Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Creative Trio Behind "Eagle Vs. Shark"

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The Creative Trio Behind "Eagle Vs. Shark"

(from 6/15/07)
  • picture Taika Waititi
  • picture Jemaine Clement and Loren Horsley

Okay, you voted for Pedro, he served his term, and now you’re looking around for a suitable replacement.  A good place to find suitable candidates beginning June 15 is in the new New Zealand comedy “Eagle vs Shark.” This Sundance Festival hit (which was developed at the Sundance Lab) is populated with as many quirky characters as there are in “Napoleon Dynamite,” the beloved cult film to which it is being compared.  Written and directed by young Kiwi comic Taika Waititi, “Eagle vs. Shark” is a crowd-pleasing, bittersweet misfit-romance starring the director’s partner Loren Horsley and rising comedian Jemaine Clement, master of the deadpan delivery.  Horsley’s Lily is a lonely, stoop-shouldered fast-food countergirl who falls for one of her customers, Clement’s boastful, oddball video-game clerk, Jarrod.  She crashes his party, in which everyone dresses up as their favorite animal—Lily goes as a shark, Jarrod is an eagle—and plays video games.  Impressed that she plays well for a girl, he invites her to travel back to his boyhood home and watch him confront his childhood bully. There she mingles with his peculiar family and friends, but is pushed away by Jarrod.  Will the fool wise up before she leaves? “Eagle vs Shark” is a sweet, inventive, and funny debut feature by Waititi, with fun characters and plot twists, terrific music, and winning performances by Horsley and Clement.  I was able to take part in an enjoyable, freewheeling roundtable press interview with the director and his two stars prior to the film’s New York release.  Those questions asked by reporters other than myself are marked Q.       
Danny Peary: Loren, you have a story credit for “Eagle vs Shark.”  Is the story you came up with originally the same as the finished film?
Loren Horsley:  We initially wrote some stuff and then Taika took that and went off and wrote the first draft of the screenplay.  And the content evolved until we got to the shooting script.
Taika Waitiki:  The original story was really more a collection of ideas and scenes and situations we could get the characters into. My job was to link up a lot of that stuff into a screenplay. 
Q: Did the story or the characters come first?
TW: One character.  Lauren’s character Lily came first and she was the reason for making the film. I wanted to make a film with Lauren and we built the film around her character.  She wanted to play a different kind of female protagonist, not someone who is confident and bubbly and really good looking.
LH (laughing): Right, I always play those roles!  I’m the Julia Roberts of New Zealand.
TW (laughing): Yeah, that’s what she’s known for.
Q: Loren, supposedly before you began filming, you walked through streets of Salt Lake City while in character. 
LH: I had a week before we went to Sundance and found myself in Salt Lake City, and there’s not a lot to do there if you don’t know anyone. So I slouched my shoulders and took Lily out on the streets.  It was very interesting and reinforced my view that if you lack confidence the world does seem to treat you in a particular way. The world becomes cold and you become invisible.  .  
DP: “Dogfight” with Lili Taylor is the only other film that comes to mind where there’s a “loser” female who is never down on herself and never complains though she can’t get dates and guys make fun of her. In both films the females have an undiminished sense of self-worth.  Can you talk about that?
LH: I wanted to play a different kind of woman, who had to be vulnerable but have a core that is strong.The characters who inspired me when playing Lily were Giulietta Masina in “La Strada” and Emily Watson in “Breaking Away.”  Now I’m going to see “Dogfight!”
TW: Now that I think about it, Lily is very much like the character in “Dogfight,” although in that film, the character is good looking at the end. It was important to us that when she gets beautiful it’s internal, rather than having a makeover or taking off her glasses and suddenly she’s elegant and gorgeous. 
LH: And Lily’s posture never improves.  I had to go to the osteopath for about six months after making the film because my back was so stuck from slouching!
TW: I had to drive her.
DP: Would your film not work if viewers don’t fall in love with Lily?
LH:  I didn’t try to make people fall in love with Lily.  I just wanted to play a character who was complex and had vulnerability and strength.  I wanted to be truthful.
TW: I don’t think people have to have a physical attraction to her.  As for me—I just feel like I want to protect her.
DP: You also say that in the production notes. But, Loren, do you feel your character needs protection?
LH: No.  Not at all. 
TW: But to me, Lily’s like a younger sister.  A lot of guys I’ve talked to also feel like that.  I think she’s strong and independent, but she’s still the sister I’d want to look after. 
Q:  The story is character-driven and Lily, Jarrod and the other characters are so unusual and specific.  Did they change as you went along or were they clearly developed at the beginning?
TW:  They were pretty clear in the script.  The Jarrod character was always extreme and during filming we’d talk about how extreme he was and try to understand him. He does have an air about him.
Jemaine Clement:  You like Jarrod or you actually hate him. 
TW: He’s a character who in all other romantic comedies gets left for Ben Affleck. It’s not often that we get to know those characters or they get a chance to be redeemed.  That’s what I like.  It made him more interesting.
Q: Why is he the person Lily would love?
JC: (deadpan serious) He’s good looking. 
