The Original Storyteller
Doesn’t that sound weird, the original storyteller? Shouldn’t storytelling be original by nature? Well, yes and no – my favorite answer to that kind of question. Because it’s never just black or white, there are all colors in full brightness in between. After all, you can tell your own stories and you can tell someone else’s stories – but always with a twist; your personal touch. You tell me which one is harder – for me it’s the latter. And even though both are tricky, there is someone in movie industry who makes it look like it’s child’s play. Literally!
I daydream all the time.
Taika David Cohen, was born August 16th, 1975 in a small settlement Raukokore – in the northeastern North Island of New Zealand. He grew up both in the East Coast and Aro Valley of Wellington. His father was a Māori farmer and artist of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, and his mother is a schoolteacher of European origin. Waititi’s grandfather (from mother’s side) is of Russian Jewish and his grandmother is of Irish ancestry. He describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew” and through his art, he emphasizes the importance of this legacy.
You might think, that Hollywood’s wonder-boy went through typical “from zero to hero” scenario, to make it big. Well, yes, his parents divorced when he was five-ish, but it didn’t stop him from having fun and being around arts. Taika studied theater at Victoria University of Wellington and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1997 (I was four, by the way). Initially, he used his mother’s last name but after success of his first short movie, he decided to go with Waititi – his father’s name.
During his time at University, Taika joined a comedy group So You’re A Man, along with Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, actor Carey Smith and theater director David Lawrence. The had some success, but the important thing here is that Taika met his future film-buddyy Jemaine. And, he could break the ice on live performance, though I am pretty sure he never was a shy guy.
My job is to express myself.
In 2004, Taika wrote and directed short film Two cars, one night that gave a spin to his career. It was nominated for Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film and Taika being typical Taika, pretended to be asleep during presentation of nominees. The film is about two young boys and a girl meeting in the parking lot of a rural pub in Te Kaha, New Zealand. What at first glance seems to be a relationship based on rivalry, soon turns into a potential friendship. In 2019, Waititi said Losing to Andrea Arnold (her short film, Wasp, won at 77th Academy Award), it took me probably 13 years just to get over that. Because what she did to me back then, it was disrespectful. Although Wasp was an incredible short film, she didn’t need to do that. And look at me now, Andrea, I played the long game, man. I played the long game.
In Jojo Rabbit review I mentioned that I’m just catching up with Waititi’s work – and in a matter of week I watched Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I also re-watched What we do in the shadows and I think I will go for Thor: Ragnarök tonight. But the short movies were what got Taika started and they are full of irresistible charm of Māori director.
His signature move is to always act in his own movies – starting with short cameos to being full part pro-/antagonist. Apart from that, there are few tricks that Taika uses to makes his movies more “human”, more relatable and emotional. Let’s take a look – short analysis based on Eagle vs. Shark, Boy, Hunt… and Jojo Rabbit.
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.
I love how simple it turns out to be, once you take some time to went through schematics. And yes, I’ve said it a million times – patterns are good if used wisely. With original storytelling it’s never the same, even though tactics and certain elements are repeated. Taika Waititi is THE storyteller – with every fiber of his body. There three basic elements, with additional bits, that are base of every Taika movie:
- Sadness is source of the humor.
- Reality that stands out.
- Outsider like me!
Additional bits: lovable loser, indigenous culture, longing for companionship, affection for innocence, veneration of nature. And there you go: ready recipe how to make a film like Taika Waititi. Haha, if it was only THAT easy, right? But that’s some kind of a start!
Sadness is source of humor – Eagle vs. Shark (2007). For sure there are backstories sadder than the story behind this movie, and yet the charm and light-comedy of the relationship at its core – heart, are all the richer for it. The quiet, somewhat strange quality of Lily and Jarrod’s interplay is empowered by the fact that they are both struggling with different kinds of pain. It raises the stakes of the comedy, as it constantly threatens to collapse the relationship.
Reality that stands out – Boy (2010). Title character, but really Alamein, who constantly imagines his father as a hero – dashing figure, when in reality the man is just a man, with all the human imperfections you might imagine. Stepping into the boy’s mind, as he embellishes the reality to make it more livable and more alluring, helps make his existence one, which brushes regularly against crimes and personal risk – both clearer and bitter.
