Taika Waititi
Photo by Jeff Vespa

Taika Waititi: “No idea is final”

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Short Profile

Name: Taika David Waititi
DOB: 16 August 1975
Place of birth: Wellington, New Zealand
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter, actor

Taika Waititi's new film Jojo Rabbit is in cinemas in Germany now.

Mr. Waititi, did you have a big imagination as a kid?

I definitely did! I had many friends but I did often spend a lot of time in my own head, by myself, using my imagination to kind of… Maybe sometimes to cope, but also just to entertain myself. In New Zealand, in the small towns where I grew up in, you can get pretty bored so you’re spending a lot of time just imagining things and trying to entertain yourself. I think that’s probably where a lot of our comedy comes from in New Zealand — it’s observational, we’re looking at things from the outside. But I feel like kids today aren’t encouraged to be bored as much as they should be. Kids say, “Oh, I’m bored,” and people freak out and try and stimulate them with other things.

Or they’ve all got constant entertainment from their iPads.

Exactly, now they’ve all got iPads and it’s done for them! I think it’s really important for a kid to be left alone and left to figure it out for themselves how to pass the time. As a kid, I spent so much time bored and coming up with ideas of how to do things, so I’d write stories or I’d draw pictures or invent worlds through drawing or just in my head, just thinking about things. I think that a lot of my creativity has really come from being bored.

“I think that’s the fear for most people is running out of ideas, feeling that there’s no creative motivation anymore.”

Is that why so many of your films are told through the eyes of children? Do kids make for better storytelling?

Well, I guess it’s like the saying that kids hold a mirror up to us and that seems to be more truthful than how we perceive ourselves. And that also goes down to making the film. Adult actors bring a lot of baggage to the experience where I think they’re overthinking everything. But children just seem to kind of want to tell the truth. I often use first time actors with kids, and they often seem better than seasoned actors because they’re not concerned with a backstory or “What’s my motivation?” — or even their career. All they care about really is getting off school… And making money. (Laughs) With young actors, their performances seem more sort of pure or truthful than adult actors.

Is the truth important to you as a filmmaker?

I think so. It’s trying to find some kind of human truth, or an emotional truth… I like a kind of innocence because it brings more of a clear approach to a theme or to ideas. It’s like Peter Sellers in Being There, you know, he’s got a very naïve and very simple way of viewing the world so characters like him, or even The Fool in Shakespeare, seem to be able to tell the truth the most; they are the ones who actually make the most sense. With my film Jojo Rabbit, the truth is unravelled as Jojo does a complete 180. He’s indoctrinated, he’s brainwashed at the beginning, he believes in the world operating in a certain way. For me, one of the big messages behind the film is learning how to think for yourself outside of what might be considered popular thought.

Is there a challenge in constantly coming up with new ideas for your films, or has your childhood boredom helped prepare you for that?

I think that’s the fear for most people is running out of ideas, feeling that there’s no creative motivation anymore. And I definitely have those feelings, especially if I’ve spent too long on one thing. As long as I can keep exposing myself to different forms of art and creativity, and if I can kind of hold on to the playfulness of my approach to filmmaking, which is very creative, I always like to create an environment on set which is fun, there’s a lot of music, and it sort of just becomes like a playground… Then at least that spark is still there. Luckily I’ve been able to get away with it for this long.

“The other thing you’ve got to do is not punish yourself for not coming up with something more interesting, that maybe that was the only way of doing it.”

A journalist once described your directing style as loose, energetic, and insatiably curious.

I think that you often come up with things on the day that you never thought of before if you just keep yourself open to this idea that no idea is final. There’s always something to be discovered — and it might not necessarily be better. In fact, 70 percent of the time that you sort of explore or experiment with something, it might become a terrible idea! But at least if you keep trying and searching, sometimes you’re lucky enough to discover something that just elevates the film a lot more.

Like what?

Well, sometimes you’ll be in the edit and you might think of an abrupt way of cutting a scene, or a piece of music, or something that is just a discovery. I don’t like to plan very much. I feel like I have some sort of a plan to fall back on, but I usually try and go into it very open minded.

Are there times where that doesn’t happen at all? Have you ever just stuck to the exact script you’d originally written?

Sure, yeah, because the other thing you’ve got to do is not punish yourself for not coming up with something more interesting. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that maybe that was the only way of doing it. And sometimes maybe you miss the little opportunity and you don’t find that thing throughout the day… I do usually feel that the script is strong enough that even if I just shot it exactly as it was and played it very safe, I still think the film would have been a very good film. But sometimes it works when you get these new ideas and play around.

Did that easy-going approach change at all when you started doing bigger Hollywood projects like Thor: Ragnarok, or The Mandalorian?

No, actually! I was encouraged to be myself on Thor… And it was something where we improvised a lot and I got to be very playful and I got encouraged to experiment even more than I had on other films.

“I don’t think film has ever felt like a job to me. I’ve always been excited to do it.”

Do you think people expected you to change your method?

I think I was a little scared that I might have to, going into something like that. The big fear as a filmmaker is that you’re going to be controlled or that you’ll lose your freedom and from that you’ll lose your creativity because you’re kind of prescribing to a recipe. But the good thing about some of the Marvel films is that they have an idea for what the thing might be, but it can change halfway through. It’s very loose; ideas were being destroyed and recreated all the time.

You once said that although you’re a filmmaker, your real job is creativity. Does it get difficult to be creative when you’re thinking about it like it’s work?

I don’t think film has ever felt like a job to me. When I drive to work, I never feel like, “Ugh, I’ve got to go to work.” I’ve always been excited to do it. It’s always felt like a privilege and I’ve always felt very lucky. It’s a very hard thing to get into and to be given a lot of creative freedom, so I do remind myself of that all the time, and I try not to take it for granted.

Do you think other filmmakers take it for granted?

I think so, but I think that they’re making different films and they’re very career oriented, whereas I don’t really care at all. I feel like there’s other things that I can fall back on if this doesn’t work. I’m not cynical but I feel like I could do any job. I don’t think I would feel like it was me failing because sometimes, you know, you put in so much effort and energy and it takes so much time out of your personal life. I really envy people who have jobs that end at five o’clock on the dot and they don’t have to think about work until the next morning. I love that idea! But it just so happens that this particular industry, you take that work home with you and you’re thinking about it all night. It’s as close to a 24-hour job you can get.