Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Taika Waititi
Jeremy Brock: Welcome, I’m Jeremy Brock. On behalf of BAFTA welcome to this second lecture in the 2018 Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, in conjunction with the JJ Charitable Trust and Lucy Gard. This afternoon, as I know you’re aware, we’re incredibly honoured to be hosting the great Taika Waititi, New Zealand’s multi-award-winning writer and director of such films as Evil vs. Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok. The sheer breadth and scale of Taika’s work speaks to itself, but always there is a signature warmth and empathy that sits alongside a gift for interrogating the odd-couple nature of human relationships, whether in the intimate settings or the grand opera of the Marvel franchise.
His ability through the singularity of his storytelling to reach across cultures makes him a truly international talent and we are really delighted that he’s agreed to come and speak to us today. Taika will give a class, followed by a Q&A with our series producer Mariayah Kaderbhai, then as we always do we’ll open it up to questions from the floor. Before we do, we’re going to have a look at Taika’s Oscar-nominated short from 2004 entitled Two Cars, One Night. Thank you.
Mariayah Kaderbhai: Ladies and gentlemen, Taika Waititi.
Taika Waititi: My strength is dialogue, obviously.
The good thing is, it can’t get any worse. The only way is up from here. Yeah, OK. I was hoping that would eat up a good ten minutes of this. It’s not, no…
How’s it going? As you can see I’ve got all my notes, I’m very prepared. I’ve got a PowerPoint with no pictures and no words. That’s it.
So that’s my PowerPoint. It’s just one page with my name. Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
And supported by the JJ Charitable Trust. AND @BAFTAGuru. That’s some of my text that I’ve put in there, just to prove I did write something.
I’ve eaten up a good two minutes. Only eighty-six to go.
OK. The word lecture, I mean, this is a loose term, really, isn’t it? Lecture. I’m here to talk to you guys about screenwriting. I don’t know much about screenwriting but I thought that what would be nice for us and for me is just to have a conversation with you guys, which would get me off the hook in a big way having no notes and nothing prepared… Which is kind of how I’ve operated in that—you should not take any photos
I do not want a record of this. It should be deleted from everyone’s memories forthwith.
So yeah, thanks for having me BAFTA and JJ Charitable Trust, it’s lovely to be here. I have a very sore head. Last night I was at a bar and I smashed my head into a bookcase, so I’ve got an aching headache right here, just here. So if anyone has—well I’ve had two paracetamol, if anybody has any more just throw them. But I’m on the water, so it’s going great.
Now, screenwriting. What do we know about screenwriting? Hmm.
Where do we start? At the beginning. Title page. The thing is you need a good title page. That’s where all scripts—scripts, in my experience, live and die on the title page. And a good title. You know, what are your favourite titles of movies? Just throw them out there.
Audience member: Boy.
TW: Boy, my film. Simple. It’s just a three-letter word, it says it all, doesn’t it.
OK, page one. After the title page, insert page one. And that’s where all good scripts start. And you can start with either interior or exterior, so you also need to be good at typing.
Either you’re a fast typer or a slow typer. I’m a fast typer, but I’m slow at ideas, so most of my scripts have taken—this is the truth—about seven years between writing and getting made.
I first started—I’m segueing into the real talk now—I was, filmmaking was never really my dream, it was like a—it wasn’t my top shelf dream, it was really like a lower level bottom shelf dream. I had other dreams I didn’t achieve so—disappointed, very disappointed in that. But bittersweet, because also now I’m rich.
So sometimes you’ve just got to take one for the team and just you know, swallow that pill and pick a career in film, so yeah, you’ve just got to do that.
I started off as an illustrator and painter, my background was visual arts. It’s hot in here. So yeah, my dad was a painter, he was a painter and a farmer, and my mother was a schoolteacher. For punishment she would make me analyse poems, William Blake poetry. ‘You’ve been bad, now I want you to write an essay on this William Blake poem.’ Bitch.
So I used to have to do that. So I was really fortunate—I wasn’t ever forced or encouraged to do things outside of the arts because both my parents were into the arts and they wanted me to do that. So I was encouraged to pursue that and I’m very thankful for that. So most of my life was spent doing music and drama and art and eventually in my late-twenties I decided to write that short film, which is better than that when you can hear the dialogue, but that was something I—I was already writing a lot of comedy and doing stand-up and sketches and plays and stuff with my friends because no one would hire us to do plays and shit.
So we would be forced to make our own stuff up and our own props and be more inventive with how we tried to tell our stories. In the time in New Zealand there wasn’t a lot of comedy going on—a lot of the comedy was very, it was pretty boring and it was I think—a friend of mine went to pitch a TV show at TVNZ and they said ‘can’t you just make it more like Friends,’ which is what we did. We were just like ‘what’s America making?’ and we’d copy that, that’s the extent of the comedy on TV.
So yeah, we just basically tried to swim against that tide and we just did these strange sketches and weird things, Jermaine and Brett and I and a few other people, and so we kind of created our own style of comedy I guess, or our own style of storytelling, a style of writing, and eventually people ended up liking it. Then in my late twenties I started writing films because I’d not tried it before. I actually wrote that as a play, sort of for myself and a couple of friends to play these kids, maybe a one act play, and I sent that script to a friend of mine who was a film producer and she suggested that we turn it into a short film and we did that and that got nominated for an Oscar and then lost.
So yeah that was another failure of my life, just lots of disappointments really, one after another. But then the good thing was I got encouraged to keep writing more and to keep trying to experiment and follow this path and did a few more short films and some were made, a lot weren’t, and eventually I got to go to the Sundance Labs with my first feature script, which was for Eagle vs. Shark. And that sort of changed everything for me when I realised that screenwriting could be—that writing films or telling stories could be so much bigger than I’d originally thought it could be.
