TORONTO — Sports movies typically culminate, after stirring locker-room speeches, in a dramatic bid for athletic glory. Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins” concerns the quest of a historically bad national soccer team, the 2011 American Samoa men’s squad, in their struggle to qualify for the FIFA World Cup after an infamous 31-0 drubbing against Australia.
“Next Goal Wins,” inspired by a 2014 documentary of the same name, is a sports movie that delights in upending the conventions of sports movies. (Michael Fassbender plays the coach brought in to turn the team around.) For Waititi, it’s a typically deconstructionist approach that leans more into the charisma of its Polynesian cast (among them Oscar Kightly and Kaimana, as the trans player Jaiyah Saelua) than rah-rah win-or-lose dramatics.
“I think all my films are feel-good films, but I feel that more and more that’s becoming less normal and more of a risky thing to do,” Waititi says. “Which makes no real sense because you go to the movies to escape.”
The 48-year-old Maori filmmaker of 2019’s Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit” and 2022’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” met a reporter the morning after “Next Goal Wins” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. He was speaking while the writers and actors strikes were ongoing, which, for him, was a welcome hiatus after a whirlwind stretch of work, with plenty of projects (including a “Star Wars” film in development) still in the wings.
Waititi, himself, doesn’t know much about soccer and professes to know even less after making “Next Goal Wins,” which opened in theaters Friday. He’s also, as he said in the interview, less and less interested in Hollywood, a game he’s already tempted to walk away from.
Are you a fan of any sports movies?
I don’t know. I don’t really watch that many sports movies. I’d say I like them but I can’t really remember many of them.
Not “Any Given Sunday”? You quote from it in the film.
I just remember that being so long. So long and so many zoom shots. No, I like that film. I think “Cool Runnings” is probably the closest to this.
Your last “Thor” movie took apart masculinity and superhero convention, and “Next Goal Wins” seems just as disinterested in sports movie traditions.
Yeah. Well, my second film (“Boy”) is a sort of deconstructed anti-feel-good family film. It’s just a comedy about child abuse. I guess “What We Do in the Shadows” is the same. Just trying to fight against what the normal filmmaking would be or what the normal idea of what that film should be. I’m interested in soccer but I’m not passionate about it. I don’t care about it like I care about stories about people, stories about family.
Your films return often to the idea of family. You’ve said your notion of family isn’t defined by blood.
I have a big family but a couple friends are way closer to me than any of my family. For me, this idea of blood family being so important, it comes from when villages were tiny and people in Europe were obsessed with keeping the bloodline alive. I just don’t think it’s such an important thing anymore. Adoption is such a great thing because it’s not who you come from, it’s who raises you. You adopt a kid, they become a version of you because of the things you teach them and how you raise them.
Was there anything about your upbringing that led you to feel that way?
Having kids of my own solidified this hunch that I had. Some of it comes from wondering why there’s still racism and how kids can still be raised to be homophobic. It’s clear it’s just families perpetuating the ideas that they were taught. You just hope that cycle changes enough and breaks enough as society grows. If you just raise your kids to not be anti-gay, chances are their kids won’t be, either. It’s really easy.
Along with “Reservation Dogs,” which you helped create, “Next Goal Wins” captures Indigenous people in a celebratory, less self-serious way than we often see in film.
For good reason, there needs to be respect. But I think Polynesian, Pasifika people, we’re very self-deprecating. We like to laugh at ourselves. If this was made by a Westerner or was a white-led film, it would be just too respectful and the kind of saccharine bulls-—. That’s the reason Native Americans have been misrepresented for so long in film. It’s not because it’s not an authentic portrayal of what they look like. They’re always portrayed as stoic, mysterious, quiet, wise characters who speak in sage advice passed down by ancestors. It’s like, god, what a boring existence if that’s the way you live. And it’s not the way we live. This is why I really believe films about cultures need to be made by people from that culture or who have at least lived amongst that culture.
What was it like assembling a cast of largely Indigenous actors for a production shot in Hawaii?
To be able to swim while you’re shooting and go to the beach before work and after work when the sun is going down and you’re losing light, go home, play with the kids, have dinner. I understand now why Adam Sandler did all those films in Hawaii. A lot of people like to torture themselves in filmmaking. They want to go and live in the snow and eat carcasses and live the experience. I don’t. I grew up super poor and I don’t want to do that again. I basically hate working and want to retire, but if I have to work, I’ll make it as pleasant as I can.
But you work all the time.
Yeah, but do I? People say I work all the time. Only I know the truth. Listen, your name can be a lot of headlines about work that apparently you’re doing. Doesn’t mean you’re doing it. Having some press release about me being attached to a project, that’s someone else doing the work. It’s not me doing the work.
Is this you saying you’re not doing a “Star Wars” film?
I’m not saying anything about anything. I’m not having any of these conversations because I’m not allowed to. I can’t wait for the strike to be over but, selfishly, this has probably been the best thing for me, in terms of me getting to take a break. I needed to be forced to stop working for a bit.
How have you been spending your time?
Now and then I’ll think about ideas I might want to do. And then very quickly I get very tired just thinking about them and I fall asleep or find anything else in the world to do that’s not a job. This summer I was in Europe, enjoying the sun, back on beaches. It’s all I want to do for the rest of my life. Go to the beach. I grew up on beaches and then I worked for so long without getting a chance to go back to the beach until this film. This is probably what reminded me — just like Michael’s character learning there’s more to life than football — there’s more to life than film. There’s more to life than being in the entertainment industry. You think it’s going to be so cool — what a great life it’s going to be in show business. Hollywood is just sad people eating lukewarm food out of cardboard boxes in offices with windows looking on other offices.
But you’ve started to think about whether you need to keep working?
Oh, I know I don’t. I’m already — my plan, basically, is to figure out how to quit. (Laughs) To figure out how can I comfortably stop doing anything. What I need to do is get a big piece of wood and some sand paper and just sand it. Keep sanding it every day until I die. Out in my backyard looking out at the sea. “I’m going out to sand my bit of wood, darling!”