Eagle vs Shark
Kiwi all black
Miles Fielder goes to the dark side with Taika Waititi, the new Australasian low budget film comedy prince
When New Zealand stand-up comic, actor, painter and photographer Taika Waititi took a shot at writing and directing a movie he had no idea it would be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and become the focus of a bidding war that would end in a sale to premier American distributor Miramax, previously home to Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith. Perhaps workshopping his debut at Robert Redford’s Sundance Lab – on the back of an Oscar nomination for his short Two Cars, One Night – should have alerted Cohen to the big things in store for his micro-budget romantic comedy about a pair of geeks, Eagle vs Shark. It didn’t, and so the young Te-Whanau-a-Apanui descendent finds himself pleasantly surprised and not a little anxious about the film’s fortunes.
‘I was nervous about the way the film would be sold by people not really getting the film, just wanting to make money off of it,’ says Waititi. ‘You don’t want to lose your original vision through marketing. Miramax were pretty good about it, but it’s hard to market a film like this. You can market it on the back of another film, but that’s dangerous because you create expectation by having people thinking they’re going to see the next Napoleon Dynamite when it’s actually pretty different.’
In fact, Eagle vs Shark bears only a superficial resemblance to the American geek comedy (also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). Waititi’s film is more romantic, and while it’s funny it’s also quite dark. Its origins lie in a character created for theatre by Cohen’s partner, the Wellington-based comic actor Loren Horsley. ‘The character, Lily, reminded me of Gelsomina from La Strada,’ says Waititi, making an unexpected though not unwarranted reference to the Fellini classic. ‘These innocent, compassionate, open characters that don’t speak much. Lauren and I talked about what kind of world Lily would inhabit, and what kind of guy she would be interested in. We came up with Jarrod [Jemaine Clement], who is pretty eccentric – a lot like her but the complete opposite in his energy and direction – and threw that character at Lily to see what would happen. The story went from there.
‘I don’t know if it’s a romance,’ he continues. ‘It’s got romance in it. It’s got some comic elements. It’s also got some depressing moment. It’s got awkward people moping about landscapes. You either get it and you like it, or you don’t. I’d worry if everyone started liking this film. I’d feel I was too mainstream, that I’d sold out.’
Eagle vs Shark is also distinguished by its sense of humour: deadpan, earthy, with a dark edge. ‘There’s definitely a New Zealand sense of humour,’ says Cohen, ‘but there’s nothing to compare it to because New Zealand rarely makes comedies. We make darker films about man and his environment. All of our art is dark, because of where we come from. This isolated little nation filled with people who don’t really know who they are – are we a colony or our own nation? It’s such a beautiful country, but you feel trapped.
‘For a while,’ Waititi laughs with a grimace, ‘we had the highest rate of teen suicide in the world.’
Eagle vs Shark, GFT, Glasgow and selected release from Fri 17 Aug.