On 30 March, following a screening of Boy at Kendall Square Cinema in Boston, audiences were treated to a raucous Q&A session with director, writer, and star Taika Waititi and one of the film’s producers, Emanuel Michael.
“The story… It’s basically a documentary—we shot it in 1984, and I played Boy. It’s me. No, it’s fake. Everything’s fake in the film. It’s all made up. But, the autobiographical part of the film is that I was a goat once.”
Taika Waititi—clean-shaven and dressed neatly in a brown button-down shirt, tie, and khaki jeans—elicits as many laughs from the audience in person as he did onscreen in Boy as Alamein, the title character’s delusional, childish father. Standing in front of the audience sans Alamein’s porno ’stache, acid wash jeans, and “cool” leather jacket, Waititi is recognizable as the film’s antihero only by his wide grin and unruly hair.
The Q&A session was one of Waititi and Michael’s primary marketing tools in their quest to self-promote the film. After failing to secure a US distributor, the two men set off on a tour to bring the film to 50 cities across the US and generate interest predominantly through good ol’ fashioned word-of-mouth.
James Rolleston, Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, Taika Waititi
(Paladin; US theatrical: 2 Mar 2012 (Limited release); 2010)
Eagle vs. Shark
Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley, Joel Tobeck, Brian Sergent, Craig Hall, Rachel House
(Miramax Films; US theatrical: 15 Jun 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 17 Aug 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
“We’re touring this film—it’s like being in a rock band but no groupies, no drugs, no touching the TVs in the hotel room, [and] no trashing the hotel rooms, ’cause I’ll pay for that. It’s a sort of toned down version of a tour,” Waititi laughs.
Waititi and Michael earned the money to self-release the film through a website called Kickstarter.com—“the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” according to the site’s homepage. Waititi enticed potential benefactors by offering rewards in exchange for donations: To those who donated a dollar or more, Waititi promised, “I will say your name quietly to myself at night before I go to bed and send you a little hug in my mind. We’ll also send you a digital poster you can hang proudly on your computer”; people who donated $20 or more were promised digital downloads of two of Waititi’s short films; those who donated $250 or more were promised custom drawings by Waititi himself; and the rewards for those who gave even larger donations were only more extravagant and ridiculous.
With the allure of such prizes (and the hilarity with which Waititi presented them), it’s no wonder that Waititi and Michael were able to raise $110,000 in 30 days from people who wanted to see the film play in America.
The compelling question here is why Waititi and Michael were forced to self-release Boy. Upon its debut in 2010, Boy was praised at all of the major festivals—winning nominations and awards at the Berlin Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and the American Film Festival—and dominated at the New Zealand box office. Why, then, did New Zealand’s highest grossing film of all time struggle to gain distribution in the United States, despite international rave reviews?
The unfortunate truth: Taika Waititi is just too damn original, and the unique stories he chooses to tell with his films can’t be squashed into the marketing mold. Boy is a prime example of this—neither pure comedy nor drama, American distributors considered the film a marketing liability.
Michael recounts the gloomy tale: “We premiered the film in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. We had four sold-out shows, standing ovations—it was a really warm environment. The distributors came up to us after and said, ‘We love the movie. Great work, Taika. Great work, great. But we don’t know how to market it.’ So, that was the end of the conversation.”
Michael continues, “I guess that’s kind of the dilemma here: These companies are based on how they can market films and we’re trying to make films that are different. We’re not A Separation—we’re not a serious, foreign film—that’s a market, a genre. [But] we’re not a silly comedy either. So it’s like we don’t really fall into a neat box.”
The marketing issue is a legitimate one. A friend would probably feel extremely conflicted if you attempted to recount the plot of Boy to her: “Oh, yeah, it’s about this 11-year-old Maori kid named Boy who is raised with his six year-old brother Rocky by their Nan in an impoverished, rural town in 1984 New Zealand. The boys’ mother died during childbirth with Rocky and the father walked out on the family right before then and is currently in jail for petty theft. Boy fantasizes about all of his father’s great accomplishments while he waits patiently for him to return home. His dad does return home, but not to care for his sons, as Boy believes, but to dig up the plastic bag of cash that he had buried in the yard on the night he was arrested. Boy’s heart is shattered when he realizes the truth that his dad is not a hero, but a loser. It’s hilarious, though! Tons of laughs and Michael Jackson references! You should definitely go see it!”
However, that conflict—the inability to label Boy with a specific genre—is exactly what makes the film so perfect. In a technique that has kind of become his trademark, Waititi blends drama and comedy so harmoniously and beautifully that Boy satisfies every emotional craving. When watching Boy, smiles are inevitable, hysterics are probable, uncomfortable moments are possible, and tears are likely.
