comedy. I think with music you need quiet patches to make the loud bits loud. Similarly with funny stuff, you need the stuff that’s not funny. If you’re making a horror film, it’s very important that you have lots of quiet, suspensey, don’t-know-what’s-happening stuff before you get the big fright. In this film, there is a kind of strand of sadness through it because the film touches on abandonment and sad things that happen to children. Ricky’s predicament at the beginning of the film is very sad, and clearly, old Hec (Neill’s character) has seen some bad times.
But then it is all told with that Kiwi awkwardness. In a film that was produced with American money. Do we have Flight of the Conchords to thank for the Kiwi sense of humour going global?
I think the Flight of the Conchords is precisely the exemplum of that. Who would have imagined? I love Flight of the Conchords but it never occurred to me in a month of Sundays that anyone else would get it? Would you? It’s so unlikely because it is so awkward and weird and daggy and offbeat. So offbeat. And so far removed from anything that you would find in American comedy. Doesn’t bear any resemblance to it. So how is it possible that America took them to heart? I don’t get it. I don’t know. It’s inexplicable. But what we do know is we showed this at Sundance first and they really loved it, which again was a surprise. I had no idea how they would take to it, and that was the first time I saw it. That was the first time Julian saw it. I didn’t know how I would take it, actually! It’s all a bit of a surprise.
How is Julian coping with all of the attention?
We struck up a rapport pretty much straight away. Getting wardrobe fittings, rehearsal rooms. It was clear very early on we found the same sort of things funny and he’s not a bad egg; he’s a good egg. We were co-authors of our own disaster, really. We were always on the same page – we always felt like friends; still do. I’ve been trying to call him this afternoon because he’s been on a nationwide long weekend tour – going around suburban theatres meeting the people, and I’m sure he’s easily the most famous kid in New Zealand now. I don’t know what walking down the road is going to be like for him now – going down to the shops for an ice cream might be a bit of a trial.
What’s your perspective on the attitudes to homegrown films in New Zealand, compared to Australia? There seems to be far greater affection for local films among New Zealanders than exists here in Australia. The Dressmaker being an obvious exception to the general rule. Do you notice that, straddling the two industries?
It’s interesting because you know, I did The Daughter, which is out now. I’d like to know how that is going
I think as of today it is just past $1 million. A little over.
I’d like to have seen it do a bit more than that. I think it is a very beautiful film; very considered and beautiful performances. I think Simon Stone is a real talent. I’m not sure it’s affection for Australian or New Zealand films or not. I think it’s just that there’s something about Wilderpeople that has really struck a chord. I don’t quite understand what that chord is, but the tweets I get and so on – people just feel good. Taika’s intention is to entertain people – an unashamed, naked ambition to entertain people! And he’s good at entertaining, so people are entertained. The Dressmaker is entertaining, isn’t it?
"Taika’s intention is to entertain people – an unashamed, naked ambition to entertain people!"
That’s again just going for the broad ‘feel good’ audience. That one, I don’t quite get what people loved so much about it, but it certainly found its audience, at the right moment...
Yeah, you can only do so much at this point with a film and then word of mouth has to sustain it, doesn’t it? Word of mouth must have just buoyed The Dressmaker in the same way as Wilderpeople is now. People are dragging their families to it, and making their mates go. People are going with three generations of their families!
Are you a big movie watcher yourself?
Do you know, I’m not as much of a moviegoer as I should be and I do end up – because I’m travelling so much – I end up seeing movies on aeroplanes, which is the worst possible way to see a movie!
It’s a captive audience though.
And you do get a bit weepy at 39,000 feet. I don’t think it’s the two glasses of pinot noir you’ve had prior to it. You’re just vulnerable up there. I have taken a bit, when I find the time, to the odd television binge. Because television has improved so much, it’s worth binging. My last binge was The Katering Show. I watched all eight episodes. It’s not a major binge, but it’s the best thing around. I binged that on the first day it was out.
I was a big binger of Breaking Bad – I was obsessed with it from the beginning, and I’m about to work for AMC who did Breaking Bad. I’m shooting in Texas in three weeks.
It’s called The Son, and it’s from a big novel by Phillip Mayer. It’s about multi-generational Texas family, over 150 years. I play the old patriarch raised by Comanches; a very tough sonofabitch. [Laughs]
It could be a binger, I don’t know yet! [Laughs]
Is the beard part of it?
I think so. They can trim it as they see fit. I had a hack at it this morning just to keep it in line. It grows like some terrible lantana…
OK, now I have to ask you, being from SBS and all… I have to ask you about that FIFA movie you were in… [United Passions, a universally panned hagiography about the origins of the World Cup and its organising body, it starred Tim Roth as Sepp Blatter and Neill as João Havelange]
[Sits bolt upright] That’s hilarious!
[Thinks] Let me see… SBS… how do we get to FIFA?
Well, football… I’m trying to find a link!
So… did you see the finished film?
Um, this is all I’m going to say…
Um... er, it, uh, um… It was described in somewhere or other as the absolute low point of my career [laughs], which I think made me laugh because I tell you what, whatever they say, I had a great time! I did. We were in Zurich for three weeks, Paris for three weeks, and Brazil – Rio De Janiero. It was great! I couldn’t have had a better time!
And that’s all I think I need to say.
I kicked a football twice. I know nothing of football. This is probably the one corner of SBS that I never look at.
It’s a big corner.
And I met Sepp! A couple of times.
Couldn’t ask for a nicer man!
I’m sure he’s very charming! That’s partly how he got to where he is – or was.
Couldn’t. Ask. For. A. Nicer. Man!
[Pause. Both laugh]
I’m curious, you’ve done some directing yourself...
A little bit.
You’ve dabbled. Are you keen to have another go?
No, I think that’s probably it. I co-wrote a documentary which was shown this time last year on Anzac Day on ABC that was about ANZAC and Australia-New Zealand and also about my family, and I’d probably like to do a bit more of that – and Kriv Stenders directed that. I’d like to do some more of that but I’d like Kriv to direct it.
Otherwise, it’s way too much work, directing.
I like doing FIFA films. [Pause] With nice people like Sepp.
Watch 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'
Sunday 27 June, 6:35pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Monday 28 June, 1:05pm on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 29 June, 8:10am on SBS World Movies
New Zealand, 2016
Genre: Comedy, Adventure
Director: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Julian Dennison