New Zealand cinema at the time was basically—it was Sam Neill who coined the phrase, ‘a cinema of the unease.’ Which is basically depressing, raining all the time, and someone definitely dies. And there’s definitely a ghost. And yeah, so we all kind of came through at a time when I think the film industry in New Zealand needed a break from that or just needed to go in a new direction and I was very lucky to kind of sort of just catch that little wave, a very little wave.
So made my first feature and kept getting encouraged to make more and more and more, and so really fell in love with film, sort of like an arranged marriage really—fell in love with it because I was encouraged to, and now I’m definitely in love. And yeah, but I was never someone who was like an eight year-old running around with a camera, dreaming of making films like Spielberg and those guys.
I’m actually glad I spent twenty-eight years getting experiences in other areas and doing many other jobs and shitty jobs and doing—like diving for seaweed as a job and definitely hospitality and yeah, just all sorts of things just to get by, but I think there’s a lot of experiences in that that I’ve always drawn on, which has helped me a lot in my writing. So when people say, ‘oh it’s a shitty job, I just want to make my first feature by the time I’m twenty-one.’ If you are a certain type of person great, but I think if I’d made a feature at twenty-one it would have been terrible and I wouldn’t be here. So I’m really thankful that I had that time, that lead-up of those twenty-eight years to get experiences that I still draw on today.
The end, bye.
So that’s that bit. Questions? Is it your turn to come up now and have a chat with me?
OK so that’s the introduction. We’re going great. And we are going to get into—I do really want to have a conversation though, I think the best way of either learning or finding out about other adults is just talking to them rather than just watching films. So we’re going to do that eventually, but first you and I are going to have a conversation. I’m going to move over to this area.
MK: So apparently the short film is ready to watch, so we’ll play that right at the end of the talk. Fingers crossed.
Let’s begin with kind of thematics and going on from Two Cars, One Night, a film that seems deeply personal and about childhood and perhaps childhood that is reflective of your own experience—is that fair to say?
TW: Yeah for sure, so that film is set outside a pub that I used to sit outside when I was a kid, in cars. All our short film in New Zealand always have a punch line, so it was like, oh it’s the same guy but it’s a different day, it’s just like groundhog day. So it’s eight minutes of like ‘what’s going on?’ ‘oh I get it. I get it he’s a time traveller.’ For me I wanted to do something that felt like part of a bigger thing, and more of a snapshot, and do something that felt a little more poetic and didn’t have a punch line at all. There’s no punch line in there.
MK: There’s a certain melancholy, as well.
TW: Yeah, yeah. But also I think that set the tone for a lot of things that I’ve made, which are a mixture of melancholy and comedy and I don’t think you can say my films are straight-up comedies because my films are comedies with lots of slow bits with no laughs, or they’re dramas which are too funny. Touching comedies.
MK: Tragic comedies. We’ll skip ahead if we can to Boy, just because I think the theme of childhood from Two Cars, One Night, Boy and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople is something that you explore so—you write children really well.
TW: I don’t like kids.
MK: Your own?
TW: I like my own.
MK: Yeah OK. They’re nuanced and they’re fallible and they’re the way that kids are. Where has that exploration of childhood come from, why is that a constant thread?
TW: I think it’s because when I was a kid I spent a lot of time by myself or with my friends and not a lot of time with grown-ups, or I’d say that the grown-ups around us were very unreliable and so I learnt early on that you can’t trust them. You can’t trust grown-ups, really.
You know, I think I’m trustworthy, but back then you really just sort of had to make do with what you had and make your own fun and make your own dinner. Basically survive and keep yourself alive. So we all, my family and I and all the kids I grew up with—so Boy is set in the house that I grew up in and a lot of my family is in the film, and Two Cars is sort of like a pre-cursor to that film in that it’s very specific to how I grew up.
And that—I never lamented that at all like I needed some sort of pity or that these films are an exorcism of my trauma, but I think that there’s a lot of funny parts to that.
So Boy is essentially a comedy about child neglect—there’s something that—you guys get it here; in America they were very uncomfortable with that film because they just did not like the idea that parents could be that useless. And so yeah, in New Zealand we find that kind of stuff really funny, and I’m sure you guys do as well.
MK: Let’s take a quick look. Shall we take a quick look?
TW: Yeah, who finds child abuse funny? So yeah, but yeah, so when I was growing up we basically controlled our own worlds and I think that’s why I’ve been drawn to the idea of seeing this world that shitty grownups are creating through the lens of someone who’s more innocent and has a little bit more perspective and a better perspective on it than we do. And the same with acting, I think that child actors, especially if they’re untrained, are infinitely better than grown-up actors because they don’t process shit, they don’t go ‘oh what’s my backstory, what’s—oh my character was abused this morning,’ they just want to say the lines and then eat the free food. So it’s very pure, they’re not clouded with all the crap that we carry along when we’re trying to act, which is like ‘what’s my motivation in this scene?’ which I think is just sort of stupid really.
MK: And you write that purity really well, especially in Boy in the sense that his imagined world, his imagined world of where his father is and who he’s been, that’s another layer that’s been added kind of within your writing a bit. In terms of the writing of something like Boy because there are kind of—his is the principal perspective, but we do go to other perspectives, how do you—what’s your process in terms of sitting down and doing it? Is it visual, is it just at a desk on your own?
