Oscar-nominated Jojo Rabbit editor Tom Eagles: blending comedy and drama
By Daniel Restuccio
January 29, 2020
As an editor, Tom Eagles has done it all. He started his career in New Zealand cutting promos before graduating to assistant editor then editor on television series such as Secret Agent Men and Spartacus. Eventually he connected with up-and-coming director Taika Waititi and has worked with him on the series What We Do in the Shadows and the critically acclaimed feature Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Their most recent feature collaboration, 20th Century Fox’s Jojo Rabbit, earned Eagles BAFTA and Oscar nominations as well as an ACE Eddie Award win.
We recently caught up with him to talk about the unique storytelling style of Taika films, specifically Jojo Rabbit.
(Warning: If you haven’t seen the film yet, there might be some spoilers ahead.)
How did your first conversation with Taika go?
Fairly early on, unprompted, he gave me a list of his top five favorite films. The kind of scope and variety of it was startling, but they were also my top five favorite films. We talked about Stalker, from filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and I was a massive Tarkovsky fan at the time. He also talked about Annie Hall and Bad Lands.
At that point in time, there weren’t a lot of people doing the type of work that Taika does: that mix of comedy and drama. That was the moment I thought, “I’ve got to work with this guy. I don’t know if I’m going to find anyone else like this in New Zealand.”
How is Jojo different than your previous collaboration on Hunt for the Wilderpeople?
We had a lot more to work with on Jojo. There’s a lot more coverage in a typical scene, while the Wilderpeople was three shots: a master and two singles. With Jojo, we just threw everything at it. Taika’s learned over the years that it’s never a bad thing to have another shot. Same goes for improv. It’s never a bad thing to have a different line. Jojo was a much bigger beast to work on.
Jojo is rooted in a moment in history, which people know well, and they’re used to a certain kind of storytelling around that moment. I think in the Czech Republic, where we shot, they make five World War II movies a year. They had a certain idea of how things should look, and we weren’t doing that. We were doing Taika’s take, so we weren’t doing desaturated, handheld, grim, kitchen sink realism. We were creating this whole other world. I think the challenge was to try and bring people along on that journey.
I saw an early version of the script, and the Hitler character wasn’t in the opening scene. How did that come about?
One of the great things about working with Taika is he always does pick-ups. Normally, it’s something that we figure out that we need during the process of the edit. He rewrote a bunch of different options for the ending of the movie, a few scenes dotted throughout and the opening of the film.
He shot three versions. In one, it was just Jojo on his own, trying to psych himself up. Then there were variations on how much Adolf we would have in the film. What we found when we screened the film up to that point was that people were on board with the film, but it sometimes took them a while to get there … to understand the tone of the film. The moment we put imaginary Adolf in that scene, it was like planting a flag and saying, “This is what this film is. It’s going to be a comedy about Hitler and Nazis, and you’re either with us or you’re walking out, but if you’re with us, you will find out it’s about a lot more than that.”
Some directors sit right at the editor’s elbow, overlooking every cut, and some go away and leave the editor to make a first cut. What was this experience like?
While I’ve experienced both, Taika’s definitely in the latter category. He’s interested in what you have to say and what you might bring to the edit. He also wants to know what people think, so we screen the film a lot. Across the board — it’s not just isolated to me, but anyone he works with — he just wants more ideas.
After the shooting finished, he gave me two weeks. He went and had a break and encouraged me to do what I wanted with the assemble, to cut scenes and to not be too precious about including everything. I did that, but I was still relatively cautious; there were some things I wanted him to see.
We experimented with various structures. We tried an archiving thing for the end of the film. There was a fantasy sequence in which Elsa is talking about the story of the Jews, and we see flights of fancy of what she thinks … a way for her to escape into fantasy. That was an idea of Taika’s. He just left me to it for a couple of weeks, and we looked at it and decided against it in the end. It was a fun process because when he comes back, he’s super fresh. You offer up one idea and he throws five back.
How long was the first cut?
I asked my assistant the other day, and he said it was about two hours and forty minutes, so I guess I have to go with that, which sounds long to me. That might have been the first compile that had all of the scenes in it, and what I showed Taika was probably half an hour shorter. We definitely had a lot to play with.
Do you think there’s going to be a director’s cut?
I think what you see is the director’s cut. There’s not a version of the film that has more stuff in it than we wanted in it. I think it is pretty much the perfect direction. I might have cut a little bit more because I think I just work that way. There were definitely things that we missed, but I wouldn’t put them back in because of what we gained by taking them out.
We didn’t lean that heavily on comedy once we transitioned into drama. The longer you’re away from Jojo and Elsa, that’s when we found that the story would flounder a little bit. It’s interesting because when I initially read the script, I was worried that we would get bored of that room, and that it would feel too much like a stage play. So we added all of this color and widened the world out. We had these scenes where Jojo goes out into the world, but actually the relationship between the two of them — that’s the story. Each scene in that relationship, the kind of gradual progression toward each other, is what’s moving the story forward.
