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Taika Waititi is really ready for you to buy into the Taikaverse

The writer-director on Next Goal Wins, filmmaking philosophy, and why he loves playing wacky priests

Taika Waititi stands outdoors next to a huge camera on the shoot for Next Goal Wins Image: Searchlight Pictures
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

It’s been a busy year for Taika Waititi. As an in-demand producer, he’s had a lot of projects hit screens in 2023, including season 2 of Our Flag Means Death (which he starred in as well as producing), season 3 of Reservation Dogs, season 5 of What We Do in the Shadows, and the indie films Frybread Face and Me and Red, White & Brass. As a writer and director, he’s midstream on Apple TV Plus’ reboot of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, with irons in the fire on everything from a Star Wars movie to a series adaptation of Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown. And on top of it all, he has a new movie in theaters: Next Goal Wins, a sports comedy adapting the documentary of the same name about the real-life comeback of the American Samoa soccer team, after a record-breaking 31-0 World Cup qualifier loss.

Next Goal Wins is a bit of an oddity, as Waititi’s films tend to be. It’s an underdog-sports-team story that subverts the genre by suggesting its team isn’t actually good enough to compete on a major level: The players would be content to score a single goal, ever. The real-life events had Dutch coach Thomas Rongen (played in Waititi’s movie by Michael Fassbender) helping the Samoan team turn things around, but Waititi consciously avoids a white-savior narrative by turning Rongen into a disaster of a man who needs help more than he’s offering it.

And like so much of Waititi’s comedy, the film centers on self-effacing losers who operate with unearned pride — but this time out, the conventions of sports dramas require them to work for their self-esteem, too. Polygon talked to Waititi ahead of the movie’s release about its strange framing, its easygoing vibe, and above all, its place in “the Taikaverse” — Waititi’s running-gag name for the idea that every character he’s ever played is operating in the same narrative universe, linking all his acting work.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

American Samoa’s ex soccer coach Ace (David Fane) holds up a whiteboard covered with colored dots and squiggles depicting some sort of chaotic soccer play, while new coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) stands on the field next to him with a dry-erase marker in Next Goal Wins Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures

Polygon: This movie starts with you introducing the story as a fourth-wall-breaking priest with a big walrus mustache and fake teeth. The sense of humor in his bookends feels radically different from the rest of the movie. Why did you choose him to frame the story?

Taika Waititi: It’s just telling people that you’re not getting the true story from the documentary. [laughs] I started the movie with a ridiculous character telling people, “I’m taking a lot of liberties with this true story. If you want to see the true story, just watch the documentary, because it’s already been made.” It’s really just telling you what to expect. Also — I love putting myself in films. I think that’s kind of fun, a filmmaker presenting his film. Also, I think I’m one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. So why not put myself in there?

He reminded me of your priest character in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

You think they’re related, or do you think it’s the same guy? Because the timeline of the Taikaverse — Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it was 2015 when I shot it. And this film, even though I shot it in 2019, takes place in 2004. So it was before Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He could have left the island and moved to New Zealand to be that priest.

OK, wait. Is Korg from your Thor movies also a priest? Is that why he keeps bringing up his rock god?

Korg is an alien priest.

So all your characters are secret priests, is what you’re saying.

Yeah!

You’ve been bringing up the Taikaverse for a bit now in interviews, the idea that every character you play is secretly connected. Have you gotten any buy-in? Are you seeing the fan theories and grand unification essays you’re looking for?

I should have thought about this back in, like, 2004, when I was starting out. I should have really thought carefully about whether there was some sort of overall plan like [Marvel president Kevin] Feige did. In every film I ever made, [I should have made them] link somehow — in Jojo Rabbit, some links to Boy and to Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Taika Waititi stands in a convenience store with Michael Fassbender and Kaimana during the 2019 shoot for Next Goal Wins Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures

You’ve talked a lot about the big theme of Next Goal Wins being “relax, slow down, let go.” Were you able to work that philosophy into the filmmaking itself?

