Exploring the wonderfully quirky world of Taika Waititi — director of Thor: Ragnarok
Following Comic-Con and the hype surrounding the latest Thor: Ragnarok trailer, those unfamiliar with director Taika Waititi are likely curious about his work. He’s clearly taken the third installment of the Thor franchise in a wildly different direction, which could prove confusing for the uninitiated. Here at The Nerd Recites we’ve been fans of Waititi’s work for some time. Below we highlight some of our favorite titles and share what we adore most about the lovably eccentric helmer.
A versatile creative hailing from New Zealand, Waititi (also known as Taika Cohen) is of Maori and Jewish descent. An experienced performer, comedian, visual artist, actor and director, Taika has been involved in a number of the most innovative and successful original productions from New Zealand. Waititi has earned his success internationally with a number of titles, many of which we’ll explore below. An unstoppable rising star, he’s beloved by fans for his refreshingly heartfelt approach to blending comedy with drama.
There’s something extraordinary about Taika’s projects that’s difficult to put into words. He has a unique ability to inject his peculiar sense of humor into his work in a way that feels genuine and relatable, and an approach to exploring the relationships between characters in the most authentic ways. His aptitude for fluctuating between comedy and serious themes is truly endearing, frequently leaving the audience feeling uplifted and wanting more, perhaps because the scenarios presented are often reflective of real life.
“In my films, a lot of the situations come from real life. And again, I feel like I’ve observed and been able to log in my memory some of the most ridiculous things imaginable, that have actually happened. I’m not sure I could write something more ridiculous than what I’ve seen in real life. And that’s a great thing. I’m aware some of my films might seem too outlandish and crazy.” – Taika Waititi
Waititi has helmed a wide range of projects, his unique signature ever present in each. Below we explore our favorites and discuss what we cherish most about them.
Eagle vs Shark (2007)
2007 saw the release of Taika’s first feature film, Eagle vs Shark. An unconventional romantic comedy about a pair of socially awkward misfits and their bizarre attempts at finding love, told honestly and without apology.
The film is perhaps a little jarring at first, especially for those unfamiliar with Taika’s oddball humor. However, the depth of emotion achieved as it explores a number of storylines involving gawky romantic endeavors, familial relationships, and self discovery, ultimately makes it a whimsical and heartwarming tale.
The film stars Waititi’s friend and frequent collaborator, Jemaine Clement. The pair having previously worked as a comedy duo called Humorbeasts and on What We Do in the Shadows, among other projects. Clement stars as Jarrod, alongside Loren Taylor as Lily. Jarrod’s unbearable awkwardness brings big laughs, providing the perfect counterpart to Lily’s sweetness. Both roles, as well as each of the supporting roles, are exceptionally well-acted. You genuinely feel Jarrod’s need for acceptance and Lily’s desire to be loved.
Although the characters are conceivably more unorthodox that one may be accustomed to, they still manage to feel authentic and surprisingly relatable. Combined with brilliant pacing and unique tone, the end result is delightfully charming and somehow graceful. Pure magic on the part of Waititi.
While Eagle vs Shark is cherished and highly recommended, it may not be the best jumping-off point for novices. I would suggest saving this gem until you’ve familiarized yourself with some of Taika’s other work.
Two Cars, One Night (2004)
Taika’s short film and first professional film-making effort, Two Cars, One Night, won over a dozen esteemed awards around the globe. It went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in 2005. During the awards ceremony he famously (or perhaps infamously) feigned sleeping while the nominations were being read out.
The easily lovable black and white short spans slightly over 11 minutes, taking place in a carpark outside a rural pub where a young girl and two boys meet while waiting for their parents. Though initially unassuming, the tale soon becomes thought provoking and capable of reminding one that we can find moments of beauty in the mundane.
The characters are well written and delivered, relying heavily on the child actors and dialogue. Paced brilliantly, the story feels natural and engaging, making it effective at capturing those rare instances in childhood that stay with us for many years to come.
Though Taika has worked on a number of short films, many of which were award winning and enjoyable, Two Cars, One Night stands out as the most memorable. Some of the characters and ideas explored within would ultimately go on to inspire his second feature film.
Waititi wrote, directed, and acted in Boy, his second feature, which further explores some of the themes introduced in Two Cars, One Night. Taika also drew on his own experiences growing up in New Zealand during the 80s to shape this touching and offbeat coming of age tale.
Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, Boy went on to win a number of awards at various film festivals. It also became the highest grossing local film in New Zealand’s history.
A heartwarming story on the east coast of New Zealand in the early ’80’s, Boy follows an 11 year old and his younger brother as they learn the hard truth about their absentee father who’s returned after having been away for several years.
The true charm of the film comes from the child actors playing their roles exceptionally well, naturally and with ease. James Rolleston portrays Boy, who has some endearing fantasies about his dad before being faced with reality. Te Aho Eketone-Whitu plays his younger brother Rocky, who says very little and believes he has magical powers.
Waititi is captivating in the role of their father, Alamein, who returns home after being released from jail, not to spend time with his children, but in search of a bag of money he buried years ago. Boy attempts to bond with him, eventually realizing that Alamein is a failure as a father, a man, and a role model.
Boy explores family, fatherhood, hero worship, responsibility, and the heartbreaking loss of innocence. It also touches on heavier themes tastefully, such as poverty, the lack of reasonable care and responsibility for young children, illicit gang affiliation, and drug use.
With an exceptional script, endearing characters, humorous dialogue, and stellar performances, Boy is easily the most enchanting of Taika’s films and captures the era perfectly. The story isn’t as outwardly funny as his other films, however, it manages to be emotionally powerful with comedic elements blended into the mix with great effect.
What’s most extraordinary about Boy is how wonderfully heartwarming and funny it manages to be while delving deeply into hero worship meeting reality, and the innocence and imagination of childhood that is lost as one grows up. By far my favorite of Waititi’s films, though again perhaps best saved until you’re more accustomed with his work.
What we do in the Shadows (2014)
What we do in the Shadows: Interviews with some Vampires (2005)
Taika’s now very popular vampire satire began as a short film. In 2005, Taika and Jemaine Clement got together to create a little short about flat-sharing vampires, titled What we do in the Shadows: Interviews with some Vampires.
At 29 minutes in length, it’s a quite a lengthy ‘short film’, but it only manages to hit upon a handful of the plot points that would later been seen in the feature-length version. While traces of Taika’s genius are present, the dialogue in this short is far less refined and inspired, Viago’s accent is droll rather than eloquent, there’s no Petyr, and the budget restrictions are very obvious.
The scenes in which our trio walk through the New Zealand roads feel very raw and real, in the respect of how the the drunken youths around them react to their vampiric outfits. No doubt Taika and company simply took the streets with a camera, to see how the public would react. You even get the sense that Jemaine tries to avoid getting into a fight at one point, when he mouths that a wild jeering male is “a virgin,” rather than stating it outright.
It’s a very raw short that doesn’t truly hold a candle to the full feature, but what’s important is that it is sparks the embers of this idea. Without this test run, What we do in the Shadows might never have happened or might not have played out in the same way. There’s a lot to be said for trial and error, and to me it looks like Taika learned a lot about what doesn’t work, from this short, which is probably one reason why the feature film feels so pitch perfect.
What we do in the Shadows (2014)
Nine years after that inventive short, Taika and Jemaine – together with all of the original cast – decided to turn their idea into a full length feature. Backed by five production companies (including Funny or Die and New Zealand Film Commission), Taika and co moulded that 90-minute middle-of-the-road short into something spectacular.
Now with an impressive budget of $1.6 million and Weta Digital behind the effects, Taika and Jemaine bulked the script out into not only a scattering of daily vampire moments and interviews, but also a core narrative about “The Beast”, which culminates in a masquerade ball for the undead.
The character of Stu – who had only a few a silent scenes in the short – is still a quiet character (and lovable for it), but now he’s the crutch of the narrative; a genuine innocent who we hope makes it through the night. Someone who seems endearingly unaffected by the strangeness that surrounds him.
The roles of the main vampires are also fleshed out (including Nick) and we’re even granted a new addition to the group: Petyr – a true Nosferatu vampire who never speaks a word and who is often aggressive (he turned some of our core vampires), but who is considered a dear member of the household anyway (this time it’s actually a creepy, old house, rather than a New Zealand flat).
