I’m an English-speaking native of the U.S. and a film lover. One of the greatest frustrations of my continual pursuit of new film material is how difficult it is to get my hands on movies from abroad. The best that I can often manage are the offerings provided by Netflix and Amazon Prime. Okay, those aren’t too bad, but they’re not great either. I enjoy going on viewing sprees of various national cinemas, and recently, I decided to delve into the Netflix offerings of New Zealand cinema.
When I was 15 I had the opportunity to visit New Zealand. I had corresponded with a teacher from elementary school for many years, and recently learned that she and her family had moved to the North Island. I’ll never forget telling my mom, wistfully expressing what I thought was a dream never to be realized: how cool it would be to go visit her. Much to my surprise, she agreed with me, and within a few months we were on a plane to Auckland. We spent 3 weeks there. We were based in Palmerston North, but had the opportunity to drive up and down the North Island, spending time in Wellington, Napier, Rotorua, and Auckland. This is a bit of a roundabout way of coming to my point, and I apologize.
The point is, is that those 3 weeks left an indelible mark upon me. I remember attending the Te Papa Lord of the Rings exhibit, and from that visit on, New Zealand became ingrained in my mind forever as a place associated with a film culture that I wanted to learn more about.
It took me a long time to return to New Zealand film. Throughout my life isolated New Zealand-based films made an impression on me, Whale Rider comes to mind, but my exposure to a wide variety of offerings of the film culture has still been fairly limited. Somewhere between the ages of 15 and college, I got sidetracked by the Scandinavian film industry, and explored those works for quite some time. But spring break of graduate school rolled around, and I found that I’d run out of Scandinavian films to watch on Netflix. Reminiscing about my time spent in New Zealand, I thought that it was time to explore New Zealand film. This is when I first came across your work, Mr. Waititi. I had a movie marathon, and watched around 5 films including Boy and Eagle vs. Shark. I really love your sense of humor, and your symmetrical framing, and colors, and music choice… I think your films have a wonderful kinetic energy. They are somewhat absurd stories, told with great affinity for comedy, but they are also incredibly genuine and believable. It is a wonderful line to straddle– that of emotional resonance that knows no geographical boundary, and the ability to paint culturally distinct portraits. Popular world music seems relatively homogenized at present, but your films are an illustration that national cinemas still exist and thrive.
I’ve been enamored with the films of Hollywood for a long time, and rightly so, for I hold as my exemplars of the best that the studio system had to offer such filmmakers as Frank Capra and John Ford. As I’ve matured and my knowledge of the mechanics of filmmaking and current studio production paradigms have become more developed, I’ve found myself fascinated, and drawn to, smaller film industries. Now, I count among my favorite filmmakers (still Capra and Ford) but also Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles, two directors working primarily outside of Hollywood in their directorial endeavors. International film industries have also become incredibly interesting to me, especially that of New Zealand. From an outsider’s perspective, these filmmaking environments seem to be quite intimate, with distinct repertories of actors and crew members. They also seem to be production frameworks in which money is in more short supply, necessitating tightly crafted narratives and sharply rendered characters. These environments require a high level of creativity and commitment to achieve the storytelling goals desired by the filmmakers.
Last week I had the good fortune to watch What We Do in the Shadows. When I came across initial press for the film on Twitter, I was intrigued. We all know the current level of exposure for vampires in popular culture– and this made me all the more curious to know what your unique interpretation of this current phenomenon was going to be, based on my preexisting knowledge of your filmmaking style. This film exceeded my already high expectations. There was a commitment to concept, story, and character that made the events and personages put forth instantly believable. This movie didn’t have an inexhaustible budget, and it is possible to identify moments where the soundtrack was privileged over the visual, used to create an image in the mind of the audience-member where a picture would have cost too much money. While some might bemoan this as a shortcoming of a lower budget feature, I champion it as creative filmmaking within constraints. Why not give sound the task of creating a visual? After all, a soundtrack is an incredibly powerful, and inexpensive tool to tell the story. These decisions to use sound instead of image were indicative of careful planning to save VFX funding for the true “money” shots (a bat fight, and some werewolf transformations come to mind). One needn’t use an excessive amount of VFX to tell a fantasy-based story; What We Do in the Shadows illustrates this beautifully.
I hope to be able to watch Two Cars, One Night at some point in the future. I’d love to speak with you about character and narrative driven filmmaking, the process of writing… many things. The knowledge that there are filmmakers like you at work, and who are achieving the success that you are (in part illustrated by my ability to view your films in the United States) fills me with excitement and inspiration to continue my journey into filmmaking, and to delve into many more international cinema cultures. I eagerly await your next contribution to global cinema.