Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Waititi's Witty and Poignant "Boy"

Playing in Theaters

Waititi's Witty and Poignant "Boy"

(from brinkzine.com 2/29/12)

boystar.jpg
Okay, the Oscars have been awarded, finally, and you can stop trying to see every nominee in every category in time for the ceremony. Now, you can seek out the best new films around town that have been under the radar. I suggest you start with Boy, a whimsical charmer from New Zealand that is opening this Friday in New York at the Angelika. It's the second feature by writer-director Taika Waititi, following Eagle Vs. Shark (which starred Jemaine Clement), but he always felt that this semiautobiographical work was meant to be his first film. It's actually about two young boys, Maori brothers Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Ahol Eketone-Whitu), who live with their grandmother and many cousins because their mother died giving birth to Rocky and their father Alamein (director Taika Waititi) is away. The lonely, bullied Boy lies to everyone in his small town that his father is off doing heroic things, when in truth he is in jail for robbery. When the ne're-do-well Alamein returns to look for the hidden money he buried, Boy sees him as a hero equal to Michael Jackson and tries to bond with him; Rocky, who feels guilt over his mother's death, is more cautious about connecting to a neglectful, boastful father who is just as juvenile as them. Will the three lonely males recognize their common bond and need for each other and come together as a family? That's what we hope for in Waika's sometimes sad, often funny, always unique little gem. I interviewed the personable Waititi and his stars Clement (just before The Flight of the Conchords debuted on HBO) and Loren Horsley (now a busy actress and acting coach in New Zealand) upon the release of Eagle Vs. Shark in 2007. Last week I spoke again to him about his new film that has unexpectedly broken box-office records in his native New Zealand.
Taika Waititi