“Getting the balance of humour and sadness is a wonderfully hard thing to do,” Waititi revealed in an online Q&A with fans earlier this month (Reddit.com). “I spent months on both films [Eagle vs. Shark and Boy] trying to get it right… Usually my scripts read funny in the first half and depressing in the second, so I have to go through and punch them up with a few gags to balance the 2nd half.”
Waititi’s films are relatable and true-to-life because of that balance of humor and sadness combined with his themes. Both Eagle vs. Shark and Boy revolve around complex family dynamics, with Boy focusing more heavily on the father-son relationship.
“I find that relationships between kids and parents are very interesting,” Waititi explains. “The family unit is very interesting because these are people that you’re supposed to be the closest to in your life, and yet that’s where you find the greatest distances between people, as well—especially between parents and kids. I’m always fascinated by the theme of children who parent the adults.”
“The other thing I was trying to explore [with Boy] was the idea of fallen heroes,” Waititi adds. “I think our first heroes with whom we discover flaws are our parents. And for guys, especially, that’s [our] fathers—[we] realize, ‘Oh, wow, my dad didn’t actually go to space.’ I liked that idea of what happens when you have to reconcile your fantasy images of your parents with who they really are.”
Waititi says that his goal with Boy (and presumably his goal for all of his projects) was to write a smart film that was an “original story” and was “very human” and had a lot of “heart.” These virtues were lacking, no doubt, from Waititi’s role on The Strip, his first major experience in the film and television industry.
Waititi didn’t study film or television during his time at Victoria University of Wellington. Instead, he tangoed his way (quite literally) into the industry with a breakthrough role on the New Zealand series The Strip (2002-2003). Though Waititi had previously acted in two low-budget Kiwi movies Scarfies and Snakeskin, his role as male stripper Mostin is almost entirely responsible for motivating him to launch his now illustrious career as a filmmaker; without playing such a degrading, shallow character, Waititi might have been content to continue only acting instead of writing his own stories.
“I remember sitting around in the green room in my G-string thinking ‘Why am I doing this, just helping someone else to realize their dream,’” Waititi recalled with a laugh during his TED Talk in Doha this past May. “So what I started doing was writing my own scripts and stuff.”
In light of Waititi’s ridiculous sense of humor and the absurd characters he creates, it’s almost too perfect that his epiphanic moment occurred while he was sitting around, fully waxed, and donning only a thong.
Comedic to the Core
From that epiphany onward, Waititi’s career has seemed to progress at an amazingly smooth and rapid pace with Boy presenting him with the only notable obstacles of his career.
Waititi established his career with his short Two Cars, One Night, which recounts a tale of puppy love. Youngsters Polly and Ed are both waiting for their parents in their respective cars outside of a pub and Ed, compelled by boredom, teases Polly from across the parking lot in hopes of winning her attention.
The touching and hilarious short garnered Waititi a hoard of festival awards, in addition to a coveted Academy Award nomination in 2005. True to his comedic core, Waititi couldn’t simply sit through the Academy Awards ceremony without pulling some kind of prank: He feigned sleep just as his nomination was announced and the camera cut to him—a gag that was appreciated by those with a sense of humor and no doubt frowned upon by others.
The short caught Emanuel Michael’s attention when it premiered at the LA Film Festival. Michael was at the festival in support of Shock Act, a short he had produced that was also nominated. Shock Act had won awards at both the Chicago Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, so Michael was confident that it would win again in LA. But then he saw Two Cars, One Night.
“And I remember just watching [Taika’s] film and thinking, ‘Shit. We’re not going to win this film festival,’” says Michael. “And we didn’t. But what I did win was the opportunity to see a film that, up until that point, may have been the best film I had ever seen in my life.”
It was lucky for Waititi that Michael was in the audience that night because Michael decided then that he wanted to help Waititi make his first feature-length film. Later that year, Michael flew to New Zealand, had lunch with Waititi, and a partnership was formed—despite the absence of a script for a feature-length film.
But soon after that meeting, Waititi wrote his earliest draft of Boy—inspired in part by Two Cars, One Night. He and Michael brought the draft to the Sundance Institute’s Writers’ Lab that year and it was accepted into the Directors’ Lab. However, according to Michael, “Taika realized that [the script] needed more work, he wanted to put more into it—it’s a personal story.”
Instead of bringing Boy to the Directors’ Lab, which was about a month and a half after the Writers’ Lab, Waititi—under a time crunch—sat down and quickly wrote another script that became his first feature film, Eagle vs. Shark, starring Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, an old friend of Waititi’s from university.
