I talked to Taika Waititi, writer and director of Eagle vs. Shark, at the W Hotel during SIFF 2007. Remarkably, he wasn’t at all defensive about the resemblance between his movie and the Idaho-set sleeper-hit Napoleon Dynamite.

All right, so first I have to ask you: How many times have you seen Napoleon Dynamite?

I’ve seen it once.

Once.

It’s weird, Loren [Horsely, the lead actress] and I saw it after I’d written the first draft of the script. And then we watched it and we were like, whoa. Okaaay… No, I really loved it; I thought it was a great film. But we didn’t think about it too much after that, because we always thought that this film—it gets a little darker than Napoleon Dynamite, it gets into more human emotions and situations. I thought this was something more like Love Serenade, an Australian film. Have you seen it?

I haven’t.

It’s one of Miranda Otto’s first movies. It’s set in a small town with these two sisters and the main character, Miranda Otto’s character, is this strange, awkward girl, a lot like Lily in my movie. And the story is centered on the arrival into town of this radio personality. It’s hard to explain, but the film is really weird. She is led to believe that this radio personality is part fish.

Uh huh.

And so she’s saying to people, “I think he’s part fish!” The best thing about it is that nobody reacts like, “You’re crazy.” Her sister is sort of going out with the guy, and she’s like, “How dare you cast aspersions on him…” Such an odd film. It’s always stayed with me. I also see a lot of similarities between this and Buffalo 66. So Napoleon Dynamite never really worried me, though a lot of younger audiences will definitely draw that connection. There are worse things to compare it with.

The Buffalo 66 comparison is interesting, because though it may be darker than Napoleon Dynamite, it’s also nicer. You actually feel for the characters.

I think a lot of people feel that with Napoleon Dynamite, they’re making fun of the characters. This is more plot-based.

Well, it’s a romantic comedy.

Yeah, definitely.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Loren [Horsely, the lead actress] and how this came to be?

We’ve known each 12 years, and same with Jemaine. I’ve always been a big fan of Loren’s acting, and I’d seen her in this theater show, playing a similar character, really. And I asked her if she wanted to develop that character and make it into a film. We started having these long discussions about the character and the world she inhabited and what kind of life she had. Eventually we got on to talking about what kind of guy she’d be romantically interested in. And that’s really how the story developed. I think a lot of people have been in relationships, especially when you’re young, where you go back to someone’s hometown, and the family home, and you suddenly have all these insights. You start waking up to the kind of person you’re really going out with. I thought it would be great for this sort of outgoing, compassionate person to go back home with this guy, who’s just a… you know, loser, and slowly discover the reasons for the way he turned out.

What do you think Lily is attracted to in him?

I think it’s the danger. I think it’s the danger and that sense of excitement. It’s that classic way of starting a romantic comedy, really, that she doesn’t have that much interesting going on in her life. But she comes from a very supportive background, with her brother. So there’s a lot of love within the family, but that’s love in your safety zone. I think with someone like Jarrod, who’s trying so hard to be this big personality, who organizes things—like the “animals” party—and his efforts are in a lot of ways totally in vain, and a lot of people would look at the parties he throws and say, anyone could do that easily, you just throw a party. But for her, it’s just like… That’s something I really loved so much about the character, she’s just enthusiastic about everything. She comes from a place where there’s no malice, no sarcasm. She’s the ultimate truthful character.

Did you write the script by yourself, or was it a collaboration?

Yeah, it was a collaboration. We worked on the characters and came up with a lot situations, and then I’d go away for a bit and fit them together and make them into some sort of cohesive plot. The first draft I really liked. But it was something that came about so fast, and I guess the script reflected that—it was nice to read, and it wasn’t perfect, and it was a little clumsy… I think the final film is a little like that, sort of stumbling along. I guess in a way it’s trying to be something that it’s not, at first. Then it sort of realizes that it’s a romantic… you know… comedy. Part of me still cringes, like, what? I just made a romantic comedy?

Can we talk a little bit about the locations that you chose?

We shot all around the Wellington area, which is my hometown. In Wellington—and in a lot of places around New Zealand—everyone really loves murals. Everywhere you go, there are murals on the walls of buildings.

That’s interesting. Where does that come from, do you know?

No idea, it’s just a good way of brightening up a city, I guess. So all those paintings on the walls at the school, those animals, the murals at the [unintelligible], it’s all there in Wellington. And then the small town they go to is just outside Wellington. New Zealand is mural country.

I didn’t know that. Did you draw from any other sort of autobiographical sources in writing the script?

I did go to a party—it wasn’t an animal party—but I went to a fancy dress party when I was at university. And there was a girl there who showed up as a victim of a shark attack. She had blood all over her face, like she’d just been eaten by a shark. A lot of the characters are based on real people. It’s funny, last night I met this guy who told me that story of the dead brother in the film is the exact story of his uncle. When he was growing up, his whole family had told him that his uncle had died saving a kid from a fire. And it turned out that the guy had killed himself by setting himself on fire. But the family had all decided to make up this story—it’s really interesting. But that story is actually based on another situation. I know someone who went out with a girl, and her family had never gotten over their dead son, their star son, which made things awkward. I think it often happens.

Can you talk a little bit about the New Zealand film industry and where it’s at?

Well, we’ve got three films here at this festival. There’s The Ferryman, which is a horror film, and Black Sheep, which is a horror-comedy. So we’re starting to have a more eclectic voice. For years we didn’t really touch comedy, because there’s this attitude toward New Zealand comedy, mostly from islanders, who are not very supportive of their own comedians. A lot of it is because we’ve had some really bad stuff on television—and the problem there is that we’ve tried to copy American shows. As for the films coming out of New Zealand, this is probably one of the first romantic comedies, I imagine. There is another film called Sione’s Wedding, which is I guess a romantic comedy as well, but I think it’s more of a comedy-comedy. But I always describe this film as an art house comedy—a New Zealand art-house comedy [laughs]. Usually in New Zealand, I think we’ve perfected the dark film. New Zealand films are always heavy, just weighty, and usually a kid dies.

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Everyone thinks of Heavenly Creatures.

Yeah, exactly. Coming from a small island that’s completely isolated, it influences the kind of stories you tell. And it’s also related to the environment, the quite harsh living conditions. But we’re starting to make films that we can be proud of because they’re original New Zealand films, not rip-offs of other films. Of course now people are going to be like, oh yeah, Napoleon Dynamite came out and then New Zealand just came up with this. It’s funny, on the internet I was reading this one forum, where someone was saying “This film’s great,” and so on, and someone else was like, “Can’t anyone see? This is just Napoleon Dynamite from England.”

[Laughs.] Hopefully they hadn’t seen it.

Brilliant, brilliant. And as far as the industry goes, it’s growing. Peter Jackson’s really paved the way—especially in the attitude toward what we can create, with these huge budget things. Granted, it’s American money, but I think there’s more pride in staying home and making films in New Zealand.