Editor's note: this backgrounder was written during New Zealand's Covid-19 lockdown.
Kia ora. I’ve been thinking lately, having plenty of time, about life. I’m in my bubble with a cousin in Auckland. I recently started watching The Last Dance. It’s been a great series to watch during lockdown.
I’ve been living in Auckland since about 2016. Many years earlier I lived in Auckland with an uncle of mine. I went to St Mary’s Primary in Ellerslie, but then moved back to Opotiki when I was about six, where I finished primary school, and where I was discovered for Boy.
I attended Opotiki College. I also attended Tauranga Boys' College in year 10 for a short time, before heading back to Opotiki College to finish my college years . I enjoyed metal work and PE. I found maths quite good too and wish I’d stayed with it because that was one of my stronger subjects, but I ended up dropping maths later in my high schooling.
I was sad to read the other day that Bruce Allpress had died. He was 89. I was in my second ever film with Bruce. He was Frosty, and I was the BMX Kid. Lovely man. He'd had a life of acting and I'd been in one film, Boy. That was 10 years ago. I know because the Woman’s Day came and did a photo shoot of us ten years on.
It seems like a long time ago since Tina Cleary, a Wellington-based casting director, came to my school. I remember thinking it was a great opportunity. Kids in Opotiki don’t often get exposed to opportunities like that, so it was intriguing to think we had a chance to be in a movie. I was a shy kid and didn’t say much at all. It wasn’t until I was given a few lines and a couple of directions that I began to warm up. I was lucky to be in the company of Rachel House, Taika Waititi and Tina. They did a great job in making sure I was comfortable and not feeling too much pressure.
I was offered the role of Tane, but later I was asked to play the lead role, Boy. I remember being very excited. I remember walking home from school and getting to my grandmother’s house where I was raised. I walked in to see my nan standing there with a huge smile on her face, and before I had slung my school bag off my shoulders and it hit the floor, she was telling me all about the phone call she'd just received.
There were times I found it hard to learn the script. There were difficult times but I managed. I was lucky to be around the other kids to rehearse with. We were so lucky to often have Rachel House taking the rehearsals with us kids.
Taika was a funny man to be around. He is very creative and full of ideas. He was always keeping us kids in a good place so that we felt comfortable to perform. Also Cohen Holloway was an awesome person to have on set, always full of laughs and jokes.
It was a strange feeling seeing myself for the first time on the big screen. I was over the moon and could not believe I was a part of this cool project, but there was still a bit of shyness and embarrassment because I wasn’t sure what others would be thinking. Everyone back home in Opotiki treated me just the same as prior to the film. That was a good feeling.
At the time I didn’t think about making a career out of this. I thought this was just a one-off, so I enjoyed the experience while it lasted. But then I landed the role in Frosty Man and The BMX Kid, then another short film in Australia called Man, then later I was picked up for the Vodafone commercials. From there I went to The Dark Horse, The Dead Lands, The Rehearsal, Pork Pie, and The Breaker Upperers.
Of all the roles, my favourite would be Hongi in The Dead Lands. I enjoyed this role because of the physical challenges it brought. I thought Hongi's journey of seeking something that meant so much to him while faced with major obstacles and big learnings was amazing.
The role I found most difficult was Mana in The Dark Horse [Rolleston played a teenager who is pressured to join a gang]. I hadn’t been tested like that before. I found it difficult sometimes to get to the right place. I would often find myself frustrated and beating myself up, because I wasn’t putting out the quality of work that I felt was needed.
I have another film which is in post-production at the moment. I guess given the world as it is now, it might be a while before we see it: Paul Murphy’s Lowdown Dirty Criminals. I look forward to many more roles, and the challenges that each one brings.
- James Rolleston acted in Boy at age 11. Five years later he was named Best Supporting Actor at the 2014 Moa Awards for The Dark Horse; he was also nominated in the Best Actor category for The Dead Lands.
Taika Waititi's second feature sounds like the stuff of sad, slow-burning drama: young boy idolises his long absent Dad, then gets to know him a little better.
Yet this is the same joy-inducing hit that spent months in local cinemas, on the way to becoming the biggest grossing New Zealand film to date (at least until Waititi unleashed an even bigger boyhood tale, in 2016). Acclaimed and beloved on its home turf, Boy also succeeded in its aim of presenting Māori characters in ways that sidestepped old cliches (like the violent Dad in Once Were Warriors). It marked the first time in Kiwi screen history that a single person took away awards for their work both in front of, and behind the camera.