TW (deadpan sarcastic): Right, we cast Jemaine because Jarrod needed to be incredibly good looking and athletic.  
DP: Talk about Jarrod.  You play him with humor, but is their a painful element in his character?
JC: Yeah. I think the main reason he acts as he does is to avoid any more pain in his life.  That’s why he pushes people away, including Lily. He doesn’t want to be picked on for who he really is, so he puts up a front of being a cool, bad guy.   He’s wrong in thinking that’s how he comes out to other people. 
DP: Does Lily want Jarrod to change?
LH:  Actually, no…. I’ve never thought of it like that.  Maybe in that she loves him and wants him to love her?   At the end he moves toward her and that’s good, but if he didn’t…
JC: Loren, is Lilly attracted to him or who he’s pretending to be?
LH: She thinks he’s handsome, but also I think she subconsciously recognizes they are similar animals. 
TW: I think she’s attracted to the element of danger he represents. He brings adventure into her life.  He has a mission to fight the bully and is so intense.  Other people might tell her he’s a “loser,” but she is really attracted to him. You can’t help who you love.
Q: Was there ever thought that Jarrod might succeed in exacting revenge over the childhood bully?
TW:  I always thought it was important that some reality gets whacked into him.  What happens is the only way it could turn out for him. 
LH: One thing that changed with Jarrod is that he was supposed to have a son, not a daughter.  And we were going to cast a Maori boy.  But the casting agent was passing by a school looking at kids and saw a little blond girl playing all alone.  And she was an amazing little kid.  So we cast her as Jarrod’s daughter. 
Q: Who is raising her in that family?  Nobody seems to pay much attention to her besides Lily.  She is almost like a family pet.
TW: That’s an interesting way to put it!  In New Zealand, in my experience, it’s common when there is someone else’s kid, maybe a cousin, living with a family.  It’s hard to figure out who the parents are.
JC: Americans who see the film tend to think Jarrod has a crazy, mixed-up family.  But when I read the script, I liked that it seemed like a realistic family.  If you come from small-town New Zealand, like I do, you’ll see all these people floating in and out of your house.
DP: I really like when Jarrod changes his tune and plays the silly “horse” game that he’d mocked when Lily and her brother Damon played it earlier. Did the original story have that moment?
TW:  That kind of came later on, like a lot of little things.  There were a lot of small things taken from real life.  The “horse game,” in which you call out “horse” when you drive past one is a game Loren likes to play when we go on trips.
LH: No, it’s not!  It’s a game I played only when I was a child.
TW:  There’s a lot of stuff taken from her childhood, like the animated “romantic” apple scenes.
LH: I had an animated childhood!  We were lucky to be able to have animation in a low-budget film.  I had forgotten that years ago I’d told Taika that when I was a very little girl and would throw away apple cores I’d feel sad for the apples because I’d worry they wouldn’t mate.  I’d want to go back and get them and make sure they had a sense of belonging.
TW (hugging her): And make sure they had a boyfriend.
LH: Had a boyfriend and would live happily ever after.
TW: I always intended for there to be animation.  I didn’t want it to be clean, computer animation, and it definitely was important that it was hand-made. I included it in my first draft, though I was originally going to mix reality with animation showing Lily’s fantasies. But I thought it was too “Ally McBeal”.
LH: There was a great animated Ingmar Bergman-inspired dream sequence that was cut out.
TW: That didn’t make the final cut but will be on the DVD.  I was quite involved in the animation but the person who did it was a friend of ours, Francis Salole. He’s a brilliant animator and he worked really fast.  It was all done through a company called Another Planet.  They’re all friends of mine who worked on my short films.  The whole production was really a bunch of friends making a film.
DP: Did you and Taika know of each other before you did comedy together as “Humourbeast?”
JC: We’ve known each other for many years. We met doing comedy, not doing film.  We’ve been friends since then.
TW: We were about twenty.  We first met at university when we were in a revue.  Students doing stupid humor. 
Q: Have people you’ve known seen the movie and recognized themselves as characters in it?
TW: Characters are based on people we know, but I don’t think they can tell.  Jarrod’s friend who he thinks is a computer expert is based on a few guys.  Some of what’s in the film really happened and I was visiting a friend and he was showing me something on his computer when all this porn he’d been looking at popped up accidentally.  It was very embarrassing for both of us, and I wanted to put that in the film.  I met the guy who plays Jarrod’s nephew at a friend’s family dinner, where he played his guitar.  I thought he was an amazing kid and wrote the nephew based on him.  And when it came time do casting, I decided to cast him.
Q:  How did the Sundance Lab help you develop your script?
TW:  The chance to get it into the Sundance Lab is really what motivated me to actually finish the script. I finished the first draft only three weeks before the lab started, so it was really fast.   I wrote it and sent it in, and they said yes. It was great because Lauren already was attached to the film so I brought her along as the actor.  The filmmaking part was about three weeks long, with smart people coming in and giving advice on the tone and the right way to tell the story.  The tone of the film probably would have been different, so that was the main thing we got out of the experience.  There would have probably been more tonal mistakes in the film than there are.
