Filmmaker and Letterboxd member So Yun Um joins hosts Slim and Gemma for a chat about her new Tribeca sell-out documentary Liquor Store Dreams, and her four Letterboxd faves: Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love; Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow; Federico Fellini’s 8½ and the Wachowski Sisters’ The Matrix. Plus: throwing caution to the wind and becoming a filmmaker, the fleeting moments that give us life, getting around Netflix’s screenshot ban, sexy noodles, who we would date from the Better Luck Tomorrow cast, So’s Johnny Tran prequel pitch, making dads proud, neo-realism vs French New Wave, all our fave Keanu movies, neighborhoods, high grades, parents who just want you married off, how The Matrix broke down barriers at high school and the Danny-from-Liquor Store Dreams spinoff we want to see.Read transcript
We speak to the Letterboxd member who watched Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople every day for a year to ask: what were they thinking?
“I feel like I’m somewhat less equipped to survive in the bush than I was 365 watches ago. If I’m ever stranded in the bush I’ll probably try to turn it into my own adventure-comedy and fail miserably at surviving.” —⁠Toomy Nada
Not long ago, a tweet by Toomy Nada (social handle @phntomthred) alerted us to the news that their campaign to watch Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople every day for a year had successfully concluded. This bonkers mission was inspired by another Letterboxd member, McKenna, who had checked off a 365-day-run of Twilight viewings (and has since watched those sparkly vampires again).
Adapted from a novel by one of the country’s greatest yarn-spinners, Waititi’s 2016 adventure-comedy taps into an array of New Zealand concerns including colonization, the urban drift of Indigenous peoples, child abuse, conspiracy theories, survivalism, the impact of American culture, the inadequate resources of the New Zealand armed forces, the stoicism of a specific breed of male, and the mindboggling fact that Rachel House is still not yet a global household name.
Starring Julian Dennison as a wayward city kid who is fostered by a childless rural couple (played by Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata), Hunt for the Wilderpeople had a modest international release, premiering at Sundance and lapping up a few audience awards at decent-sized festivals. At home in New Zealand, however, it was a mega-hit, smashing box-office records and winning best film, director, screenplay, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress and visual effects from many more nominations in the nation’s film awards.
Toomy, however, is not from New Zealand, and unlike Twilight, Wilderpeople is not a blockbuster in any sense other than domestically—so what would make a college student across an ocean settle on watching this Kiwi meditation on masculine grief masquerading as a hilarious, high-country action-adventure, for a whole year? Well, as any Wilderpeople fan will tell you: you don’t choose the skux life, the skux life chooses you.
Why did you do this? Why did you choose Taika Waititi’s 2016 adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress for this project?
Toomy Nada: I initially became interested in Taika Waititi’s filmography after watching his 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows. I found the film a comical rarity—something that had you laughing whilst simultaneously acknowledging the effort that went into every line or scene. I decided to further explore Waititi’s filmography in order of release date, starting from his first short film Two Cars, One Night all the way to Jojo Rabbit.
After completing my Taika Waititi film marathon, however, I found myself yearning to rewatch Hunt for the Wilderpeople as my initial watch had filled me with great comfort in the midst of my anxious lockdown days. The day after my first rewatch of the film, I found myself, once again, yearning to watch it a third time, and the next day a fourth time. By the fifth day, I remembered seeing @atjfilms’ tweet announcing that she had watched Twilight every day for a year, and a light bulb flicked over my head. Why not do it with Hunt for the Wilderpeople?
Have you been tempted to read the source novel?
I have! I read it a couple of months after starting my 365-viewing challenge of the adaptation and found it so wonderful. Barry Crump did a masterclass job at highlighting the stereotypes that Māori people face, and how these stereotypes can systematically ruin their lives, whilst also writing a fantastical book that leaves you feeling fuzzy inside, in a sense.
What, if any, information about the making of the film did you seek out to deepen your knowledge of Wilderpeople?
I recall watching Taika Waititi’s interview for Flicks Talks where he discusses the journey of adapting Wild Pork and Watercress into a screenplay and found his journey to be quite fascinating. Waititi mentions that he essentially took all of the scenes from the book that he wanted to see on screen, parts that he thought would be “good and entertaining”, and then took creative liberty with the rest of the screenplay. Having read Wild Pork and Watercress, I believe that Waititi was greatly successful at turning the book into more of an adventure-comedy, whilst also capturing the serious and emotional elements of the book—such as the struggles and dangers of living in the New Zealand bush, and overcoming tragedies.
What is your favorite production fact about the making of the film?
There is this gorgeously done scene with a circular 780-degree shot of Ricky and Hec in the snowy bush and ‘The Partisan’ by Leonard Cohen playing in the background that I was (and still am, to be honest) obsessed with for the longest time. Upon doing some research, I found out that the scene was actually unplanned; the crew “were in the middle of snow with all of the actors and gear just stranded” and so Taika Waititi decided to put the camera on a tripod and started shooting and turning the camera around and around whilst having characters pop up into the screen, with doubles dressing up as other characters.
What have you absorbed about the craft of scriptwriting and story structure from such consistent rewatching of one single film?
