I strongly, strongly recommend going to see the superb Hunt For The Wilderpeople before reading this; we get into some spoiler territory here, but it’s really interesting territory and I think the greater value lies in including the conversation rather than omitting it to cater to spoiler-phobe sensibilities. So, fairly warned be ye, says I.
Who is (Wild Pork and Watercress author) Barry Crump in New Zealand culture? Give me an idea of where he sits in the firmament there.
He basically started off as a hunter and became a writer and did poetry as well. He started embodying this idea of the quintessential kiwi bloke. Someone who was a hard man, who drank and was not about any of the frills of life, but into the thrills, I guess. He was a hunter and he wrote about hunting – he wrote about being a guy. No one else in New Zealand was really doing that, writing about the New Zealand male experience, and it became one of those moments of identity – it gave New Zealand a bit of identity. Until then, people were still putting on these fake British accents, and he unashamedly had his Kiwi bush accent. He became a hero and he became a celebrity, he did radio shows… more than anything he was a really amazing storyteller. He would just tell stories all that time and that was his real gift to us.
Do you remember how you first got acquainted with his body of work or is he one of these figures who was always there in the background for you growing up?
For me growing up, everyone knew who he was – everyone knew who he was when we were kids. He was in commercials, he was sponsored by Toyota, he would make all these crazy Toyota commercials advertising Hiluxes – he would drive these Hiluxes through crazy off-road terrain and stuff. He was definitely a household name. As a kid I hadn’t read any of his books, but as a teenager, in my late teens I started acquainting myself with some of his stuff. I think every New Zealand household has a couple of Barry Crump books.
What was it about Wild Pork and Watercress that made it pop as a potential film for you?
That was actually brought to me by another producer back in 2005 – they said ‘Do you want to make this? Would you be interested in writing it or maybe directing it?’ So I had a go at it. My tonal vision was a bit different back then – it wasn’t a fun adventure, it was more of a reflective, poetic journey. At the time I was more interested in making my first three films, so I went off and did those and then came back to this with a sort of fresh perspective and new idea on what I think cinema could be to an audience. And now I’m a father I find myself more thinking, ‘Oh, what’s a film that families can go and see together?’ Actually, I think it’s one of the things that will keep the cinema industry going, is films where entire families can go, and in New Zealand we’re seeing that with this film to the movies together – grandparents and parents and kids – multiple times. It’s a shared experience that is kind of getting rare these days.
Yeah, I mean outside of your big Pixar-style movies, particularly with live action, you don’t get anything quite like what you’ve done here.
That’s right, yeah. And I don’t think it’s like a dumbing down of the art, I think it’s just considering the audience a bit more. I think not many people would realise there’s no swearing in the film. It’s the first film I’ve done where there’s so swearing. No one drops the f-bomb. The c-word was in my second two films, my first film was full of fucks, and I made a conscious choice on this film just to not do that. I wouldn’t say it’s a loss of integrity (laughs). Sometimes you just don’t need that.
I didn’t even notice, actually, it’s only now that you’ve said that.
Exactly! No one notices and at the end of the day, if your story is good enough and you’re engrossed, then it doesn’t really matter.
What was the process of adaptation like? How did it change from the page to the screen?
Well, this is very different to the book. The book is not very funny for a start. The characters – there aren’t any crazy characters, there’s no social worker chasing them. It’s really a two-hander in the book and I tried to – I took a lot of inspiration from Australasian films in the ‘70s and ‘80s in terms of style and also the types of characters and situations. There’s a big car chase in there only because I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what you do in the ‘80s.’ You have a big car chase and you flip the police car and you have tanks and guns and all sorts of mayhem going on! I just wanted to do that. And also, I think, it’s a challenge to myself – I never shot a car chase before, so I wanted to do it.
What was the casting process like? You get a really great two-hander performance out of Sam (Neill) and Julian (Dennison) but you also have a fantastic ensemble as well.
