With Everything He Sinks His Teeth Into, Taika Waititi Keeps Hollywood Guessing

'Ragnarok's' risk-taking director tells Playboy about 'What We Do in the Shadows' and 'Mandalorian'

Taika Waititi has a plan. After reinvigorating Marvel’s most stagnant franchise with the gleeful and irreverent Thor: Ragnarok, the New Zealand director had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted next. But rather than plunge headfirst into the high-stakes world of big-budget studio filmmaking, Waititi decided to stay true to the kind of work that helped put him on Marvel’s radar in the first place.

Prior to making what many consider the funniest superhero movie ever, Waititi showed a gift for blending offbeat comedy with real human drama in films like Eagle vs Shark and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But it was the 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows that helped Waititi gain a devoted following stateside.

In it, he and Jemaine Clement—whom he also worked with on HBO’s beloved musical comedy Flight of the Conchords—starred as centuries-old vampires who, despite having all the powers that come with being members of the eternal undead, must cope with the banality of modern life. Waititi, who wrote and directed the film alongside Clement, found humor in the everyday dreariness of the workplace and the tensions that flare up between roommates.
Five years and one $850 million-grossing superhero phenomenon later, and Waititi is ready to return to that terrain with an eponymous new FX series based on the original. The show relocates from Wellington, New Zealand, to Staten Island, N.Y., and Waititi cedes his starring role to a cast of fresh-faced upstarts. But with Waititi in the driver’s seat (he directed a handful of episodes and serves as an executive producer), the series is chock-full of the same goofy spirit that made the film version such a cult phenomenon.

It’s also the perfect snapshot of where Waititi currently finds himself—caught between the allure of Hollywood and his independent, oddball roots. As Waititi tells Playboy, this is by design. It’s a career ethos that allows him to bounce between projects like Disney’s upcoming Star Wars series The Mandalorian, for which he directed an episode, and the more personal Jojo Rabbit, a dark comedy in which he stars as an imaginary Adolf Hitler that is scheduled to be released later this year. That “one for them, one for me” approach might be a tricky balancing act for your typical director, but as Waititi’s proven over the course of this career, he’s anything but.

When adapting this for television, did you find yourself tweaking the humor so that it appeals to American sensibilities?
When we were doing the film, we were trying to figure out if we should be adapting some of the jokes or the style of the jokes. One of our main editors is American, and she was saying, "People aren’t going to get this shit, man," but it wasn’t specific to New Zealand. It was more like, one character was a Nazi, and she said people aren’t going to find Nazis funny. I agreed, but I thought that people need to adapt and evolve their senses of humor, so we actually kept a lot of it in. I didn’t have a lot to do with the writing of the show, but we were lucky in that we had a few people from here, like our [executive producer] Paul Simms, who get the sensibility here. But we didn’t adapt too much. It was very in keeping with the film.

Since you’ve got so many irons in the fire at the moment, how deep was your involvement with the writing and production?
For the production, it was a lot deeper. I was involved from the beginning in getting the show picked up by FX, and as soon as that happened, I got Thor, and I abandoned it and let them write the pilot by themselves. I directed the pilot and a few episodes throughout the season, and so now I’m an EP who gives notes, and because of the way we shoot it, we do a lot of improvising. So even though it’s not necessarily writing according to the WGA, I would still suggest new things on the day and shape the episode as we go. 
The show sees the introduction of an energy vampire, which feels like it could be based on someone we all know. Have you met people like him in real life?
I’ve worked with them, I’ve been to parties with them and they’ve made me want to leave the party because of how draining they are. Jemaine was the one who wrote it into the pilot, and it was such a good idea because we’ve always talked about people like that and called them energy vampires, like "Oh, my God, man, that guy is such a fucking energy vampire—stay away from him." I’ve been cornered by them! So I think it’s a real stroke of brilliance.

The show borrows a lot from reality TV. What’s your relationship with that genre?
I sort of remembered things from the times that I’ve watched things years and years ago. But it was never based on reality shows. We were more inspired by Christopher Guest films. So it’s more in the style of a proper mockumentary. That’s where the idea really came from.

It reminded me of the original The Office, the way it finds humor in the mundane.
That’s what we find funny. The New Zealand sense of humor very much navigates its way through this world of exploring the mundane and everyday plainness, which I find really funny and New Zealanders in general find funny—just concentrating on stuff that’s not really worth talking about. Obviously, The Office was a huge influence.

Did you have to abide by the physical laws of making a documentary?
Yeah, we made rules that our camera crew could only be logically where they were when they came into the scene. So if a character was flying up a building, the camera crew couldn’t suddenly be on top of the building to meet them. If there was an action scene and someone got thrown across a parking lot, a camera couldn’t be waiting for the impact shot like you would see in a movie. You would see the character being thrown away from the camera, all the way across the parking lot. It’s less dynamic than an action film, but it’s a lot more real.

Did I really want to come and do a romantic comedy where on the poster is a man and woman with a backstreet and one of them is standing on a phone book?