While Taika is a director with great range (and while some of his best work lies in Two Cars, One Night, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), What we do in the Shadows has always remained my favourite Taika film. It’s incredibly well-honed satire, it’s brimming with inventive and endearing characters, and it’s endlessly re-watchable. It’s also a great place for Taika newbies to start, if they want an accessible entry point into the offbeat world of Taika.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
I caught Hunt for the Wilderpeople at an early, intimate press screening and it wowed me with its wit, charm and ingenuity.
It was the first Taika film that I truly fell in love with (Eagle vs Shark hadn’t quite done it for me) and the first thing, for me, which truly highlighted his talent. I was immediately converted, then making the effort to venture into his back catalogue.
Ricky Baker is perfectly cast (Julian Dennison), Sam Neill is given yet another chance to come back in a big way (and boy does he seize the opportunity). From charming haikus to Ricky’s sudden infamy, the unique laughs are hard-hitting throughout the entire film.
Even the small audience that I saw it with couldn’t hold back their mirth and ending up being a rather clamorous bunch. That’s testament to the quality of Taika’s comedy, to me; if you can make an audience of ten sound like an audience of fifty, because you tickle their funny bones so adeptly, then you’re doing something marvellous.
If you’re a Taika-newcomer and vampires aren’t your thing, then this is another great place to start. It will introduce you to Taika’s quirky style, alongside a slow and easy-to-warm-to plot about a foster child who finally finds a home where he belongs.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Due to smash its way into theatres this fall, Thor: Ragnarok is to be Taika’s first big studio production. Judging by the record breaking teaser and initial trailer, as well as the “Team Thor” short 1 and 2 that Taika directed, the film will realize the best aspects of Waititi’s telltale tone and humor. Fans can also expect the relationships between the characters to be explored in new and refreshing ways.
During the recent Thor panel at San Diego Comic-Con, star Chris Hemsworth indicated that he was bored with the previous installments of the franchise and revealed that he approached Taika because he wanted the third iteration to be looser and more fun. Considering the following comments Waititi made about the experience, it sounds as if Hemsworth got his wish.
“If my actors aren’t having a good time on set, then I’m doing something wrong. There needs to be a chemistry between characters on screen, and that comes from having chemistry on set. We’re making movies. We should be having a lot of fun.”
“This movie really celebrates that group of misfits who are on the run. There was something exciting about it and I wanted my movie to be exciting and fun. Watching everyone run amok on screen and enjoying themselves is what I wanted to make going into it.”
Visually, Taika drew inspiration from the work of legendary comic artist Jack Kirby. The storyline itself draws inspiration from Marvel comic arcs including “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Planet Hulk”, while also leading directly into the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film.
Waititi himself will have a role in the film, providing the voice and motion capture for the character Korg, an 8 foot tall creature of the Kronan race made of rock taken from the Planet Hulk storyline. Defying expectations of what such a creature might be like, Taika shared the following about his character:
“We wanted to change the idea of what a hulking guy made of rocks could be,” he shared. “He’s huge and heavy, but with a light soul. We wanted to make him funny and a relatable entry point into this world. And Thor needs friends.”
The film will also have a much shorter running time than most Marvel films, clocking in at a little over an hour and a half. The director had the following to say about the film’s length:
“The cut right now, I reckon it’s about 100 minutes. It’s not gonna be a very, very long film. I think that stories are better when you leave them wanting more, and this film moves at a clip, it’s got stuff happening all the time. I think people are still gonna feel exhausted by the end, they’ve been on this big journey and stuff, so I don’t think we need the film to be three hours.”
While it’s conceivable that not all fans will be open to embracing this new version of a beloved character and franchise, I urge everyone to give Thor: Ragnarok a chance, as I expect everyone will walk away pleasantly surprised. Perhaps even delighted. That being said, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to explore the wonderfully delightful work of Mr. Waititi ahead of seeing it.
We only opened a few very small windows into each of Taika’s films and we hope you liked what you saw within. The best way to find out if you’ll fall in love with him as much as we have is to simply try his films.
As mentioned above, we recommend beginning with What we do in the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Both are great entry points for newcomers. Then you can move onto the arguably superior and lesser-seen gems like Boy.
Once you’ve tried a few, check back and let us know what you think. We’d love to hear your thoughts and whether you’ve become a Taika convert.
Thor: Ragnarok is released on 27th October 2017 in the UK and 3rd November 2017 in the US.
H/T: The Verge, Polygon, EW, Collider