Life is Funny, That Way: How Filmmaker Taika Waititi Sees It
In light of Taiki 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 in a Green room, fully waxed, and donning only a thong.
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.
“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.