Eagle vs. Shark was well received at the Directors’ Lab where Waititi received the support and financial backing to move forward with the project. The film went into production almost immediately afterward and wrapped up six months later, with Miramax buying distribution rights before editing of the film was even complete. Though critics weren’t crazy about the film, it’s beloved by fans of Waititi and Clement—those who appreciate its off-beat sensibility. Eagle vs. Shark also garnered some nominations at film festivals and won Best Screenplay at the HBO Comedy Fest in 2007.
During that time, Boy was placed on the backburner for a few years and went through some “twenty drafts” until Waititi was satisfied with his story and the complex father-son relationship. The delicate tension of the relationship between Boy and Alamein, which propels the story forward, would not have been successful had the role of Boy been played by another actor less capable than newcomer James Rolleston.
“James was a very scary person to work with because he is just so incredibly talented,” Waititi admits. “It was quite intimidating, acting with him.”
While it’s impressive that Rolleston—young, untrained and inexperienced—managed to intimidate his director/costar with raw talent, it is even more amazing knowing that he was casted only three days prior to shooting. Another child had been casted as Boy nine months earlier, but by the time rehearsals began, Waititi was shocked to learn that his “Boy” had hit adolescence.
“He was as tall as me, had a mustache as big as mine, and he just didn’t feel right for that role [anymore],” Waititi says. “So, I fired him on the spot for growing up too fast—that was his punishment. But then I gave him another role, don’t worry, he’s fine. He was the bully in the classroom.”
Rolleston was set to be an extra in that same classroom scene, but Waititi noted Rolleston’s “amazing personality” and decided that he displayed a lot of the personality traits he wanted in the character of Boy. “I felt very relieved when I cast James—I felt like seventy percent of my job had been done,” Waititi says.
Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing, working with a cast almost entirely comprised of children. Waititi was ambitious to write a film dependent on the sensitive performances of child actors—something most directors prefer to avoid. Waititi had anticipated challenges and found most of that difficulty came in the form of keeping Te Aho Eketone-Whitu (Rocky) focused while the cameras were rolling.
“[Te Aho] was a normal seven-year-old and normal seven-year-olds get distracted,” Waititi explains. “He worked out very early on that if he wanted, he could stop an entire production just by walking away. And you just deal with that, you know. Rocky steals every scene, [but] what you see onscreen are literally the frames we could use of him.”
Waititi continues, “Sometimes I would be operating the camera and talking to [Te Aho] and being like, ‘Okay, good, okay, now look at my hand, look at my hand, okay, now look over here, look over here, say your line, and look at my hand, good, and CUT.’ But, you know, nobody would know that that happened—onscreen he’s incredible.”
The kids’ touching performances intercut with dreamlike sequences and Waititi’s primitive, childlike animation create the magical, fantasy element that suck audience members and critics alike into Boy’s “Interesting World”. The only film festival to snub Boy was the notoriously elite Cannes International Film Festival.
“I’m sure this film could’ve played at Cannes, if I had all of the kids be killed in the end,” Waititi jokes, leaving audience members at Kendall in hysterics. “But I think we’ve made enough of those kinds of films in New Zealand, and now it’s time to show the world that we’re also funny and there’s a more hilarious side to child abuse.”
Despite the snub from Cannes, Waititi has been presented with incredible opportunities following the success of Boy. He has directed the “World Gone Sour” music video for The Lost Kids, the New Zealand hit show Super City, the US pilot of the British hit show The Inbetweeners, two Cadbury commercials for the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics, and the infamous “Brotherhood of Man” Super Bowl NBC promo.
The success of Boy, coupled with the commercial recognition gained from these projects, has also given Waititi the clout to move forward with his own future projects: A hilarious vampire farce co-written with Jemaine Clement and Jojo Rabbit (working title), a comedy-drama about WWII.
Jojo Rabbit reportedly tells the story of an 11 year old, pro-Hitler boy whose mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Michael is very excited about the finished script and says, “It’s one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen.” He compares the tone of the film to Life Is Beautiful—tender and heartfelt—but “with a few more laughs.”
Eliciting laughs is what Waititi does best, and he ends the Q&A by leaving the theater in hysterics with his formula for a “smart” film: “Really good-looking dad characters, ethnic children, cultural stuff, and places nobody else has seen on film before.”
And after that final joke, dripping with his signature sarcasm, Taika Waititi warmly (and sincerely) thanked the audience and strode to the back of the theater where he was more than happy to greet fans and sign ticket stubs.