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Eagle vs Shark

Film (Trailer, Excerpts, and Extras) – 2007


A perspective

Infamous for feigning sleep at the Academy Awards ceremony when the nomination for his short film Two Cars, One Night was announced, filmmaker Taika Waititi continued his singular career with this deliciously tangy, deadpan feature debut.

Starring actors Loren Taylor (then Loren Horsley) — who came up with the idea with Waititi — and longtime Waititi collaborator Jemaine Clement, Eagle vs Shark was workshopped at the Sundance Institute Directors' Lab in 2005. There Taylor worked on perfecting the character of Lily, who was born from characters she'd previously played onstage. Waititi liked the idea of a secondary character finally getting the spotlight, instead of "two scenes if they're lucky". The pair developed Lily's story in conversations over a couple of years.

Lily is a gauche, sweet-natured girl with stringy hair who is quite captivating once you get to know her — only no one ever bothers. She works as a cashier at fast-food joint Meaty Boy, and swoons over Jarrod (Clement), the self-aggrandising, clueless geek from the computer store across the mall.

Determined to score a date with Jarrod, Lily crashes his fancy dress party dressed as a shark, and takes along her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck, in droll form as a compulsive impersonator) for moral support. Jarrod, the self-styled 'Eagle Lord,' is impressed enough with Lily's costume and gaming prowess to take her on a tour of his bedroom, where she submits, like a dying fish, to his clumsy advances.

The two misfits embark upon a bumbling relationship, which culminates in a trip to Jarrod's hometown to confront the playground bully who was his childhood nemesis. Here Jarrod's self-absorption and stupidity blossoms so mightily it threatens to drive away even the most adoring of girlfriends.

Fuelled by the success of his short films, Waititi's feature went out into the world as a hip, assured comedy — something almost no New Zealand film had done to that date. It was received globally on the same terms as offerings from other hot, young indie directors.

Capitalising on the buzz factor, American company Miramax was quick to pick up the film for distribution. Interestingly, for his debut feature Waititi shed any obvious signs of the strong Māori heritage that had informed his earlier short films Two Cars, One Night and Tama Tu (though there had been talk at one point of making Jarrod's hometown a Māori community, and Lily having to do a speech on the marae). Perhaps, bereft of this 'exotic' (to international audiences anyway) flavour, this is a reason why some critics pigeon-holed the film as a reprise of Napoleon Dynamite, which shared its geek chic aesthetic but not a lot else.

A couple of harsh early reviews (in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter) were picked up and magnified by the New Zealand media — always eager to decry failure — but the film was favourably reviewed internationally by publications such as Premiere, USA Today and Empire magazine. The latter called the film "a comic delight destined for cult adoration."

Overall, Waititi's film was received as an offbeat celebration of misfit love, anchored by Loren Taylor's affecting performance. The film went on to win Best Screenplay at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, a Best Feature and Best Actress Award at the Newport International Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

The presence of Jemaine Clement in a lead role — cast before Flight of the Conchords went supernova — will no doubt boost the film's cult status, as well as its DVD sales. Clement and Waititi had been writing and performing together since meeting as arts students at Victoria University; they would later collaborate on movie What We Do in the Shadows.

Charming music from The Phoenix Foundation underscored Waititi's consistent eye for 'cinemagic' moments, and stop-motion animated interludes lend the film a quirky, homemade sensibility.

Filmed on locations around Wellington and Titahi Bay, with retro-chic art direction (spacies, tracksuit pants) that implies it might still be the 1980s (at least in Lily's imagination), Eagle vs Shark is an endearing look at life on the geek side, and a debut feature accomplished with aplomb.