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Interview: Taika Waititi, Lauren Horsley & Jemaine Celment

When they first walked in the room it was apparent that Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley and Taika Waititi go way back…

When they first walked in the room it was apparent that Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley and Taika Waititi go way back. They hang on each other, finish the others sentences and seem to communicate on their own wavelength.  It was this close bond that enabled them to overcome the obstacles of filming Eagle vs. Shark, a film that was brought up through the Sundance labs and shot in their native New Zealand.

Director Taika Waititi has already been nominated for an Academy Award for his short Two Cars, One Night and is known throughout New Zealand as one of the best stand-up comedians.  A few years ago he hooked up with college-bud Jemaine Clement to form the comedy duo “Humorbeast.”  Since then, the two have gone on to perform many venues in New Zealand and abroad. 

Waititi’s first feature length film is a quirky, ironic comedy about geek love.  Lily and Jarrod are both emotionally repressed, fantasy-obsessed individuals who fall in love over a Mortal Kombat-inspired video game.  Lily is taken with her new found love but Jarrod still has to work through some high school traumas.  The film moves with a deadpan beat, but does its best not to fall into cliché. 

A lot of comparisons have been drawn to Napoleon Dynamite both in terms of characters and aesthetics.  It is true upon comparing both films many similarities arise, but there are also major differences.  The characters in Eagle vs. Shark are more secular because they actually exist.  Everyone knows Lily and Jarrod.  They got picked on in high school, were constantly babbling about something banally esoteric and never, ever went out of the house.  They were those kids who you never thought would find someone to complement their eccentric personalities. 

Eagle vs. Shark i
s a fun film made by fun people.  I sat down with Jemaine Celment, Loren Horsley  and Taika Waititi to talk about their film, their futures and their friendship.

Q: Did the story change much from script to screen?

LH: Well Taika wrote the first draft, but we were all involved in creating the story.  It evolved a lot from the first draft to the final shooting script. 

TW: At first it was really a collection of ideas, stories and scenes rather then a narrative.  A lot of it was talking about what situations we could get the (Lily) character into.  So I really had to think up a lot of connections in finalizing the script.  There are a lot of things that were taken from real life.

Q: Like what?

TW: Like the horse game the characters play in the car, Loren likes to play that when we go on trips.

LH: I loved to play that when I was a child.

TW: A lot of stuff we took from Loren’s childhood, the stuff with the apples and other games characters play throughout the film.

Q: During writing the script, which came first the story or the characters?

TW: One character came first actually: Loren’s character Lily.  She was really the reason for making the film and the script really revolved around her adventures.

Q: Concerning the animated sequences, how did they come about?

LH: Taika loved block-animation from the start and was interested in putting it in a low-budget film.  He didn’t think a higher-budget film would allow him to experiment like that, so he really wanted to put it in a film he had more control over.  The beautiful hand-made, somewhat clumsy images fitted with the aesthetic of the film. 

TW:  There were actually different styles of animation in the first draft.  There was also a lot of mixing reality with animated metaphors, but in the end we felt it was too “Ally McBeal.”  All the animation was done through a company called “Another Planet” and they’ve worked with me before on my short films and we’re all friends.  The whole production team was all friends. 

Q: How did the Sundance labs help you?

TW: Well I had just written the first draft of the script basically two or three weeks before the labs started, so it was really fast.  I think the opportunity to participate in the labs is what motivated me to finish the script.  So I wrote it fast, sent it in and they said “yes.”  It was great because Loren was already attached to the film so I brought her along as the actor and it really came together during those weeks.  The labs are great because they bring in a lot of smart people to give you sound advice.  They’re at the labs to help filmmakers find the right way to tell their story. 

Q: Can you explain the look of the film?  It feels really light and colorful.

TW: Sure, we did a number of tests with different film stocks and decided to go with Fuji stock.  We felt it captured the nature of the landscape better.  I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just an aesthetic that appealed to me.  I wasn’t looking for anything too bright, you know, some comedies are just too bright, so I wanted it a little darker.  I like films that have a realistic palette to them.

JC: A lot of it comes from the palette of New Zealand as well.  You know the sky looks different, the land looks different, even in paintings you can see the uniqueness of the landscape.  When your shooting in New Zealand the landscape really just takes control.