Q: What mistakes are there in the finished film?
JC (to TW): Don’t point them out!
TW: I won’t.  People will have to wait for the DVD! 
Q: How did the technical aspects you used affect the tone of your film?
TW: We did some tests with Kodak and Fuji and we went with Fuji because I like its colors more.  I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t one of those really brightly-lit comedies.  That would have made the film seem too broad and I wanted it to have a more realistic palate to it. 
JC: Some of the look comes from it being filmed in New Zealand.  The sky and the landscape have specific colors. That’s why you can recognize paintings from New Zealand.
Q: Where did you shoot the film?
TW: In Wellington and just outside in Titahi Bay, which is where golfer [2005 U.S. Open champion] Michael Campbell is from.
DP: On a film such as this, as well as “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” where you obviously love your characters, is there the danger of falling into a trap and having people say the film is narcissistic?
TW: A little bit.  I guess there was danger since I was in love with my ideas and because it was a low-budget film I could do whatever I wanted.   I always say this is my second film but I just made it first.  The next one is the one everyone expected me to make and this was the one I could experiment with and make mistakes and actually learn how to make a feature film.  And because of the lower budget I wouldn’t feel the pressure of having people on my back and making changes to my film.  It’s an experiment that paid off, because it is in distribution.  I do love my characters and I think it’s different than other quirky films where sometimes you laugh at those characters and sometimes it feels like there’s a little contempt for them.  I really feel there’s more of an emotional connection for people in this film because it’s personal.  It’s not like we took a bunch of weird, eccentric characters and just threw them into a movie—I think Jarrod, Lilly and the other characters are extreme visions of ourselves.  Though they’re presented in an offbeat comedy, we really are like them.
Q: How do you feel about “Eagle vs Hawk” being compared to “Napoleon Dynamite?”
TW:  I don’t mind.  It’s always going to be compared to that because it was the last “nerd film” to come out and it did really well.  That’s fine—it could be compared to worse films.  I’d more compare to Australian comedies. One really popular one is “The Castle,” which is a really great comedy.  “Love Serenade” is another one that I might have subconsciously been thinking of a lot.  I think Australians and New Zealanders have a similar sense of humor.
Q: Were the John Hughes movies popular in New Zealand?
TW: When they came out they were popular. Loren watched “The Breakfast Club” not long ago.
LH: Among American films, we thought about “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Welcome to the Doll House.”  And we watched “Buffalo 66” and studied how the female character looked at a male character, who is out for revenge, too, and destructive.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about making the film?
TW:  I think it was just the time element.  Originally I thought it was going to be great to just jump in and make a film really fast.  Then I realized I didn’t want to rush because I cared so much about the film.  I learned that it’s great to have more time in all parts of filmmaking—writing the script, shooting the film, editing.  If we had more time, we probably would have improvised a lot more, but we thought it best to stick to the script.  We’d try new things but I couldn’t give these guys a chance to just freestyle for a couple of takes.  There just wasn’t time.
Q: Afterward did you find you were missing things you needed?
TW: The shoot was twenty-five days and then about two months after that, after the first couple of edits, we did some re-shoots.  We had about five days for pick-ups.  We just picked up shots here and there.  We weren’t very happy with how the party scene in which Lily does her dance was shot, so we fixed that.  Other things we knew we’d get later when we did our planned pick-ups.
JC: We had more ideas but didn’t have a chance to do them.
DP: Your next project is an off-the-wall HBO series that according to your amusing promo may nor may not be part of “Entourage?”
JC:  Oh, you saw that.  The show is called “The Flight of the Conchords,” which is the name of my comedy team, and it’s a sitcom.  I’ve been working on it here in New York.  We finished shooting last Saturday and it starts this Sunday! 
DP: You have numerous comedy credits in New Zealand and AmericaAnd Have you ever done drama?
JC: No. Though I did a couple of plays, to varying degrees of critical response.
Q: What about the two of you?  What’s next?
TW:  I’m writing a new script, which is the hellish part of filmmaking.  As I said, it’s sort of an extension of a short film I made a few years ago, “Two Cars, One Night.” It’s about kids growing up in the country in the eighties.   It’s more of a drama but has a lot of comedy in it.
 LH: I’m part of a film collective and we’re trying to make a picture outside of the system financially.  We’re trying to do it in a different way and have a good story and characters.  We’ll see what happens.
Q: Why don’t more films come from New Zealand?
TW:  We don’t have much money.
LH: There are only four million people in the whole country.  There’s no interstructure for making movies, no studio system.
JC:  But when you’re there, it seems like everyone is making a movie. 
TW: Typically in New Zealand you often don’t meet the people who finance films.  You just hand them scripts and applications and they decide if the film would fit into a box and can make them money.  So it’s best to try to make your films elsewhere.
LH: Takia is treated differently in New Zealand because “Two Cars, One Night” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Q: Will there be a sequel to “Eagle vs Shark?”
JC: I’d like to do a sequel called “Married Shark.”
TW: And I want to do a third one called “Eagle Murders Shark.”

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