Taika Waititi's films often mix comedy and drama. Waititi believes that putting happiness on-screen is a worthy challenge, and that comedy is underrated. As he told The Guardian in 2019, comedy is "a way of connecting audiences and delivering more profound messages by disarming them and opening them up to receive those messages. Comedy is a way more powerful tool than just straight drama, because with drama, people tend to switch off or feel a sense of guilt ... often it doesn’t sit with them as much as a comedy does."
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, the son of a school teacher and an artist. Ambitions to be a painter or deep sea diver were sidelined after a high school drama teacher opened his eyes to 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 a lothario student in hit black comedy Scarfies. Intrigued by the idea of working on a road movie, he played a modern day hippy in Snakeskin — director Gillian Ashurst praised his "presence and style" — and one of the strippers in TV's The Strip.
A genuine renaissance man, Waititi has also won acclaim for his painting, photography, design and stand-up comedy. He formed comedy duo Humourbeasts with longtime colleague Jemaine Clement; they shared a Billy T comedy award in 1999. In 2002 Waititi appeared on TV as the wisecracking manager to Clement and Bret McKenzie's own act, Flight of the Conchords. Soon after Waititi showcased his stand-up on TV's Pulp Comedy. Clement recalls (99 minutes into this interview) how Waititi "had a bunch of different teeth and wigs". Approached one day by a strange character on the street, Clement failed to recognise it was Waititi.
Tiring of the film roles he was being offered — which often meant playing comic relief — Waititi decided to try making "my own stories". At that point his "main thing was painting". He began winning attention with comical short films (e.g. John & Pogo). Most were made quickly as part of the yearly 48 Hour film contest, with Waititi sometimes playing multiple roles.
His award-winning streak as a filmmaker began with 2003 short Two Cars, One Night. A sweet, understated story of two children set outside a pub, the black and white tale became a hit on the global film festival circuit. It won more than a dozen awards, including Best International Short Film at the American Film Institute festival, and best short in its section at three German festivals, including Berlin.
In 2005 Two Cars, One Night was nominated for Best Live Action Short at the Academy Awards. When the nomination was announced during the ceremony, Waititi gained notoriety — and some animosity — by feigning sleep, and maintained he'd tried to persuade his fellow nominees to do the same. "When something like that happens," said Waititi of the nomination, "it meant film had to become my job in a way."
Waititi cemented his success the same year with short Tama Tū, a slice of life portrait of a troop of Māori Battalion soldiers during World War II. Invited to more than 40 festivals, it picked up prizes at ten, including Sundance, Stockholm and Berlin. He talks about the film in this video interview.
Waititi's first feature was 2007's Eagle vs Shark. The film bypassed the Māori-influenced humour of some of his early work, in favour of deadpan geeks. The film chronicles two lonely misfits and their bumbling attempts to find love. Starring were Waititi's then partner Loren Taylor (playing a character she had originated) and Jemaine Clement. The script was created quickly for the Sundance Institute Directors Lab. Eagle vs Shark went on to win Best Screenplay at the US Comedy Arts Festival, and Best Feature at the Newport Film Festival. On the eve of the film's premiere at Sundance in the United States, Variety magazine named Waititi as one of 10 directors to watch.
In the same period Waititi was made a NZ Arts Foundation 'New Generation' Laureate, and directed the first of four episodes of Flight of the Conchords (including the final episode).
Waititi had begun writing his second feature, Boy (working titles Choice and The Volcano) long before Eagle vs Shark. The tale grew more comedic as it developed, influenced by memories of growing up, and some of the ideas introduced in Two Cars, One Night. Boy centres on an 11-year-old boy who spins fantasies about his ex-con father (played by Waititi), who turns up unexpectedly with members of his gang.
Invited to the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, Boy was awarded Grand Prize in the Generation section, one of five sections devoted to new films. The Generation section showcases "lively cinema aimed at young audiences". It 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 Amsterdam's Cinekid Festival, and launched the career of actor James Rolleston.
Within four weeks of its Kiwi release, Boy had grossed $4 million, after pushing ahead of Sione's Wedding as the most successful Kiwi comedy released on home soil. A month after that it had become the most successful local film in the country's history (not accounting for inflation). Later Waititi raised US$100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign aimed at expanding Boy's release in the United States.
At the 2010 Qantas Film and TV Awards he scored a triple-header by winning awards for Best Director, Screenplay and Supporting Actor (plus Best Film). Like Peter Jackson's Bad Taste, Boy is one of the only Kiwi features in which the director also appears in a major role on-screen.
Plans to attend Boy's March 2010 New Zealand premiere were abandoned after Waititi won the chance to fly to New Orleans, to "pursue my dream of becoming the next Cliff Curtis". Waititi had won a role as the Inuit sidekick to superhero The Green Lantern, for Kiwi-born director Martin Campbell.
