Taika Waititi’s Boy has become Aotearoa’s highest-grossing local film, a timeless look at a world oft-overlooked in current cinema: indigenous local life. Shot in his remote hometown of Waihau Bay and now on the brink of an American theatrical release funded through Kickstarter, this tale of childhood hits the kindred shores of Hawaii. He spoke with The Weekly about being a kid in the ‘80s, being a kid today, directing a bunch of kids and very soon expecting one.
Boy is obsessed with Michael Jackson. What’s the best MJ music video of all time? You can’t say Thriller.
I think for me between Smooth Criminal and Billie Jean.
And why was the ‘80s the best decade ever?
It was a time when I think most countries were experimenting a lot. For New Zealand, we were trying to make our presence known on the world stage. It was a very special time, like a coming of age.
Could you have told this story in this current decade, or do you feel like you had to set Boy in the ‘80s?
Yeah, well, I don’t really know what kids are into these days, not really interested in it either. Just don’t find it very interesting. Because a lot of it is more like, social activity where you don’t actually meet face to face. I had a really amazing childhood. I grew up half in the city, half in the country. In the country, you know, where Boy was set, it was pretty different times from now, like where kids were brought up to look after each other and given a lot more freedom. A difference from now where children’s whole lives are organized, regimented.
Right, parenting is a lot different today.
Kids, their lives are micromanaged a lot more now. Like it’s, “On Wednesday, you have a play date for an hour.” But when I was growing up, I would just leave the house and it was like “I don’t want to see you until night time.” I think that taught us a lot about social skills and how to take care of ourselves.
Did directing all these kids make you feel at all like … a dad?
No, I’ve grown up around lots and lots of kids, I helped raise a lot of kids when I was pretty young. We lived in a very, um, I don’t know–Maori life is very communal in that sense. Everyone helps out and just looks out for each other, like children often look after babies from a very, very young age. I’ve been around kids all my life. It didn’t really make me feel like a dad, more just like a boss a lot more. [Laughs]
Any similarities between Alamein [who Waititi plays in Boy] to your own father?
Um, not huge stuff, he didn’t start a gang or bury money or kill my goat. But, you know, like all the characters, they’re kind of based very loosely on, not only people from my family or people I knew, but also tales from other people’s family [and] friends. There’s always these huge extended families in New Zealand, like, you know, you got hundreds of uncles and aunties. And that’s very similar to Hawaii. It doesn’t matter if someone is from the same generation as our dad or mother, they pretty much just become your uncle or your aunty. Just some very amazing characters.
When I think New Zealand cinema, I immediately think Once Were Warriors …
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
…Boy is obviously lighter than that, but did you feel pressured at all to like, make a teen commit suicide or have the dad hit the son or something?
[Laughs] Yeah, well, there was never any interest in that. But I definitely wanted to make something different, just to show a brighter side. Even though, you know, it’s about some kind of “issue,” I don’t want to make an “issue” film.
James Rolleston as the lead is so perfect. What has this experience been like for him, traveling with the film?
Well, he loved it. The really cool thing about him is none of it really changed him. He really embraced the experience. He wants to be a marine biologist, he likes playing rugby. He’s like, more interested in being a kid, you know, a teenager. He’s an amazing guy, a good kid.
I feel like I’d be a traitor to my generation if I didn’t ask you about Kickstarter. Are you happy with the self-distribution model?
Yeah, I am. I think it’s great. I think we’re definitely going to see more and more people self-distributing their films. It’s more control over how the film is released, more power, more profit. And also, you know, because of the inevitability of the internet taking over everything, I think that the natural progression for distribution is to embrace that, to embrace streaming, video-on-demand. So, I’m totally in a self-distribution model. I think that probably studios will try to follow that model.
You’re about to be a dad soon. Are you excited? Terrified?
I’m not terrified at all. I can’t wait.
Final question: When does a boy become a man?
Anytime, you know. It can be when you’re 7 or 10 or 11. Hopefully, we don’t start to become men until, well, 18, though boys don’t truly grow up at all until their 20s anyway. I have no idea. Guess it’d have to depend on the situation one’s in.