The 34-year-old New Zealander Taika Waititi is back in Berlin with his new feature, Boy, to compete in the “Generation”, the youth and children’s section. It’s the film’s European premiere (the world premiere took place in January, at the Sundance Festival) and, for Taika Waititi (a.k.a. Taika Cohen), a return to a site of former glory: his short film Tama Tu won the Berlinale’s Special Jury Prize in 2005. And that’s not all. Boy, a bittersweet coming-of-age film, was inspired by a short the filmmaker made in 2004 – Two Cars, One Night – which won the festival’s Panorama Short Film Award and, incidentally, was also nominated for an Academy Award.
Boy is set in 1984 in an isolated Maori community; “Boy”, an 11-year-old, has been raised by his Nan alongside his brother and cousins. Michael Jackson is his hero, and so is his joint-smoking, never-really-grown-up dad (played by Waititi), who has returned home after years away in prison.
What made you realise there were more than 11 minutes to Two Cars, One Night?
After we finished shooting, I wasn’t going to do any more films, but I got so much encouragement from people – you get excited – that I thought I’d try my hand at writing a longer version. But it took years.
How much has the screenplay changed since it was workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab?
It’s more comedic. A lot of our New Zealand films are so serious – we take ourselves so seriously, and we don’t seem to make many comedies, even though we’re really funny. It was important to keep a nice balance between drama and comedy.
You directed and star in Boy. Were you difficult to work with?
The first two weeks, I was terrible to work with. Everyone knew it was going to be difficult for me – when you’re acting and directing, you have to give a bit of control away. The key was the support I had from the producer, the D.O.P., the crew.
Did you use an outside eye?
That was Ainsley [Gardiner], and sometimes Cliff [Curtis], who has a creative eye. [Both are producers of the film.]
How typical of 1980s East Cape is Boy’s?
It’s pretty typical. The household life is pretty much like it was when we were growing up. Down there, there’s a lot of countryside and not many outsiders. There’s still only one shop and that’s how we like it! The inside of the house [in the film] is the house I grew up in and the exterior is my cousins’. My cousin drew the native bird mural on the wall. It was great – we took the house back to the same colour scheme as it was when I grew up. And a lot of the stuff is still there: same table, same sugar bowl, same everything.
Beneath the trailer posted on YouTube are proud comments from locals: “That’s my cousin James Rolleston” and “My little brother, sister and my Dad are in this movie”. What has it meant to you to make films on the East Cape?
It’s an area that’s pretty remote and difficult to get to, so seeing it on the screen is a big deal. My uncle plays one of the schoolteachers; the kids are from there. Essentially it’s a Bay of Plenty film. It was important for authenticity to have kids who speak like they’re from the area.
What kind of look did you want the film to have?
I wanted it to have a natural feel, so there’s a lot of tracking. It feels like quite a smooth film, with controlled and deliberate movements. We had a loose head under the camera so it has a soft, hand-held feel, has some breath to it – how I imagined a kid would see the world.
How did you feel when Boy was selected for both Sundance and the Berlinale?
With Sundance, it had come full circle: to bring back the feature film was a nice bookend. All my films that’ve played at Sundance have played at the Berlinale. Berlin is my second favourite place to live; I lived there in 1998-1999. There’s always a really great audience for my stuff – Germans seem to really like Maori stuff.