When Hunt For The Wilderpeople Hit Bad Weather, Taika Waititi Knew Just What To Do

Taika Waititi's adventure-comedy "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" is a movie full of inspired directorial choices that showcase the multi-hyphenate's skills, many of which he would use to great effect in 2017's "Thor: Ragnarok" (which came out one year after "Wilderpeople"). Yet, of the many playful touches in the film — like a montage set to Nina Simone's classic song "Sinnerman" that uses whip-pans and wipes to shift nimbly from one shot to the next — there was one that really stuck out to me on a recent viewing. That would be the montage within a panning shot that occurs part-way through the movie, condensing time in a way that's far more visually interesting than a more conventional montage would've been.

Backing up a bit: "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" centers on Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a trouble-making kid who goes on the run with his foster uncle Hector (Sam Neill), fleeing deep into the New Zealand bush to avoid being taken away by his over-bearing child welfare services officer Paula (Rachel House). By the time the aforementioned in-camera, one-shot montage takes place, Ricky and Hector have been on the lam for months, with the weather taking a turn for the colder. As it turns out, however, this scene was partly the result of some quick thinking on Waititi's part when the "Wilderpeople" production ran into some unexpected snow.

Waititi had this 'big montage shot' in his head

Waititi recounted the whole behind-the-scenes ordeal, telling the New York Times:

"When we were driving into this area [where we filmed this scene], we were planning to do a bunch of other scenes. But it started snowing really heavily. By the end of the morning, we had six inches of snow. So we regrouped to figure out what we were going to do. I quickly rewrote parts of the script to take place in the snow and use it as a seasonal change. And I thought while we're figuring out our next move, why don't we try this big montage shot that I had in my head for a while. I was just lucky enough to have all the actors there on the day."

Part of what makes this in-camera, one-shot montage so eye-catching is that it was clearly captured via practical methods. Waititi confirmed as much in his New York Times interview, explaining that the shot combines doubles for Dennison and Neill with the actual actors. This, in turn, creates the illusion that Ricky and Hector are moving through time as the various performers pop in and out of frame, all while the camera steadily pans. "We had a fire that was going on in the beginning. Someone would run in and put that out," said Waititi, adding that Dennison and Neill's doubles wore different costumes to further suggest we're seeing Ricky and Hector on different days. "So it was a real choreography."

The perks of filming on-location

The trailer for Waititi's "Ragnarok" sequel, "Thor: Love and Thunder," opens with an in-camera, one-shot montage (this time in the form of a tracking shot) of Thor running through a forest at different ages, evoking this scene from "Hunt for the Wilderpeople." Still, for as much as Waititi has carried over the tricks he used in his early New Zealand indie movies into his big-budget films, there's one aspect he's had to leave behind: The real-world locations around his native island country where he shot Ricky and Hector's odyssey.

It's a cliche, but the New Zealand bush really is a character unto itself in "Wilderpeople," starting with the movie's opening aerial shot. The film's production designer, Neville Stevenson, talked about this in a 2016 interview with Stuff, noting that for all the challenges the unexpected snow presented, "there's nothing like the real thing." Stevenson added:

"It's been amazing to be in these natural environments. On occasion, when I've had a moment to take stock and have a little breather – you suddenly notice Mt Ruapehu or a beautiful forest in front of you. It's pretty exciting to have captured some of these amazing vistas. We're very lucky to have amazing locations and lots of great nature at our disposal. We went into production embracing the fact it was going to be hard with the weather, and prepared to shoot whatever the conditions."

As Stevenson pointed out, filming in natural environments comes with both its benefits and drawbacks, unpredictable and hostile weather being a major one. Even then, though, it can fuel creativity in a way that shooting on a set simply can't, as it did when wintery conditions spurred Waititi to try his hand at a wild idea that ended up working in spades on "Wilderpeople."