The music score is unearthly choral music as we fly over the landscape of New Zealand’s primal forests, transporting us in to a mythic tale. This is Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi’s (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) adaptation of Barry Crump’s much loved tale, Wild Pork and Watercress, premiering at Sundance.
The film follows the adventures of a tearaway street kid, Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) who, in a last ditch attempt to get him on the straight and narrow, is fostered out to Bella (Rima Te Wiata) a relentlessly cheerful farmer who treats the boy like family. Less welcoming is Hec (Sam Neill), Bella’s taciturn bushman husband, who would rather be hunting pigs than dealing with a city teenager. Events consoire to strand Hec and Ricky in the woods, and the two must learn to work together when the world believes that Hec has kidnapped the kid.
The wild landscape and the belligerent city kid make a comic contrast. As in the visually creative Boy, the truth of abused, abandoned kids is made elegiac by Waititi’s warmth, humour and unpatronising style. His is an open view rather than judging.
“I keep journals, I’m always writing,” Waititi tells Filmink ahead of the screening. “I don’t usually write the script until the very last stage, that’s when I type the pages, but that’s after I’ve been writing notes and figuring out what the potential story is in my head.
“My directing style is very changeable because it depends on how much time we’ve got to do a scene, how much money, and you can’t always give it the time it’s supposed to be, sometimes you’ve got to rush and come up with solutions on the spot. Usually it’s relaxed, I’m a relaxed person with a relaxed style. I’m an actor so I like actors. It’s about being respectful while getting the job done.”
Introducing the screening, John Cooper, Director of Programming for Sundance, says, “Let’s talk about Taika. Two Cars, One Night in 2003, Boy in 2010, Shadows in 2014, finally in 2016 he’s bringing Hunt for the Wilderpeople to the big house (referring to the 1200-plus seat Eccles Theatre where most of the major premieres screen) where he should always be from now on. When filmmakers come back time and time again and get more seasoned and wonderful in their storytelling it’s very exciting for us.”
Asked what drew him to the story, Waititi jokes, “Unemployment mainly! I was sent a script a while ago. It’s a very well-known New Zealand book by one of our great writers. I’d grown up with it and I know a lot of people wanted to see it as a film.
“It’s an homage to 1980s Australasian filmmaking. There are a lot of zooms and cross fades, Roger Donaldson meets Chick Murphy. I grew up watching these crazy, whacky adventures and I think in general the world’s full of depressing films so it’s ok to make something fun!”
About the casting process he remarks, “I didn’t audition anyone, I made a commercial with Julian once and I was so impressed. Eighty percent of the movie was shooting exteriors. We were out in the wilderness, basically it was ‘The Revenant’ but with no money and no luxuries. There’s a snow scene we didn’t plan for, it just snowed one day and we had to decide ‘I guess some of the film is in the snow now.’
Earlier Dennison told Filmink, “This is my third film, and it’s my second at Sundance. Taika as a director, he’s really good fun, he knows how to bring out the best in you. He made me really focus on what I was doing in the scenes but he made it feel like fun not hard work. It’s really cool working with him and I learned a lot from him and Sam Neill. It was the best experience, it became like a family with the cast and crew.”
At the after screening Q&A, Waititi explains, “I try and do rehearsal but there’s never enough time to rehearse and sometimes there’s too much time and you can overcook it a bit. It’s actually nice to find things on set. I like to find the balance between drama and comedy. We improvised, particularly the Happy Birthday song in the movie. We weren’t allowed to use that so on the spot we collectively wrote a song that became the brilliant ‘Ricky Baker’ song. With the music and scoring, basically with the six dollars we had left after shooting! But I was inspired by John Carpenter’s scores.”
Waititi began his career as a performer and comedian, playing stand-up gigs in New Zealand and creating his solo productions, Taika’s Incredible Show and Taika’s Incredibler Show. He has had a long-standing friendship and collaboration with Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords fame, including writing and acting together in the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. He starred in Boy and was nominated for Best Actor at the Nokia Film Awards for his role in the Sarkies Brother’s film Scarfies (2000).
As if this wasn’t enough original output, Waititi is also an experienced painter and photographer, having exhibited both media in Wellington and Berlin. These days he is focussed more on writing and directing. His ancestral background is a mix of Jewish and Maori. It is this strong indigenous element in Waititi’s films that brought representatives of On Native Ground to the red carpet at Sundance.
Executive Producer Jack Kohler explains, “On Native Ground was started to provide role models for Native American kids across the US. A lot of them are still in reservations, they don’t have a lot of native role models, especially in the media, then we started having these native youth reporters and that inspired others. We are creating more native content on TV and PBS and the more exposure that gets the more real stories get heard. You can’t really move into a future until you heal from what’s done and have it acknowledged.
“I like the fact that the Maoris have organised and created their own communities, they are still doing what they’ve been doing for thousands of years and that’s inspiring especially for natives in California. We do feel this kinship to the Pacific Islanders because they travelled to California. Our languages are very similar, even the markings on the face.”
From indigenous culture to New Zealand vampires and currently directing Chris Hemsworth and Cate Blanchett in the superhero blockbuster Thor : Ragnarok, Waititi has to be the last word in diversity – at least in terms of his career arc.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens in Australia on May 26.