The casting was really easy, actually. I already had Sam and Julian in mind, so I cast them straight away. The rest of the people were people I’ve worked with before and had been in my other films. We only had to audition three or four parts, very small parts. We auditioned for Kahu, the girl, we auditioned a bunch of kids for that.
Even though it’s a fun, very much an ‘80s kids’ adventure, like you said, there are some real dark threads going through there – when the foster mother dies, when Sam has to shoot the dog, but also Ricky not quite apprehending that a friend of his was basically raped and murdered offscreen. How difficult is it to incorporate elements like that into something that is essentially a fun family film? How important was it for you to have those elements in there?
That stuff… in all my films I like to have a little bit of reality, to ground the stuff in a little bit of reality, more profound moments. It’s never a statement, like on the social welfare system or that. The story of that kid was actually inspired by a big news story about what happened to a little girl, and it’s one of those things where every government department needs work in every country and no one’s perfect. But this film is about a foster kid and the character has to have been failed by the system, so how can we show that? So that’s really what that is. I never feel like my films are a bold statement about a social issue or a political thing, so yeah – that’s as far as that goes. But thematically, it’s about people looking for connection and the idea that family is not necessarily blood – it is what you make it, what you want it to be. You can shape a family out of anything, out of rejected people in society who get together. That’s why gangs exist, you know? Enough rejects and enough people who the system has failed, you get them together and give them some sort of common connection, they’ll make a tribe or they’ll make a gang or whatever. People are just drawn to each other, and I’m always interested in that part of humanity, the idea that we’re all just a bunch of fleshy, bony creatures on this planet, bumping into each other and trying to make sense of it all.
That’s a pretty deep thought, hey brother? (laughs)
Very profound, very profound. How’d you go location shooting?
The only challenges were what nature threw at us. We didn’t have a huge crew, but enough of us so the logistics had to be sorted to get us around the bush and the wilderness and stuff and we had to really work hard to lug all the gear. It was raining and showing and all sorts – for instance, we didn’t realise that it was gonna snow, so that was a happy accident, really – something that nature threw at us and we didn’t have a choice, we just had to go with it. So now some of the film is in snow. But it makes everything better when you’re just open to accepting and not trying to control everything. That’s always my attitude anyway, going into work, is to always be very open to the unexpected and keeping an eye out, have an intuition for finding something that may be better than what you wrote. So it was cool, it was brilliant. And I love bringing together a crew and having a group of people all standing out in the wind and the rain and mud, trying to create or recreate emotion. It’s a funny image to see 40 people just standing there while two people say lines to each other. It’s the weirdest situation, 30 or 40 people just standing and staring at us while we have this conversation – that’s what we’re doing out there.
Obviously the reaction to the film has been huge. I believe it’s the biggest opening New Zealand film of all time? But they don’t count The Lord of the Rings.
Well, they were American films shot in New Zealand. They say a film is from somewhere when the funding comes from that country.
In Australia we cheat – we’ll claim anyone or anything. We’re claiming Fury Road.
Well, maybe you guys are right – it’s very Australian. But yes, it’s just taken the number two spot in the highest box office earnings for a local film, and the first film is my other film, Boy. It’s been really good for me because I’ve been in Australia working, and I don’t really have time to pay attention to that stuff. I mean, every morning I wake up and I see what the box office figures are, but apart from that I’m out of it – I don’t really have to deal with it at all.
How is the transition to big budget filmmaking going? How’s Thor going? (Waititi is currently directing Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel)
It’s going really well. I’m yet to really figure out the transition, other than you just hear the word ‘no’ a lot less than when you’re making independent films. You hear ‘we can’t afford it’ a lot less. It’s great. It’s no different to making an independent film, there’s just more people trying to do it. Everyone’s just trying to tell the best story and make the best product possible, and it’s the same in the indie world – there’s only a few slight differences, and one is obviously scale.