By now Waititi's career had become an extended case of ocean-hopping. At home, he played an alien and a space hero in star-studded sketch show Radiradirah, and directed the first season (and first episode) of semi-improvised series Super City, starring another eclectic Kiwi talent, Madeleine Sami. Sami portrays multiple characters. Around the same time Waititi began directing episodes (including the pilot) for a short-lived American series inspired by hit British sitcom The Inbetweeners. It revolved around four teenage boys who are caught between being cool and geeky. Waititi also wrote and directed a pilot of Super City for American network ABC, but the series never got the go ahead.
Meanwhile he was adding to a solid record of invites at American festival Sundance. In 2012 he starred in Sundance-nominated short The Captain, while the 2013 festival saw the debut of movie What We Do in the Shadows (in the midnight section). Based on a short Waititi and Jemaine Clement had made back in 2006, the mockumentary sees the pair co-directing — and playing vampires sharing a flat 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, and sold to multiple territories. Waititi is involved in three different spin-offs: semi-sequel We're Wolves, and two small screen hits: Wellington Paranormal, and a Shadows series set in New York (he was also part of the team behind Māori Television satirical show Brown Eye).
Waititi followed Shadows with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on Barry Crump novel Wild Pork and Watercress. The comedy adventure centres on a city kid (Julian Dennison, from Shopping) on the run in the bush with his cantankerous uncle (Sam Neill). Dennison and Waititi had first met on this drug driving commercial. Wilderpeople debuted at Sundance in early 2016 to enthused reviews; Dennison got a standing ovation. Released in New Zealand two months later, it swiftly broke records for the opening day and opening weekend of a local film; within seven weeks it had overtaken Boy to become Aotearoa's biggest local hit (not accounting for inflation). It also netted Waititi NZ Film Awards for Best Film, Director and Screenplay.
Waititi's next project marked his "first big studio film" as director — Thor: Ragnarok, the third movie to star hammer-wielding superhero Thor. The film opened in October 2017 to blockbuster box office, and reviews praising its sense of fun. Empire's James Dywer argued that it preserved Waititi's comic sensibility, and was "the boldest, most outrageously fun film Marvel has yet produced". New Zealand audiences noted that the rock-covered character of Korg —voiced by Waititi — appeared to have a Māori accent.
In September 2019, Waititi's "anti-hate satire" Jojo Rabbit debuted at the Toronto Film Festival to a standing ovation, mixed reviews, and a coveted People's Choice Award. A run of accolades followed at the Golden Globes, and beyond — including Oscars and Baftas for Best Adapted Screenplay, and an Oscar nomination for Best Motion Picture. The film revolves around a young member of the Hitler Youth during World War ll who meets a Jewish teen (played by Kiwi Thomasin McKenzie). The cast includes Scarlett Johansson and Australian Rebel Wilson. At the insistence of his funders, Waititi took on a comical role himself, as the boy's imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (a character who does not appear in the original novel, Caging Skies).
Jojo Rabbit emerged during an especially busy period: as well as editing his next feature, Next Goal Wins — inspired by a documentary about the American Samoan soccer team — Waititi directed the acclaimed first season finale of Star Wars series The Mandalorian, and signed on to direct another Thor movie, featuring Natalie Portman as a female incarnation of Thor. As of mid 2021, he was in line to write and/or direct a run of projects based on classic fantasy characters, including Star Wars, Flash Gordon and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was also winning acclaim for comedy series Reservation Dogs, which follows a group of slightly criminal Native American teens on an Oklahoma reservation. Waititi helped create the series with Native American writer/director Sterlin Harjo.
Waititi also continues to keep his hand in on the acting front — from big budget tent-pole projects (The Suicide Squad) to period comedies (playing Blackbeard opposite Rhys Darby, in Our Flag Means Death), to voice work (he was Emmy-nominated for The Mandalorian).
He has directed many high profile commercials, including a quirky Cadbury promo for the London Olympics, which was sung underwater to Tina Turner's 'Simply the Best'. He marshalled a musical promo loaded with stars from American network NBC, which screened to millions during a telecast of the 2012 Super Bowl.
In 2015, he helmed the star-studded video for charity/All Black supporters song 'Team Ball Player Thing'. He helped out American animation legends John Musker and Ron Clement in the early stages of developing Disney hit Moana, and campaigned for the film to be dubbed into te reo, long before it became a global hit.
In February 2017 Waititi was named New Zealander of the Year. Chief Judge Cameron Bennett said that Waititi's films "represent the importance of whānau, of belonging and the challenges facing youth at the margins of society". In 2020 he was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Profile updated on 11 August 2021
'Taika reveals real story behind 'that' Oscars gag' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director James Coleman. Loaded 22 September 2009. Accessed 19 January 2020
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James Dyer, 'Thor: Ragarnok Review' Empire website. Loaded 24 October 2017. Accessed 19 January 2020
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Unknown writer, 'Green Lantern v red carpet' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 18 March 2010
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World of Taika website. Accessed 11 August 2021
Snakeskin press kit