Outsider like me! – Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016). The story of Ricky Baker, juvenile and socially awkward boy taken in by two generous older, can’t quite adapt to the wild, simple reality. And that’s what makes him heroic; Waititi demonstrates through the story of his relationships with his foster parents that the outsider’s viewpoint can be imbued with illumination. What matters in the end is that Ricky finds something resembling inner peace through and in his relationship with foster father. Even the most outside outsider can learn to appreciate community.
In a lot of my films, the biggest theme is family, making families out of those around you.
All the elements above, perfectly cross-cut with additional bits, especially native culture and adoration for nature – Taika loves his Māori origin and heritage. In Boy we are put in wonderful surroundings of a small village, somewhere in New Zealand, with two brothers living together with cousins and grandma. And she leaves them for a week! Last scene of Boy is mixture of pop-cultural fascination with traditional in Māori culture dance. In Hunt… we land in the middle of beautiful, rough bushes. Waititi plays with mythology and indigenous art forms, like haka.
Very strong feature, in shape of affection for innocence is present in all of his movies – with noble exception of Thor and What we do in the shadows, but we will talk about them in a minute. Along with longing for companionship, those two elements are strongly present in Jojo Rabbit. Controversial picture, that leads audience to see war and propaganda through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy, who above all wants to be loved and accepted. All of that is always generously sprinkled with Taika’s iconic sarcasm and double-layered meanings.
What’s most important – Taika does not feel the urge to impress Hollywood and its movie clique. He makes movies the way he wants it. Sure, Thor was a blockbuster, extremely colorful with electric vibes. Mockumentary he co-directed and co-wrote with Jemaine Clement, What we do in the shadows, is different – shot in a odd, particular way; with abnormal, ridiculous sense of humor. But you just know, when you’re watching a movie by Taika Waititi.
I’m in all my films, I can’t help it. I just jam myself in there if there’s a space.
Original storyteller is also a great performer. His creations – those in the background like in Hunt…, or those where he is meant to be in the second line but steals the show like in Thor or Jojo Rabbit, to being the main character – charming yet awkward vampire in What we do… or asshole-impostor, disappointment-of-a-father in Boy. Each of his creations, no matter how small, always leaves impression. Good one!
His role in Boy is particularly memorable. Film itself is extremely touching but not in common meaning – it is not a tearjerker. It’s sad, because in child’s mind, world is a better place than it really is. Imagination is not limited by adulthood and its anchors. Growing up without a father, any kid would come up with amazing stories why he’s not around. Maybe he is an astronaut? Maybe he is in military, saving the world. And Boy does the same – idealizes man, who in fact is lost and not heroic at all. Waititi’s performance is extraordinary – filling his son with hopes and dreams to make him serve his personal purpose. Tragically enough, as Taika pointed out, Boy was about his father.
Through comedy and comic performance, Taika always delivers important message – whether it’s that the war is pointless and hurtful propaganda can destroy fragile mind of a innocent child, or that sometimes to find yourself you must get lost first. But do not be fooled – Taika’s memos are not easy to find; hidden under blanket of sarcasm and joking around. He just loves films that make you feel something.
Is that why Hollywood and movie-lovers around the world fell in love with him? He was announced New Zealander of 2017. NZAwards.org praised that Waititi’s “creative flair and distinctive storytelling has shown New Zealand’s unique cultural traits to millions of people. The humble and easy-going nature of his characters resonate with New Zealand and international audiences. Combined with stunning visual cues of New Zealand life and landscapes, his films epitomize what makes New Zealand a truly special place to live.”
I play music all the time because silence freaks me out.
His original plan was painting – but thank the Gods that he decided to pursuit other arts. He plays guitar and I’m sure he can also play other instruments. Being cheeky, dashing persona out there in the world, he does a lot of good: recently during the lockdown he invited couple of friends – including Hemsworth brothers, young cast of Jojo Rabbit or Duchess of Cornwall – to do role-play reading of James and the giant peach by Roald Dahl. Taika supports minorities and fights for equality. And of course, for tradition of his Māori heritage.
And now, he is one of the most-wanted directors and storytellers out there.
