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Director Taika Waititi's 'Wilderpeople' Is Good For A Laugh — And Then A Cry

Taika Waititi's other films include <em>Boy</em> (2010) and <em>What We Do in the Shadows</em> (2014).
Taika Waititi's other films include <em>Boy</em> (2010) and <em>What We Do in the Shadows</em> (2014).

Taika Waititi is an actor and director whose offbeat sense of humor is well-known in his native New Zealand. And while he doesn't enjoy the same recognition in the U.S., he does have something of a cult following here.

One of Waititi's best-known films is a mockumentary called What We Do in the Shadows — think of it as Spinal Tap with vampires. Waititi co-directed the film, and he also plays Viago, a neat freak vampire who shares a house with three other bloodsuckers.

New Zealand actor Sam Neill describes the mockumentary as "four vampires of various antiquity living in a ghastly sort of student, New Zealand [house] — just the kind of thing that I was in when I was at university." It's one of the films that made Neill want to work with Waititi on his new film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

No Nose Flutes Or Panpipes

Waititi is half Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. His 2010 film, Boy, centers around a group of Maori children in a poor, coastal village, much like the one Waititi grew up in. The boy in the film longs to have a relationship with his pot-smoking, ex-convict dad. Boy was a tremendous hit in New Zealand, and it was also nominated for an Oscar. Waititi thinks part of its appeal was that it didn't perpetuate stereotypes.

"Indigenous people in films, it's all like nose flutes and panpipes and, you know, people talking to ghosts ... which I hate," he says. "We really wanted to throw that whole thing away."

Actor Sam Neill calls the film extraordinary. "I thought [it was] the funniest thing I'd ever seen when I first saw it," he says. "And then I saw it a second time [and] I thought it was quite the saddest film I've ever seen."

That poignant humor is on full display in Waititi's new movie.

Ricky the city kid (Julian Dennison) and Hector the mountain man (Sam Neill) journey through the wilderness in <em>Hunt for the Wilderpeople</em>.
/ Courtesy of The Orchard
Ricky the city kid (Julian Dennison) and Hector the mountain man (Sam Neill) journey through the wilderness in <em>Hunt for the Wilderpeople</em>.

'Like Laurel And Hardy In The Wilderness'

Hunt for the Wilderpeople opens with aerial footage of the lush, mountainous region of northern New Zealand. A lone police car winds up the hillside to a small house. It's a child welfare worker dropping a foster kid, Ricky, off at his new home. The welfare worker seems straight out of a Roald Dahl story: She's a cruel adult who has no business working with kids. She tells the boy's new foster mom that he's "a real bad egg." Not long after, a grizzled, bearded hunter, played by Sam Neill, walks toward the house. His name is Hector and he's Ricky's reluctant foster dad. He glares at the group as he walks by.

Ricky is a chubby Maori boy dressed in a hoodie and baseball cap — a typical city kid. But there's a sweetness to the Tupac-loving foster kid, and to his new foster mom.

"You gonna run away tonight?" she asks her ward.

"Not sure," he replies.

"It's cool with me," she says. "Just make sure you're back by breakfast."

Without giving too much away, soon Ricky the city kid and Hector the mountain man are on a journey through the wilderness. "It's just like Laurel and Hardy in the wilderness," Waititi says. The filmmaker especially liked taking the character Ricky out of his comfort zone. "I just thought it would be very funny for a kid who's obsessed with Tupac and being a tough kid on the streets of the city to be thrown out into the harsh realities of the New Zealand winter."

Both Funny And Sad

Thirteen-year-old Julian Dennison plays Ricky. He says he likes how Waititi uses humor to address a painful situation: "Behind Ricky and all of the things he's been through and foster care, you know, it's actually a really sad film. But [Waititi] also incorporated jokes so kids can go and watch it and adults, which was a really special idea to draw people in, talking about these serious things but also having a humor to it and, you know, a laugh to it."

Waititi attributes his sense of humor to his upbringing: His mother is of Russian-Jewish heritage, and his father is Maori. "So there [are] two great backgrounds there," he says. "Two very different cultural backgrounds, but two people who have dealt with a lot of oppression and I think really used humor in storytelling to make sense of the world."

The filmmaker also makes a cameo in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He plays a minister who delivers an unusual sermon at a funeral:

Minister: You know, sometimes in life it seems like there's no way out. Like a sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves. And you know that if you're ever in that situation, there are always two doors to choose from. And through the first door — oh, it's easy to get through that door and on the other side waiting for you are all the nummiest treats you can imagine. Fanta, Doritos, L&P, burger rings, coke zero. But you know what? There's also another door. Not the burger ring door, not the Fanta door. Another door that's harder to get through. Guess what's on the other side? Anyone want to take a guess?

Ricky: Vegetables?

Minister: No not vegeta ... No.

Parishioner: Jesus?

Minister: You would think Jesus. I thought Jesus the first time I come across that door. It's not Jesus. It's another door. And guess what's on the other side of that door?

Parishioner: Jesus.

Minister: Yeah, Jesus. He's tricky like that, Jesus.

That's classic Taika Waititi. He says people need humor, even in the most traumatic moments. "We're like moths, you know, we're really attracted to the light. And that's what's cool, I think, about being humans, is we're very positive despite so many negative things happening in the world; we're a very positive species.

That gently twisted but empathetic sense of humor has gotten Hollywood's attention: Waititi is now directing Marvel's next Thor movie.

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