Danny Peary: In America, I predict Boy will be a "discovery" film, a little sleeper that gets good word of mouth. It's strange to think it's a box-office smash somewhere.
Taika Waititi: It's so weird, isn't it? I feel it's so small here and that some people will talk about it, and that's it. In New Zealand it wasn't billed as a big film, but it just took off. On it's opening weekend, something happened. There was a wave that just kept picking up more and more people as it went along. An indication of how strange this was to everyone is that the distribution company said it would be over the moon if it made $1M. It made nearly $10M. Every week more people were going and it was eclipsing films like Clash of the Titans and all the new films that opened each week. We were wondering if we should open on more screens, but were thinking it was an anomaly and that the next week the box office would taper off. And it every week it got bigger, for eight or nine weeks.
DP: So you have comfort opening it in America already knowing that it made ten times what was expected in New Zealand.
TW: I can relax.
DP: Why do you think this film has had such tremendous success in New Zealand?
TW: I think the popularity comes from the people there seeing themselves on film, Maori especially. A friend of mine has a theory that Maori kind of drive the box-office in New Zealand. When Maori people, or people of color, see something they love, they will see it again and again. The popularity is driven by the fact that Maori and probably a lot of Pacific Island cultures really got behind the film. They saw themselves on film and it was funny rather than depressing and they didn't feel picked on.
DP: I think that applies to a quote by you in an interview: "In general New Zealand films are very dark, especially films dealing with Maori stuff. One of the most famous films is Once Were Warriors, which is an incredible film, but man it's hard to watch...I like New Zealand films because they're very dark with a black comedy slam on things. But there's only so many kind of dead kids you can put in a film without changing it up a bit." So is its popularity in New Zealand due to the fact that it's atypical?
TW: I feel that the Maori content is not typical. Yeah, it deals with typical things in our movies like child neglect and shitty parents but I tried to do it in a different way, where it's accessible to everybody.
DP: Was finding the right tone difficult?
TW: Yes, it was very difficult to get the balance right. I could say it was a comedy with little bits of drama or a drama with light moments. I had to balance it so it wasn't funny up front and then suddenly have it heavy all the way to the end. I wanted to keep those little moments throughout the film.
DP: We last spoke prior to the release of Eagle Vs. Shark and were recommending movies to each other. You'd seen a million American movies but were eager to see many more. Now I watch Boy and see that there's no Western influence on it at all, which I'd think contributes to the film's appeal at home.
TW: I see little bits only because I purposely copied some movies. It's not from an American movie, but the opening, with the quick cut-aways and voice over, was really like my version of Jules and Jim. I liked pretending that there would be a voice-over for the entire film and not doing it after the first five minutes. But you're right: I can't think of any American films really that I was influenced by.
DP: At the time of Eagle Vs. Shark, you already seemed pretty well known in New Zealand because of your short 2 Cars, 1 Night receiving an Oscar nomination. How well are you known in New Zealand at this point?
TW: I'm quite well known there now. I can still walk down the street with some anonymity but they know my name.
DP: Do they have pride in you?
TW: I feel great about that. I'm proud to represent not only Maori people but all of New Zealand. I feel good making a film that not only my friends and peers like but the wider community loves. If I had made Miss Congeniality and everyone saw it, I'd be proud that it made a lot of money but I wouldn't be saying, "Yay, my story, Miss Congeniality, is really popular." I'm proud that Boy is such a personal film and is popular. We filmed in my grandmother's house in Waihua Bay and the school I went to in the middle of nowhere. When you do that, you have no idea what people will think. When you're shooting you're only thinking, "I hope we actually finish this movie." That was the goal at the time, so it's really nice to be validated.
DP: You have said about Boy: "I want to explore comedy of growing up and interpreting the world." Is the small village the real world? Or is the city Boy wants to go to with his father the real world?
TW: Where he lives there's one store and his school and there's nothing to do. It's very dull where he is and he expects to find adventure in the city. But he's in the real world and it's beautiful, with the most incredible landscape. And you can eat lobster whenever you want. It's so beautiful that people come there to camp and fish, but it's not a tourist area.
DP: The character, Boy, is not you exactly, right?
TW: He's bits of me and bits of other kids I knew.
DP: Although he's not you, he had a similar upbringing living in an out of the way place. Can you picture a boy like Boy going on to become a world-famous director?
TW: No, I can't.
DP: Do you say, "How could I have been a kid like that who made it this far?"
TW: I do. Filmmaking was never my dream until I started doing it. But then I did it with 2 Cars, 1 Night. And then people said, "You should be a filmmaker." And I thought, "Well, I guess so." It wasn't until after my short film and I started writing my feature and was enjoying it that I thought, "Filmmaking might be my dream now."
DP: Did people tell you about your potential, as Boy is told?
TW: I don't think so. I just thought it was a cool idea having Boy try to figure out what potential is.
DP: Boy idolizes Michael Jackson. Was there the hero-worship of Michael Jackson in your life?
TW: Yeah! As kids we loved the idea of this guy had millions and millions of dollars and was successful and was brown and he spent all his money on stuff kids would spend their money on, like castles and zoo animals. And he dressed like a kids would dress.
DP: Boy has a crush on a tall girl named Chardonnay. Did you have a crush on a tall girl?
TW: Oh, yeah. The crush was real, but that wasn't her name. I think we've all had our Chardonnays.
James Rolleston as Boy, RickyLee Waipuka-Russell as Chardonnay
DP: Did James Rolleston understand Boy or did you have to explain a lot to him?
