Taika Waititi on Kiwi humor, directing as Hitler, and why kids should see ‘Jojo Rabbit’

January 24, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
Taika Waititi attends the "JoJo Rabbit" European Premiere during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival on October 05, 2019 in London, England.
Gareth Cattermole—Getty Images for BFI

Few helmers this awards season had a tougher gig than Jojo Rabbit’s Taika Waititi.

Actually, make that four gigs.

The New Zealand–born filmmaker (Marvel’s Thor; Hunt for the Wilderpeople) produced, wrote, directed, and acted in Fox Searchlight’s tragicomic Best Picture nominee about a young boy whose dream of becoming a Nazi is derailed when he discovers his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. (Oh, and his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi.)

The Directors Guild Award–nominated Waititi appeared in front of a live audience on Jan. 8 in Los Angeles, alongside Jojo costar Thomasin McKenzie, to discuss their complex, wrenching, and, yes, funny film.

What follows are highlights of Waititi’s portion of the conversation, which was hosted by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

Tackling “Jojo”

I learned from making Thor that my follow-up film should be a potential career-ender! Jojo is impossible to pitch. They lose interest soon after: “Picture this: Little boy wants to be the best Nazi he can be!” People did not want to see a story about a 10-year-old Hitler youth. I got support early on from [Jojo’s source material] Caging Skies author Christine Leunens, added the Hitler character—he wasn’t in the book—and decided to write the best script I could. Let that be the pitch. The hope was, “Don’t judge until you read it.”

Roman Griffin Davis and writer-director Taika Waititi on the set of “Jojo Rabbit,” a film Waititi says was “impossible” to pitch. “People did not want to see a story about a 10-year-old Hitler youth.”
Kimberley French—Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Kiwi-flavored humor

My sensibility is to mix drama and comedy. Growing up on an island like New Zealand, there’s nowhere to go except Australia, so we spend a lot of our time wandering the suburbs. Ours is comedy of the mundane. Also, Kiwis chill people out; we don’t like upsetting people, which is why I thought, “There’s no way New Zealand would make a film like Jojo.” Though in my mind, this film isn’t offensive at all.

Casting Hitler

We scoured the acting community, but sometimes your search leads you to the mirror. No, no, no… it was never my intention to play Hitler; that’s Searchlight’s fault. “We’ll only do the movie if you play him.” It’s every brown, indigenous boy’s dream to grow up and play Germany’s most popular guy. A real actor would have put in too much effort; I wanted him to be a buffoon. “George Clooney as Hitler!” is all people would have cared about. It would’ve detracted from the story’s heart, which is the kids.

In one of the film’s many absurdly comedic scenes, Jojo (Davis) has dinner with his imaginary friend Adolf (Waititi), and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).
Kimberley French—Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Location, location, location

We shot at Barrandov Studios, near Babelsberg in Berlin—the first stop for any Holocaust film. Other productions were happening at the same time. We’d see other Nazis walking in the hallway. “Wait, are those our Nazis?” It’s an unnerving thing, especially when I was dressed as “The Idiot.” They’re like, “Hey, they’ve got a Hitler!” I probably had about 65 schnitzels during the shoot.

Directing in costume

Playing Hitler is hard; directing as Hitler is harder. Thankfully it was a stick-on mustache, but that costume does change the way you do things. “Thomasin, on the next take, you should…and this is not an order…” I’d try to at least take the jacket off when I could. It’s not nice to catch that reflection while you’re working. And if I was in the scene, I’d just call “Cut!” when I felt like people were getting bored.

Waititi (right, with Davis and Johansson) relished the days on set when he didn’t have to direct in-costume as “The Idiot.”
Kimberley French—Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Managing Jojo’s trauma

I didn’t want to show Rosie on the gallows; we didn’t have the right to see Jojo’s mother like that. Also, things like that can pull audiences out of their experience, especially seeing Scarlett Johansson in that way. “Wait, I know she’s not dead because I just saw her in Marriage Story!” We had to keep it from Jojo’s point of view. There are also so many connotations of shoes around that period, with her dancing in the movie too. So showing just her shoes was a classier approach.

Modern twist

David Bowie’s Heroes was the only song I ever considered using at the end. A lot of the music and dialogue are actually very contemporary. It was important that Jojo not feel like other war movies. I wanted to contemporize it so young people could see how easily this story could happen now; these kids just don’t have cell phones and they dress a little differently.

Brothers in satire

My awards season starstruck moment? Mel Brooks. At the AFI luncheon, he praised Jojo in front of everyone, and it felt like validation from a hero. He opened doors for movies like this, and I slipped in behind him. People are still “Oh, we’re not ready for that,” but comedy is the most important tool we have to combat bullies, dictators, and intolerance.

Before helming big-budget films, Waititi collaborated for years with longtime friend and fellow Kiwi Jemaine Clement, including on HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords” and the comedy feature “What We Do in the Shadows,” which inspired FX’s hit comedy series.
Kimberley French—Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Managing criticism

I think most of Jojo’s critics haven’t seen the movie. “Nope! Don’t want to see that!” For some, it’s too close because of a family experience, or it’s just uncomfortable. People often need permission to laugh at difficult things. In America specifically, “divisive” is often seen as “bad.” But it’s good! It makes people think. I saw [the Australian war movie] Gallipoli when I was 8. If something’s too safe, children aren’t forced to think. I think they should be seeing films like Jojo too.

Acting, writing, or directing?

The writer part of me is finicky. “You’ve got to get that line right!” The actor part is, “Fuck you, I’ll do what I want!,” and the director is, “Quit it you two! I’m out of time and need to get this shot!” I acted a lot before I directed, and I started hating it. Working with Jojo’s director, I’ve fallen back in love with it. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose directing because I can more easily achieve godlike status. Creating worlds, commanding everyone. Total control. (By the way, I’ve been suspended four times from the DGA for not paying my dues. But I’m on top of it now.)

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