Waititi hails from the Raukokore area of the East Coast region of the northern island of New Zealand. His father is Māori of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and his mother is Jewish. Waititi used his mother's surname, "Cohen", for some of his work in film and writing.
His 2003 short film Two Cars, One Night earned him an Academy Award nomination. At the awards ceremony, he famously feigned falling asleep as the nominations were being read out.
His first feature film, the 2007 romantic comedy Eagle vs Shark, was released in U.S. theatres for limited distribution in 2007. The film stars Waititi's then real-life partner, Loren Horsley, as Lily. The same year, he wrote and directed one episode of the TV show Flight of the Conchords and was director of another.
His second feature, Boy, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2010. and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. On its release in New Zealand, it received top reviews and was successful at the box office, eclipsing several records. After the success of Boy, Waititi tried to get the film's signature track "Poi E" to become number one (for the second time) on the New Zealand charts. Although his efforts succeeded in getting the track to number one on iTunes and number three on the New Zealand charts, it missed out on the top spot on the New Zealand charts.