We all know the story: Filmmakers break out at Sundance and the next thing you know they’re juggling $120 million tentpole-superhero-blockbusters, hoping to emerge unscathed. Taika Waititi, director of “Thor: Ragnarok,” spent a decade dodging that fate.
“Being around these studio things wasn’t even really a big dream of mine,” said the New Zealand director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” now in the midst of a mad scramble to promote the Marvel release. “I kind of didn’t know how to approach it — or whether I wanted to, because I was very comfortable in my small little world where I had complete control over everything, being the toast of the town for a while.”
Waititi has lived many creative lives. Once an aspiring painter and visual artist, he moved into stage comedy in the late ’90s, finding some fame with fellow kiwi Jemaine Clement (later known for “Flight of the Conchords”) as part of the comedy duo Humourbeasts.
But Waititi’s filmmaking prospects crystallized with the 2004 Oscar-nominated short film “Two Cars, One Night,” a bittersweet, 11-minute black-and-white tale about a couple of pre-pubescent Maori kids mocking and flirting with each other in a vacant parking lot while the adults remained off screen. (It was an early indication of capacity to elevate the tropes of bittersweet children’s narratives, as he did with his fantastical 2010 feature “Boy.”) This miniature snapshot of youth experience was like “Peanuts” for an underrepresented community, and a strong indication that he could tell stories found nowhere else.
After the Oscar nomination for “Two Cars, One Night,” however, Waititi found himself disinterested in the American commercial industry that seemed to be keen on snatching hm up. “I got an agent and we went around to all these meetings,” he said. “Luckily, coming from New Zealand, we’ve got a very sensitive bullshit meter. Hollywood people would say, ‘Oh, I’m a huge fan,’ and we knew very early not to believe anything anyone says. I put things in perspective: I made a short film, and that’s it. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker. It was a bit of a fluke.”
He spent the next decade in his native country, carving out a niche as one of New Zealand’s preeminent filmmaking voices, while generating waves on the festival circuit. Each of his movies exists in contrast to the one that came before: After the gentle relationship humor of “Eagle vs. Shark,” he delivered the fantastical “Boy;” from there, the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” (co-directed with Clement) and coming-of-age comedy “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.”
A wry, affable prankster, Waititi felt uneasy with the critical approval. “All you have to have is one person call you a visionary and it just goes completely to your head,” he said. “I never really felt like I was a serious filmmaker or wanted to be called that. Around those festivals, you can’t take yourself too seriously, but if enough people talk about your work a certain way, you start believing the hype about yourself.”
He kept dodging offers for commercial projects, which varied depending on which movie was on the market. “After ‘Eagle vs Shark,’ I was in talks for more romantic comedies, then after ‘Boy’ it was more like quirky family dramedies, then after ‘Shadows,’ all I got offered were zombie movies,” he said. “Whatever you’ve just done, they assume that’s what you want to do forever more, which is funny because that’s the last thing I want to do.”
Instead, he went home. “I just decided I’d keep going back to New Zealand for my next films,” he said. “In a way, doing that for 10 years was probably the best thing for me. I developed a confidence in the films I wanted to make.”
That may explain the remarkable consistency between his projects even as they vary wildly in terms of form and style. The title of a video essay surveying Waititi’s work,“Mastering Happy Sad Cinema,” pretty much nails it. Waititi’s characters endure twisted misadventures, and they cope with being outsiders in uncaring worlds, but he couches it in a delicate sentimentalism that dances toward the maudlin but never dives into it.
Watiti is a master of all-inclusive pop culture storytelling — even if only a subset of American audiences took notice. “The appeal has always been there,” said distribution executive Mark Urman, whose company Paladin released “Boy” and “Shadows” in limited release, where they both outperformed expectations. “It was the size of the films and their geographical, linguistic foreign-ness that set limits.”
When Marvel’s Kevin Feige brought Watiti the opportunity resuscitate the self-serious Thor character with a disarming sense of humor, he recognized both sides of the equation. “At the very beginning, I was thinking, do I want to ruin my track record? Risk everything I built up until now?” he said. “Then I realized, what have I really built? I’ve done four films. Here’s an opportunity to make a superhero movie, to play with some cool, big toys, to do something that I never dreamed I could do. I figured, I may never get an opportunity like this again. I should just do it.”