Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) is Taika Waititi’s third feature as writer-director (fourth, if you count his collaboration with Jemaine Clement on 2014’s What We Do In The Shadows). After an initial flirtation with the world of superheroes, playing a supporting role 
in Martin Campbell’s illfated DC adaptation Green Lantern (2011), 
his next stop is helming Marvel’s tentpole threequel Thor: Ragnarok 
(2017). Wilderpeople, though, far from being a small indie apertif, has become the highest-grossing New Zealand film of all time (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, which get a cheeky reference in Wilderpeople, are not technically NZ films) and continues an upward trajectory begun back in 2003 with Waititi’s Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night.

Two Cars, One Night was the multi-hyphenate’s first ‘serious’ project, after having intitially established himself as a comedy performer. In the mid-1990s, Waititi teamed with Victoria University of Wellington peers Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement (later of Flight of the Conchords) to form comedy troupe So You’re A Man and then with Clement alone for duo The Humourbeasts. Two Cars, inspired by his own childhood experiences, displays qualities that run throughout Waititi’s work. Two kids, left by their respective parents to their own devices parked outside a bar, make a tentative connection. ‘There are a few moments in childhood that have a lasting impact,’ Waititi explained, ‘Not because they change the course of your life, or because they arrive with any great fanfare, in fact quite the opposite. Those are moments where an unexpected joy is found in the everyday, a moment of beauty in the ordinary.’[1]

In just 11 minutes, comic childish bluster is cut through with pathos, fine-drawn allusion and warmth, ultimately capturing a fleeting sense of grace most filmmakers struggle to find at feature length. Waititi, originally from the Raukokore region of the East Coast of New Zealand, cast non-professional actors from his own tribe, Te-Whanau-a-Apanui. The whole thing is shot through with what Waititi would later describe as ‘smart New Zealand humour, more subtle than obvious’, deadpan back-and-forth, a ‘comedy of the mundane’[2], typically delivered in broad Kiwi accents.

The roots of the Wilderpeople project, ultimately realised 13 years later, can be traced to shortly after Two Cars’ thwarted Oscar bid (Waititi feigned sleep as the winner was announced, having failed to convince his fellow nominees to follow suit), when Waititi was commissioned to develop Barry Crump’s popular novel, Wild Pork and Watercress, into a feature script. Wilderpeople producer Leanne Saunders describes Crump as ‘an iconic bushman and a great character. New Zealand’s own Crocodile Dundee,’[3] and he’s often been described as New Zealand’s best-selling author. Waititi eagerly produced a script, though the 2005 iteration of the film was ultimately shelved.

The fledgling writer-director followed Two Cars with another award-winning short, Tama Tū (2004), inspired by the 28 (Māori) Battalion of WWII. Again, a sombre situation is undercut with humour that leavens the potential tragedy, though ultimately heightens the emotional impact. At the time Waititi said, ‘I don’t ever want to be seen as a Māori artist. I’d rather be an artist who just happens to be Māori – and not like my art must always, and necessarily, reflect being a Māori.’[4] Shortly thereafter he produced a short, What We Do In The Shadows (2006), with Clement, and halted development of a feature based on Two Cars - entitled Choice – in favour of Eagle Vs Shark (2007), which became his debut feature and a minor international hit. Waititi cast Clement in his first major lead role, and retained his focus on New Zealand, explaining, ‘I really want to make films that New Zealanders can be proud of. I’m not limiting myself to making films just in New Zealand but I like that my country can have a film that’s actually about them, a film they can relate to and enjoy.’[5] 

Choice, now retitled Boy (2010). Again, Waititi cast non-professional actors, very particularly focussed on the region in which he set his story and where he had partly grown up. Bemoaning the preponderance of Once Were Warriors-style archetypes (‘We never embraced the buffoons in our culture. Maori nerds or Maori dorks.’), he finally cast himself as the idolised, indolent father of the titlular character. Set in the early 1980s, the by-now definitively Waititian elements were all once more in place for Boy, allowing the buffoonery of Alamein Sr to segue effortlessly into a moving portrait of loss and fractured family dynamics. Wilderpeoplestar Sam Neill says of Boy, ‘I thought [it was] the funniest thing I'd ever seen when I first saw it, and then I saw it a second time [and] I thought it was quite the saddest film I've ever seen.’

In 2014, Clement and Waititi teamed again to co-direct What We Do In The Shadows, a vampire mockumentary based on their 2006 short and a return to out-and-out comedy which also managed to harness Waititi’s gift for empathy to winning effect. Meanwhile the confluence of two events - a fruitful reunion with the rights-holding Crump family and the production of a drug driving PSA – conspired to put Wild Pork and Watercress,retitled Hunt for the Wilderpeople, back on Waititi’s schedule. When he gained the family’s blessing to make the film himself, the director had already noted Julian Dennison (Ricky Baker) after directing him in Blazed – Drug Driving In Aotearoa (2013), a comic short commercial for the NZ Transport Agency. Once again focussing on kids idly waiting in cars for partying parents, Blazed clearly recalls Two Cars, One Night in tone, theme and content, drawing a discernible line between Waititi’s debut andWilderpeople. Like his antecedents in Two CarsBoy and BlazedWilderpeople’s Ricky, a ‘troubled’ teen in need of an adult role model, finds himself behind the wheel of a car. Unlike them, rather than frustration, revelation or perhaps a momentary sense of joy, he finds ‘the knack’ for starting the engine and thus propels himself explosively towards catharis. ‘We're like moths, you know,’ Waititi has offered, ‘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.’[7]

Sean Welsh

September 2016

[1] Taika Waititi, Two Cars, One Night director’s notes ( accessed 15/09/16)

[2] Taika Waititi, interviewed by Clarisse Loughrey for The Independent ( accessed 15/09/16)

[3] Leanne Saunders, Hunt For The Wilderpeople production notes ( accessed 15/09/16)

[4] Taika Waititi, interview with Gordon Campbell, New Zealand Listener, 24/01/2004 ( accessed 15/09/2016)

[5] Taika Waititi, Eagle Vs Shark production notes

[6] Sam Neill, as quoted by Elizabeth Blair in ‘Director Taika Waititi's Wilderpeople Is Good For A Laugh - And Then A Cry’ ( accessed 15/09/16)

[7] Taika Waititi, ibid.

All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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