Taika Waititi demurs when he’s called New Zealand’s most famous film director of the moment.
Never mind that his new comedy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film-festival favorite opening in North Texas on July 8, is the highest-grossing local film in his homeland ever. To get that title, Wilderpeople had to climb over Boy, Waititi’s 2010 movie, which had held the crown.
“Obviously, Peter Jackson is still the king,” Waititi said in a phone interview from Queensland, Australia, referring to the director of the mammoth “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” movie franchises, which, although shot in New Zealand by a local director, are not considered New Zealand films.
“But I do feel like, in terms of making New Zealand content, I’m no celebrity by any stretch but I’m proud to have made all my films back home and for them to have an audience. To be able to get your stories to travel is a really hard thing to do.”
Wilderpeople transcends its geography with an engaging, crowd-pleasing story about a 13-year-old foster kid and hip-hop devotee (a winning Julian Dennison) who goes on the lam into the forest with his foster uncle (a grizzled Sam Neill) rather than be forced back into the foster system.
It’s a charming, funny tale of bonding, family and survival that, despite the accents and overseas origin, could strike a chord with American moviegoers beyond the art houses.
“I did think people would really enjoy it. I didn’t know it would have such a huge response,” said Waititi, referring to how the film has played at home and abroad. “It’s very rare these days to see a film at the cinema that can reach many generations of an audience.
“You see kids, their parents and their grandparents all coming together in large groups. … I wanted to make a film that was for kids and grown-ups. It’s not a kids’ film by any means, but it’s something they appreciate.”
Going for laughs
“It’s a very slow-moving book and takes place over about five years. There are no car chases. There’s no comedy,” Waititi explained. “[But] the heart of it that I clung onto was the relationship between the man and the boy, and the idea of them surviving against the odds.”
He said he had no inclination to make it as a straight-up drama.
“My style is really based in this tonal mix of comedy and drama,” said the director, whose last film was What We Do in the Shadows, a Real World-style mockumentary about a group of vampires living together.
Also, he worked as a director and writer on the cult TV comedy Flight of the Conchords.
“If I were going to make a film about Guantanamo Bay, it would probably end up being funny,” he continued. “I don’t try to make a broad comedy but I’ve always enjoyed exploring the deeper heart of the emotional truth of the situation.
“It’s easier to send the message to the audience when you cloak it in humor.”
As solid as the always reliable Neill is and as beautiful as the New Zealand countryside may be, the real star of Wilderpeople is Dennison, who turns in an impressively unselfconscious performance as a kid who’s both fearless and frightened.
“I worked with him when he was about 10 [for a commercial] and even then it struck me how amazing he was, not just as an actor but as a person,” Waititi said. “When this project came about, he was my first choice.”
As much as Waititi prides himself on telling New Zealand stories, he’s doing something totally different for his next project: the third installment in Marvel’s “Thor” franchise, Thor: Ragnarok, due for release next year.
That’s why he’s in Australia now, at the Village Roadshow Studios, filming the epic that stars Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Cate Blanchett and Tom Hiddleston.
That would seem to be at odds with a perceived small-is-beautiful filmmaking philosophy. But Waititi says there’s no contradiction.
“The biggest difference is there are a lot more people involved and the scale is a lot bigger. But if you put the blinders on, and you look at what’s in front of you, it’s just like every other film,” he explained. “There’s a script and you need to get the ideas, the words, and all of the cool things out of that script and onto a giant rectangle for people to look at. … Otherwise, if you look at how big the logistics might be, how big the film is, I’m sure it could be overwhelming.”
Even though indie directors manning blockbusters have a mixed history — James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy turned out well, Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four didn’t — Waititi said he was eager to try his hand at a big film and that the level of interference on a major-studio project hasn’t been stifling.
“You need some other voices of reason and, on all of my films, I got that,” he said. “There’s the (New Zealand) film commission or producers. The money comes from somewhere and that money always has an opinion.”
His only worry was spending so much time away from his family. “[But] we’re shooting in Australia so it’s good because it’s very close to home,” he said.
Over the course of the “Thor” franchise, some Marvel fans have taken to social media to complain about the casting, specifically the hiring of black British actor Elba to play Heimdall. For Ragnarok, Waititi cast African-American actress Tessa Thompson (Creed, Dear White People) to play Valkyrie.
“I’ve seen some funny tweets. That kind of stuff makes me laugh,” Waititi said. “You find the best person for the job. If you have to be loyal to every comic, every film would be terrible.
“Just like with books, people are often disappointed that a film isn’t the same as the book. The book takes two months to read and can’t be the same [as the movie].”
Opening filmmaking avenues for different faces is important to Waititi, as he is of Polynesian Maori heritage, a group that Americans aren’t used to seeing in front of or behind the cameras.
“My big hope and dream is to see more Maori filmmakers,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of filmmaking courses and it’s a thing kids say they want to do when they grow up, which is something you’d never hear in the ’80s and ’90s.
“You might hear ‘I want to be an actor’ but, more than that, you’d probably hear ‘I want to be a rugby player.’ ”
All of which means that, no matter how well Thor: Ragnarok may do or how strong the siren song of Hollywood, Waititi has no plans to abandon telling New Zealand stories.
“I have plans to go back and do some other scripts that I want to get done before I die. Who knows when that will be so I want to do them fast,” he said with a laugh. “I have other New Zealand films with varying degrees of scale and budget that I want do do.
“I think it’s nice to do something really big and then again do something fast where you’re not laboring over every decision and you can be more fluid and free.”