After his Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night (2005), which swept awards on the festival circuit, New Zealand director Taika Waititi confounded critics and audiences with his debut feature, the super-oddball and darkly comic Eagle vs Shark (2007), which starred Jemaine clement (pre-Conchords fame. With His sophomore feature Waititi hits the mainstream, with a charming, big-hearted comedy that won the audience prize at this year's Sydney Film Festival, and has become the highest grossing New Zealand film of all time.
Filmed in New Zealand’s North Island in the small community of Waihau Bay where Waititi grew up, Boy is set 1984, at the height of Michael Jackson's Thriller-fever. As the film sees two young brothers- Boy (James Rolleston) and Rocky (Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) adjusting to their father Alamein's (Waititi) return home after a seven-year stretch in jail. For 11-year-old Boy this involves creating a vivid fantasy in which his father is a superstar of a war hero; the reality is a lot more disappointing.
Waititi, who describes Boy as inspired by both “true and imagined memories”, spent a few years writing the script; however after making a number of successful short films, decided he didn’t want to make Boy his debut feature. “I just felt like I wasn’t really ready to make my first film, in my home town”, he explains. Instead Waititi chose to focus the smaller-scale Eagle vs Shark. “I thought just make something really small and that I could sort of learn how to make a feature film on. Learn from any mistakes I would make on that and apply that knowledge to Boy.”
As with his earlier films, Waititi infuses Boy with his own unique blend of comedy and drama. Although he intentionally plays with tone in his film, he is concerned by how this mixed genre filmmaking is sold to audiences. “Eagle vs Shark was really hard to market...Like in the States it was marketed as an all-out comedy and people went along and went- ‘ah it’s not that funny’- there are actually some really depressing parts to it. People go along expecting one thing and then it takes them a while to adjust, to figure out why it’s not as funny as the poster.”
One of Waititi's main challenges with Boy was finding the right actor to carry-off Alamaein's fundamentally immature character in a way that was also sympathetic. “I like that this character, who is obviously a dickhead, has got some really loveable parts to him as well. He actually tries, but it is just a really twisted way that he attempts to connect with his kids.”
After almost a year of struggles, Waititi decided to cast himself in the role. “I had recalled people probably 6-7 times and just wasn’t really getting something different, something I hadn’t seen before. I just felt it was kind of typical of what we are known for in New Zealand, that kind of acting, or that kind of portrayal of Maori men. I wanted the character to be obviously clumsy and kind of uncomfortable in his body. It just felt like most of the people who were auditioning they just tried to be tough.”
Rolleston was originally cast as an extra, rather than the lead. “I was in class and a lady came in and asked us if we wanted to do some auditioning for a feature film, me and my mates put up our hands. I got to the audition and I met Taika and I had to do a skit and I got cast as an extra. When I went to go have a wardrobe fitting I was just walking around introducing myself, saying hello to people and everybody was blown away and then three days before shooting I was cast [as Boy].”
Given the pressures on Waititi in the lead up to filming and given Rolleston’s late casting, there wasn’t much time to build up rapport between the film’s family unit; however Waititi suggests this inadvertently added to his character development. “I was so busy I couldn’t hang out with them [the child actors], so I actually felt like a bad dad right from the start because I wasn’t paying them that much attention.”
With Boy's success in his home country, one wonders how Rolleston has navigated the media attention. “I’m not really a fan of any of this [publicity]" he admits- "I get quite shy. I get shy as when people call out my name in the street, because everybody looks.” This hasn’t dented Rolleston’s interest in films though “I’m hoping to do more acting,” but he also adds “ I’d like to do other things as well, like marine biology, or have my own hunting show, or both.”
Meanwhile, Waititi’s next role is in Martin Campbell's comic-book adaptation Green Lantern (out 2011). “The casting agents had seen [Boy] at Sundance and asked if I would read for a part in the film. It seems quite preposterous to me that I even got into it but it was really enjoyable, seeing the whole Hollywood thing, just a new experience.”
With Waititi spending about half his time in the States at the moment, what is happening with his own filmmaking? “I am writing scripts some are set back home and some are set there [US], it is just a matter of whatever gets finished first and whatever gets funded first. It hasn’t been too hard getting interest in the States. Things are looking pretty good so far.”
First published in The Brag 23/08/10