Interview: Buzz Uncut - Eagle Vs Shark director Taika Cohen

“Everyone’s pretty dysfunctional in New Zealand!”

“That’s a lot of fruit.” Taika Waititi is admiring the enormous lemon in his glass. He’d asked for ‘a lemon water’ to aid his aching throat, but someone’s taken his request a little too literally. The 32 year old has already been nominated for an Oscar – for his short movie Two Cars, One Night – and his status as a Sundance darling gave birth to Eagle Vs Shark, the quirky indie rom-com that is pushing the New Zealand based director out into a wider recognition.

The Eagle of the title is Jarrod, the be-mulleted, sulking object of Lily’s [The Shark] affection. Hooking up at Jarrod’s ‘Come As Your Favourite Animal’ party, Lily trails him back to his hometown where he tries to impress his damaged family by beating up the kid who used to bully him in high school.

Total Film caught up with the half-Maori director in London, on a brief stop before heading back to the States where his movie, slapped with an unhelpful R rating for its language, had just opened against a certain big robot movie. But, unlike the citrus bomb in his glass – would sir like some more water with his fruit? – Watiti isn’t bitter.

So you’re playing opposite Transformers…

This was probably made for half of their food budget. I think it’s good that a film with a different take on romance or comedy has a chance to be seen. Audiences are so used to the genres now that they can actually read the beats to the film and know what’s coming, so it’s good to mix it up a bit, with characters where you have to try to work out reasons to like them. You’ve got to push the characters a bit, or otherwise you might as well make something really soft and buttery.

Were you pissed about getting an R rating?

You get an R rating for saying the word fuck 10 times and yet you can blow someone’s head off with a bazooka and show it to 12 year olds!

So is EVS an accurate portrait of the Kiwis?

Everyone’s pretty dysfunctional in New Zealand. No-one will admit it, but I reckon it’s quite a true depiction of suburban life. Some people will be like, Oh my God, that’s my family up there, that’s my dad. And other people won’t relate to it all because they come from a totally balanced world. But that’s bullshit and we all know that!

I guess on the surface they seem pretty extreme and eccentric, but the big thing for me is that you don’t just sit there and laugh at these characters. I want people to relate to them and say, “Well, they’re more extreme versions of ourselves”. 
 
Is Jarrod the extreme of who you are?

That’s how I dressed in the 80s! I find that stuff hilarious, just laughing at who I used to be. The actors are just playing themselves as teenagers, trapped in an adult’s body. But Jarrod was a mixture really. There’s parts of lots of people I know. And then there’s that whole thing of guys embellishing their lives to make themselves more interesting, like that whole idea that if you’re depressed it makes you more interesting. I find that really interesting, that to be happy is not quite so interesting as to be sad!

Lily’s [Loren Horsley] also pretty far out as a lead character…

You never see those characters as the protagonist in a movie. She’s always the best friend of the main girl. It’s also good that women can see the unconfident dowdy side of themselves in a lead role, and remaining like that, but still at the end of the film she’s undeniably a lot more beautiful. I never thought I’d make a chick flick!

Loren had been working on the Lily character before the film. How did you go about turning that into a movie?

We just talked about situations that she’d be in. Like that she might meet a guy and go back to his home town, and he’s gotten a kid. And originally that would’ve been the main storyline but then it changed and it just became more about her journey in the world. 

You’d known both Loren and Jermaine [Jarrod] Clement from the Wellington comedy scene. Did that make production easier?

I’d rather work with my friends than some really big famous person who’s got an inflated ego and loads of baggage. A real Jarrod.

Did you do anything to help them into their roles?

It was really just about making people feel as uncomfortable in their bodies as possible so I also gave everyone shoes that were too big for them, so they’d have big weird hair and huge shoes and you feel quite clown like. It’s just to show how awkward humans are.

EVS is bound to attract Napoleon Dynamite comparisons. Have you see that movie?

The only thing I thought was really similar was the character to Jarrod, and that didn’t really bother me. We saw the film pretty much just before shooting and I saw more similarities to Todd Solondz. I thought there was more human, emotional pain involved (in EVS) and the comedy comes from that. Or Buffalo 66 – that character is so abrasive and so rude, and you hate him through most of the film. The Napoleon comparisons are probably just because of the geeky element.

And you play the dead brother whose presence hangs over the movie? Is that a coincidence?

There’s no real psychological reason for that. I just thought it’d be fun.