Taika Waititi and Billy Luther Set Out to Make Indigenous Stories Feel Less ‘Alien’

After years of working in Hollywood, Taika Waititi has lived through the classic biopic scene where a protagonist wakes up and immediately questions all of their life choices.

“What the fuck am I doing? Why am I doing this? For what reason? There’s no purpose and I’m getting nothing out of this,” Waititi said in an interview with IndieWire at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “And then we realize, ‘Oh, but the reason we do this is to help people in our community.’ To keep pulling each other up and supporting each other, that is the purpose. That’s the reason to be doing any of this.”

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Though he has made headlines for being at the festival to premiere his long-awaited sports comedy “Next Goal Wins,” Waititi is also promoting the independent film “Frybread Face and Me” from writer-director Billy Luther, which he executive produced. The coming-of-age story about two Navajo cousins from different worlds forming a strong bond at their grandmother’s house on the Arizona reservation had its world premiere at SXSW this year, and now has its international premiere as part of the TIFF Discovery program.

Luther and Waititi told IndieWire over lunch at city hotspot Louix Louis that their friendship started all the way back at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003, when the “Frybread” director let his eventual producer borrow a Nokia phone charger. “In those days you’d charge your phone and the phone would last for four days,” joked Waititi. Not too long afterwards Luther became an award-winning documentarian of films like “Miss Navajo,” which happened to premiere at the same festival in 2007, but that career path had never been his initial goal.

“I fell into the nonfiction world. It wasn’t something that was planned to do. In documentaries, you don’t make a living—you can’t make a living in it,” said Luther. “So, I just jumped in, and during the pandemic, I had [spent] that entire year of 2020 writing.” Only one year later, after being chosen for the Sundance Institute Directors and Screenwriters Labs, Luther was already shooting his narrative feature debut.

Where Waititi became especially helpful toward producing “Frybread Face and Me” was sharing advice on how to bring out the best performance from his young stars Keir Tallman, who plays lead Benny, and Charley Hogan, who plays the titular Fry. “He gave me a ring [from] the set of ‘Thor: Love and Thunder.’ He would just give tips on working with first-time actors, kids. And it’s a secret that I’m going to hold forever because he’s a pro at it,” said Luther. “My doc experience really helped working with first time actors. It wasn’t really concentrating on hitting their mark. I just wanted to play with their natural mannerisms and really follow them, and get to know them.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 10: Taika Waititi attends the "Next Goal Wins" Premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 10, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Taika Waititi attends the “Next Goal Wins” Premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.Leon Bennett/Getty Images

“I had to ask people when I did my first short film [about] working with kids. It was so traumatic having to figure out how to do it, and I just had to ask people and find out other people who had done it and get advice,” said Waititi. The New Zealand-born filmmaker has found that over the years, western directors especially like to gatekeep those kinds of filmmaking secrets that he sought out, and now shares with his peers. “They don’t like coming to each other’s sets. They don’t like sharing information. And I’m like, ‘The more, the merrier,” said the Oscar winner. “You need to demystify—it’s why keep telling people, at the end of the day, there’s no secret to directing really. It’s just make decisions fast.”

Also a producer on “Reservation Dogs,” Sterlin Harjo’s groundbreaking comedy getting ready to wrap up its third and final season on FX, Waititi said he has found himself embracing Indigenous American in particular because “our background and our experience, coming from native communities, is very similar” (the Kiwi director is half Māori.) “The reason I became friends with Sterlin is we connected over stories of how we grew up, and we realized we had the exact same childhood, except his was in Tulsa. There’s certain things where you decide, I identify with this because that’s my childhood. It doesn’t matter where it is,” he added.

Both he and Luther are breaking down stereotypes surrounding their indigenous communities, and their perceived isolation from the rest of the world as well, whether it is the protagonist of Waititi’s “Boy” being a Michael Jackson superfan, or Benny and Fry of “Frybread Face and Me” repeatedly watching Jeff Bridges in “Starman” on VHS. “I had Fleetwood Mac on my walls, Mary Lou Retton, I had all these shows, Pee-Wee, and that was my world. So, when I was taken to the rez with sheep, no running water, no electricity, it was like, what the fuck,” said Luther. “That’s not just my story, there’s so many other indigenous people who also have that.”

“It’s giving an insight into a part of North America that would feel pretty alien to a lot of people. They wouldn’t realize it’s in your fucking backyard,” said Waititi. “That’s our role as filmmakers, is to expose people to different ways of life, and different locations, and just different experiences. Because it’s the same boring stories about New Yorkers, doing New York bullshit. If that’s what we get all the time, then we’re going to get bored. And I am bored of that shit.”

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 11: Billy Luther attends the "Frybread Face and Me" premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival at Scotiabank Theatre on September 11, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Robert Okine/Getty Images)
Billy Luther attends the “Frybread Face and Me” premiere during the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.Robert Okine/Getty Images

Even though the demand for Native American stories to be part of film festival programs has seemingly increased, rarely do these acclaimed films receive a wider theatrical release, but Luther believes those distribution issues are not exclusive to Native filmmakers. “It’s a hard time now with films. Not just indigenous films, but films in general. Distribution’s really hard. Nobody’s really buying anything right now. You see that with Sundance in the past few years and I’m not sure what’s to come with that, but hopefully, [“Frybread Face and Me”] gets seen in more spaces within my community,” said the director.

Referencing his other TIFF premiere “Next Goal Wins,” a Searchlight Pictures release, Waititi said “I didn’t even know if this film would be seen because the pandemic happened. I shot it in 2019, then I wasn’t able to work on it for a year, and I really believed that, for a little moment there, maybe it would just be straight to video, maybe it’ll just get shelved. Maybe everyone would just be, ‘Oh, we’ll start all over again.’” He added, “We’re in such an unstable time right now as well. Just the fact that we get to show the films and have people watch them, and enjoy them, and actually watch them. I count that as a win at the moment.”

“Frybread Face and Me” had its international premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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