TW: He understood a lot of it. About the emotional side, I'd talk to him. He might ask, "How am I supposed to cry?" I'd say, "Well, you don't have to really cry, but just think about your own life and things that are similar to what Boy is going through. Be yourself and if you feel it, you feel it." I had very frank discussions with him. He got it. I had another kid who was going to play Boy. I'd cast another actor eight months before but by the time I got around to rehearsing with him he was too old and too tall. I found James Rolleston only three days before we started shooting.
DP: Was he upset he got that ugly haircut in the film?
TW: Yeahhhhhhhh. Too bad. He wore a hat a lot of the time. I think he got to enjoy it.
DP: Although you say there aren't influences of American films, my wife saw Boy soon after seeing The Descendants and saw the similarities--a father with two kids, a dead or dying mother, a neglectful father coming back into their lives.
SPOILER ALERT There's also a final scene where they're sitting together without any words being said.
END SPOILER ALERT.TW: Whoa, it's so true! Oh, my God! I didn't even think of that. I just saw The Descendants last week and didn't even make the connection.
DP: That comparison does make sense. I don't know if you've seen an American TV show from the 1950s called Leave It to Beaver.
TW: Yes, but not for years.
DP: It's a great show and one of the interesting things about it is how parents and kids try to connect but have a hard time because they're from different generations and have trouble communicating. The two boys in that show never want to be embarrassed in front of their father and he tries to be a perfect dad but he always assumes they understand his advice although they see it from a totally different perspective than he does. Unlike in Father Knows Best, the parents and kids rarely mingle within the frame; instead the kids and adults face each other--just as you have it several times in Boy.
TW: That's right.... Let me write down the name of that show.
DP: Like The Descendants, your film is about repairing a disconnected family.
TW: Yeah, they are all trying to replace this woman who left the family and trying to replace each other. Alamein has tried to replace his family with his stupid gang.
DP: Everybody wants to connect but they don't connect.
TW: That's right.
boyfatherandtwokids.jpg Rocky, Boy, and Alamein
DP: As in Eagle Vs. Shark, you show how extended families are common in New Zealand, where lots of kids and adults inhabit small houses. But are you also saying that the people in those houses don't connect?
TW: No one, I think, really understands the other people in their family. I don't think parents and their children really get each other. I know that I don't really know who my parents are and I've lived around them my whole life. I don't really know what their hopes and dreams are or what their real personalities are, and what they were like before I came along and how I changed that--or what dreams I shattered by coming along. I feel there is a disconnect in the closest family or tribal unit. Everyone's in the same house but you don't quite know each other.
DP: Is Alamein modeled after anyone?
TW: He's mostly modeled on a lot of adults I grew up around. He has elements of my father and my uncles and other people's fathers, not necessarily Maori. Mostly people who fantasized a lot about who they weren't.
DP: A theme in the film you have talked about elsewhere is "kids need heroes." I don't know if you've thought about it, but both your features have another theme: everybody needs to be a hero themselves. Alamein is obviously like that, but even all the kids, who act tough and concoct stories about themselves and create their own myths, really want to be looked up to.
TW: Absolutely. It even comes down to the simplest form of that, which is trying to be popular, even to just be liked, perhaps by a girl. I've written another film with the exact same thing, about a kid who lacks heroes and chooses the wrong hero, and having a need to be a hero himself. It's a big theme in the stuff I write at least. Jarrod in Eagle Vs. Shark just wants to be a hero.
DP: I asked Jemaine if there was a painful element in that character and he said, "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. 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." That sounds similar to your character in Boy.
TW: That's true. Alamein surrounds himself with two losers...
DP: Flight of the Conchords type characters...
TW: Yes. And he does this to try to make him feel better about himself and to look cooler to other people who see that he is the head of a gang. He started the gang and is the leader and he's got the coolest jacket of the three. He put all the work into the patches on the back of his jacket and the other two have them just painted on badly. He even competes with the kids. For some reason he's always trying to be better than them, saying, "I've seen E.T. ten times..."
DP: He's also trying to keep above them as their hero. What happens is that the two flunkies are replaced by his two kids, who love him for the right reasons. If he wants them, they're there for him. There's a sweetness there that you start to recognize when he stops totally ignoring Rocky and they become friendly.
TW: Boy starts the film obsessed about his father and doesn't care about the mother. Rocky is the opposite; he's obsessed with this woman he never met and doesn't want to know the father. And as the film moves along, there is a shifting of loyalties. Rocky realizes that he is more like the father, and Boy is more like the mother.
DP: The father calls himself "Shogun" and Boy "Little Shogun." Why is that?
TW: That stuff did come from my family. The men in my family were all into Native-American culture and Samurai. There was a romanticism to being strong and an outlaw. The Maori culture is full of incredible heroes and amazing warriors, and we fought the British for ten years in the 1800s using guerilla warfare. To forget that and name yourself after a Samurai warrior is really ironic and crazy.
DP: If the mother hadn't died in giving birth to Rocky, how would things have been different in the family?
TW: I don't think the father would be as bad as he is, but he would still be neglectful, even when he is around the kids. He wasn't a great father or husband in the first place. I feel he would be living at home and they would be happy together but he still would need to do a lot of growing up. I was thinking about including scenes of him having these weird memories that would show he was a terrible husband, but I thought that would take the film into a genre that I didn't want it be in.
Boytaikawithcamera.jpg

