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Director Taika Waititi 'felt a bit like Herzog' while filming 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
The Orchard
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
The Orchard
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
The Orchard
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in
Taika Waititi, writer/director of "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" on set in New Zealand.
The Orchard
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill star in
Writer/Director Taika Waititi on set of "Hunt for the Wilderpeople."
The Orchard

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Starring Sam Neill and young newcomer Julian Dennison, "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Since then, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” has been doing great business in its home country of New Zealand — and it hits American theaters this week.The comedy-adventure tells the story of a juvenile delinquent sent to live with his foster aunt and uncle out in the bush. It’s written and directed by Taika Waititi, the filmmaker behind “What We Do In The Shadows” and “Boy”. He was also a writer and director on the HBO series “Flight of the Conchords,” but he’s now directing the next “Thor” movie for Marvel Studios.

"Wilderpeople" is based on the novel "Wild Pork and Watercress" by Barry Crump, but as Waititi explained when we met up with him at Sundance this year, there was one important detail he had to leave out in the film adaptation: 

What happens in the book is the kid starts off quite hefty, he's quite fat, and then by the end of the book he loses all that weight because of all the time he's out in the wilderness. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to crash diet 12-year-olds.

Interview Highlights:

He didn't want to do the Christian Bale?

No, don't think he's interested in that. So we decided to get rid of that bit, but I think it works having someone who physically appears that they really couldn't look after themselves in the bush. It sort of adds to the sweetness and you're behind him. You're kinda rooting for this real fish out of water. I did this commercial with Julian and I actually wrote the script after that and once I got the rights to the film...even then I knew I wanted to use Julian, just from doing this commercial with him. 

I said to someone after seeing the film that without Julian in that role there's no movie

Absolutely, 100 percent. That's the thing that struck me when I first met him. He's charming, he's funny, he's really sweet-natured and he's a good person underneath it all. I think that is exactly what that character is as well. He puts on this front with this bravado, he talks about being a gangster all the time, but underneath he's just a timid little boy. 

You are a filmmaker, you also do comedy, and you're a visual artist. How do all those disciplines come together in the making of a film?

Visually, I'm always considering shots and composition quite a lot and I love putting art into films and I do a lot of the art. In another film I did, "Boy," I did a lot of the animation. Hand-drawn animations and stuff. Most of my films — if you look at the tone, apart from "Shadows," which is straight-up comedy — the tone is a mix between comedy and pathos and I really love that. I love films that make you feel something, but also deliver that payload behind jokes. Having a background of comedy and improv and making stuff with very little means...I love all of that handmade stuff. 

When you made your film, "Boy," you were unable to get a legitimate US theatrical distributor. You had to raise your own, correct?

(sighs) Yep. 

But that's part of the equation, right? That you come here even with this film you need to get distribution in the States. How are you able to separate that part of the equation from the actual experience. Or is it always in the back of your mind?

It's interesting, I care less about it now, but right from the beginning it's on my mind. For instance, this film has got hardly any swearing in it, I think there's probably one F-bomb, whereas my other films I didn't care at all. I was like, Say what you want, put it in, who cares? This is art. That really affects ratings and how people feel like they can position a film. I was thinking about that, keeping it entertaining and heartfelt. I often, just because I'm a New Zealander, I shy away from sentimentality and cheesiness. I feel like when that's happening in one of my stories I feel very very uncomfortable.

But there's definitely more of an element of that in this film. The heartfelt stuff and the weird, icky, lovely feeling that you get at the end of the film, which we worked hard to get. We thought Yeah, people will want to see this. We didn't want it to be a super Hollywood ending, but we also didn't want it to be a Cannes ending where everyone dies. It's entertainment. I'm becoming more aware that you have to entertain people. I think the whole landscape of filmmaking is so different at the moment — we aren't afforded a great opportunity to make personal art films that are very, very dark, because nobody sees them. And I really want people to see my films. 

Your next film is the Marvel adaptation of "Thor." Do you think you're going to have the latitude and the freedom to bring some of your personality to the making of that movie?

I like to think so, check in with me in 18 months. I think so, just from working there the last few months, everyone there is smart and they know the stories they want to tell. Imagine having the pressure of fans, of what fans want. If I had to give into fans' demands, not that I have any, but the four fans that I have if I had to give into them, I would just be making the same film every time. So I totally get that whole system, but luckily with Marvel there's not a huge amount of execs, producers and stuff. It's actually a really small, tight-knit group of smart people. 

Part of the story is how difficult it is to get along in the bush. Was this a difficult, physically, challenging movie to make given the locations that you were in?

Yeah, definitely. It was winter and New Zealand winters are just terrible and harsh and freezing and always wet. I felt a bit like Herzog trying to drag a crew through the mud. We really were — we were carrying big things and trudging through the mud, losing our boots in the mud and stuff for weeks and weeks. I think 80 percent of the film is all exterior in winter. It was a stupid idea, but what is great is it looks amazing. Sometimes it's worth putting yourself and your crew through that. When they see the result they're like, Oh, five weeks wasn't actually too bad for that. 

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