THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS!
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Award last month at the Toronto Film Festival and this weekend audiences will be able to see the big-hearted film for themselves. Jojo Beltzer is a ten-year-old boy obsessed with Hitler and Nazi Germany. His best friend is an imaginary creation of Hitler. Young Jojo has been convinced that Jews are demons and he’s taught to hate them when he goes to youth camp. One day he discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a young Jewish girl hiding in a room behind an upstairs window and all his preconceptions fall apart.
Waititi comes blazing in with his genius satirical trademark script and plays this version of Hitler, not as a well-researched portrayal, but “just a fantasy character and he’s conjured up from the mind of a ten-year-old.”
I caught up with Waititi in Beverly Hills the other day to sit down and talk about how his mother introduced him to Christine Leunens’s 2008 novel Caging Skies, adapting it, playing Hitler and the simple message of the film.
I was reading that your mother pitched this to you. What did she say to you about it and how did she pitch it you?
She said that it was a really interesting story and that it would make a good film. She was talking to me about just the idea that there was this kid who wanted to be the best Nazi he could. The way she was describing it had elements of Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson) where he finds out his mom was hiding this girl in the attic. For him, he’s never met a Jew before, so everything is from his education, the propaganda, and the books where they were made to have tails and horns. It’s like having a monster in the attic, and he didn’t know what to do with it.
I thought it sounded amazing and that it was a great idea. I took the bones of what was in the book and added my own stuff to it and added my own stuff to it based on how I felt after my mom had described it.
How did you crack the book because the book doesn’t have the imaginary Hitler aspect?
I had a go with Jodie Molloy who is a friend of mine. She and I had a crack at it, and she did a pass on another version of the script. It felt like it was an obvious way to go. It was basically us trying to figure out how to make a World War II film. Then, I ended up deciding to scrap the whole thing and rewrite it. I wanted to write it in a way that felt fast and be irreverent, and almost write it not for the aim of not making a film, but how do I twist the story to make it really interesting? That’s when I came up with the Hitler character, Captain Klenzendorf and all of the peripheral characters who aren’t really in the book. I guess I took ownership of the story itself.
Usually, when I’m writing, I’ll write the end of the film first and the moments I think I want to see first. With this, I wrote from page one all the way through. It just flowed so easily. It’s one of the weird things where people say the spirit enters them, and it felt like that. I just wrote as it unfolded in my head. It was a case of “this feels like this should happen, and this should happen and they should say this.” It really had a flow and I didn’t do too many drafts.
When you wrote it in 2011 to now, the world has changed massively, and we’re now in a crazy existence of white supremacy and nationalism on the rise. The film has become so timely.
I like to think [laughs] that somehow I predicted this would happen when I wrote this and if I wait for six or seven years this will be timely or relevant. I had no idea that this would become so relevant hence it would be released at a time where it would feel organized for the film. It’s so strange [laughs].
When I wrote it, it wasn’t even on my horizon- seeing this stuff coming. Really what I wanted to do was tell the story of the war through this kid’s point of view and his lens. We’ve seen films about kids, but not really from their point of view.
Another thing behind it was just this message, “Can we just be nice and be good to each other? Can we just be kind?” Here’s my theory and it’s really simple: if we as grown-ups are kind and nice, our kids see that and they grow up to be kind and nice. It keeps going on like that.
It’s simple, isn’t it?
You’d think it was simple.
You would think it’s simple, but here’s the problem: humans. [laughs].
I love how you crafted Scarlett’s character and how strong she was, was Rosie drawn from your mother?
It was based a little bit on her who was a single mother who raised me as a good person and she made me a smart person. It was partly that, but I think the main influence for her character was Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I love that movie so much, and I love her so much. She’s just my idea of the coolest single mom who wants the best for her kid. She’s going to drive across the country to do it.
There’s just something about that performance that made me fall deeply in love with that character and Burstyn. I wanted the audience to fall in love with her so that it can pay off and be a bit of a gut punch. She had to be a character who was the most grounded character in the film. Between her and Elsa, they’re probably the only two sane people in the movie, but she seems more of the sane one.