TW: Well a lot of it comes from, especially with those films, comes from just trying to capture things I remember doing when I was a kid. Part of Boy is this kid who fantasises that his dad is Michael Jackson and that he’s off doing all these amazing things overseas and that’s exactly how we used to talk when our parents weren’t around, when our dads weren’t around, we’d say—I remember saying that my dad he was like this deep-sea exploration diver who was like off on some rig in the Indian Ocean. We all knew we were lying, when we were lying in bed saying these ridiculous things and making up these ridiculous tales about our parents. But there was something kind of cool that we were trying to top each other with these imaginary excuses of why our parents weren’t around.
And so I really did love that idea—we thought that Bob Marley was from a tribe down the road, I really did think that. It’s all tapping into that kind of thing, where the imagination actually is stronger than reality and that can actually eclipse reality in a lot of ways.
MK: And it shelters reality. Shall we take a look at a clip from Boy you’ve cued up really nicely?
TW: All part of the plan.
MK: Please play. We now have four more words up here.
TW: I don’t have much faith in this working.
MK: We do have four more words on the slide though.
TW: Do you have another slide?
MK: Because Boy is so personal and perhaps based on people that you know and part of your childhood, do you ever feel a responsibility in terms of what people’s perception may be of those communities.
And I’ve had people, usually white people, say like, ‘you know you really didn’t paint the Maori community in a good light in that movie.’ And I’m like ‘bitch, please.’ And then some people say it in some of the reviews; like one review we got was saying sort of the same thing and then saying that the film wasn’t culturally specific enough. Basically what they were saying is there weren’t enough people riding whales and shit in the film.
There weren’t enough ghosts and people talking to trees and spirits and shit. But yeah, I don’t feel that responsibility. I feel a responsibility to my community and Maori community just in terms of wanting to inspire people to get to do other jobs and do what I’m doing, and I think I’ve succeeded in that respect because there are now a lot of youth who want to get into filmmaking or storytelling, which is—we’re an oral culture, most or all of our history has been passed down through story and through song and through dance and through just telling stories. Which is where you get, where myth comes from, and where you know the retelling of a simple story just gets more and more outlandish and where Maui, all the exports of Maui comes from, which is he was probably a dude who cut down a tree with like a tiny little rock once and that story went into fishing up islands and slowing the sun over like a thousand years.
So—but I think that’s really great because what is the truth in history, you know? We still can’t really rely on books because it’s still one person’s telling of history. So what’s the difference between a book and stories that are passed down from generation to generation just through songs or through a verbal telling. So yeah. So my responsibility really I see as to encourage young people in our community to embrace storytelling again, which is one of our strengths and something we’ve lost over the years because we’ve been encouraged to do other things. In my town when I was growing up there were only two jobs, really, there was driving—working in forestry or driving the truck that took the wood out of the forest, so that was it. Or maybe working on water fishing or growing dope. You know which one pays the bills. So those were the options, and if you were to say as a kid—I mean no one would—because I never heard it, ‘oh I want to be a filmmaker,’ you never would have heard that. But now you hear it all the time. And not just because of me but because of my friends and peers, Maori filmmakers who are doing similar things to me.
MK: Sticking with childhood and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it broke box office records in New Zealand.
TW: Yes it made fifty thousand—
No it made a lot of money and you know, you guys pound isn’t worth very much anymore. You’re too snobby about—
MK: But your first adaption
TW: Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
MK: And was it different from having your own voice and being so distinctive in your voice and that again being different in every project that you’ve done to adapting someone else’s work? How did it come about?
TW: I was approached to adapt the book by a writer called Barry Crump who is very famous in New Zealand. And the book is not really that much like the film. The book’s not funny and I added a lot more characters and tried to make it kind of my own thing. But I wrote the first draft in 2005 and back then when I thought I was—
MK: That was straight after Two Cars, One Night?
TW: That was before I’d made anything. I mean after I’d made the short films yes, but before I’d shot my first feature. And I wrote that and yeah, you know I was very much into being, you know—I was wanting to make like Cannes cinema and be like von Trier and stuff and make dark and depressing New Zealand films. And so in that version of the film there were basically no jokes; Sam Neill’s character dies at the end, he gets shot to death by the cops, and the kid goes back into foster care and that’s how it ends. Oh no he doesn’t go back into foster care, he starts living on the street.
That’s how the film ended! It was just him living in a park, a twelve year-old. What’s wrong with me?
So then I put that aside and went and made a few other films and kind of got a taste for what my style is, or the kind of stories I wanted to tell, and over the years decided it’s OK to put ridiculous shit in movies, the world needs stupid stuff. You need heart and stuff, but you need jokes. The world needs to laugh. And also I just couldn’t really make super depressing, horrible Cannes movies. If I wanted any of my films to go to Cannes, if I wanted Hunt for the Wilderpeople to go to Cannes, everyone would’ve been dead and prostitutes.
MK: There is that thing though in comedy, do you think drama is something that is revered by festival, but comedy is—
TW: It’s so dumb. Comedy’s so much harder to do.
MK: Especially when it’s something tragic, too.
TW: Yeah. In a drama, if no one laughs that’s good, you know. In a comedy if no one laughs you’re dead. So in a drama it’s like—I consider it to be a little easier because it’s like say the words and don’t make me laugh. That’s your job as an actor in a drama, is don’t make anyone crack up.
But in comedy it’s infinitely harder to shape it and keep the laughter going and to know how to balance the flow of it and then—are there too many laughs? In What We Do in the Shadows we did cuts where we had to concentrate on the story at the expense of a lot of the jokes and then we did another cut where it was all jokes and not much story, and neither of them worked. The one that was full of jokes no one cared about the characters and they were on the phone like ‘it’s funny, it’s always funny but I just don’t care about the characters and I’m on the phone.’ And the story version was just boring.
