When considering New Zealand cinema – whenever that mood might strike – you're generally left with two landmarks to choose from: Peter Jackson's fantastical Lord of the Rings franchise, or the stark urban drama of 1994's Once Were Warriors, which chronicled the poverty and addiction befalling one Maori family. But in recent years, there's been a third, more lighthearted branch of Kiwi film garnering attention, one that both highlights the country's indigenous culture and remains resolutely, almost defiantly rooted in subversive humour – the work of comic mastermind Taika Waititi.
The filmmaker made an early splash with 2007's Eagle vs. Shark, a romcom routed through the Wes Anderson school of peak quirk – though any of the script's twee missteps can be forgiven thanks to Waititi's nuanced direction, and a star-making performance from Jemaine Clement. After the success of Eagle, Waititi and Clement would both go on to HBO's acclaimed Flight of the Conchords series (Clement co-starring, Waititi directing) and last year's riotous vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows – which deserves instant cult status if only for the line, "We're werewolves not swear-wolves." Suddenly, New Zealand had its very own Christopher Guest.
With his new film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi continues to expertly mine the more eccentric corners of the comedy world. Following the trapped-in-the-bush exploits of a teenage misfit (a perfectly cast Julian Dennison) and his cantankerous uncle (Sam Neill), Wilderpeople offers an excellent primer on all things Waititi – oddly paced but with a keen sense of purpose, heartfelt but lacking any cheap sentimentality, and hilarious but absent of easy cynicism. "It's odd because I'm a very cynical person," the filmmaker says in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "When I originally wrote this film 10 years ago, it was a lot darker. I wouldn't have wanted to make a film that the entire family could enjoy – but that side of me is now gone."
In terms of a turning point, the 40-year-old can only offer the typical peaks and valleys of a career in the arts, even if it's the smaller and perhaps more insular New Zealand entertainment industry, which he's conquered via stage, television and cinema. "I think it was after my second film [2010's Boy] where I finally realized I'm actually good at looking at life in a way that embraces both the light and the dark," says Waititi. "I realized I didn't want to make straight dramas, because that seems sad, doesn't it? A depressing job. So I should stick with a mixture."
And it's that uniquely calibrated blend of levity and introspection that carries Wilderpeople (based on a book by Barry Crump) to the finish line. At one point, it's a family-first tale that stresses notions of responsibility and commitment – but just a few scenes later, it's an off-the-wall comedy, with deadpan exchanges about the role of Sarah Connor in the Terminator films, and over-the-top car crashes that push the film into near-fantastical realms. It's the kind of film a kid in the eighties would have daydreamed about while staying up too late watching bootlegged cheapies on VHS.
Most importantly, though, at least in terms of New Zealand identity, Wilderpeople puts Maori characters at the forefront – and without miring them in melodramatic Once Were Warriors-like circumstances, which became the fashion in the country's cinema for a time. "It's important for me to think of the effect my films have on the Maori communities and Maori youth, and whether I should even be considered some sort of role model," says Waititi, whose father is Maori. "I mean, this option of filmmaking wasn't available to me growing up. If you had a list of jobs available to Maori youth, the top 100 jobs, this would be 800."
It's not as if Waititi dreamed of becoming a director, though – he stumbled into it, having first worked the comedy circuit with Clement and then snagging acting gigs on the small screen. "I've only been making movies since I was 30," he says. "I'm not one of these filmmakers running around with a Super-8 camera when I was 10."
His lack of Spielberg back-story aside, Waititi appears to be New Zealand's new favourite son. Wilderpeople is already one of that country's top-grossing films, and is just the kind of passionate, singular film the local industry needs to shake up its image as ground zero for Peter Jackson's wonder emporium.
And now that he's conquered his home country, Waititi – like so many other up-and-coming directors perhaps too smart for Hollywood – is on tap to save the world, or at least a few other worlds, by helming the latest Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok.
"I don't mind talking about it, even though I can't say anything about it – the answers become pretty limited pretty fast," Waititi says, only half-joking. Asked whether he was concerned with losing any creative autonomy – a seemingly inevitable result of working in the Marvel machine – and the director demurs. "Nah, there's a lot of control, but it's more of a creative collaboration."
In the meantime, he's busy balancing more projects than ever before – in addition to the Thor sequel, he worked on the script for Disney's animated feature Moana, and is planning to write a sequel to What We Do in the Shadows (focusing on the werewolves, naturally). It's a just reward for a short but stellar career – even if it is a sudden burst of opportunity. "I've had this list of things I've been wanting to do for the next 20 years," he says, "and now it's all happening at once."