DP: You were also being protective of the character.
TW: Yeah. I felt he was hard enough to like as he is, so showing more bad things would make it impossible.
DP: One reason Boy is quick to make his father a hero rather than a loser is that he's lonely. Is the theme of "loneliness" important to you?
TW: It is. The world is so overpopulated but there is still so much loneliness. You can live in a small town like I did or New York and be very lonely.
SPOILER ALERTDP: The lonely boy opens up only to a goat. His father accidentally runs over the goat. Is that something a boy could ever forgive?
END SPOILER ALERTTW: I think people forgive their fathers for anything. Fathers can get away with anything. It's always the mother who the boys take it out on later in life. It's kind of crazy. The less present a father is, the more his child will want to be with him, the more they love him.
DP: So if there is that forgiveness, in terms of repairing this family, can it work?
TW: Good question. I think the answer is yes. They have potential to succeed as a family. That's the cool thing about forgiveness and second chances.
DP: Is that a theme you like?
TW: I do. I love this quote that I think is by Hemingway: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." That is only way. As much as it is someone apologizing to you for something, it is also you letting go and giving them the chance to do right and be better. [Laughing] And if it doesn't work out, cut them loose! I'm a big one for second chances and forgiveness.
DP: I asked Loren Horsley whether it was essential for us to love Lily in Eagle Vs. Shark. Although she didn't think it was, I disagreed. Boy acts tough and does things we don't like, but do you think it's essential that we love him?
TW: I think it's essential that we went want to go on the journey with him. He can do things that we don't love, but it's essential that we want to see what happens next and be part of his group of friends.
DP: The production notes says this is a "rite of passage" movie but I'm not so sure.
TW: I didn't call it that; someone else must have said that. Maybe it's a "coming of age" film but what we see is just part of his childhood.
DP: Yeah, he learns a few things and softens a bit toward his brother and the girl who likes him.
TW: But he hasn't become who he is going to become.
DP: I think because of the tone you were trying to achieve, you made sure that Boy isn't "too nice." Because boys aren't too nice.
TW: Yes. He's so conflicted all the time. He'll be mean to someone because he doesn't want them to know he likes them. He's a little boy with a lot of inner turmoil. In the movie The Tree of Life, I really liked the stuff around the boys. For instance I connected instantly with the first time you feel guilty for stealing something and the kind of turmoil you go through when you hide it, and say "Why did I do that???" I love all that stuff.
DP: You mentioned Jules and Jim but Truffaut also made a film called Stolen Kisses in which one character loves somebody who loves somebody else who loves somebody else, and nobody loves each other at the same time; in your film, one person bullies one person who bullies another person who bullies another person. There's a hierarchy of bullies. It's partly their trying to find security by putting other people down.
TW: Yeah, yeah, I'm fascinated by that. It also again comes down to people wanting to be heroes to others. DP: In your movie, there's a large man-child on the beach who befriends the lonely Rocky and who saves Boy from drowning. What are your thoughts about him?
TW: He's based on a real person from a documentary by Vincent Ward. He's a great New Zealand filmmaker who when he was very young made a film called In Spring, One Plants Alone. It was about an old Maori woman who lived in the middle of nowhere. And she had a son who was dependant on her. He had no friends and was a bit weird and talked to animals. People either laughed at him or really believed he was a special kind of spirit. The character in Boy is based a lot on that character, Niki.
DP: Talk about the full-cast musical number that you lead. Is it a mixture of "Thriller" and Bollywood?
TW: It's the haka. It's the Maori war dance. It's what we do before battle but nowadays it's also done before sports events. Blacks playing rugby will do the haka before facing off against someone. When we were kids doing that we always tried to mix it up a little bit with contemporary stuff, like Michael Jackson.
BoyDanceNumber.jpg
DP: There's a scene in Boy in which everybody facing each other at the kitchen table, and it's very much like the scenes in Flight of the Conchords when the manager takes attendance.
TW: Yeah. It's also an Ozu type shot.
DP: Right, in Ozu people sit around tables and talk.
TW: And it's filmed straight on.
DP: Did Flight of the Conchords play in New Zealand?
TW: Oh, yeah. It was very popular there.
DP: How many did you direct?
TW: Two in each season, and I wrote one each season.
DP: Why did it go off? I expected a third season.
TW: The boys didn't want to do another one. It was too much work to write all the songs, and write the episodes and be in them. HBO is an incredible network and is hands-off but it was so hard with the budgets and time frame to generate all that stuff. They haven't discounted doing a feature film.
DP: What's your dream now?
TW: Just to keep doing this, writing my own scripts. Jemaine and I are now writing a feature together. We're going to try to make a vampire movie. I just feel that it might be the time for one! I've written another movie set in Europe during World War II. It's not Maori related, it's completely European.
DP: Do you worry that if you stop making films with Maori characters that people in New Zealand will accuse you of being a sell out?
TW: I do worry a little bit. But I feel as long as I continue writing my own stuff then I'm doing what I want to do. There's less chance of doing something for the money if you write your own material. It's more about love for the project.
DP: Do you still do stand-up comedy? And what was your routine?
TW: I don't really do it that much. I emcee now and then. What I did mainly was character stuff. It was never really like me. It was weird and surreal.
DP: Where do you live now?
TW: Nowhere. I don't have a house at the moment. I'm in L.A. a lot, and here in New York a lot, and sometimes I'm in London. I stay in hotels and with friends. I'm hardly ever at home but am constantly moving. It was great when I started doing it but I really need to settle down. Because there will be a baby in May.
DP: I guess you want home-cooked meals for a change!
TW: Oh, yeah, I'm really tired of five-star restaurants...

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