MK: How do you test those things?
TW: We just test them with friends.
MK: Do you have a trusted group of people that you go to?
TW: Yeah, yeah. I mean usually just people you’ve met anywhere. You start running out of people. One of the last test screenings we did of What We Do in the Shadows was at my house with one person and that was our last friend and he’s in the movie. So it was like me, Jermaine and him in my lounge room and just me and Jermaine looking at him like…
‘He’s not laughing!’ So you do run out of friends. We always test, I’m always testing my films. Sometimes you don’t even need to ask them questions afterwards, sometimes it’s just being in a room with some other people and what I’ll do is watch my films and make a note of the time when I feel embarrassed and then that’s my notes. At one hour I felt pretty shitty like I really wanted to disappear in a corner—and then I know to go and have a look at that section.
MK: Maybe let’s take a look at a clip from What We Do in the Shadows? Yeah?
MK: Maybe a few minutes…
TW: Load the reel!
MK: What We Do in the Shadows, so you co-wrote that with Jermaine Clement.
MK: What are the differences in co-writing? How does it work? How do you write with him?
TW: It’s just slower.
Wilderpeople took ten years, this took…No, we came up with the idea in 2005.
MK: A lot happened in 2005!
TW: Yeah, no it was a good year. I’ve started so I wanna get—you start with these things, you’ve just gotta do it. I wouldn’t be able to sit here for the rest of the afternoon knowing they all weren’t taken out.
MK: So a slow process.
TW: Hang on!
MK: I’m rushing the process, sorry.
TW: We’ve got plenty of time.
This is going to feel so good!
Didn’t need an applause, but I’ll accept it. That’s a little triumph for me today.
So what was the question?
MK: It was such a long time ago.
TW: We were talking about the script! Yeah. So Jermaine and I came up with the idea in 2005 and I think we write together well but it’s excruciatingly slow, so we spent six or seven years writing that and I don’t even know why because we didn’t even show the script to the cast. We didn’t show it to anyone apart from the HODs because we improvised basically the whole film. We knew going into a scene what we wanted to do, and so we’d get the cast in and go—‘OK so in this scene…’ like for example Stu came in one day and we said ‘Stu just lie down here on the grass,’ and we just started pouring blood all over him. And he was like ‘is my character dead?’
So we didn’t tell anyone really what was happening to their characters, just because we really wanted it to feel like a documentary. So we would say ‘here’s the goal from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene, you have to get this achieved. Here’s your mission is to convince this person to do this or murder this person, or something.’ Which was good because every take was very different and at the end of the filming we had about 150 hours of footage that we had to get down to about ninety minutes. So it took fourteen months to get it, going through every take. And every take was completely different.
So we built the interior of the house and we pre-lit everything so we could go into any room we wanted, and because we had three cameras running all the time, sometimes we’d say ‘well we’ll just stick with this character,’ and halfway through the scene—most of the scenes were ten minute takes, fifteen minute takes—and halfway through the scene maybe a character would go ‘fuck this, I’m out of here,’ and walk and then the camera would follow them into their bedroom and just sit with them as they were fuming about something and then they’d come back.
So everything was very different and there was a very different style of—different style of writing as well: Jermaine and I were in New York for about six months and we would meet up every day at about two pm at this café and have some avocado on toast and write about two sentences over three hours and we’d just sit there in silence. This is how we write, we just sit there in silence and Jermaine goes, he’ll go, ‘what if Stu turns into a werewolf. Mmm OK. OK I’m going to go to dinner, see you later.’ And that was it. Or we’d send each other an email and it would be one sentence: ‘I was thinking maybe yeah maybe they go flying with Nick. Ok. Cool.’ So it was really long. I don’t recommend that.
MK: In terms of getting it funded, then, if you don’t have a physical completed script when you’re shooting—is that correct?
TW: We had a script. We had a good script, the script was actually pretty good but we just didn’t show it to anybody. We basically shot the script, but everyone else would have sides and they’d have a version but they just wouldn’t show the actors. The actors weren’t allowed to see stuff.
MK: And it was funded by the New Zealand Film—
TW: They gave us a little bit of money, but it was also we had private funding. Private means I can’t tell you where it came from, they want to remain private.
But yeah it was a very fun way of shooting and you know there’s like—I think a lot of people don’t consider improvising to be part of the writing process but I do think it is. Like I think if you’re coming up with stuff and it’s adding to the character or it’s changing the story in some way, then I think there’s writing. Even though the actors don’t get credit for it.
MK: And that’s, now so that’s now developed into a TV show.
TW: A TV spinoff. Two TV spinoffs. Yeah.
MK: Not just one.
TW: Yeah one that follows the two cops and that’s sort of like a boring X-Files—
It’s set in New Zealand with the two cops investigating paranormal events around Wellington. Going into season two! How long can you stretch that idea out for? And then the other one is a spinoff of Shadows, which is set in America with new vampires. But it’s in the same universe where our characters would be in New Zealand at the same time, it’s just a different documentary crew following these guys around. And our characters may or may not come in to some of these episodes as well. But yeah, Matt Berry’s in that with Nastasia Demetriou.
MK: Is there more pressure on that than in terms of kind of script, or is it still you and Jermaine or are you still doing writing for—
TW: I didn’t really do any writing on that because I was doing some other stuff, but yeah it’s pretty similar. Jermaine’s been doing most of the writing with a writing team and I’m just going to go and direct some of them.
MK: We’re going to open it up to the audience. We’ve got hands already. OK can we have the microphone in the fourth row here.
