This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
On the face of it, this is not the most promising comic setup: A 10-year-old boy living in Germany in the second half of World War II wants so much to be a good little Nazi that he creates an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler. Then the boy finds that his mother is hiding a teenage Jewish girl behind a wall in their home, which throws his carefully nurtured hate for a loop.
That is the premise of Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” which is loosely adapted from the Christine Leunens novel “Caging Skies” (which did not have an imaginary Hitler in it). The New Zealand-born director of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Thor: Ragnarok” took the premise, made a satiric comedy starring Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis (plus Waititi himself as Hitler) and won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival with it.
But for all its success with the TIFF crowd, “Jojo Rabbit” is a polarizing film for an era in which joking about Nazis isn’t as easy as it was in the days of “The Producers” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” Waititi sat down to explain his approach to the project.
Were you expecting the film to be divisive?
Yeah, for sure. I don’t think that you can ever make a film with this tone and subject matter and please everyone. But I do think about the audience. We test our films a lot, and this one we tested probably around 15 times, just to have conversations with the audience. “What resonated? What did you not like? What things pissed you off?” Just trying to address any issues that may come up.
What issues came up?
Sometimes it has to do with people’s readiness to switch tones. Sometimes they say, “We need to be eased into that,” and other times they say, “No, it’s great, it was so surprising that you go from comedy into a really dark moment and back again.” Which is something I’ve tried to do a lot in my films. But out of all my films, this one has been the hardest to get right.
Was there resistance when you were pitching it?
Actually, I learned early on that this was going to be quite a hard thing to pitch, so I didn’t really bother with that. I just sent the script out and let that do the talking. It’s very hard to start a conversation with, “It’s about a little boy in the Hitler Youth.” That’s a massive turnoff. And then when I say, “Oh, but don’t worry, it’s got humor in it,” it just gets worse.
Did Fox Searchlight respond right away?
Well, we had initial conversations and there was a lot of interest. But we didn’t actually start that ball rolling, because Jemaine (Clement) and I got financing for “What We Do in the Shadows,” and that was a sure thing. I thought, “Well, I’ll go back to New Zealand and we’ll make this thing, and it won’t take long. But that took two years, and after that “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” came about so I did that, and then “Thor” came along. After “Thor” I thought, “Well, now is the perfect time to go back to it.”
Did you have a sense that it had become more timely?
Yeah, yeah. It definitely was nowhere near as relevant when I wrote it in 2011. I wish I was smart enough to foresee that stuff and write it as a commentary on what was about to happen. It just so happened that the timing was … it’s weird to say perfect, but it happened to mean more. And I think that’s a good thing, even though the circumstances of it are kind of bad.
Yeah, it’s weird to say, “It’s great for the movie that neo-Nazis are on the rise around the world!” It’s great for the movie, not so good for the world.
Exactly. It’s also so strange to think that in 2019 we even need to have the conversation, but we do. It’s very disappointing, but I’m actually glad that it means something more now.
Were there certain keys to making this movie work?
I think it was in the execution of the tonal shifts. I made sure that when we did takes, I would get different levels of performance from everyone, and do versions that were very serious. Because you never know if you might get to the point where you think, “That scene feels too ridiculous for what we need right now.” It was about giving myself more options in the edit.
You can get humor out of inept, funny Nazis, but at a certain point you’ve got to say more than “Look at these funny Nazis,” because they are Nazis.
Well, that’s right. And if you’re too light with that, if you don’t give it the respect that it deserves, then it becomes a pointless exercise. It becomes a really long sketch without any heart or without any message. It’s very easy to come up with gags all the time, and it’s a very addictive thing to be on set and just want to laugh. But it’s harder to embrace the drama and the more profound moments when you’re shooting.
A while back you tweeted a link to an article by Todd Phillips where he said that woke culture was killing comedy. I take it you don’t agree.
I don’t know what woke means. I think you have to be woke to understand what woke means, and therein lies the problem. Yes, for sure I love comedy and I’ll defend comedy, because I think comedy is very sophisticated right now. I can see his point, but it just happens to be the only thing I’m good at.
Read more from the Race Begins issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.
Taika Waititi's Films, Ranked Worst to Best (Photos)
How does “Jojo Rabbit” rate among the Kiwi auteur’s filmography?
Actor-writer-director Taika Waititi has graduated in recent years from being New Zealand’s indie wunderkind to a box-office blockbuster filmmaker whose celebrated comedy style transcends fandom and genre. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genuinely bad film in his filmography, so as we explore his six efforts behind the camera, take into consideration that, for the most part, we're splitting hairs. He’s a singular talent who blends hard-hitting emotional storylines with whimsical gags so meticulously, it’s hard to believe he got away with it.