Boy has smashed the record for the highest grossing local film at the New Zealand box office and features some of the most superb acting by children in a comedy film. Audiences have taken Boy to their hearts and no better was this evidenced than at the standing room only special session of The Script to Screen Writer’s Room held in association with Nga Aho Whakaari in early September.
MC Tearepa Kahi (writer/director Taua, The Speaker) spoke with Boy’s writer/director Taika Waititi and producer Ainsley Gardiner about the making of this wonderful film.
The evening began … at the beginning! Audiences love the opening scene of Boy where the main character introduces himself and his world (also used as the commercial trailer for the film) but another scene was also considered for the opening slot, one where the main characters are talking together, as children do. “We were originally going to start with this scene, “ said Taika, “get the audience used to the accents and the way the kids were talking, bringing us into this world where the kids were just being kids … but we found it didn’t give us a way into the film.”
Taika explained the choice came down to energy and the need for an audience to identify immediately with the characters. Boy addressing the audience gave the direct approach necessary. “This way we knew what the film was about right away and who the main character was.” Pleasing the audience whilst still being true to ideas and visions is always a challenge for film makers. Ainsley said they could have made a film that was more aligned with something “a bit darker, something that would have suited the sensibility of the deleted scene, something a bit more depressing” but chose not to.
“When I first started making films,” said Taika, “I thought all my ideas were brilliant and I was not going to compromise … but over the years I’ve learned that the audience is your master and you must make stuff for them. They’re paying $14 for the privilege of judging you and I realise more and more that you have to make stuff that an audience is going to like. The audience rules you.”
The original title for Boy was Choice. Taika wrote the first draft in 2005 and soon realised that the word ‘choice’ could mean different things in other countries. “I still like it because it’s such a New Zealand thing. The draft was workshopped at the Sundance Writers’ Lab which is essentially a massacre of your script. Six people talk at you for six hours each about what is wrong with it and they all disagree with each other. The people at the Lab were all from different backgrounds with different sensibilities, all judging your stuff so you end up taking what is valuable for you. It’s a good process. I stopped working on that draft for a year and half, made Eagle vs. Shark and returned to the draft in 2008.”
Ainsley explained that other projects were going on in the background at the same time. “We had a collaborative process where we all wanted to make something. Cliff Curtis was involved too, frustrated after ten years in Hollywood. He wanted to see a vibrant Māori industry here and we had all this energy behind us.”
Taika had made Two Cars, One Night and the partners knew the next logical step was a feature film. “We wanted to keep up the momentum,” said Ainsley. “Loren (Horsley) and Taika had already been working on characters for Eagle vs. Shark so we were able to move quickly. We inherently knew that Choice/Boy had the potential to be a much better film if given more time.”
Tearepa asked how much ‘keeping up the momentum’ and having a script ready to go so quickly shaped their film making signature.
“Eagle vs. Shark was a rush job,” said Taika,” and it was reflective of what a first film is. I wanted to make mistakes and learn how to make a feature. There’s a big difference between making a short and a feature. I also learned that taking time was the best thing that could have happened for Boy. After finishing Eagle vs. Shark, I came back to the draft and decided to re-write the whole thing, filter out story-wise what I could from that script. I got rid of all the junk and the fat, got the basic story and started adding elements of comedy.”
Ainsley said the process of trying to “lighten” Boy with comedy continued right up to the final draft. “It was a lesson in the scriptwriting process. If enough people say there are things missing from the page, you may as well save yourself some trouble and put them there.”
The performances of the children in Boy are wonderful and Tearepa asked Taika and Ainsley to talk about this aspect of the film.
“Most of the work is in the casting,” said Taika, “finding the right children in the first place and you know when you find the right ones. We spent a long time trying to find the kid to play Boy and James (Rolleston) who played him was not the original choice. The original Boy was cast eight months before we started rehearsals but about three weeks before we started, he was suddenly looking too old. James was an extra in one of the school scenes and we cast him as Boy three days before we started shooting. He was this 11 year old kid who was very bright.”
Ainsley said the making of Boy was an incredible experience and she felt proud of herself and her ability to make some tough decisions. In terms of casting it was an incredibly difficult thing to do to change the lead actor because of the original child but it had to happen, “I knew the original boy was not right. We couldn’t stunt his growth so I made the decision with integrity and felt good about being able to say look, he is not right so let’s try James.”
James was perfect at the audition. “He was very keen to please,” said Ainsley, “raised by a beautiful Nan. He was so perfect. It went fine when we cast him. The child originally cast as Boy played Kingi so he was still a part of the film. You make the hard decisions to ensure you are doing the best for the project.”
Tearepa asked about the technicalities of Taika directing and acting in the film. Ainsley replied that they worked hard to place some structure around Taika and to ensure he was able to, “take off one hat and put on another. I was on set all the time and I think he found that annoying now and then.”
Taika said he annoyed himself more than anyone else ever could. “My brain was having a melt down, because I’d want to rewrite everything and then the other side was how it would play out and then I had to stick myself in it and that part was getting cluttered up with the other two parts.”
Ainsley said she felt entitled to give Taika frequent and firm direction during the first week and engaged an acting coach to help him. “I tried to be at his side the whole time, hear everything he said, feed it back to him when he needed it. I suggested he try another way if something wasn’t working. When I realised I was diminishing my own ability to help him, I stepped back and only helped out with a few key scenes.”
Making a film is a long process. Keeping the faith throughout is a challenge for even the most experienced team and Boy is infused with a commitment, belief and energy that shine through. And when all the takes are ‘in the can?’ … “I go to sleep on the couch for three months,” said Taika.