She’s bloody brilliant in it. I think it’s because she’s a mother and she knows. You don’t have to be a mother to play a mother, but it adds another layer of complexity where you know. If you’re a parent, you know the feeling of wanting to yell at your kid. You know how frustrating they can be, and how you’re fiercely protective of them. I like to think I’m protective of most kids, but I’m probably more protective of my own kids.
I love that scene when she yells at him for the uniform. Later, she’s up in the attic with Elsa saying she knows deep inside him, he’s not full of hate.
What was your reaction when Fox Searchlight said they wanted you to play Hitler.
I thought they probably just wouldn’t even make the film. I thought it was more American talk about “We’re going to make this and you should be in the movie.” That talk. I wasn’t convinced, it took a couple of days for me to really decide and to get on board with it. There’s a part of me that just felt like I don’t usually need an excuse to put myself in one of my films. But I didn’t want to go through the hassle of really having to try to look like this guy. Then I thought, he’s just a fantasy character and he’s conjured up from the mind of a ten-year-old. You can only know what a ten-year-old knows, and that’s when I felt there was something I could latch onto and make that a character that I liked and was comfortable playing. I had no interest in playing an authentic portrayal. A) it’s not my style, and B) he doesn’t deserve that. I didn’t want to make any effort for him. [laughs]. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of studying him and copying him. I felt it’s a nicer stab in the back for him to put that dumb mustache on and I’ll just be an idiot and goofball. I like to think that he would hate that.
He’d be rolling in his grave.
Yes. He would
What conversations did you have with Maya about the costume design?
Maya did Thor with me, and she’s incredible. A lot of the costumes and especially Scarlett’s stuff is sourced. What you don’t see in these movies are the colors and patterns that people were wearing back then. People often think that World War II was where everyone one dressed in brown and gray, and it was drab, dreary and desaturated, but that has been so far from the truth. Germany was so into design and fashion and textiles and color. The whole time they were partying and celebrating because they thought they were the best thing since sliced bread.
I loved your color palette for the film.
Isn’t it great? That to me was more interesting than doing the drab and dreary thing. It shows the bright and colorful facade of the whole thing is all bullshit and beneath that, the Reich was crumbling and completely falling apart. It was more interesting to me to see than the celebration — the party is over dude.
How did you find your perfect Jojo? He’s brilliant, they all are.
He came in quite late in the game. We were auditioning for about four months. He came in, it wasn’t his audition, it was more him as a person. Here’s a kid who is sensitive and kind and caring. He deeply cares about other people and people he’s just met. He’s very sensitive and emotionally aware, I think when you have someone like that, it’s half the battle because you want to like the kid. It’s hard enough making him part of the Hitler Youth because everything points to you wanting to hate him, especially when you hear that it’s about a kid in the Hitler Youth. The fact that he is so loveable and likable. The fact that he can win you over and you’re rooting for him, and by the end of the film, he’s changed, you feel that satisfaction in you. That’s all him and his presence.
How did you first pitch it to the studios?
I didn’t. I was writing the script, and I remember telling a few friends what I was up to and they looked at me like I was speaking another language, they could not have been more uninterested. I realized I wasn’t going to go around pitching it if people weren’t interested. I knew in my head that tonally it was going to be fucking good. It would have my sensibility and a different take on this conversation piece. I wrote the script, and I made sure I wrote a really decent script and was something I was proud of. I sent that around instead of pitching. I said that I wasn’t going to come in to pitch but read it and you’ll get it because it has all the tone and balance in there. Mostly, it was really positive.
I think you have the greatest use of ‘Fuck’ in movies this year and everyone else who has seen the movie agrees.
Isn’t it great? There’s only one F-bomb and it means we can still be a PG. It was in the script right from the beginning and it’s this whole lovely idea of this kid telling Hitler to fuck off. The idea to kick him out the window came later, we did it in the pickups. There wasn’t enough room just to break up with him and have him walk out and be gone. You needed something with this great send off for him and had some balls to it.
Jojo Rabbit is released by Fox Searchlight on October 18, 2019