Author Christine Leunens wanted to look at the horrors of war and what made an innocent child turn. She wanted to look at how war affected children in the home and school. Leunens wanted to see how children learned about hatred either at school or in the home. The end result was her best-selling novel Caging Skies. The book was published around the world and made into a play. During that time, director Taika Waititi expressed interest in adapting the story, but it never came to fruition. After Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi was determined to finish Caging Skies and the end result was the screenplay for Jojo Rabbit.
“He was still willing to take the artistic tightrope walk. It’s a very fine line between funny, poignant, tragic and it’s very haunting. ”
I had a brief catch up with Leunens about writing Caging Skies and having Taika Waititi adapt your work.
After I saw the movie, I went back to dive into the story and what I‘m interested in knowing is what inspired you to write Caging Skies?
I wanted to understand how this could have happened on the level of children. What happened where the children were taught about hatred? How did it happen in both the school and the home? I wanted to know how the war changed things for children in the home. I wanted to know how it created war in the family. I wanted to know how children who were nice and innocent were taught to become. It was through research that I wanted to explore the story.
I guess I brought in the character of Elsa because I wanted someone who had had all these ideas to suddenly be confronted with someone he had been taught to fear and hate. I wanted him to have someone in his own house and to have` to try to deal with her. I wanted him to come to terms with all the lies he had been fed. At first, he even starts to feel guilty because as he starts to realize the truth himself, once you‘ve been taught something, it‘s hard to let go. It‘s hard to let go and not feel guilty about it because you feel you‘re betraying someone.
Was it difficult to step into the mindset of the child as someone filled with hate and then he meets Elsa who is his “Enemy” and his beliefs are suddenly challenged?
Not really. It seemed really easy to feel like a little boy and step into those shoes. At the time, I wasn’t a mother, but now, I‘m the mother of three boys who are the age of the Hitler Youth. I think to myself as I watch them, I realize that what I wrote was actually true. Little boys like to feel important. I saw how they naturally like the military because they feel brave and empowered and they like playing with guns. I never gave them guns to play with, but they‘d go and take a banana and make shooting sounds.
The first time the book was adapted was as a play. In between, Taika was working on the film and script. What was it like for you to see your words come to life?
It was incredible. When you write, it‘s a solitary experience because you‘re always on your own and at your keyboard. When it was a play, I could go and see people react to it. I‘d see people laugh or even cry and it was the first time I‘d seen the characters like that. It was a community feeling because there were only a few hundred in the room.
From that, I saw the film for the first time at the screening; I realized the audience was now going to be really vast compared to how it was as a play. To see the expressions, the camera fixates on that, and it moved even closer to you. I felt I could reach out and touch them, and it really felt surreal. As a novelist, you write something and you can only imagine that happening.
Your book is so profound and thought-provoking. What was it like working with Taika and knowing he was going to adapt it with his own satirical spin?
I‘d seen Taika‘s films, and I loved what he did. I thought to myself; this was his “Taika touch.“ It‘s hard to define what he does, it‘s a genre. It‘s not satire; it’s just Taika. If he took the story and the Taika genre to the story, then he‘d make it very compelling in the same way his other films were. That was the other thing when I read the script, I could feel how he‘d put his heart into it. I could feel the passion. After he had worked on Thor, he still wanted to do this. Not many directors would have done something like that and still have the story in his heart. He was still willing to take the artistic tightrope walk. It‘s a very fine line between funny, poignant, tragic and it‘s very haunting. He even took on the role of Hitler to have it done the way he had seen it. It was wonderful to work with someone who was committed like that. He had such love for the characters. I felt when I saw the story he held nothing back. I could feel he gave it everything he had.
I found the film to be amazing. I thought to myself that he had taken a risk, but even if it hadn’t worked out the way it had — it won the Audience Award in Toronto — it still was something so brave to try to aim for something higher that had never been done before.
What was the first thing he had said to you about it?
Someone emailed me and we agreed to meet. He’s so funny and down to earth. It was really funny when we met each other because I was doing a PhD in creative writing at university. He sent me a text that said, “Is that your turf?“ My supervisor is well-known and a poet laureate offered me his office with this view of the sea. Taika walks in and sees this view. He sits down and puts his feet on the desk and said, “Hmm, not bad.“ He made himself right at home. I said to him, “Coming from Europe to New Zealand, sometimes directors can take themselves very seriously and I was a little afraid to meet you.“ He told me he had some reservations, but we were on the same place. He told me what he wanted to, and I wanted him to have room for this to do exactly what he wanted.