The story structure of Wilderpeople definitely made the daily viewing experience much easier. During the first quarter of rewatches, I found myself discovering new lines that a character would say that had previously flown right over my head. Waititi had successfully crafted a screenplay so intricate, that every watch had made me realize something new. For example, during one of my later watches (in the 300s) I realized that in one of Ricky’s haikus, he says that he hates Kingi. Kingi is actually a character in Taika Waititi’s 2010 film Boy, and realizing that made me laugh, whilst also appreciating the thought and effort that Waititi had put into the screenplay.
Do you have a favorite shot or sequence?
In addition to the circular 780-degree shot of Ricky and Hec in the snowy bush, I loved the chase scene in Chapter 10: ‘War’. During another deep dive I did on Wilderpeople I found out that one part of the chase scene with the red Toyota Hilux copies a 1980s New Zealand television commercial for the Toyota Hilux starring Wild Pork and Watercress novelist Barry Crump and actor Lloyd Scott—who pops up in Wilderpeople as a tourist—nearly shot for shot. Once again, this further showcases the meticulous thought and effort Taika Waititi put into this film.
Tell us a bit about how you would approach each day’s screening. Did you watch the film at the same time of day, every day? On the same screen or different screens? With sound up, sound down, subtitles, with other people, alone? On DVD or a streaming platform? In the car?!
At the beginning of the “project”, I would just watch the film whenever I remembered—usually at the end of the day. Because of this, I decided to turn it on around two hours before I needed to be asleep as a bedtime story of some sort. I tended to watch it on my laptop, but in cases where I had free time, like on day 44, I would just watch it on my phone.
I never had the sound down or off—I felt it would be cheating if I did, and so I avoided doing so when I began the challenge. I initially watched the film on Netflix, but after too many instances of buffering, I bought a DVD of the film and used that when watching it on my laptop. I never had friends watch it with me in person, but my constant logging of the film on Letterboxd had many of them curious to watch the movie, and so I was getting the “I watched HftW because of you” text every once in a while, which I found to be hilarious.
Your day-90 review reads “this is an illness”. Were your family or roommates ever worried about you? Did they get concerned or cheer you on?
I cannot even count the number of times my friend Sanad jokingly (I think) called me “unhinged” or “insane” for doing this challenge. A lot of my friends found it incredibly funny and were very supportive, occasionally commenting on a diary entry egging me on, or texting me with a “What day are you on??”.
What do you love or appreciate about the movie’s themes? How do you identify with specific characters?
I particularly loved the theme of how tragedies can bring out good things. I found myself to be a lot like Ricky—having a very hard time opening up or forming attachments to new people for fear of getting too attached. I also find myself to be like him in the sense that I speak my mind, and deflect serious conversations by joking around or, in his case, coming up with haikus.
Do you have a consistent favorite character, or did it change over time?
It bounced back and forth from TK (selfie dad) and Ricky himself. I saw a lot of myself in Ricky, and whenever it would hit too close to home, I would resort to TK as this comforting character who was very kind and trustworthy—and had some of the funniest lines. This bouncing back and forth happened throughout the entire 365 viewings.
Speaking of Selfie Dad: please allow us to introduce you to the saucy funk of award-winning New Zealand hottie and dad Troy Kingi. You’re welcome.
I recently got into him!! His music is absolutely phenomenal.
On the topic of music, you love the soundtrack, calling it “GODLY” on day 35 of 365. Did you know that the composers also composed the theme music to The Letterboxd Show? Do you have any questions for them?
That’s so cool! I’ve always wondered how they came up with ‘Makutehaku’. The song perfectly captures the essence of the film, and I imagine that wasn’t an easy feat to accomplish. How long did it take to perfect such a production-heavy (I mean, I think it is—I’m not very knowledgeable about music) song?
Samuel Flynn Scott of Moniker replies:
“Taika wanted a choir in the film somewhere, for that gravitas it gives. It started with midi choir going hahahahaha the whole time and was a bit maddening. Then Luke [Buda] took the haiku from the movie and translated them into Māori and Latin and it’s a mixture of that. We recorded some choral professionals (just three I think), but over and over again. And then we recorded ourselves and every singer we could rope in. The squelchy synth sound was on a Minimoog Model D we borrowed from Bret McKenzie and the mysterious percussion is Chris O’Connor from the Phoenix Foundation. The cool thing is it has now been sung by several actual choirs around the world.”
What’s your favorite scene in the movie?
The church scene! Whilst doing my deep dive on the film, I learned that the minister and his sermon about confectionery are based on a real thing that happened. Waititi had gone to a funeral and the minister there gave a sermon very, very similar to [the one his character gave in the film]. There is no deep meaning to my liking of the scene other than it, surprisingly, always made me laugh whenever it came on.
Based on your review of May 30, 2021: where does Taika rank in the echelon of hot movie priests for you?
I tried to form a ranking, but he ended up topping the echelon. So, number-one hot movie priest.
Where do you think he sits in the canon of filmmakers over the years?
Oh, that’s hard. I would say in the top twenties, perhaps? He’s definitely rising up to the upper echelons with everything he makes, though. I would say in a couple of years or so you’d be able to say that he’s in the top ten with no contest from others.