Q: Why aren’t their more films coming out of New Zealand?

TW:  We don’t have much money, it’s not like the United States; there are only four million people in the whole country. 

JC:  Although when your there it seems like everybody is making a movie.
LH:  There’s not quite the infrastructure that there in the USA in terms of a studio system.  There’s one studio and it’s run by a government agency, The New Zealand Film Commission
Q:  I understand that you all knew each other prior to shooting the film.  Could you talk a little about that?

JC:  Yeah we all grew up through the industry together.  Not just through film, we’ve been friends for a while.  Taika and I first met when we were in our late teens, doing a sketch comedy show in college.  I think the university atmosphere was very conducive to the sense of humor we all have (laughs).

Q: Talk about the casting of some of the other characters.

TW:  Well I met the kid who play’s Jarrod’s nephew at a family dinner one night and he informed everyone that he was going to play guitar for us.  As I sat watching him I kept thinking “wow, what an amazing kid.”  So I wrote the character kind of based on him. When it came to casting I thought that instead of finding someone else to imitate him, just have him play himself.  He was perfect just as he was.

LH: The little girl that play’s Jarrod’s daughter was great too.  The casting agent was walking through the playground looking at the kids the teacher’s had picked out when she saw a little girl on the playground by herself.  She was just the perfect little girl and the agent went up to her right away.  It’s funny because the character was actually written for a boy.  But after meeting this girl I was able to convince Taika to change it. 

Q: Who was supposed to be raising this girl?  It seems she was kind of nomadic.

TW: Well in New Zealand, especially in my background, many families have kids that get brought up by relatives and friends.  It’s very normal just to have other people’s kids in the house.  In fact, I remember lots of times as a kid not knowing whose parents were whose! 

JC:  Yeah when people see the film here they think it’s this crazy, mixed-up family, but when I read the script these people seemed quite normal.  It’s a very realistic portrait of small-town New Zealand: people coming in and out of the house all the time. 

Q: Loren, I heard that you (during the labs) went around in character, is this true?

LH: (Laughs) Yeah I had a week by myself in Utah and I didn’t know anyone in Salt Lake City.  There’s not a lot to do if you don’t know anybody from that place, so I went out on the streets as Lily.  It was interesting actually and reinforced a lot of ideas I had about the character.  People treated me in a particular way that it felt like I was invisible, which made the character…kind of cold. 

Q: How do you feel about the inevitable comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite?

TW: I don’t mind there’s always going to be comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite because it was the last “geek” film” to come out and it did really well.  I'm fine with that, it could be compared to worse films. 

Q: Are there any films you would rather it be compared to?

TW: If I were to compare it to other films they would probably be Australian comedies. There’s this really great Australian comedy called The Castle.  It’s a great, great, film and I think New Zealander’s and Australian’s share a similar sense of humor. 

LH: For American comparisons maybe Punch Drunk Love or Welcome to the Doll House.  We were looking at Buffalo 66 in terms of Vincent Gallo’s character, a male character who’s a bit cerebral and pushes people away.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of making the film?

TW: I think it was mostly just the time element.  The film was shot so quickly which, in a way, was great because it gave us a lot of momentum.  But it had to be shot quickly because of the Sundance labs and the financing, which came together pretty quickly after that.  We did the whole thing in twenty-five days.  Originally, I thought it would be great to make the film really fast, but then realized I cared too much about the film and really wished I had more time.  That’s my advice to filmmaker’s is to take extra time when you have it. I wish we had more time to improvise.

Q: What are some of the next projects you guys are working on?

JC:  Well I just finished shooting a show here in New York. It’s going to premiere on June 17th for HBO, its called Flight of the Concords.  It’s based on a comedy sketch I used to do about a folk group. 

TW:  I’m writing a new script that I’m hoping to shoot sometime soon, sort of an extension on the short film I did Two Cars, One Night.  It’s going to be a comedy but there’s some drama in it.  It’s about kids growing up in the New Zealand countryside in the eighties, a coming-of-age story.

LH:  I’m part of a film collective back in New Zealand and we’re trying to make a film sort of outside the financial or bureaucratic systems.  I know it sounds very hippie-ish I guess, but we're experimenting.  It’s a good, rigorous experience.  

Miramax Films releases Eagle vs. Shark on friday June 15th.

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