ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Taika Waititi

He’s made quirky independent comedies and drama films in his home country for years. As an actor, writer, director, and comedian, he’s helped spearhead a close-knit group of like-minded creatives. He wrote the original script for Disney’s animated Polynesian blockbuster Moana last year. And now he’s taking on the Marvel Universe.

But truth be told, Taika Waititi probably wouldn’t be recognized on the street in places like New York or Los Angeles.

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The 41-year-old Waititi has dominated the cinema scene in his native New Zealand for over a decade. In 2003, he came out of nowhere and got a Best Short Film nomination at the Oscars for Two Cars, One Night. He didn’t win, but he drew plenty of laughs when he pretended to fall asleep during the ceremony before they got to his category.

Waititi has been a darling at the Sundance Film Festival for many years – following his initial short film success, he wrote, directed, and co-starred in Eagle vs. Shark, an offbeat romantic comedy starring his good friend and frequent collaborator, Jemaine Clement. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. Three years later, Waititi wrote and directed the coming-of-age story Boy, which tells the story of a young Māori kid learning the truth about his long-lost ex-convict father (played by Waititi). At the time, the film was the highest-grossing domestic movie ever at the New Zealand box office.

In 2014, Waititi and Clement tag-teamed the director’s chair for vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which also wowed audiences at Sundance despite being made on a NZ$1.7 million budget raised entirely on Kickstarter. Last year, Waititi’s kid-friendly caper film Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the little Kiwi film that could, grossing over $12 million in its home country and $23 million worldwide, while also receiving unanimous acclaim (97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes). Also a smash hit in nearby Australia, Hunt for the Wilderpeople became the highest-grossing Kiwi movie ever, ahead of Boy – meaning that Waititi dethroned himself as New Zealand’s box office king.  “It’s the happiest and saddest day of my career,” Waititi quipped when he was told the news.

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Born in the small coastal village of Raukokore in the North Island of New Zealand, Waititi is entirely Maori on his father’s side, while his mother is of Russian Jewish descent. He attended school at Onslow College before moving on to the Victoria University of Wellington, where he met Clement while studying film and drama.

Waititi and Clement formed the comedy duo The Humourbeasts, touring the nation and winning the Billy T Award – New Zealand’s highest comedy honor – in 1999. Meanwhile, Waititi also earned a couple of bit parts in indie films, most notably an award-winning turn in the student drama Scarfies, which was filmed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1999. Eventually, he decided to give directing a shot, starting with short comedy films for New Zealand’s 48-hour film festival. From that came Two Cars, One Night and immediate domestic success.

Earlier in 2017, Waititi was named the recipient of the New Zealander of the Year Award. “There are a lot of nominations for things I never won and this is something I actually did win – it feels like I’ve followed through on this one,” the director says, while expressing regret that he couldn’t attend the ceremony in person.

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“If someone asked, ‘What are your films like?’, the best I can come up with is that they’re, like, a fine balance between comedy and drama. And they deal mainly with the clumsiness of humanity,” states Waititi, who lists his favorite directors as Hal Ashby and George Miller.

Now, Waititi will be directing the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, the third entry in the Marvel Universe starring the comic book character portrayed by Chris Hemsworth. However, Waititi was given a shocking amount of artistic freedom and declared almost immediately that the film would be set outside the Marvel Universe and be a stand-alone movie. Primarily shot in Australia, Thor: Ragnarok will be premiering on November 3rd.

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Waititi’s films all have vulnerability mixed with offbeat Kiwi humor, which will certainly be a unique addition to a big-budget superhero film. Conversely, Marvel has never had someone like Waititi direct a film of theirs. Noted critic Sarah Marrs said specifically that she was only as excited as she was for Thor: Ragnarok because Waititi was directing it, and that Marvel was giving him a long leash in order to do so.

“Having had pretty much four successful films at home, I know there’s an audience for my work,” Waititi explains. “A lot of people are trying to get out of their home country and think ‘making it’ is if you’re able to work in another. For me, I’d be quite content to keep doing my own little films down there for the rest of my filmmaking career.”

Similarly, Waititi remains low-key about being the proverbial Hollywood outsider. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to make a Marvel film. I just want to make sure I’m not making an episode.”

Now that Thor: Ragnarok is in the can and preparing for its release, Waititi is turning his attention elsewhere. He’s working on a werewolf-themed spinoff of What We Do in the Shadows and recently landed a $20 million Netflix deal to direct Bubbles, a film about the life of Michael Jackson as seen through the eyes of his pet chimpanzee.

“From film to film, it’s a new thing,” Waititi says. “And that, to me, is more inspiring than making same type of movie every time.”

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