The Inverse Interview

Taika Waititi and Michael Fassbender Turn Losing Into a Joke in Next Goal Wins

“I just felt very comfortable in this world.”

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The Inverse Interview

Next Goal Wins is a homecoming of sorts for Taika Waititi. The Thor: Love and Thunder director honed his craft in low-budget character comedies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. So after more than half a decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was itching to get back to something smaller.

“That's the place I developed what I do, is doing these small films,” Waititi tells Inverse. “[It was] a 25-day shoot on this one, which is the same as my first four movies. Eagle vs Shark, Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, all 25 days. I just felt very comfortable in this world.”

A classic underdog story, Next Goal Wins is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name.

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Based on the 2014 documentary by Brett and Steve Jamison, Next Goal Wins tells the story of the American Samoa national football team who suffered a devastatingly humiliating 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001 and never recovered. Hope appears to come in the form of Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), an ill-tempered Dutch-American coach forced to take on the impossible task of whipping “the worst football team in the world” into shape in time for the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

It’s a classic inspirational underdog story, one that was begging for the Hollywood treatment, and casting Michael Fassbender as Thomas Rongen felt like an obvious choice. The actor has a talent for playing many real-life figures, even nabbing an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Steve Jobs. But Next Goal Wins was actually wholly new territory for Fassbender: it was a comedy.

“I was speaking to Taika early on. I was starting to work on my Dutch accent and we decided we wouldn't go there because people would be like, what sort of accent is that?” Fassbender tells Inverse. So Fassbender ditched the accent work and got started on the comedy instead. “We're doing a lot of stuff improvisationally, and having the freedom within that style of filmmaking that you wouldn't get caught up in sort of an accent exercise.”

Taika Waititi, Michael Fassbender, and Kaimana Solai filming Next Goal Wins.

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The majority of Next Goal Wins is improvised, Waititi reveals. Not just entire scenes, but whole subplots would be improvised on the fly. One such subplot, a montage in which Thomas and football player Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana Solai) attempt to recruit retired players back to the American Samoa football team, essentially came together halfway through the shoot when Fassbender spotted a kid, Armand, who had been hanging around the set and suggested he be put in the film. Waititi wrote him into the film, which would frequently change and shift during the shooting process.

“Iain Morris and I wrote a script and felt really good about the shape of that story,” Waititi says. “But I didn't want to be so rigid and be so controlled by the script. I wanted to be very open-minded with the filming.”

He adds, “We allowed a lot of improvising, a lot of new ideas, came up with ideas in the moment at a location, we'd be at a location and go, You know what? We should get him doing The Karate Kid kicks on that rock over there.”

Michael Fassbender tapped into his comedy side for Next Goal Wins.

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It was a new experience for Fassbender, who had primarily worked in serious dramas, intense action flicks, or prestigious period films. But Next Goal Wins, coupled with his surprisingly goofy performance in David Fincher’s recent hitman thriller, has Fassbender stretching his comedic muscles in a way that gave him a new appreciation for the genre.

“I did a film with Terrence Malick in 2012, and the way we shot this reminded me a lot of that improvisation, just going for it,” Fassbender says. “But I love comedy as a way to tap into human stories as well. If you can make people laugh, it disarms them for something that then is going to be maybe a little deeper. It's that mix that I think Taika does so well.”

Waititi plays to his strengths with Next Goal Wins, a movie that is not just a low-budget character comedy like his beloved early films, but is set in the New Zealander’s own territory.

“It was just nice to see a really cool, hopeful story set in the Pacific with Pacific Islanders in it,” Waititi says. “So that's what really drew me to it, was being able to make something in our backyard.”

Addressing the Criticisms Over Next Goal Wins’ Trans Storyline

Jaiyah becomes the beating heart of Next Goal Wins, and also the film’s greatest source of controversy.

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Next Goal Wins puts the spotlight on a culture rarely seen in major Hollywood films. While American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the United States, Indigenous Samoans are the majority of the population on the group of islands, and their unique cultural practices take the forefront in Next Goal Wins. These practices — including a daily prayer time that frequently interrupts football drills — result in a culture clash with Fassbender’s Thomas Rongen and feed into the central conflict of the film. A large part of this revolves around Solai’s Jaiyah, who identifies as faʻafafine, a third gender seen as an integral part of Samoan culture. It’s this element that earned Next Goal Wins some criticism over its depiction of transgender characters — criticism which Solai, who is herself faʻafafine, does not agree with.

“At the end of the day, I think the story itself is truly representative of actual real-life experiences for trans people,” Solai tells Inverse. “Everyone's experience is going to be different. I think as a fa'afafine, your experience is going to be a little bit different as a trans individual versus someone who is rooted in the western world and the western world only.”

“Everyone's valid in their perspectives, depending where they're coming from,” she adds, “and at the end of the day, I'm really proud of this film.”

Kaimana Solai is proud of the film’s trans representation.

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And what of the perspective of Jaiyah Saelua, the fa'afafine player that Solai is playing, who made history as the first openly non-binary and trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier?

“My story in the documentary was one of many stories that made the doc flow, but Kaimana's pretty much put into a spotlight in Taika's film,” Saelua tells Inverse. “And the realities that she faces as a trans woman and the things that she goes through as a Samoan fa'afafine are all portrayed so beautifully in the film.”

The criticisms of the trans storyline in Next Goal Wins mostly called the treatment too “flippant” or glib. Waititi, for his part, knows his reputation for taking a joke too far. While Next Goal Wins has mostly left critics unimpressed over the film’s humor, Waititi stresses that this was the only way he could’ve adapted a classic real-life underdog story such as this.

“I was respectful of everything that happened,” Waititi says. “But I need to embellish it with my style, and my tone, my sensibility, and put ridiculous characters in there.”

Taika Waititi on the set of Next Goal Wins.

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And yes, Waititi couldn’t resist playing one of those ridiculous characters himself — showing up in a minor role as a priest who narrates the story of the American Samoa football team. Is that priest the same one as the one he plays in Hunt for the Wilderpeople? Maybe.

“That's the priest's relation. Or it's the same priest from Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” Waititi says, before admitting, “Well, I can only do one priest voice.”

Next Goal Wins is playing in theaters now.

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