Director of What We Do In The Shadows, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi, is a busy man at the moment. He still found the time to meet us for a chat about his latest film, Jojo Rabbit, an “anti-hate satire” set in the death throes of WWII. It sees young German boy and fervent Hitler youth member Jojo discover that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their house. Thankfully, he has his imaginary friend Hitler (played by Waititi himself) to guide him through this turbulent time in his life. The playful writer/director talks playing Adolf Hitler, getting the tone of the film right, how Mel Brooks tops Oscar recognition, and the Star Wars rumour mill.
What was it about Christine Leunen’s novel Caging Skies that appealed to you and made you want to take on this project?
My mother was reading this book and she introduced me to it. She was the one who recommended it and when I read it, I thought that there might be a good film in there somewhere. But the book is very different – it’s quite dramatic and there are no jokes in it, no imaginary Hitler… The story of Jojo finding this girl and their relationship is in the book, and that was the heart of it, and the aspect I wanted to concentrate on.
How was it portraying Adolf Hitler? That must have been somewhat nerve-wracking…
Yeah, especially because I don’t look like him! The thing that made me nervous was that I’m not white, and I didn’t want it to be distracting. I’m half Mãori, half Jewish – I come from two different cultures, both of which have similar traits in that they’re both cultures of survivors and people who are strong and resilient. I carry both of those with me. I didn’t want the audience looking at the film and thinking: “Who’s this brown guy playing Hitler?” As long as it wasn’t a distraction, and that might have happened if we had a bigger celebrity to play that role. People would be thinking: “Oh, that’s Brad Pitt playing Hitler then… Ok…”. It was important to keep that on the side of the main story, which is about those kids.
Did you do any research for the role?
No. It’s the least authentic portrayal of Hitler you’ll ever find! (Laughs) I tried to not do any research at all, because a) I didn’t think he deserved it, and b) because I never had any intention in making it feel like the real guy. A realistic Hitler would have ruined the film. He always had to feel like a ten-year-old and a bit of a buffoon.
It must have been difficult directing with that costume on…
I made sure to not wear the costume outside of where we were shooting… I’d take the moustache off and put a hat on… It’s embarrassing having to dress like that, because it doesn’t look cool, and you feel like a clown. It was difficult just being on set and directing whilst looking like that. And talking to the other actors and giving orders… You suddenly become a lot nicer!
Was financing the film a challenge, considering the subject matter?
Not really, and I wasn’t nervous about that because Fox Searchlight is very smart, and it’s run by a bunch of very intelligent, creatively adventurous Jewish people in Hollywood. Having that backing was something! We felt in good hands, and if they were willing to take this risk and go on this journey, then I felt that I had enough smart people around me to make sure it didn’t go off track.
Was it difficult getting the tone right on this film?
Part of it is taking away the power of those hateful ideas through humour and through comedy. It’s not to take away from the power they had over people and the monstrous things they did, but it’s more just to be able to use comedy to focus on how preposterous and ludicrous this way of thinking is.
We recently learned that Monty Python’s Terry Jones sadly passed away, and one of the things I admired about your film was the Pythonesque humour throughout. Do you see them as an influence?
Yes, and Python is very present in the film, especially with characters like the Gestapo officers. I think that my influences for this film are the style of filmmaking and comedy that my friends and I have been focusing on over the years. There’s a lot of inspiration that’s taken from people who have done this sort of thing before me, but I made sure not to watch them again or reference them too much. I wanted to make it my own thing.
You mentioned the kids earlier on. Jojo Rabbit like a lot of your previous films – I’m thinking of Hunt For The Wilderpeople in particular – are about looking at the world through children’s eyes…
Yes – it’s all about the influence we have on our children. It’s a theme throughout a lot of my films because we do have a responsibility to kids. They absorb it all, how we behave in front of them… Again, more than me telling the authentic story of World War II, Jojo Rabbit is about recognizing what children witness in times of war, the behaviour that we as adults display, and how much grown-ups turn into bigger babies than children do when they’re fighting.
Your film is also depressingly timely…
Yeah, and what it’s about, in the end, is trying to encourage people to think for themselves. And that’s very hard to do when there’s a group mentality. It’s hard to break free and be your own person. It’s not a historically accurate film, but it’s a very contemporary film. It’s designed to relate to modern audiences. If you were to go: “Hang on – on that year, this happened, and this isn’t accurate…” when watching the film, I think you would find you could do a lot of picking away at threads… But that’s not the point of it. Some people have said, “Oh, maybe you could have been more on-the-nose or blatant about actual events that happened, or done more about the atrocities of the Holocaust”, but that’s not this film! And it’s from the kid’s perspective. How’s he ever going to find out about camps? If you want all the historical accuracy, there are other films out there that make more of an effort. And there are some great documentaries! (Laughs)
It’s more of a fable…
Exactly. It’s a fable that’s larger than life, with many fantasy elements to it, including the fact that nobody spoke like that back then… And the music certainly wasn’t the same! The point of the film was seeing this little boy learning to think for himself.
I’m glad you mentioned the music, because it’s anachronistically potent throughout. Can you tell me a bit more about your music choices?
The songs we selected in the first draft of the film were “Heroes” by Bowie, Love’s “Everybody’s Gotta Live” and Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Want To Grow Up”.
On a personal note, thank you for including that last one!
It’s great, isn’t it? And yeah, when I looked at Hitler youth documentaries, footage of the rallies, and seeing crowds screaming and fainting, I realised how similar it was to Beatlemania.
Hence the inclusion of the German version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”…
Yep! And as we all know, The Beatles were the four Hitlers of the 1960s! I felt like that comparison was appropriate! To put it in a very simple way, Hitler was the pop idol of the times, and he whipped those people into a mad frenzy. The songs were a way of trying to show that stuff can happen at any time in history, and that we’re in danger of repeating a few things right now.
The film has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Film. Does that recognition matter to you?
These nominations are really fantastic, in the sense that it’s validating and that it makes you feel like there’s an appreciation for the hard work that goes into making films like this. But hopefully it’s not the reason why people make films! I’m sure it is for some people, but it’s not something I thought about. One of the best things that happened to us was a couple of weeks ago during an AFI lunch, and all of Hollywood was in this room. Mel Brooks was there and he did a speech acknowledging Anne Bancroft. Then he went off script and singled out our film, and said to everyone in the room: “You all need to go see Jojo Rabbit – it’s extremely important, and it’s the kind of thing we were trying to do as well.” And to have that kind of acknowledgement from someone like Mel Brooks was kind of better than any of the nominations, to be honest! I remember turning to my producer and telling him: “You know what? This awards season can turn to shit and this is good enough for us!” (Laughs)
Lastly, I need to ask – you’re in Berlin today, Paris tomorrow. You’re doing the rounds for awards season, directed and starred in The Mandalorian series, in the middle of production on Marvel’s Thor: Love And Thunder, and you’re in post-production on Next Goal Wins with Michael Fassbender… How do you find the time and energy?
(Laughs) I take a lot of naps. And also, I try to write everything down as a list, so I can look at it and it looks smaller on paper! It’s just all about taking one project at a time.
And is there any credence to this recent claim that you might be in line to direct a future Star Wars film?
Zero! Everyone would love to do something like that, but there’s no substance to that story. It’s just rumours.
Would you want to do it?
Of course! Who wouldn’t? But I’m too busy! (Laughs)