Was there a point when you thought you wouldn’t be able to complete the task? If so, what do you remember about that and how did you push on through?
Yes! Halfway through 2021, I had to move to a new-ish country, which put me in a mental slump. I remember thinking, “there it is—the end of the challenge,” as I had assumed that I wouldn’t be bothered to keep going when I would arrive there. But the day I arrived to this new-ish country, I found myself turning on Wilderpeople once again, I think, subconsciously knowing that it would help me feel better, and it did. I think the familiarity of it made me feel more comfortable amongst my unfamiliar surroundings.
Not knowing where you are from, but suspecting you are not from New Zealand, what have you learned or become curious about in terms of New Zealand culture and comedy in general, and rural or Māori culture in particular?
So much! I had chosen to do my Global Politics final on the treatment of Māori people throughout history, which helped me gain a further understanding of the Māori culture and resilience throughout the years, in an effort to defend their culture and their people. Understanding the history of the Māori people really helped me understand Ricky’s character and turmoils.
What have you learned about outdoor survival, and do you think you are now equipped to survive in the bush?
I feel like I’m somewhat less equipped to survive in the bush than I was 365 watches ago. If I’m ever stranded in the bush I’ll probably try to turn it into my own adventure-comedy and fail miserably at surviving.
On day 62, you also watched The Young Girls of Rochefort. What a film! On days when you would watch another film and it was a banger, how would it feel knowing you still had to also log Wilderpeople? Conversely, were there days when a Wilderpeople watch would cheer you up after a darker movie?
It is a gorgeous film! I’ll admit that there were instances where I would finish a new phenomenal watch, remember that I have to watch Wilderpeople, and roll my eyes. Never out of malice, though! I think it was just my shorter attention span that would make watching two movies back to back slightly difficult. Because of this, I started to better plan new watches so that I wouldn’t be too drained after [them] for Wilderpeople. On the other hand, [with] films like À ma soeur!, watching Wilderpeople afterward would make me feel tons better due to its comforting nature.
On day 87, you wrote: “couldn’t watch the third John Wick movie ’cause I had to watch this.” Do you carry regrets about the movies you missed along the way, or excitement that you now get to dive back into other films?
Yeah, to be frank. There were many times when I had to stop myself from pressing play on a new film to reserve some viewing energy for Wilderpeople, but I also think that it helped me enjoy those films more when I finally watched them. So it was not too bad in the end. Now that I’m done with Wilderpeople, however, I feel like I can watch films without that little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I can’t forget to watch Wilderpeople. I no longer have that “responsibility”.
Last year, despite officially achieving full brainrot, you managed to watch a succession of brilliant films, but then your 2022 diary has been Wilderpeople all the way. What happened?
In-person classes happened! Last year, I was blessed with online school, which gave me a plethora of time for myself in addition to my studies, so I would manage to watch films in between lectures, whereas in-person classes have made it much harder to watch as many films as I would prefer.
What are your top five favorite watches from the past year that were not Hunt for the Wilderpeople?
This is a hard one! After much thought, I’d have to narrow it down to: Il Posto, Memories of Murder, Short Cuts, All That Jazz and Titane.
What would you say to Taika, Sam, Julian or Rima, if you ran across them in a café or at your Aunty’s house and you had a chance to tell them about Wilderpeople being a “10/10 best bedtime story ever” for you?
I would tell them so much, that it may just freak them out. To be more specific, I would tell them that they’ve created a film that seems to be a mere adventure-comedy on the surface, but underneath the surface, they’ve created a film that is so much more. It’s a film that allows you to feel sad, and feel angry, it’s a film that allows you to laugh and smile, and it’s a film that feels like a warm, fuzzy blanket and a warm cup of tea that fills you up with comfort, with each sip you take. I would also tell them that its one-liners are always stuck in my head.
Tell us the synopsis of your dream Wilderpeople sequel.
Opens up with where the first film left off—Hec and Ricky in the bush looking for that bird. Cuts to them, a week later, unsuccessful at finding the bird. They go home to Kahu and TK, and tell them about their lack of discoveries. Kahu and TK offer to join them in search of the bird. Their journey begins a week later, and they set off once more into the bush. The journey is a bit rocky at first, with arguments rising out, but in the end, these arguments help them form a closer bond with one another, find the bird, and leave the bush as a close and, sort of, unconventional family.
Day 7 of 365: “there’s literally no way you can convince me New Zealand is real”. Did you know Letterboxd is made in New Zealand? Will you ever visit New Zealand?
I did! Ironically, Wilderpeople was just the thing that convinced me to elect for a study abroad year in New Zealand. So I’ll be living my best Ricky Baker life sometime during September of 2023!
As you wrapped up your year of Wilderpeople on April 22, 2022, you wrote: “I fear I won’t be able to watch this movie ever again”. Do you think you will ever watch this movie again?
Funnily enough, I rewatched just one more time for this Q&A, as a visual refresher (I can probably recite the film to you from start to finish from memory alone). It wasn’t too bad! I think I may have missed it.
‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is available to rent or buy from most video-on-demand platforms.