Vampires also come with a very specific set of rules and a very well-known mythology. How careful were you to operate within those confines?
We were very sure to make sure that we stayed faithful to the laws of vampirism in terms of what kills them, what are they afraid of, what are their powers are and what they can and can’t do. Sometimes people would say, "Oh! And then they teleport to another city!" and we’re like, "No, they can’t do that." Or "Yeah! And then they go surfing at night!" And you go, "No, they can’t really do that." They need to have soil from their home country if they’re going to cross a body of water, and we’ve known a lot of those rules, so we would constantly tell the writers and tell crew members that you can’t have dead chickens on the table—they’re not going to touch those. They drink blood—they don’t eat meat.

It looks like you guys have a healthy VFX budget. After your work on Thor and the upcoming The Mandalorian, do you feel more comfortable operating in that space?
Yeah, I do feel a lot more comfortable with that. It’s always great having a VFX supervisor who doesn’t look like a rabbit in the headlights. On the film, it was before I did Thor, so we were really just relying on knowledge from people that assured us it was going to look good in the end. Some of it didn’t, and we had to throw that stuff away, but other stuff worked perfectly. But we’ve been filmmakers for so many years now that we’ve often done VFX. Our short films have included VFX, and I think I’ve learned enough about special effects and how to do things over the last 15 years that I already had quite a good sense of how to accomplish all this stuff when we made the film. And by the time we got to the TV show, we were so well-versed in things that we could just say to the supervisor, "Hey, we want to do this—I think I’m right in assuming that we're just going to stick up a green screen here," and he’s like, "Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re going to do." So we’re experts in that stuff, too. In fact, I’m going to add that to my IMDb page.

Did your increased profile after Thor help you get this greenlit?
We got the pilot before I got Thor, and that really came because Jemaine was doing really well as an actor at the time, and I think people just wanted to work with us. Our film had a very limited American release and had done really well, for a film of that budget and for what the release was. It had a lot of attention through a very small, underground cultish audience that helped get it noticed by studios and producers who were looking for something interesting to do.

You’re very much in the Disney firmament now, having done Thor and The Mandalorian. I imagine you have a lot more control over something like What We Do in the Shadows. Is that freeing as a director?
Yeah, it is freeing. I went into Thor and then came into Mandalorian and did my episodes for that series, and I loved my experience on those other things. I got to use toys and experience things and learn so much about filmmaking, which is very rewarding in one way. But then coming back to Shadows and working in the style that I worked in eight years earlier that I was so accustomed to was just very much like coming home and feeling very relaxed, not to mention having so much creative freedom as well. FX was very, very easy to work with, and they would just say, "Yeah, do whatever you want—we want it just like the movie. You seemed to know what you were doing on that so just do your thing, and if something really jumps out that makes us worried or nervous, then we’ll tell you." It just felt like we were back in our element.

A lot of directors who work in Hollywood operate with a kind of "one for them, one for me" approach. Do you identify with that, in terms of working on something mainstream so that you can make your own weirder, more idiosyncratic stuff?
Yeah, exactly. Jojo Rabbit is something I wrote in 2011, and since I wrote it, I made What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor and The Mandalorian. I had the opportunity to make it a couple of times throughout that period, but I try to allow myself to listen to my instinct and not to rush into things too much. So I said, "I’m going to make this vampire movie, and now I’m going to make a thing about a kid and an old man running away from the law in the bush, and then I’m going to make Thor," because no one expects that of me after Wilderpeople. So going after Jojo was like, "OK, now it’s my story again." So Thor was definitely one for them, and then I got to come back and make this thing that’s pretty special to me that I’ve had in my back pocket for eight years. And now I shot that, and I’m editing that, and I’m really happy with it because it’s a really risky film. And after that, I think I’m going to go off and do a bigger studio thing, and I’m also trying to line up another small Taika thing to do after that as well.

Are you finally comfortable working in Hollywood?
Yeah, I actually do feel a lot more comfortable. After my first picture, I came here and got wooed a little bit on a few possible projects, and I always felt like it was not very authentic to me or how I wanted to make my films. Did I really want to come and do a romantic comedy where on the poster is a man and woman with a backstreet and one of them is standing on a phone book? I don’t know what that movie is, but that’s the kind of poster that I imagine would be associated with it. I thought, "No, maybe I’ll go to New Zealand and make another one of my films," and I kept doing that for almost 10 years until a point where I felt so confident and comfortable in my own voice and my own style that when I came here, I didn’t feel like I could really be bullied too much.

I’m very much an aberration, so with Marvel, I was like, "I’m here to make a movie for you guys, with you guys. I’m not here to make a Taika Waititi movie and shake things up and totally change the way you do things at Marvel because why would I do that after you’ve had 17 consecutive successes?" I was very much ready to learn how to make a big film like that, and there was nothing going on ego-wise. I didn’t feel like, "Oh, my God, I’m being controlled," or "I’m being told what to do." I wasn’t being forced to compromise my vision. It was more like, "I’ve never done this kind of thing before, so I’m going to learn whatever I can from you guys and try and have a good time while I’m doing it." And I did, and it was the greatest, and like I said before, I want to do it again because they’re awesome people.

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