Yeah! One good thing was shooting in Hawaii — I was able to relax a lot after work, and just be reminded all day long, like, “My God, look around you! Why are we stressing about, like, whether we got this scene, this particular part of the scene? Or, like, did this piece of technology work? We’re on a beach, making a movie. We’re so lucky.” It feels insulting to people who actually have really hard jobs to be bitching about making a movie. [laughs] So I always have to check myself on anything like that.

I’ve always been very playful in my filmmaking, but also maybe quite rigid, in terms of “things have to be a certain way all the time.” I needed to overlook everything, obviously, and micromanage things, and make sure people were doing it my way. And on this film, it was very important to me just to embrace where I come from, and just go with the flow, stop trying to swim upstream and fight the current. Just let it take you somewhere. Whilst filming, I just ended up using that philosophy and deciding to drift downstream, come what may. We’d try and embrace that. If it was raining, we set the scene in the rain. If the sun goes down, we try it again tomorrow, let’s not stress about it.

Michael Fassbender came over to me at lunchtime, and he’s like, “I met this fascinating 10-year-old kid over there. I don’t know whose kid he is, but he’s just hanging out by the unit table. Man, I wish somebody’d put them into the movie.” And I was like, “Let’s put them in the movie!” So we put them in the movie! That’s Armani [played by Armani Makaiwa], that kid [Rongen] hangs out with. He was never written into the film at all, he just turned up one day, and then he was there every day.

I felt like this film was very freeing in that way — it freed me up as a filmmaker. We’re not trying to make a perfect film that’s, like, got a twist: Oh my God, the coach is a ghost! We’re not out to bamboozle audiences or get awards or anything. We want to make a nice movie, a true story about a football team, and the only message is, “Be happy and don’t live in the past.”

Jaiyah (Kaimana) and Thomas (Michael Fassbender) have a close-up staredown in a scene from Next Goal Wins Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures

The most formalistic arc in the film is between Thomas Rongen and trans footballer Jaiyah Saelua — he deadnames her, misgenders her, and abuses her before learning to accept her, which surprised me, given how often your projects avoid giving bigotry any oxygen. What went into scripting that arc?

I think especially nowadays with filmmaking, we really have to watch out for this trend of characters being likable. There’s this big hang-up, especially in Hollywood, with [whiny sarcastic voice] But are they likable enough? That’s not important. The important thing is the story, and where the character gets to go. He’s not a Nazi, he just doesn’t understand. He’s ignorant. And he pretty quickly learns that was the wrong reaction. It’s more about that relationship starting off on shaky ground, and then by the end of the film, they have a relationship that’s unbreakable.

I think it pays off later as well. So many people can relate to losing a child. I can’t imagine what I would do, or what kind of person I’d turn into, or how I’d blame the world. But this is one person’s story, a person who became angry at everything. It’s not specifically trying to pick on or target certain people through hatred — it’s because he hates himself. So when it came to Jaiyah and their relationship, I had to create those things for the story, because you need a character to be lost and aimless and ignorant in order for them to have some sort of redemption at the end. So that’s really the reason that stuff’s in there.

Next Goal Wins was finished years ago, and you’ve had so many other projects since, and so many things you’re attached to, from Star Wars to Flash Gordon to The Incal. What’s your actual next project?

My next project, apart from finishing up some shows — Interior Chinatown and Time Bandits — and a couple of other little script things here and there, my next project, I think, is going to be [adapting] Klara and the Sun, a book by Kazuo Ishiguro. That would be shooting sometime in 2024. And then I have a bunch of other ones, which is causing me anxiety now that you’ve mentioned them all, because I forget I’ve actually been working on so many things.

It’s not like I say yes to every single thing, but it feels like I do. A lot of the time, as well, I’m attached to things where people don’t read the fine print and realize I’m only EP-ing something, or helping someone get something made and stuff. Which is still work, but God, it’s not as stressful as having to direct every single thing.

Next Goal Wins is in theaters now.