Week ago I spoke with my friend – we talked about Parasite and Jojo Rabbit and how different it is to come up with idea for a story – which, believe me, is super hard, especially if you want to create a whole new fictional world for your characters – and it’s completely another thing to adapt a screenplay. In both cases, storyteller has infinite possibilities. But in my opinion, making a movie or even a TV show that is based on existing story is harder – people will ALWAYS compare to the original. Hell, I am the first to do that. Adding your visions and personal bits, like Taika did with Jojo Rabbit is dancing on thin ice and more than often it makes more harm. In curious case of Taika Waititi, everything works.
Academy Award for best adapted screenplay proves it – pure talent goes hand in hand with wit, intelligence, sarcasm and beauty. Because his films are delightful, an aesthetic treat for hungry souls.
I’m not interested in doing work that doesn’t captivate me.
Waititi’s movies are pleasing in many ways, but when comes to technicalities, they are truly exquisite. Attention to details (I am falling in love with this bit – noticing how perceptive original storytellers are, is my new hobby) – closeups to books covers, shots that you can frame and make a postcard collection out of it, making audience pay attention to one particular element – Rosie’s shoes in Jojo Rabbit – emphasizing the importance and building subconscious connection. Visually, he always considers shots and composition a lot, and loves putting art into films, as he does a lot of the art.
And just look at Thor: Ragnarök – it’s exploding with colors! At first it might seem like too much, but admit it – this is a perfect mixture of just about everything. Hands down, one of the best Marvel movies since Iron Man. Both when it comes to the plot and aesthetics. Let’s stop in the pool of pop-cultural phenomenon, that Marvel and Star Wars are. Those are the films that everyone wants to make, but not everyone can keep up with the expectations. I am the biggest Star Wars fan and from time to time, I get a little skeptical about upcoming projects. But when Disney announced The Mandalorian and that several episodes will have different directors – I was over the moon. Because you know what it meant? That with Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni supervising the project and main storyline, we will get few different perspectives and approaches.
This task ws hard and tricky, because creativity is a beast and it takes a lot of power to restrain it. Favreau and Filoni trusted them (Rick Famuyiwa – The Wood, Brown Sugar, upcoming film The Flash, Deborah Chow – Mr. Robot, upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series, Bryce Dallas Howard – Claire Dearing in Jurassic World trilogy and Taika Waititi) to make the best out of it and I have to say – I loved Taika’s episode the most. For starters, it was over 40 minutes long. Secondly, it was roller coaster of emotions, constantly going up and down. And the humor! Two troopers with the baby, oh man! I laughed so hard. Mandalorian is a treat for all space-western lovers out there. And not only – watching Disney Gallery taught me to look for what’s hidden, so if you want to catch subtle differences in directing style, watch each Chapter again.
Most people in their lives do feel like they are outsiders at some point.
For many people, Taika Waititi is friendly, neighborhood weirdo, with unlimited creativity (just listen to his TED talk) and beautiful mind. His upcoming projects – Thor: Love and Thunder, yet to be named Star Wars film, Next goal wins (with Michael Fassbender and Elisabeth Moss) and We’re wolves (sequel to What we do in the shadows about the werewolves, not swear-wolves) are most anticipated movies. Waititi knows the stakes, but he doesn’t seem the kind of man, who bends under pressure. Add to that mixture his future acting gigs in The Suicide Squad and Free Guy and… The picture is complete.
Father of two daughters is living his best life, full of smiles and working with great people, doing what every kid has ever dreamt of. His acceptance speech was awkward and sweet, but this quote will be with me forever: “I want to dedicate this to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers, and we make it here as well.”
Having him in Twin Peaks Gallery of Marvelous People* is a great honor and privilege – his career is creative work process is inspiring, in every single bit. Sometimes I fear for the future of my favorite movie bunch, but with Taika Waititi I am always calm. I just know.
I wish I was less good-looking and more unpopular. Then I could get into politics and use my pent-up resentment about being ugly and unpopular to systematically destroy the country.
*Was this pun to Disney Gallery about The Mandalorian? Maybe. I mean I still have job-alert on LinkedIn from Walt Disney Company! ?