This movie messes with your expectations, in terms of where you think it’s going or even how it’s saying it. How did you go about creating your own rhythms for that style of storytelling?
I was fortunate in that I already had Taika’s other films to lean on, so partly it was just trying to wrestle this genre into his world … into his kind of subgenre of Taika. It’s really just a sensibility a lot of the time. I was aware that I wanted a breathlessness to the pace of things, especially for the first half of the movie in order to match Jojo’s slightly ADD, overexcited character. That slows down a little bit when it needs to and when he’s starting to understand the world around him a little bit more.
Can you talk about the music?
Music also was important. The needle drops. Taika had a bunch of them already. He definitely had The Beatles and Bowie, and it was fleshing out a few more of those. I think I found the Roy Orbison piece. Temp music was also really important. It was quite hard to find stuff. Taika’s brief was: I don’t want it to sound like all the other movies in the genre. As much as we respected Schindler’s List, he didn’t want it to sound like Schindler’s List.
You edited on Avid Media Composer?
We cut on Avid, and it was the first time I really used ScriptSync. I had been wary of it, to be honest. I watch all the dailies through from head to tail and see the performances in context and feel how they affect me. Once that’s done, ScriptSync is great for comparing takes or swapping out a read on a line. Because we had so much improv on this film, we had to go through and enter all of that in manually. Sometimes we’d use PhraseFind to search on a particular word that I’d remembered an actor saying in an ad-lib. It’s a much faster and more efficient way of finding that stuff.
That said, I still periodically go back and watch dailies. As the film starts to solidify, so does what I’m looking for in the dailies, so I’ll always go back and see if there’s anything that I view differently with a new in mind.
You mentioned the difference between Wilderpeople and Jojo in terms of coverage. How much more coverage did you have? Were there multiple cameras?
There were two and sometimes three cameras (ARRI Alexa). Some scenes were single camera, so there was a lot more material mastered. Some directors get a bit iffy about two cameras, but we just rolled it.
If we had the option, we would almost always lean on the A camera, and part of the trick was to try and make it look like his other movies. We wanted the coverage plan to feel simple; it should still feel like a master, couple of mediums and a couple of singles, all in that very flat framing approach of his. Often, the characters are interacting with each other perpendicular to the camera in these fixed static wides.
Again, one of the things Taika was concerned with was that it should feel like his other movies. Just because we have a dolly, we don’t have to use it every time. We had all of those shots, we had those options, and often it was about pairing things back to try and stay in time.
Does he give you a lot of takes, and does he create different emotional variations within those takes?
We definitely had a lot of takes. And, yes, there would be a great deal of variety of performance, whether it’s him just trying to push an actor and get them to a specific place, or sometimes we just had options.
Was there an average — five takes, 10 takes?
It’s really hard to say. These days everyone just does rolling resets. You look at your bin and you think, “Ah, great, they did five takes, and there’s only three set-ups. How long is it going to take me?” But you open it up, and each take is like half an hour long, and they’re reframing on the fly.
With Scarlett Johansson, you do five takes max, probably. But with the kids it would be a lot of rolling resets and sometimes feeding them lines, and just picking up little lines here and there on the fly. Then with the comedians, it was a lot of improv, so it’s hard to quantify takes, but it was a ton of footage.
If you include the archive footage, I think we had 300 to 400 hours. I’m not sure how much of that was our material, but it would’ve been at least 100 hours.
I was impressed by the way you worked the “getting real” scenes: the killing of the rabbit and the hanging scene. How did you conceptualize and integrate those really important moments?
For the hanging scene, I was an advocate for having it as early in the movie as possible. It’s the moment in the film where we’ve had all this comedy and good times [regarding] Nazis, and then it drives home that this film is about Nazis, and this is what Nazis do.
I wanted to keep the rabbit scene fun to a degree because of where it sits in the movie. I know, obviously, it’s quite a freaky scene for a lot of people, but it’s kind of scary in a genre way for me.
Something about those woods always remind me of Stand by Me. That was the movie that was in my mind, and just the idea of those older kids, the bullies, being dicks. Moments like that and, much more so, the moment when Jojo finds Elsa; I thought of that sequence as a mini horror film within the film. That was really useful to let the scares drive it because we were so much in Jojo’s point of view. It’s taking those genres and interjecting a little bit of humor or a little bit of lightness into them to keep them in tone with Taika’s overall sensibility.
I read that you tried to steer clear of the sentimentality. How did you go about doing that?
It’s a question of taste with the performance(s) and things that other people might like. I will often feel I’m feeding the audience or demanding of the audience an emotional response. The scene where Jojo finds Rosie. We shot an option seeing Rosie hanging there. It just felt too much. It felt like it was really bludgeoning people over the head with the horror of the moment. It was enough to see the shoes. Every time we screened the movie and Jojo stands up, we see the shoes and everyone gasps. I think people have gotten the information that they need.