“Time is always the hardest thing to manage in this industry,” said Ainsley. “We always need more. You can only afford to write and shoot for so long, speeding past all those exciting, creative moments. We learned this during Eagle vs. Shark. While Taika was directing and editing, he was writing. You have all the elements, put them together dozens of different ways and you need to work a bit, go away a bit, come back and see it fresh.”
And it is the same with writing. “You go away and come back,” said Taika. “I recommend leaving things for six months. You look at it again and it’s like someone else has written it and it’s either terrible or great. The work needs time to sit there and breathe. Same with the editing. It’s a shame we don’t get as much time as we need. My stuff needs a lot of time to edit because it is always changing.”
Indeed the editing of Boy took six months with some time off here and there. Taika pointed out the value of involving others, letting them see the work and make comment. “A lot of people are very protective about their stuff but it’s important to involve others. Its’ going to be a public thing and you have to get used to the criticism.”
The panel received questions from the floor and the first asked what was next for Taika and Ainsley.
“I’m going back to the States,” said Taika, “and I’ll finish writing some scripts there until the end of the year. I’ll work on whichever one gets finished and funded first. Might be a vampire film. Something tells me that they’re going to take off.”
When asked how he got into film making, Taika replied that he became bored with acting. “I was a stripper on a TV show and I got so disheartened with what I was doing – and acting in general. Acting for Māori was pretty dire with few choices on offer. I was always keen to tell my own stories. I was sitting in the Green Room for that stripper show, wearing my undies, when I had the idea for Two Cars, One Night.”
Why take the lead role in Boy? “Ego admittedly,” Taika said. “Actually, we auditioned people for about a year. I wanted something quite specific for the role and at the time I wasn’t even sure myself what that was. I knew I was expecting something different from the actors I was seeing in the auditions. I’d based the character on people I’d grown up with and they were quite a distinctive bunch. They weren’t like a lot of the actors who were quite big in stature. I wanted someone skinny and not obviously tough.”
The role of the producer in any film is always associated with ‘show me the money’ but there is much more involved than that. “The producer does do all the funding proposals,” said Ainsley, “but there is a lot of creativity involved too, trying to understand the constraints and thinking up ways to get around them. When I met Taika, I’d been in the film industry a while, thrown in the deep end and in this industry that’s how you learn to make films. You’re always constrained by the same things – not enough budget, crews are hard to get, never enough time.” Taika acknowledged Ainsley as a creative person, someone who could not only take charge and, “get the money” but also understand the story, offer feedback on the creative side and constantly, “remind you what your intentions were in the first place.”
When asked about Taika’s writing process, Ainsley said, “His process involves a lot of thinking and not much doing but when I first read the script, it’s very close to what we will be shooting. I can see things that are not on the page and I already know how the film will look. Taika and I talk about it and I’ll ask questions (“I hate that part,” Taika interjected) – ‘why does this happen here’ and so on.”
Taika said he writes something, leaves it for a while and returns to either throw it out or re-write ruthlessly. “Don’t be precious about everything you write. Just because I finished a draft doesn’t mean I’m a screenwriter and I’m amazing. You have to be tough on yourself. 80% of what I write is shit and a little bit is going to be good. I don’t sit at the typewriter a lot. I surf the net, go on Trade Me … a lot of the time I’m thinking about what I’ll write. I have a lot of notebooks, full of the beats of the story – character does this, turning point here. Dialogue is one of my strong points but structure is not. When I feel able to write, I write very fast, get it down. I write the best stuff first – the end, beginning and some scenes in between that I think are really cool and then I’ll try to link them up.”
The treatment often forms the basis for a development funding proposal and Taika confessed he had never written one. “I don’t know what a treatment is. I don’t think anyone really knows – and what’s the difference between a treatment and a synopsis?” Ainsley said it suits them to stay out of the development process. “Taika’s sense of humour and personality is evident to those who know him and it makes it hard to work through that with someone else simply because you need to get funding. We try to do as much of that as we can, then we go to the NZ Film Commission where the plans are so close that the development process is minor and very helpful. Having said that, finance is not as easy as you might think and distributors are even tougher to find … we had to beg but got a great one in the end.”
Taika said a draw back for him with development funding was the feeling that, “… you owe someone something and you feel bitter when you’re writing. You fall out of love a bit. Some writers say, ‘I’ve got this cool idea and I can’t wait to get development funding for it.’ I say if you have a really cool story, just write it. And a treatment is too long to read. Having a good one page story with the right tone is okay – and I don’t even know what that’s called.”
To conclude, Taika had a few words about storytelling and the importance of preserving and encouraging the art. “I wonder why it is in schools that, at a certain age, they discourage you from creative writing when it can be such a cool job. They make you focus on maths and accounting when you know in your heart, ‘this is not me’. Then, after school, you think, ‘I’ll give that story thing a go.’ For Māori, storytelling is an oral tradition. It’s how we pass on history. We should encourage our kids to tell stories. I think they get to a stage where they feel it is uncool to do creative stuff, so encourage them. Storytelling is important to our culture and to furthering ourselves, especially in this country.”
Ainsley said she has learned so much over the last seven years but one lesson in particular stands out. “The art of screenwriting and the act of storytelling can become an isolated endeavour and you can be quite selfish about what you want to say. But by nature of collaboration it can be a very generous endeavour. If you can hold that in mind when you go about your business of screenwriting, then the process you are undertaking can result in something you can give to change lives, make a difference or say something that is meaningful to you and to others.”
The final words about screenwriting belonged to Taika: “If you’re doing it to get rich, it’s the wrong occupation. That’s not why you tell stories. You do so to change people – but you all know that, don’t you.”
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen
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