Catching up with Jojo Rabbit director Taika Waititi
By Iain Blair
March 12, 2020
Now available on-demand and on DVD, Jojo Rabbit has had an impressive path to the big screen and beyond. Since it premiered at Toronto last year, Jojo Rabbit went from festival favorite to Oscar darling. Helmed by New Zealander Taika Waititi, and infused with his trademark blend of comedy and pathos, it’s a World War II satire that follows Jojo, a lonely German boy, whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism.
The Oscar-winning adapted screenplay by Waititi, who brought a fresh perspective and impish humor to the usually dead-serious subject matter, is based upon the book “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens.
The behind-the-scenes team includes director of photography Mihai Malaimare, production designer Ra Vincent, editor Tom Eagles, composer Michael Giacchino and visual effects supervisor Jason Chen.
Here, Waititi, whose diverse credits include the $854 million global blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok, Flight of the Conchords and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, talks about making the film.
Given the current rise of anti-Semitism and as someone who’s Jewish yourself, fair to say this was a very personal endeavor?
It was, but not so much because I’m Jewish. I just think anyone who sees the rise of intolerance and the horrible things people do to each other could tackle this. But I definitely felt a sort of quiet power behind me on this, and it’s also the first time I’ve ever sat down and written a script from page one all the way through. I usually start at the end and then bounce around a lot as I figure out how to cobble it all together. But this time it all flowed so easily, so maybe it was my ancestry coming through and helping me.
What sort of film did you set out to make, as this could so easily have been a very bleak drama?
Right, so I set out to make a film with some hope and humor that was also a very different look at such a dark period and a fairly simple story, one about two kids learning to bridge the gaps between themselves and their cultures and understand each other. I also wanted to tell a story about a kid — who’s been indoctrinated to hate — learning to think for himself.
Tonally, I always wanted it to feel like this. I never wanted to make a straight drama, as I don’t know how to do that, or some ridiculous comedy, as that wouldn’t have any substance to it. So I wanted that flow in and out of drama and comedy, which is more in keeping with human experience anyway to me.
Hitler isn’t even in the novel. Did writing him into the film and playing him yourself help exorcise some ghosts?
I think so. The novel’s very dark, without the humor I wanted in this, and the idea of creating Hitler as the imaginary friend just seemed the perfect way to bring in all the comedy and satire. It’s an old theme — young boy befriends a monster — and there’s something quite poetic about looking at the world through the eyes of children.
Clint Eastwood told me it’s not easy directing yourself. How tough was it?
I don’t find it tough. He’s probably felt that way because they’re dramas and he’s not having any fun. For me, it’s improvising and being ridiculous, and I’m pretty aware of my acting abilities, so I always give myself the easier roles. This was so much fun to do, and there was no pressure, as I had no intention of doing an authentic portrayal.
Maybe this was a bit harder than other roles I’ve played because you just feel a bit more embarrassed when you’re dressed like Hitler, and everyone’s looking at you like you’re the biggest piece of shit in the world… because you’re dressed like the biggest piece of shit in the world. (Laughs) So I’d always take the mustache off if I didn’t have to be on camera to feel normal again.
DP Mihai Malaimare shot it, and visually it couldn’t be more different than the usual somber, black-and-white WWII film with its saturated colors. Talk about the shoot and the look you went for.
I’m glad you noticed that, as usually films about the Nazis make everything look very grim and bleak and gray. But we wanted to capture just how much color and brightness there was in Germany then, and we needed to see it that way through the boy’s eyes — all the excitement and hysteria, like a wonderland of celebration and a giant party.
Mihai shot with the ARRI Alexa SXT, and instead of the standard anamorphic 2X lenses he used the Hawk V-Lite squeeze anamorphic 1.3X lenses that gave us the vivid color saturation we wanted. We shot in these small towns in the Czech Republic that still had all these pre-war buildings perfectly preserved, and the interior sets were built on stages at Prague’s Barrandov Studios, the same place the Nazis used to shoot all their propaganda.
Talk about post and editing with frequent collaborator Tom Eagles, who won the ACE Eddie for cutting this film. How did that work?
While we shot, Tom set up in Prague to deal with dailies and work on scenes and move towards an assembly. When we got back here in LA, we started cutting in offices in Burbank, and then we did all the mixing on the Fox lot.
I imagine finding the right tone and the right balance between comedy and tragedy were the big editing challenges?
They were. Tom and I’ve worked together for a long time, and he’s brilliant and also has a great knack for finding music that fits perfectly. He’s got a good eye for comedy and in the end it took us about nine months to get it all right. We also did a lot of testing – about 14 times – and the reason I do it so much is because I really value the audience’s opinion and feedback, and I want to really understand what they want and don’t want from my films. So then we’d make some changes, maybe test some new jokes, delete a couple of scenes, but the final film was pretty close to the original script. (Read postPerspective’s interview with Eagles.)
Do you like the post process?
I do, but I find editing quite hard, as I don’t like sitting still, and watching the editor pull little pieces together drives me nuts. So I tend to leave and come back, watch what they’ve done and give notes, and then maybe we’ll work together on it for a bit. I also don’t want to see the film too many times, as I get bored and start making changes just to keep interested.
VFX play a role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jason Chen.
We always knew we’d have to do a lot of clean up, as it’s a period piece — taking out modern road signs and we had some set extensions and wire removal. Luma did them and there was nothing major… not like Thor, where we had well over 2,000 shots, I think.
I loved the scene with The Beatles singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German over the worshipful Hitler footage. Can you talk about the importance of sound and music?
It’s huge, and a big part of it came from all the research I did of the Hitler rallies and Hitler Youth. It really hit me watching old footage how all these people — men, women, children — would be screaming and fainting and crying, and how Hitler was like this rock star of the ‘30s; their reaction was the same as with The Beatles. It was the same crowd hysteria. I’d also included Bowie’s “Heroes” in the first draft, as I always wanted contemporary music in it, along with contemporary dialogue, because it is a modern story. It can happen again.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
At Company 3 with Tim Stipan, and it’s key for the vivid look we wanted, but I really trust Mihai and Tim. I don’t want to micro-manage the whole DI. I go in and out and give notes.
How important was the Oscars and awards for a film like this?
(Laughs) You’re talking to a New Zealander, and we have this humility that we think is really charming but is probably really annoying. It’s so great to get a Best Picture nomination, and it’s been 10 years since I read the book and began working on it, so it’s been a lot of work. The goal was always to make something positive that promotes love and change, so I feel validated.
I like to keep doing very different things, so I’ve shot this sports film about football, Next Goal Wins, which we’ve started post on in LA.