Q: Just a couple of questions. First, thank you.
TW: That’s not a question!
Q: It’s impossible to find any of your scripts online. I’ve searched for like all of them and it’s nearly impossible to download them. The closest thing I came to was an auction of one of your scripts in New Zealand, an actual printed copy.
TW: There’s one copy of all the scripts on paper. The New Zealand government has that.
Q: Well no, would they ever be available?
TW: I’m sure they are. That’s quite odd. Give me your email I’ll email... I feel like they should be available.
Q: In Hunt for the Wilderpeople I thought one thing that was really beautiful was that Bella is hardly in the film but it’s like her presence is just so strong throughout and she influences everything and it’s something that I wanted to see in the script but obviously I haven’t been able to.
TW: Well that script, Hunt for the Wilderpeople I didn’t really diverge much from that script because it was a really short shoot and because we were shooting outside and there was limited daylight because it was winter, too, so they were really short days. It was really harsh conditions and so there wasn’t a lot of time to just improvise or go off-script, so I stuck to that script quite, yeah, quite strictly.
Can it be found online? I don’t know, that’s a good question. I thought they’d be all online, I apologise if they’re not.
Q: Hiya. I’d be really keen to know how you—because you have a brilliantly specific vision and I’d love to know how you stay true, when you talked about all the version of Wilderpeople, the really dark one and the one you ended up with, how you stay true to your vision when that script’s out to market. Because I remember meeting Carthew pitching Wilderpeople like three years before you made it. How do you hold onto it when financiers might be trying to pull it all different directions?
TW: I think, because we don’t ask for much money in New Zealand, so it’s not like ‘oh yeah well if Tom Cruise is playing the kid, we’ll give you your three million dollars.’
Q: How do you deal with that pressure, then, when you’re on Ragnarok.
TW: Well that was very different because, you know, I was like just pulled in to do that and that wasn’t my idea or my IP or anything.
MK: It’s definitely got your voice though, through it.
TW: It has literally got my voice.
MK: How did you—
TW: I was very lucky with that because I was obviously nervous about working with a studio in general, but they—I did two pitches with them and one of them was really just to give a tonal idea of what I wanted to do and I made this little reel of just basically ripping clips from lots and lots of movies that looked exciting and then put Immigrant Song over the top of it and that seemed to work. And even in the pitch they were like ‘oh this is a cool song, who’s this?’ And I was like ‘Eww what?’ And then they basically bought the song knowing that they wanted to use it in something in the film.
But pitching I think is less about your idea of it and more about sussing each other out and figuring out if you can be able to work with each other for two years. And I found them really lovely people. So I ended up kind of just subtly pushing my voice and tone and stuff into the film from the beginning. But they wouldn’t have hired me if they hadn’t seen those other films and had known that somehow that tone was going to end up in there.
Q: Hi, I suppose it’s kind of a similar, but I’m kind of at the start of my career and I guess I was interested in structurally a lot of the decision makers are white. So when you’re trying to explore themes that are culturally to do with your heritage and largely the gaze might, you know, have a certain perception of how it would be, have you ever had to deal with like managing kind of, I suppose notes and feedback. It’s about trying to stay true and have integrity in what you make but when people have got certain power kind of instil their beliefs in a way that you don’t agree with, but they’re calling the shots to some degree. I’m really curious how you navigate that because I think I’m yet—I’ve started to experience it in some ways, but I’m sure it’s just the beginning.
TW: One good trick is to just put something in the script that you know is going to trigger them and is going to distract them so much that they kind of don’t notice your things that you really want to be in the script. Or other times you just save it to the very last—sometimes what I would do is know that I was going to have a certain joke or a certain moment or a certain scene and wait until it got financed and then put it in the day before shooting.
TW: Yeah it’s all tactics. And then other times—‘and then, yeah, like Ricky’s walking along and then he falls down a trap door and then slides down through the earth into like a fantastical land full of dragons and stuff,’ and they’re like ‘I don’t know about those dragon things,’ and meanwhile on the side you put in the things you really want in the movie. So yeah, I think that works sometimes. But also I think it gets easier—obviously—the more that you do. And they don’t fuck with me anymore.
But also I haven’t worked with a film commissioner in a long time and they were always pretty respectful of my stuff, I think because they didn’t always know what I was trying to do and they were like ‘oh yeah we’ll see what happens,’ and because all my films did well in New Zealand, the more and more that happened they were like ‘he can just do another film, I guess.’ But when I was starting off I could’ve just easily taken all the notes and just listened to them.
And one thing—I love the way that we finance films in New Zealand, but one of the problems I’ve always had in development is being that the development staff come in and they only have a two or three year tenure, so by the time you’ve done all the notes and you’ve developed the script for two years, new people come in and they read the script and they go ‘what’s this? Go back to the first draft,’ and so you start the development process again. I know people who have gone through development at the Film Commission, years ago in the early 2000s, who had been developing scripts for like eight years with them and just going out of minds because they’re just putting all their eggs into that basket.
And my development process, I just develop stuff myself. So I write my scripts without asking for any finance for writing, I just do it myself and get it to the best place that I can imagine the film being, and then go in saying, ‘it’s not going to get any better than this. Yes or no.’ Instead of ‘here’s a rough first draft, what do you think? Here’s a synopsis.’ If you’re going in at synopsis stage, I think that’s pretty dangerous because it gives them all the opportunity in the world to give you notes and change everything. Whereas if you spend two years writing the script by yourself in your spare time, which is what I did—I was working and writing—then go in with something really solid, it doesn’t give them much opportunity to mess with it. But it’s also the real world so I understand it’s hard to work and also write something and spend all that time.