Boy's opening nicely sums up the movie's appeal. Apparently talking directly to the audience, 11-year-old Boy (James Rolleston) introduces himself. Imaginative, upbeat, blessed with a winning smile, he talks about his life in a small coastal town, and his younger brother, who thinks he has special powers. He also talks about his father Alamein (played by Waititi), who has broken out of prison with the aid of a spoon.
Boy uses his imagination to fill out the undersketched memories left by his father. The result is a man who can singlehandedly conquer rugby teams, and transform into Michael Jackson (no, not the league player). The film charts how this father and son relationship will pass through idolisation, inattention and some kind of healing, after Dad returns unexpectedly from extended time in prison, with two gormless mates in tow.
Waititi evokes the headspace of childhood by mixing joyous insults and ice blocks from the dairy, sight gags and straight-talking, a sense of celebration, and moments of sadness. The two young actors at Boy's centre (Rolleston and his enigmatic screen bro' Te Aho Eketone-Whitu) deserve credit for their winning performances. But Waititi deserves his share too, for perfecting (and surviving) the performances of a cast that includes so many young children.
Waititi once said he never intended to become a filmmaker. But after finding himself at the Academy Awards just a few years after first giving films a serious try, it made sense to direct some more. The film that got him that Oscar nomination was 2003 kids waiting in the car tale Two Cars, One Night -— the shorter, quieter cousin to Boy.
Boy was born from multiple places: from an urge to escape old stereoypes of Māori characters as either spiritual or violent; and to celebrate the experience of being a kid in an East Coast town, when Waititi was growing up in the 1980s. But for Waititi, what really got things cooking was the idea of how a friend or relative can seem familiar and foreign, at the same time. "It's like looking at your parents and trying to figure out who the f*** they are," he told The NZ Herald. The film looked at "how kids see their parents", and the fantasies we make up about people we think we know.
Waititi's reluctance to let his films stay in serious mode for too long can sometimes be a handicap. But it also feeds into what makes them distinctive: the way he butts comedy and drama together, and manages to keep audiences caring about his characters, despite abrupt shifts of tone and mood. In the case of Boy, Waititi consciously upped the comedy as he wrote the script, after worrying it was starting to slip into the stuff of "dark drama". Waititi had already done his share of comedy, on-screen and onstage. "My background is comedy — I couldn't ignore that, really." So he set about adding "more of myself into the story, a bit more irreverence, and it's more a mix of comedy and drama now."
Part of that mix was taking the film back to its original setting, by filming in Waihau Bay on the East Coast (where Waititi partly grew up). Waititi sees it as a place where people may seem poor, but they "help each other and provide for each other". Many of his whanau were involved in the shoot, and younger members of the cast were found locally.
James Rolleston's performance as Boy joins other legendary Kiwi screen debuts — Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, Fiona Kay in Vigil — where young, untried talent brought something extraordinary to the party. Rolleston got his chance just a week before filming began, after Waititi realised his original choice of actor was now too old to play the part.
For the part of the father — dreamer, robber, rebel in his own mind — Waititi ended up playing it himself. His performance admirably refuses to surrender to all the potential comedy of the character.
When Boy debuted at North America's Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 (it was one of 14 films in the World Cinema Dramatic section), a single review hogged the headlines back in New Zealand. Writing for widely read US screen magazine Variety, Peter Debruge accused the film of having "scrubbed away all culturally specific traits" (apart, that is, from the "local vistas and mostly Māori cast"). It was Tammy Davis, partner of Boy producer Ainsley Gardiner, who leapt into the quicksand of trying to counterattack an unfair review. Asked for her thoughts, Gardiner said that she felt New Zealanders were "going to feel pretty damn good" about the movie. "I can guarantee a good majority of Māori are going to feel like it gives them a voice."
After Boy was released back on its home territory, pretty much everyone was feeling good. Within two months of release, t had overtaken The World's Fastest Indian to become the most successful New Zeland film in the country's history (not accounting for inflation). It took away seven Qantas Film Awards, including gongs for Waititi's directing, writing and acting. At the Berlin Film Festival it won the Grand Prize in its section.
Among a raft of enthusiastic reviews, The Dominion Post's Matthew Dallas summed it up well when he called Boy the most entertaining New Zealand film he'd ever seen. Waititi's movie "has a strut to it," he wrote, "an infectious energy and cheek, the sort you'd find brimming from many of us on the playground or at the corner pub, but rarely in our cinema."
- Ian Pryor is editor of NZ On Screen.