Taika Waititi isn’t afraid to say it: Hollywood needs some new inspiration. But the “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” director is happy to look for a silver lining. At a Monday morning Toronto International Film Festival Master Class, where the New Zealand filmmaker sat for an hour-long conversation with the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey, Waititi got honest about the current state of the industry.
“We’re in a really cool place right now: Hollywood is running out of ideas,” Waititi said. “They are scrambling for ideas and stories, and where do they turn? Indigenous people, ethnic people, they turn to Korea, Japan, they turn to anywhere outside of America for films that they can remake for things that are outside of their comfort zone, because that’s where the interesting stuff is.”
He said that meant new opportunities for a range of filmmakers to produce original work, but cautioned against formula. “If we just ride it, and just be true to our own vision and our own stories and our own voices,” he said. “And not conform to that, and not go like, ‘oh, it’s like “What Happens in Vegas,” but with brown people,’ maybe there’s a good film in there, but if we stick to our own guns, I think we’re in a good place. Speak your truth.”
Waititi recalled a few of the tone-deaf notes his films have received, recalling times he’s been asked, “Why don’t you put some more nose flutes in your film? Maybe that character is a spirit guide. Maybe that character goes to his grandmother for some advice.”
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Earlier in the talk, Bailey asked Waititi about the current debate about who gets to tell certain stories on camera, and the filmmaker offered similar insight.
“Yes, indigenous people should be telling their own stories,” he said. “And making themselves part of the culture and really learning about it, instead of someone else from another culture coming in and telling our stories and all they care about is box office or just making a film. It’s got to be about actually bringing a message. … I think it’s vital that we keep telling our own stories.”
Waititi also encouraged new filmmakers from outside the industry to look beyond the expected. While he said he was a great admirer of Lee Tamahori’s 1994 drama “Once Were Warriors,” which chronicles life in New Zealand through the lens of an urban Māori family (Waititi is himself half-Māori), he doesn’t want to just make that kind of film.
“Look, ‘Once Were Warriors’ is one of the greatest films that New Zealand has ever produced and it’s one of my favorite films,” Waititi said. “But we don’t have to make it again. It’s a fucking incredible film, but how about let’s make a comedy? … We have to keep them guessing, because what we’re guessing is we’re gonna do a fucking version of ‘Avatar’ or some shit. If you twist that, and don’t give them what they expect, that makes us more interesting.”
Waititi has already started playing the Hollywood game, thanks to the success of his Marvel Cinematic Universe film, “Thor: Ragnarok.” While making a film of that scale came as surprise to the filmmaker, he shared that it was a huge learning experience for him, and was able to still make it his own.
Beyond the scrum of Hollywood, Waititi has used his experiences, obsessions, and culture to shape even his out-of-the-box projects, including two upcoming features.
First, there’s “Bubbles,” a stop-motion animation film that the filmmaker bills as “the story of Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee.” (Not sure what Michael Jackson has to do with Waititi? Look no further than his debut feature film, “Boy,” which was inspired by his own experiences growing up in New Zealand, and features a lead character obsessed with the singer, just like Waititi was as a kid.)
“No one’s been brave enough to tell the story until now,” Waititi said. “Many have tried. It’s 2018, it’s like, just now.“
There’s also his just-wrapped “JoJo Rabbit,” which centers on a 10-year-old boy in Nazi Germany who is eager to join Hitler’s ranks during World War II. The movie features two versions of Hitler, one real and one imaginary. While Waititi was cagey about enumerating on details about the film during the talk, only saying it was set in World War II and follows a kid who idolizes Nazism, at least one member of the audience was hip to the Hitler details, including the fact that Waititi himself is playing him in the film.
Strangely enough, that ties into his own experiences, too. When he was asked by that educated audience member about why Waititi, whose own mother is Jewish, wanted to play the role, he offered some razor-sharp insight: “The answer is simple: what better fuck you to that guy?”
You can watch the full Master Class below.