MK: Would you ever let someone direct something that you’ve written?
TW: I’ve thought about it and I don’t think I’m emotionally stable enough to…
Let that happen. I’m already hurting at the suggestion.
MK: There’s a microphone there.
Q: Hey. How does your work as a scriptwriter affect you when you’re working on something like Thor or The Mandalorian where you know you’re coming in as a director for hire but obviously you write and you write well. So how does that affect you?
TW: It was challenging, on Thor it was challenging because again I wanted to control all of those elements and having a script come in that was not really in my style—it was a good script but it wasn’t my style—so I found that hard. But I always get to do passes on scripts, that was built into my contract on Thor that I would get to do a story pass and dialogue pass and change a lot of things, so—for instance Korg that character they were like ‘we’ve got this rock character we might put it in for one scene,’ and I was like ‘yeah, yeah, sounds good maybe I could play that character.’ And they’re like ‘yeah, sure.’ And then I took my pass on the script and they were like ‘this character’s in this movie quite a lot.’
So yeah. But something like The Mandalorian, I’m really just directing on that. And that’s actually quite nice for me because if it’s a good script then I feel like I can concentrate more on the directing than freaking out every day and writing on set and going ‘say this.’ I can just concentrate on what it looks like.
Q: Hi Taika. I’m over here, hello. I remember reading somewhere that you were really inspired by Akira when you were younger watching it. Is there anything else you watched when you were younger or even more recently that you felt really inspired by?
TW: Yeah the films that inspired a lot of my stuff you can see it because I’ve ripped them off in every single movie.
Badlands, The Graduate, now and then Days of Heaven—only if the sun’s in the right place.
MK: Is there anything recently you wish you’d written?
TW: Wish I’d written? I really loved The Death of Stalin, I thought that was great writing if it was written, who knows. I love all his stuff. The dialogue is just smart. I thought Get Out was just brilliant, just in terms of writing it was really streamlined. Yes.
MK: Right here, sorry.
Q: For the next generation of New Zealand filmmakers, have you got any advice in general, or—
Q: Do you think it needs to go in any direction or just any advice?
TW: I think it’s going to evolve into—like I’m not sure—I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll make films like my films because you can only handle a certain amount of the style. Yeah. So I’d say there are different directions New Zealand film is going to head in, I can’t really predict what that is. I know everyone’s trying to make horrors at the moment and there’s like a big thing. Which I don’t mind, I just don’t really know how I would be able to make a horror. It just wouldn’t be scary.
I think advice for any young filmmaker, even in New Zealand—my thing is stick to a vision, stick to your vision. And I’m always very wary of giving advice because I was told, I was dictated to a lot when I first started by the older generation of filmmakers and now I realise I shouldn’t have listened to them in my first short films and stuff. When I look at Two Cars, One Night, there are edits in that which I instinctively knew I wanted to do a certain thing in the film but was convinced by people who had more experience not to do them and to edit things in a certain way, and only a year or two later did I realise like, ‘damn I was right. I shouldn’t have listened to them.’
So that was a big lesson for me and I decided to start sticking to what I instinctively wanted and to really just question—it’s just someone’s opinion and it doesn’t matter what their experience is, you’ve got to sort of filter it really. It takes some experience for it to really make sense, for the advice to really make sense but also to listen to yourself. That’s why my films fail, I think, is because of me. Not because—I like having the excuse that if something I do is a failure it’s all my fault instead of—I don’t want to have the excuse of ‘yeah he told me to do it I shouldn’t have done it,’ because that’s just being weak and not sticking to your guns.
MK: Do you think doing something like Thor and having that kind of $180 million—and obviously you were probably getting offered and doing things maybe not of that scale but similar—is there, could your voice get lost?
TW: Oh it can definitely get lost, but that’s also the thing. I knew going in to Thor that my strength was not action movies or superhero movies, my strength was tone and character and dialogue and moments. So I just concentrated on that stuff, on my strengths, knowing that this was the seventeenth movie in a run that had seventeen consecutive box office hits. So I thought ‘OK, you guys probably know what you’re doing in that department. I’ll just try to inject this tone into the thing.’ But if I’d tried to come in and reinvent the genre or anything I would’ve been, you know, fell on my arse pretty quickly.
Q: You’re obviously a fan of Malick and improvisation, like you said you’re improvising a lot in the vampire movie. Is that something you think is good practice as a writer, to get behind the camera and actually start making shorts, whether you’ve got a desire to be a director, actually just to get behind the camera and make shorts? I’ve started doing that myself just to kind of prove that it works on screen because when you get people reading your scripts saying ‘it just doesn’t work on screen.’ Do you think it’s good practice to get behind the camera and get noticed that way?
TW: Yeah, yeah I do. I think it’s important to know all the departments, even though I only learned what a techno-crane was last year. But like it’s important to know as much as possible of the departments and how everything works, but also yeah to figure out how—because a lot of actors don’t understand what goes into making a film, they’re there for the moment; they go ‘yeah but how do I look cool?’ that’s their thing. They don’t really understand if you want them to say a certain thing a certain way that it fits into this giant puzzle they’re not aware of.
So for me coming from acting into filmmaking and putting together a short film, I started realising ‘oh yeah, this is a massive Rubik’s Cube where there are so many things to think about.’ And also I’ve changed so much and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. I was so self-centred in the kind of early days where I was just like ‘this is my vision and my story, and if the audience doesn’t get it well they’re just dumb.’ You just can’t think like that, it’s just not… Some people can and get away with it but you have to consider the audience. That’s basically the first thing I consider now, what the audience’s experience is going to be, and you know, when is the audience’s bladder at bursting point? When are they sitting there going ‘fuck it, I need to go to the toilet, I can’t concentrate on the story anymore.’ When are they bored? You might think just because this thing happened to you in your childhood everyone else is going to love it… No one gives a shit about your childhood. They just want a good story. So I had to rethink the way I was approaching a story and just realise ‘yeah, there are good stories to be told but also it’s entertainment.’
