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Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi (Te Whānau-a-Apanui) is a New Zealand filmmaker, actor and comedian who gained international recognition for his idiosyncratic style of storytelling. Arguably our most globally successful contemporary film creator, his works demonstrate huge originality and sophisticated humour, while often proudly representing Aotearoa New Zealand and te ao Māori.

Pictures. Photo Kane Skenner. Image courtesy of Te Tumu Whakaata Taonga New Zealand Film Commission

“I think my childhood shaped what I do today… the way that I write, the things that I tend to put in my films, often there are jokes for people who grew up at that time.”

Born in Wellington, Taika’s parents separated when he was five, and he spent time between Wellington and his father’s home at the small settlement of Raukōkore, on the East Cape of the North Island. Taika’s father, also named Taika Waititi, is of Māori heritage, and his mother, Robin Cohen, is of Ashkenazi Jewish, Irish, Scottish, and English descent. Taika was named after his grandfather, who served in World War II as part of the legendary 28th Māori Battalion.

Threads of these early influences often appear in his work. Taika says he always saw the world a little differently and was creative from a young age.

“I was encouraged by my parents to do creative stuff. My dad’s a painter and my mother’s a schoolteacher and a writer. Right from an early age, I was encouraged to do that sort of stuff.”

Taika graduated from Victoria University of Wellington, Te Herenga Waka in 1996 with a degree in theatre and film. It was here he met future collaborators and fellow funnymen Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. He and Jemaine formed the comedy duo Humourbeasts and shared the Billy T comedy award in 1999.

His early short films – Two Cars, One Night (2003) and Tama Tū (2005) – garnered acclaim and significant attention. Two Cars, One Night was nominated for Best Short Film, Live Action at the 2005 Academy Awards. Tama Tū won 10 awards, including at Sundance, Stockholm, and Berlin, and was invited to more than 40 film festivals.

In 2007, Taika co-wrote and directed his debut feature film, Eagle vs Shark, which was well received by critics and audiences, but his breakthrough film came in 2010 with Boy, a darkly comic and deceptively complex coming-of-age story set in rural New Zealand in the 1980s. A major critical and commercial success, it became New Zealand’s highest grossing local film of all time.

On creating the hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking character of Boy, Taika says:

“I tried to take all the fun, eccentric elements of people that I know and things I find interesting to look at in characters. I cobbled them together and wanted someone who feels so unpredictable that it’s fun to watch them, but you know that underneath is a deeper problem, a serious problem. There’s some stuff he’s not dealing with and his only way of trying to deal with it is to act like a kid and keep believing his own myths.”

In 2014, Taika co-directed and starred in What We Do in the Shadows, a horror–comedy mockumentary about a group of vampires living in modern-day New Zealand. The film was a surprise hit, earning praise for its clever writing, unique humour and inventive visual style. The film spawned a popular TV series of the same name, and other spin-off shows.

In 2016, Taika released Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Based on a book by iconic New Zealand author Barry Crump, and starring Sam Neill and breakout child actor Julian Dennison, the film was yet another success for Taika, surpassing Boy to become Aotearoa New Zealand’s highest grossing film ever.

Taika’s biggest commercial success came in 2017 with Thor: Ragnarok, a superhero film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika directed the film and provided the voice of the character Korg. Thor: Ragnarok was a global smash, earning over US$850 million at the box office worldwide and solidifying Taika’s position as a major force in Hollywood. Though Taika had a slightly different assessment, saying he “felt like an indie director who managed to not die making a studio film”.

This was followed, in 2019, by Jojo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika, and starring Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell and fellow New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie – as well as Taika himself, playing – in his own words – “a lovable, quirky, whimsical Hitler”. It won Taika his first Oscar – Best Adapted Screenplay – and was nominated in a total of six categories, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. The film also won a BAFTA, a Grammy Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award.

When trying to pinpoint his unique mode of inspiration, Taika says:

“Where there’s life around me, I feel more creative… Some people will focus really hard on a single film for two or three years. I feel like I’ve got more energy than that – and more ideas than that.”

Taika was awarded the prestigious Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year award in 2017, and, in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to film. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world on its annual list in 2022.

Proudly Māori, Taika Waititi is a strong advocate for and representative of his people, as well as a champion of indigenous cultures around the world – whether that’s the inclusion of Māori actors and stories in much of his work, conducting a Welcome to Country ceremony with the traditional land owners before filming began in Australia for Thor: Love and Thunder, fronting the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s ‘Give Nothing To Racism’ advertising campaign, or co-creating Reservation Dogs (2021–), the first TV series to feature all indigenous writers and directors, along with an almost entirely indigenous North American cast and production team.

During his Oscar-acceptance speech in 2020, Taika put voice to this focus:

“I dedicate this to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers, and we can make it here, as well.”

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Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.

Explore the Legacy Project

Celebrate the New Zealanders past and present who’ve made a difference in the world.