23 Feb 2017

New Zealander of the Year: Taika Waititi

From Nine To Noon, 9:20 am on 23 February 2017

“I make films for New Zealanders”, director and actor Taika Waititi says, who has been named New Zealander of the Year.

Taika Waititi on the red carpet at the 2015 Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.

Taika Waititi in 2015 Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Waititi is a familiar sight on New Zealand and international screens, with parts on Flight of the Conchords, Green Lantern and Scarfies. He has frequently acted on films he has directed, including Eagle vs Shark, Boy and What We Do in the Shadows.

Waititi's recent film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is the largest grossing New Zealand film at the New Zealand box office ever.

The KiwiBank New Zealander of the Year award's chief judge, Cameron Bennett, says the award is in recognition of Waititi's exhibiting of New Zealand internationally.

"Taika's outstanding contribution has not only been rewarded with record box-office success at home - he's also been highly successful in showcasing who and what we are to the world.”

Taika Waititi on set for Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi on the set of 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' Photo: Supplied

Waititi told Nine to Noon that telling New Zealand stories is his top priority.

"I've always said that first and foremost, I make films for New Zealanders. They're my target audience, then after that if people appreciate my stories from outside this country, then that's an added bonus," he said.

"Luckily … we've managed to have our films travel all over the place and haven't had to change them to suit international audiences."

On the challenge of directing ‘Thor’

Waititi was unable to accept the award in person at the awards ceremony last night, as he is currently directing the Marvel superhero film Thor in Los Angeles.

He says there are "new and different challenges" with filming Thor, but he took the job for that reason.

"Ultimately it's very much the way that I work, and it's very similar to the style that I'm accustomed too. It's just bigger and there's more people involved but it's still film making and it's still trying to tell a good story, so I feel very comfortable actually."

Some parts of Thor have been filmed in Australia, and Waititi says he pledged to employ some Aboriginal people in the film crew.

"We made a rule that each department had to hire a certain number of Aboriginal staff," he says.

"It's a small gesture, but also something to try and be more inclusive of communities who don't get access to this kind of thing, and if there's a huge film like this being made, an American film coming to a place like Australia, they should be doing that on all their films.

"In New Zealand, all my films, we'll try and do the same thing."

’Our stories are valid’

Waititi has spoken about New Zealand's youth suicide rates and says his movies can create conversations and ideas for young people.

"I think that it helps that youth can understand that we have stories to tell, and that our stories are valid, and that it's also okay to laugh at ourselves and that you know a lot of my films contain depressed characters - living in the margins and being rejected, and needing to find your tribe.

"I feel if people can identify with that and hopefully take something from that that's uplifting or, you know, gives them some hope.

"I think as a filmmaker, displaying and showing these kids that telling stories and speaking out and saying how you feel and saying ‘you know what it's okay to cry, it's okay to talk about being depressed, it's okay to be a loser’, something that will help."

He said when he was growing up, telling stories or making films wasn't a job that people would talk about doing.

"Now you know, you've got these kids who are wanting to be dancers. They're saying 'I want to be a dancer, Mum, Dad, I want to be a filmmaker'.

"It's accepted, and it's cool, it's finally cool. So I think with artists showing kids that it's okay to do this stuff and that it can be cool, I think we're slowly helping to change something."