And you have to—you’re serving the audience. They are paying eighteen dollars nowadays probably for the right to come in and observe and criticise your work. And you can’t get upset with them if they don’t like it. You’ve got to try your hardest to create something that is a gift to them and that they are satisfied with at the end.
Q: Hiya. Basically all the questions I was planning on asking you’ve already answered so I’m just going to go to my back-up question, which is I’ve noticed you kind of use the same actors recurrently in all your films. Is that to do with the fact that you’re very inspired by your homeland New Zealand and you want to incorporate that by adding the same New Zealand actors throughout your films that you’re making?
TW: Yeah, and a lot of it is just from my theatre days working in co-ops and stuff, just working with your friends and you develop a shorthand. I love working with actors who I know well because you can just get past all the bullshit and say ‘that was boring, do it again,’ instead of like, ‘hmm well you know let’s just talk about… I see what you’re doing there and it was really great, but is there another way we can sort of get it like a bit more of a dance?’ Just go ‘that was shitty, do it again, make it better.’
‘And say it faster.’ That’s it. Because when you get past that people just go ‘oh OK great, yeah.’ And I encourage them to give me shit as well. I’ll say—often my friends are like ‘that’s your direction? That’s your big direction?’ and so—
MK: Are you writing with them in mind, as well?
TW: A lot of them, yeah. It just makes my job easier and it’s a lot faster for me as well to work instead of having conversations about you know—whereas if you’re an actor who does like 100 takes there’s no different.
Q: Hi. You talked about your background as a visual artist and I wondered how that informs your screenwriting. Do you start with a really visual idea or is it more character and dialogue based and the visual—
TW: Yeah it’s a mix. Definitely visual. I spend a lot of time making a playlist, listening to a playlist when I write. All my films have songs in mind that I’ve written into the scripts and often I can’t afford them so it’s a nice dream to have. So I’ll do that and it’s a mixture of that and then visually like a lot of—yeah images or photos and things—I’ll collect a lot of images and have folders of things I can look at. Sometimes they’re really weird and don’t inspire anything, other times they might just give you an idea of a setting or something. For the most part I try to watch films but I try to watch old films to give me ideas because I feel a bit close to contemporary cinema to be looking at things and then, not stealing but yeah, stealing. I’d rather steal from something really old because then it’s harder for people to find out.
Q: On a similar sort of note I’m interested in your writing process. When you go from having the first germ of an idea for something to writing your first draft, do you spend a lot of time sort of really digging into it and knowing your characters inside and out before you start that first draft and do you do an outline and do a treatment and know every scene? Or do you just kind of crack on with your first draft and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite?
TW: Yeah I do lots of notes and beats and like trying to figure the story before time because I find that typing is really horrible and it just hurts your body and your mind to sit in front of a blank screen like ‘oh no what’s next.’ I like to have the whole plan out in front of me and know it.
Basically how I write is I know the beginning and the end, I just want to really visually or something that I think is like ‘this would be a cool way to end a movie and this would be a cool last image for an audience,’ and then ‘this would be a cool first image,’ and ‘this would be a cool way to open the film.’ Then I put in some scenes throughout, like ‘this would be a cool scene,’ and eventually when I’ve got enough of these scenes and sequences, then leisurely just glue them all together with some connecting scenes. But that’s it really. Once I know what it is I can write really fast, but if I’m just sitting there—if you were to say ‘write a story about a soothsayer on a mission to find some herbs in a fantasy land,’ and then I just had to look at a blank page, I would be there for a year without typing anything, unless I sat down and figured it all out before. Who’s next, who’s got the mic. Oh you’ve got the mic, so.
Q: I’m coming from Paris just for you, so it’s my turn to speak!
I’m Wendy, I don’t know if you remember I sent you stuff. So I just wanted to say you are a daily inspiration and you are the best role model I could hope for. And my question is what was your inspiration for Jojo Rabbit except the book Caging Skies. And I have a letter after to give you.
TW: So Jojo Rabbit is a film, for those of you who don’t know, it’s a film I’ve just shot and I’m editing at the moment—it’s set in World War II and it’s—what did I call it, an emotional comedy? What did we say it was?
MK: A dramedy
TW: About a little boy in the Hitler Youth who’s trying to be the best Nazi he can.
MK: And you’re in it.
TW: And I’m in it.
MK: And you play…
And that’s it. Spoiler alert: They lose.
MK: So with Jojo Rabbit, when did you start writing?
TW: I started writing in 2011 and then shot this year. Basically all my scripts have taken over six years.
MK: Do you write, then, does that mean that you’re writing three or four on the go always?
TW: Well I wrote that and then I went and made What We Do in the Shadows and Wilderpeople and Thor and then came back and shot this. But actually that’s the way I prefer to write, and this is my little trick that none of you will want to do. I will write a draft and I’ll put it away for a year or so, or even two years, or even three years, and then I’ll come back to it and I’ll read it and go ‘who wrote this shit?’ and then I will read it maybe two or three times and then I will throw that away and rewrite it from page one based on a memory of what I read, and then my 120 page script will suddenly be eighty pages and it’ll just be the bare bones and just the, yeah, the important parts or the things I remember from reading the script. So I think that’s quite a good filter system. And then when you have this very bare bones, short version of the story, then you can add back in some tonal stuff and more jokes and shit. That takes way longer than anyone wants to do.
