Taika Waititi (sometimes credited as Taika Cohen) is of Te-Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, and hails from the Raukokore region of the East Coast. He grew up on the East Coast and in Wellington, where ambitions to be a deep sea diver or a painter got sidelined after a high school drama teacher opened his eyes towards acting.
Waititi graduated from Victoria University in 1996, with a degree in Theatre and Film. In 2000 he was nominated for an NZ Film Award for Best Actor after playing lothario flatmate Alex in hit film Scarfies. Attracted to the idea of working on a road movie, he was modern day hippy Nelson in road movie Snakeskin — director Gillian Ashurst praised his "presence and style" — and one of the strippers in TV series The Strip.
Waititi has also won acclaim for his painting, photography, design and stand-up comedy. After forming Humourbeasts with Jemaine Clement, the duo won the Billy T comedy award and performed at the Edinburgh Arts Festival and Melbourne Comedy Festival.
Tiring of the film roles he was being offered — which often involved playing comic relief — Waititi decided he "had to make my own stories". Waititi began making and winning awards with the comical shorts he worked on for the yearly 48 Hour film contest; but his award-winning streak as a filmmaker is normally said to have began with 2003 short Two Cars, One Night. A sweet, understated tale set in the car park outside a pub, Two Cars was a hit on the international film festival circuit. It won eight awards, including Best Short Film at the Berlin, Seattle, Oberhausen, Hamburg and AFI festivals.
In 2005, Two Cars, One Night was nominated for Best Live Action Short at the Academy Awards. During the ceremony, when his nomination was announced, Waititi gained notoriety — and some animosity — by feigning sleep.
Waititi cemented his success with 2005 short Tama Tū, a slice of life portrait of a troop of soldiers from the Māori Battalion, during World War II. Invited to more than 40 festivals around the world, the film picked up festival prizes at ten, including Sundance, Stockholm and Berlin.
In 2007, Waititi released his first feature Eagle vs Shark. The film shed the Māori-influenced humour of his early work in favour of deadpan geek chic. Eagle vs Shark is an offbeat comedy about two lonely misfits and their bumbling attempts to find love. The script was first workshopped at the Sundance Institute Directors Lab.
The feature starred Loren Taylor (based on a character she had originated) and Waititi's one-time Humourbeasts partner Jemaine Clement. Eagle vs Shark went on to win Best Screenplay at the US Comedy Arts Festival, Best Feature at the Newport International Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007. On the eve of the film's debut screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Variety magazine named Waititi as one of 10 directors to watch.
In 2006, Waititi was made a NZ Arts Foundation 'New Generation' Laureate. The following year he would helm the first of four episodes of Flight of the Conchords (including the final episode).
Waititi began writing his second feature, Boy (working titles Choice and The Volcano) long before Eagle vs Shark. The rite-of-passsage tale explores some of the characters and ideas introduced in his short Two Cars, One Night and revolves around an 11-year-old boy who spins fantasies about his ex-con father (ultimately played by Waititi).
After winning a place at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, Boy was awarded Grand Prize in the Generation Section, one of the festival's five sub-sections devoted to new features (Generation's remit is to present "lively cinema aimed at young audiences"). Boy was also one of only 14 films to make it into the Sundance Film Festival's 'World Cinema' section, and a double award-winner at the 2010 Cinekid Festival in Amsterdam.
Within four weeks of its New Zealand release, Boy had grossed $4 million, pushing it ahead of Sione's Wedding as the most successful Kiwi comedy released on home soil. After another four weeks it had overtaken The World's Fastest Indian as the most successful local film in the country's history (not accounting for inflation). Later he mounted a crowdfunding campaign to aid Boy's release in the United States.
At the 2010 Qantas Film and Television Awards Waititi scored a triple header by winning awards for best director, screenplay and supporting actor (Boy joins Bad Taste as one of the few Kiwi feature films in which the director also takes a leading role onscreen). Alongside its best film gong, Boy also won Qantas awards for cinematography, editing and music.
Waititi's plans to attend Boy's March 2010 Kiwi premiere were abandoned after he won the chance to fly to New Orleans and "pursue my dream of becoming the next Cliff Curtis". Waititi had won a role as the Inuit sidekick to superhero The Green Lantern (not to be confused with Seth Rogen's Green Hornet). The film was directed by NZ-born Martin Campbell.
These days Waititi's career has become an extended case of ocean-hopping. Back home, he acted alongside members of the Naked Samoans in sketch show Radiradira, and directed on semi-improvised Madeleine Sami comedy series Super City (which debuted in February 2011). The show showcases Sami portraying a variety of characters. Around the same time Waititi began directing the pilot for a short-lived US series, inspired by Bafta-nominated sitcom The Inbetweeners. The series revolves around four teenage boys who are caught between being cool and geeky. Waititi wrote and directed a pilot of Super City for American network ABC, but the show did not go to air.
Meanwhile Waititi was also continuing a solid record of invites to American festival Sundance. In 2012 he starred in Sundance-nominated comedy short The Captain, while the 2013 festival saw the premiere of comedy What We Do in the Shadows (in the Park City at Midnight section). Based on a short film Waititi made with Jemaine Clement back in 2006, the mockumentary sees the pair starring as members of a group of vampires who flat together in modern-day Wellington. A hit on its home territory, and winner of a Moa award for Best Self-Funded Feature, Shadows won rave reviews in America and NZ, and sold to multiple territories.
Waititi followed it with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress. The comedic adventure centres on a city kid (Julian Dennison, from rite of passage drama Shopping) on the run in the bush with his cantankerous uncle (Sam Neill). The film debuted at Sundance in January 2016 to enthusiastic reviews and a standing ovation for Dennison (NZ cinemas will get the movie at the end of March). Waititi's visit to Utah was squeezed in-between pre-production work on his "first big studio film" as director — the third movie to star Marvel superhero Thor.
In 2015 he directed the star-studded video for charity/All Black supporters song 'Team Ball Player Thing'.
Waititi has also worked with American writers John Musker and Ron Clement — known for Aladdin and The Little Mermaid — on the script for Disney film Moana. Set in the Pacific and starring Dwayne Johnson as Maui, the animated movie is due for NZ release on Boxing Day 2016.
Waititi has directed commercials in both the United Kingdom and the United States, including an extravagant underwater-set promo for the London Olympics for Cadbury, scored to Tina Turner's 'Simply the Best'. He also helmed a musical promo showcasing the major stars of American network NBC, which screened in a high-rating telecast of the 2012 Super Bowl.
Nellie Andreeva, 'ABC Greenlights Comedy Presentation ' Super City'. Deadline website. Loaded 24 April 2012. Accessed 18 September 2014
Eleanor Black, 'Taika Waititi, darling of Sundance, takes on Hollywood' (Interview). Stuff website. Loaded 26 January 2016. Accessed 26 January 2016
Chris Keall, 'Boy' takes New York'. National Business Review website. 17 March 2012. Accessed 26 April 2012
Rick Kissell, 'Super Bowl sets viewership record' - Variety, 6 February 2012
'Green Lantern v red carpet' - NZ Herald, 18 March 2010
'Sundance debut for Kiwi vampire spoof' Stuff website. Loaded 17 December 2012. Accessed 18 September 2014
Snakeskin press kit