MK: How many of those scripts do you have in the drawer?
TW: I just put them in a little drive and put that somewhere. I don’t want to throw it away. But I make sure I don’t look at it again.
Q: Hello. I travelled all the way from Siberia to ask you this question.
But a very serious one. How many hours of actual typing can you do in a day and do you also call procrastination important research?
TW: I don’t. I don’t call it important research—well, who knows. So for instance ‘oh and the character turns up in this Trans Am… I must look at Trans Ams,’ and then I’ll spend three hours looking at Trans Ams and try to buy one, and then think I need to own one to know if the character should drive one. And then eventually I’ll go, ‘what am I doing? What? He should just drive a Toyota!’ And then I’ll just get back in the thing. So it’s useless for the script, but it’s good for me to know more about Trans Ams in case I ever need to talk about Trans Ams. So yeah I try my hardest to turn the Internet off when I’m writing, but in terms of hours of typing I try to spend hardly any. I really do have like—I get that a bit when I’m typing, I just don’t like it. I’ll try to like, I’ll go ‘no I don’t want to write,’ and then I’ll stop. But maybe three hours a day?
MK: Do you ever stop writing half way through what you know that you’re writing so you have something to pick up on the next day?
TW: No. I used to do this thing, a friend of mine came up with this really great system when he was writing multiple things, and sometimes I’m writing multiple scripts, which is—this is a good system: You break up your workload into twenty minute breaks and you sit for a time, for twenty minutes and at the end of that twenty minutes then you force yourself to move on to the next script. And then after that twenty minutes you force yourself to move on to the next script. And then after that twenty minutes you force yourself to move on to the next project. So you do that with three things so every hour you’re working twenty minutes on three projects. Then what’s good about it is you’ve only spent forty minutes away from the original project, so at the end of that forty minutes you still remember what ideas you left off on, so it’s not like ‘oh I just really need to finish this idea, I’m going to give myself another ten minutes.’ If you force yourself to stop, you won’t forget where you were when you go on to the next thing. I’ve found that’s quite good if you’re under pressure to write lots of stuff at the same time. Try it.
Q: Hello. Apologies if this is a bit dull and specific, but when you’re acting on screen and directing at the same time how do you manage that? Do you storyboard it very precisely beforehand? Do you watch back every take? Or do you sometimes say ‘that felt right, let’s use it,’ and hope there’s no nasty surprises in the edit?
TW: The third one.
There’s usually not enough time for me to watch stuff back and also I don’t like watching any of that stuff, it’s very cringy. It’s cringy enough being in your own movie, I mean that’s just tacky.
Then to have the audacity to watch yourself back in front of the crew, they’re like… No. It’s embarrassing enough putting yourself in stuff.
Q: Are you going to keep doing it though?
TW: Oh yeah.
Oh yeah, I mean I love myself. I think I’m a very, very good actor…
So yeah but I learned to really trust all the people around me, especially the DoP. And having people around who have permission to say that was terrible, if I can trust people around me to say that and not feel bad about it. Because eighty per cent of the time it probably is bad because I’m not thinking, like most actors have the time to solidly think just about that thing whereas I—that’s why I make sure that my characters aren’t the main character or they don’t carry the story dramatically so much, they’re just sort of silly characters. I can get away with that. I’m not Kevin Costner.
MK: One last question?
TW: What are you laughing at? Me checking my watch?
Q: Hi. So I’m here all the way from sunny Brighton, which shows, I think, more dedication than coming from France.
My question to you is—you mentioned the importance of shitty jobs, and having just come from my shitty job this morning I was wondering which of those experiences has most influenced your work and which has had the most lasting impact on you?
TW: I mean I’ve done so many dumb jobs. It’s probably unfair to say they’re dumb. They were all very rewarding in some ways and earning money was great. I’d say hospitality was for me—I think that’s why so many actors do it as well, you’re basically performing all day for people and trying out different characters all the time. You’ll go to different tables and try different things, you’ll put on a stupid voice or try to entertain them or you’d be grumpy and pissed off and just be an arsehole to some tables, but you’re also meeting different characters. It taught me a lot about observing people and listening to different conversations and stealing. That’s the other big thing I did is steal people’s conversations.
MK: All writers do.
TW: If you don’t know them that’s better because they can’t find out that you stole it. That’s why over here I listen to people and listen to arguments in cafes and stuff. Just observing body language in restaurants is amazing. We’ve all done it, you’ll just sit there and look over at a table and go, ‘is it a first date? Are they breaking up? What’s going on?’ and you just observe the body language and without event hearing what they’re saying you can tell a lot from just how tense someone is or relaxed someone is. So I think yeah, for what I do now the restaurant industry was the most helpful.
MK: I think we way be out of time. I’m really sorry we didn’t get to see Two Cars, One Night.
TW: Well it’s on the Internet.
MK: It is, it’s on YouTube.
TW: With sound.
MK: It would recommend watching it as it really does, it’s brilliant but it gives an indication of where you go as a filmmaker I think.
TW: Yeah it’s my first film and I haven’t watched it since 2005 probably and just seeing a little bit there, I mean I still can’t watch it. But I think it’s a good thing to see, yeah, just how somebody can begin and—
MK: And how you evolve.
TW: And then yeah I guess where I’m at now. Thank you guys so much for having me. Thank you guys for having me, it’s been a pleasure to come here and visit this fine city, and I hope there was some sort of anything useful in this conversation. But I really appreciate you taking the time to come out today.
MK: Thank you, Taika Waititi.